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.