Academie d’Overrated

Ineresting evening, we had tonight. We had a meeting of all the Bard composers, faculty and students. In the course of it a student challenged me, Joan Tower, and George Tsontakis to name the Schoenberg pieces we really like. I don’t think Joan and George will begrudge me reporting the meager results. Joan and I basically agreed on the Op. 11 piano pieces, especially the second one. George and I agreed that Moses und Aron is “great” – the two acts that he wrote. I’ll never forgive Arnold for not finishing his magnum opus just because he couldn’t get a Guggenheim. George suggested Pierrot Lunaire, but neither Joan nor I care for it. I suggested Herzgewächse and the Six Songs, Op. 8, but Joan isn’t fond of vocal music. We all agreed that the Op. 25 and Op. 33 piano pieces are a mess, and that the Violin Phantasy is really ugly. We had all once loved the First Chamber Symphony and grown to dislike it. Altogether, we couldn’t come up with much 12-tone Schoenberg that any of us ever wanted to hear again. Anything Joan, George, and I agree on from our disparate and non-overlapping perspectives must contain a degree of objective truth. Face it: Arnold Schoenberg is O. V. E. R. R. A. T. E. D. He deserves maybe two, three paragraphs in a comprehensive music history text. There are so many 12-tone composers I prefer to Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg: Rochberg, Sessions, Stravinsky, Dallapiccola, Hauer, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Maderna, even Babbitt. And there are many atonal composers I love who aren’t 12-tone: Shapey, Ruggles, Wolpe, Feldman. Positing the “Second Vienna School” as some kind of counterpoise to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was, in retrospect, a stunning musicological fiction. Write in and name your favorite Schoenberg pieces if it’ll make you feel better, but if he can’t win fans among composers as deeply, and diversely, invested in modernism as the three of us are are, he just wasn’t all that. We can’t defend his exalted reputation to our students. And it’s high time the composing profession faced up to the non-unanimity of even expert opinion about him.

[RAMBLING ON THE NEXT MORNING:] The interesting thing was that we all knew virtually Schoenberg’s complete output. Joan had played most of the music involving piano, including the Webern arrangement of the Chamber Symphony. I wish I knew the outputs of Walton, Milhaud, Martinu, and even Hindemith as well as I do Schoenberg’s, I’m sure I’d love a lot more of the music. 
UPDATE: George writes in to add some Schoenberg works that he likes that we didn’t discuss the other night, many of them ones also listed by commenters: String Trio, Third Quartet, Book of the Hanging Gardens, Survivor from Warsaw, Serenade, Ode to Napoleon, and Five Pieces for Orchestra. 


  1. Steven Baker says

    The Piano Concerto is the first 12-tone piece of music I ever heard, and it is still my favorite. I tried to do an analysis of it for the Post-Tonal Theory class I took last semester at Hofstra, but couldn’t handle it, even after a month of staring at the score and picking apart sections and reading articles.
    It is a rare example of a 12-tone piece that moves me. The Violin Concerto is similar in that respect.

  2. Caroline says

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to dismiss someone’s work because you are ‘not fond of vocal music’. where would that leave Wagner ?
    KG replies: It’s a funny prejudice, but as she doesn’t run music festivals or write music history books, it doesn’t do much damage. I happen to not like music that uses guitar distortion. I’ll stand up for anyone’s right to dislike just about anything, as long as they’re not actually using a position of power to unfairly hurt that thing.

  3. Patrick says

    The “first” Wiener Schule to which the “second” (Neue Wiener Schule) was counterposed was not the Josef Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven grouping but an earlier movement associated with names like Wagenseil, Monn, Michael Haydn, and Reutter der Jüngere, which alongside the Mannheim School and isolates like the late Telemann, favored the empfindsamer or galant style in place of the ornate late baroque style. Monn is probably best known because Schoenberg’s orchestration of the cello concerto.
    Why do people always speak of over-rated or under-rated composers? Who is doing the rating? What is the metric for the rating? I think the music of Sessions was just about the worst ever composed, but apparently some people think otherwise, or how else could he have lived so high off the hog in Berlin with his Danish pornography collection or for years in prestigious positions at Berkeley and Priceton and Juilliard without ever producing a piece that moved an audience and interested anyone in looking any deeper into the score. Schoenberg at least had the Gurrelieder, a great hit and the rest of the music has interested enough people that thousands of pages are filled with analysis and commentary.
    Just to make myself feel better, I will say that I love the Gurrelieder, Verklaerte Nacht, the Five Orchestral Pieces, Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartungen Von Heute auf Morgen, the two concertos, the Music for a Film Scene, the Genesis Suite Prelude, and the String Trio. While it would be inappropriate to say that one loves A Survivor from Warsaw, there is no more moving piece than that, for anger and tears.

  4. says

    I’ve never seen any expert opinion dismissing Schoenberg as “overrated”, or not worthy of much of a mention in 20th Century music history. If you manage to find an expert, they’ll tell you of his influence; the people he taught, the books he wrote, the range of works he created (and the composers who admire them) and the impact he had on the last 100 years or so. Even you admit to liking other 12 tone composers; you’d need to mention Schoenberg somewhere, therefore, even if you instead decide to spent the rest of the books talking about such giants as Berio and..uh..Sessions.

  5. says

    Hi Kyle. I suspect your intense dislike of Schoenberg (I wasn’t sure if this also included Berg and Webern, but no matter) is similar to my complete underwhelmingness regarding the music of Carter. I respect what Carter did, however, and have no qualms with many of my friends who seem to dig his music. And I do consider him to be of at least some import to music, despite the fact that I’ve despised his music since I was a teenager. So I can’t argue with your attitude towards AS since I’ve ranted and raved against EC for years myself.
    However, as I mentioned, I still think that Carter, while his music has never spoken to me (a few chords here and there, but that’s it), is still significant. In terms of Schoenberg, the influence he, Berg and (in some cases, particularly) Webern had on many composers at the very least makes them significant. I don’t write formal 12-tone music anymore. But I did once. And even now, it creeps back in and exists more or less happily with a postminimal esthetic, the same way perhaps that it crept into Part 12 of Glass’s Music in 12 Parts. La Monte Young was very heavily influenced by Webern, as was Feldman-LMY’s Trio for Strings is completely 12-tone, and while Feldman isn’t, he did describe his own music as Webern played very slowly (or something to that effect).
    I’m not going to defend Schoenberg in particular, since I’m not convinced when others try to make me see the “errors of my ways” regarding my own lack of affection for Carter’s music. Different strokes. I would, however, list the string quartets #3-4, the violin concerto (hey, even Hilary Hahn likes that one), Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, the Suite op. 29, Moses und Aron and a few others among my favorite works of his. Decades after I first encountered them, they still speak to me. Conversely, I’ve never liked the 0p. 26 Wind Quintet-that’s a very academic, vapid piece. But that’s my own personal taste.
    Nonetheless, does Schoenberg deserve more than a few paragraphs of mention? I think so. Folks like Babbitt used to write all sorts of cerebral (and somewhat ridiculous) analyses of his music, so Babbitt is part of the problem. As is Rene Leibowitz-I know his book on the Second Viennese School very well and reread it every now and then when I need a laugh. It’s such a polemic. I’ve never subscribed to the polemic-I like Schoenberg’s music because I just do. I don’t compose with any formalized systems anymore-haven’t since the early 80’s, despite 12-tone stuff creeping back in every now and then. And I told someone just yesterday that Schoenberg’s disciples have not had the influence Schoenberg thought they would collectively have on music. But they’re still significant. I’d have major problems trying to come up with even a single piece of Wuorinen’s that I like. Just sayin…

  6. says

    While I might disagree on a few individual works (Pierot, for example) I think you’ve fired off a long-needed cannon-ball.
    On the other side I would just offer the name of George Perle. I don’t know a lot of his music, but everything I’ve heard has intelligence, wit, and a lightness of touch that is both attractive and a welcome contrast to the dour ultraseriousness of much dodecaphony.
    KG replies: I do rather like Perle’s music for exactly those qualities (except when he goes into his 6/8-meter neoclassic mode). I would do more with it (academically) if I understood it better. I tried three times to read his book Twelve-Tone Tonality, and each time got stuck on a paragraph in Chapter 5 that didn’t make sense. I once mentioned that to the theorist Joseph Straus, and he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a sentence or two left out there.”

  7. says

    You and I are in agreement that Schoenberg’s influence is overrated. Far too much time is wasted in the conservatory on the 12-tone cul-de-sac he created.
    But as with any discussion of tastes, there’s just no point in arguing with a statement like ‘the Violin Phantasy is really ugly’. What is helpful though is an airing of public dissent by faculty. The sooner their students are dissuaded of the notion that music professionals all hew to a certain code of aesthetics the better.
    KG replies: Well put.

  8. Samuel Vriezen says

    To me, Schoenberg is a historical figure; I feel as much compulsion to attack or defend him as I do with Dufay.
    That said, I *am* surprised about the absence of the op.16 pieces, the 2nd quartet, the 1st chamber symphony, the 6 kleine klavierstücke, and I have to confess to increasingly enjoying the “mess” of some of the earlier twelve-tone works, which I think are often bizarre but weirdly spirited, though I think it’s easy to find many tiresome performances of them. The challenge is to make it swing for which you have to crawl into the head of a manic-depressive Viennese waltz furiously thinking abstract thoughts. Which perhaps doesn’t come to optimistic Americans naturally, might that explain why his cult is surrounded by stiffness so much over there?
    And then there’s the string trio.

  9. Jacob says

    Disliking Schoenberg is one thing; I quite understand, go ahead. But if you don’t recognize the level of inspiration involved in a piece like the Serenade, the Intermezzo from Op. 25, or the Violin Concerto, then you are missing something of great importance. This isn’t just “good” music; it is profound. The spiritual experience is carries within it is a life-changing one for those who can receive it. If you cannot, I’m very sorry; but you have my testimony that it is there.
    In general, it is easy to dislike a great artist; they have personalities and predilections that, if interpreted as recommendations for one should oneself be, can come to feel arbitrary, burdensome, and offensive, and sometimes one must reject their influence. But it is possible to do so without dismissing their achievement. There is very little value to anyone in a dismissal. Rejection can be insightful; dismissal never is.
    KG replies: Nice rhetoric, but I disagree. 1. Deciding that an artist is not as good as you’d been taught he was is not in itself a dismissal. 2. After one has spent years studying and immersing oneself in something, and finally decided it has little to offer, dismissal can be a sane and wise move.

  10. Richard says

    Well,Kyle, I find myself agreeing with you. Will you give me an A? I do like op. 16 though.
    Maybe I need to go back and study it more so that I can properly hate it. Let’s face it, the whole 12tone/serial schtick and the idea of musical “progress” was a case of an answer in search of a problem.
    KG replies: I don’t exactly *enjoy* Op. 16, but I have often taught it and have always considered it a glimpse of a more interesting route he could have taken than the one he eventually chose. And hey, my students don’t need to agree with me to make A’s. I feel free to tell them when I don’t like something, because that usually piques their curiosity enough for them to listen to it and disagree.

  11. Rodney Lister says

    O.k. I’ll bite. I LOVE the Serenade, also the fourth quartet, the second quartet, The Suite, Op. 29 (which I think is just wonderful wonderful)(I spent a long time practicing the piano part once upon a time, and played it some, despite the fact that it’s much too hard for me. I really love it, although I have to say if one’s going on the Boulez recording, which I think may be the only one going these days, I can see how one wouldn’t be much struck by it. I hate the Boulez does Schoenberg–it all comes out in closed quotes–it’s just way too detached and ironic. The Suite, I’ve often thought, could be described as some one quotes on the jacket of one of Tom Lehrer’s records–and how often does one find Schoenberg and Lehrer linked–“Mr. Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” Schoenberg was obviously consumed by the piece and nothing was going to stand in the way of his achieving it–especially not taste) (I very much get a sense with the early twelve tone pieces that he was so happy to have figured it out, which enabled him to see how to write music again–all those pieces are so bubbly and happy), the Violin Concerto, the first chamber symphony, The Lover’s Wish, the first of the men’s chorus pieces, The Variations for Orchestra, Pelleas and Melisande, the Op. 19 pieces. I also like some of the cabaret songs and some of the early songs. I got nothin’ against Pierot, and sometimes I even like it, sometimes alot. I’ve never been so taken with the Op. 16 pieces. I don’t much like the first quartet, although it has beautiful things in it. I have tried and tried with the third quartet (which has a beautiful beginning), but I just can’t like it. I don’t like the piano concerto. I’ve never quite got the trio, and I agree that the Phantasy is kinda ugly. The first movement of the string quartet concerto is the damdest piece. I think if I spent some time with it I might be able to like the wind quintet–as it is the sound of it is so undifferentiated that I end up feeling like I’ve been beat over the head. And no I don’t at all agree that he’s overated.
    I can’t think of a Sessions piece which is really twelve-tone.
    And incidentally, as usual, I resent the gratuitous crack about Babbitt. I will add to that that I also LOVE LOVE LOVE the composition for viola and piano, which I’ve been playing now for about 30 years. I always love practicing it (which is good because it’s so hard) and I think the rhythms are wonderful and swinging in a bebop-y way, and I think the notes are beautiful. I played it again this summer (and an about to play it again in about a month) and I still love it. I would say the same for the Widow’s Lament, Du, Triad, and the Virginal Book (i.e. the pieces that I have as it were first (and second) hand knowledge of. Although I also like the second and sixth quartets a lot.
    KG replies: Rodney, we’ve corresponded copiously about how fond I am of many of Babbitt’s pieces, especially the vocal works. I meant “even Babbitt” because of his reputation, not because he’s low on my list.

  12. Bob Gilmore says

    You have students who’ve heard of Schoenberg?? Just tell me you mean grad students, not undergrad…
    Personally I find Schoenberg (depending on the piece, or the movement) usually either too hysterical, too morose or too academic for my taste, none of which are qualities I much enjoy in music. He was a man of real integrity, I’ll grant that – but the music never did anything for me.
    KG replies: This all came up because of the 12-tone course I’m teaching. Some of the students who signed up for it are fleeing in droves, now that they’ve actually heard 12-tone music. Should have played Berio’s Sinfonia earlier.