Terminal prestige

At intermission during Die Soldaten an old friend of mine, a sculptor I’ve known on and off for (can it really be?) 40 years broke into a conversation I was having to ask an urgent question. She’s not a classical music person, and had read in the program book that the score is 12-tone music. And what she asked was: Is this 12-tone thing the reason why the piece is so horribly bad?

Well, no, it’s not, but I was grateful for my old friend’s honesty (and her curiosity and sense of fairness), because the opera — for all its great prestige, and despite the advance excitement for this production at the Lincoln Center Festival — really is bad, at least in this production. Laughable, in fact, I thought. To call it obvious would be like calling Bush a bad president, something so plain that it should hardly need to be said. The story shows us our corrupt society — despicable soldiers who seem to live to corrupt women, a woman who of course is duly ruined, abusive family life, scathing hierarchies of social class.

Nothing new there, and nothing painted in anything but the plainest colors, without a hint of nuance, depth, or character. The score (despite all kinds of compositional complexities) mostly screams “LOOK HOW HORRIBLE IT ALL IS!!!!!” though from time to time it quiets down, to as if to say, “Well, here’s a tender moment, but you see it’s all STILL very horrible.”

Possibly we weren’t hearing how the opera really goes. Because of the complex production (more on that below), there were monitors throughout the space, showing the conductor, Stephen Sloane,, so the singers could see him, and as I watched the monitors (anything for some relief from what was happening on stage), I saw Sloane conducting beats, not mood or phrasing (or, in a word, music), which may have simplified the job of keeping the complex score together,, but wasn’t helpful for giving it shape or character. Harry Curtis, the “stage conductor” (as he was billed in the program book) conducted a smaller ensemble on the opposite side of the space, and on the monitors he did seem to be conducting music, with sensitive and fluid movements of his hands, though I’ll grant that his job seemed vastly easier than Sloane’s.

But to get back to the piece: The silliest, most obvious moment was the ending. The ruined woman (and I have to ask: does the opera really make us sympathize with her, or is there, in spite of the composer’s professed point of view, an element of male voyeurship as we watch her getting raped and ruined) is reduced to begging in the streets. She meets her father, who doesn’t recognize her. The pain and irony of that is underlined and underlined and underlined, while it’s going on. And then we have a long and deafening barrage of cruel percussion, and then — the cherry topping off the sundae — an orchestral scream.

I was reminded of the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s recent dud, The Happening, which also ends with something so obvious it’s laughable — laughable above all because it’s a kind of ending that I’ve seen countless times in horror films (the horror isn’t over! here it comes again!), but this time presenting at such ponderous and clueless length that you’d swear Shyamalan had no idea that others had done the same thing many times before him. But at least, when I saw the film, the audience did laugh, not just at the ending, but pretty much throughout.

(I also was reminded of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which much like Die Soldaten sets out to portray decadence, but so cluelessly that it falls completely flat.)

My wife, Anne Midgette, reviewing Die Soldaten in the Washington Post, says much the same thing as I’ve saying, though I hasten to note that everything I’m writing here is my opinion, and not necessarily hers. I felt in the end that I was seeing (and above all hearing) a living example of Adorno’s famous take on atonal music, but now reduced to parody. Adorno said (especially in The Philosophy of New Music) that the dissonance in atonal music represented frozen pain, and that this was good, because the pain was the pain of living in the world around us, a world so horrible that pain (along with rage) would be the only sane reaction anyone could have to it. Which then would mean — as Adorno strongly says — that atonal music is the only proper music anyone could write. Die Soldaten really did seem to be a parody of this, the pain exposed as all there is in life, masking even any subtlety in how we might react to it. It’s as if someone rewrote Adorno’s complex, probing, sometimes even playful prose in words of one syllable.

I also wondered if the opera has such great prestige in part because it’s 12-tone — though by now you’d think we just could treat 12-tone music as part of history, something we can like or not (I’m for it, myself), without treating it with any special respect.

As for the production, which used a huge performing space, and put both audience and orchestra(s) on platforms set on huge, expensive tracks, so the orchestra and audience could move — every penny spent on it was wasted, if you ask me. The production, first of all, was terribly conventional (see Anne’s review for her detailed explication of that), its few attempts at non-realistic evocation (the soliders entering with curling movements on the stage, holding chairs above their heads) looking pretty silly if they’re compared with truly innovative staging, of the kind I’ve seen (to cite just one example) in Meredith Monk’s big theater pieces, like Quarry.

But mainly I thought the production reified the piece — made it stiff and motionless, a monument erected to itself. This, in a work that to start with takes itself far too seriously, isn’t helpful. Much was made, in the program book, of the chance to make the opera intimate, by moving the audience close to certain scenes on stage, but at best that would have seemed voyeurlike, not intimate, and in practice only served to show us unmistakably how conventionally operatic the staging was. The only hope for Die Soldaten, I thought, would be to put it on the stage as simply as possible, with real emotion (instead of monumental simulations of emotion), so that any spontaneity in the piece, anything honest and original, could find its place, and maybe even touch us.

(The title of this post, “Terminal Prestige,” comes from a famous essay by Susan McClary, the musicologist, about the one-time dominance of atonal music among American composers.)

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  1. Henry Holland says

    You really are a joke, you’re so utterly predictable I knew the basic outlines of what you were going to write before I even clicked on the link at Lisa Hirsch’s place. Thanks for not disappointing!

    This is one of the very few comments of this type — the standard Internet flame type, which so often come from teens — that I’ve ever gotten. It’s said that you can judge a person by their friends. But if I used the comments here to judge myself by my enemies, I’d overall be pleased.

  2. Fred Lomenzo says

    12-Tone Music or serial music and other artificial systems are usually employed by composers who after many years of academic study successfully aquire their Doctorate degrees along with academic prominence and a long list of prestigious accomplishments.

    This enabels them to have an opportunity to have their works performed by major players in the music world starved for something new .The caveat however is that they are usually missing a very important and key ingredient.The talent to compose music. This is rare gift given to a select few. It can be developed, however it really cannot be learned. “So hey, why not try 12-tone?”

    Music, on the other hand, must evolve over time. Trying to artificially rush this process with these systems and with music that is academically correct but boring will just allianate concert goers and keep them away when new music is on the program.

    Something like this may have happened in the ’60s and the ’70s in the eastern US. But when 12-tone music started, it was driven by what Schoenberg felt was powerful necessity, and it helped him (and Berg and Webern, too) write masterpieces. No system that produced Lulu, or the Webern Symphony Op. 21, or the Schoenberg String Trio, or his Wind Quintet, should be written off as arbitrary. (And I could have cited many other works by these composers.)

    And then the same thing happened after World War II, when Boulez and Stockhausen and others wrote serial music, again because of powerful necessity. These styles have fallen out of favor, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that they had their purpose, and that terrific music came out of them.

  3. Michael Miner says

    Your review and your wife’s work wonderfully well together, yours with its insightful allusions to recent movies, hers with its dutiful mention of who wrote the opera and when. But again, the women do the scut work.

    They so often do!

    Thanks for this. Though I do think the difference here is that Anne is writing for a newspaper. So she has to give the basic information. It’s part of the job. I did the same when I was writing regularly for the Wall Street Journal, not to mention many other places where I’ve written regularly. But the Journal really stands out for me, in this respect, because I felt that I was largely writing for people who didn’t know classical music. As a result I sometimes felt that I’d devote half my space to the basic who, what, where, and when, leaving much less room than I would have liked to say the things I most cared about.

    A great advantage of a blog is that you can write in any way you like. If Anne and I reversed roles, if I were at the Post and she were blogging, I think you’d see the scut work coming from me.

  4. says

    Greg, do you think think music evolves over time? If so, how? If not, why not? I find the concept of evolution very interesting and a common trope in modernist aesthetics.

    “Evolves” might be a tricky concept, because it carries connotations of things getting better, or even of music history moving toward some goal. I think you’re right about that common modernist trope. Just about everyone who studied music when I was in graduate school (early ’70s), and especially composers, was taught that the emergence of atonal and 12-tone music was the most important development of the 20th century, and that music history had been evolving toward that for quite a while before. And, of course, that the music that evolved from the Second Vienna School was the most important music of the postwar period. Some people still believe all of this, and it may still be taught.

    I think, though, that a different view has now emerged (Alex Ross’s book would be one shining example), and that we now can look at all of 20th century music without privileging any style.

    Susan McClary has written about a similar bias toward the evolution of tonality, and, as a result, the devaluing of music from the generation or so before tonality emerged. See her book Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal.

    My own view is that music changes. That’s pretty obvious! Styles change from generation to generation, and maybe lately (as has also happened in pop music) from decade to decade. In classical music, we don’t just deal with styles of creation, but with styles of performance. So the early music movement, just before example, appeared, and then, as it grew, shifted and changed. All of this would have to reflect social realities in the outside world, on some level. (One very strong statement about that is in Jacques Atali’s book Noise; Atali says that developments in music actually precede and to some extent predict corresponding developments in society.) But whether music evolves, in the sense of getting better all the time, or having a goal, is something I’d say — well, come to think of it, it’s probably not worth spending serious time wondering about.

  5. FredLomenzo says

    I would like to know who proclaimed Schoenberg and Webers pieces as masterpieces? The academic community? How often are their works performed for the general music loving public who attend concerts and pay the bills. How often are their works requested? I have often heard the comments of people planning to attend concerts and avoiding certain performances including works of these composers however limited that may be.

    There are two basic components to any performance.The music and how it is performed. After a performance of one these composers works, I heard a comment from a gentleman that summed it up. The instuments and tones they produced were gorgious but the music they had to play @#$%&.The genuis of Schoenberg and Weber is the fame they attained with just average music ability.

    I don’t care very much about proclamations, but I think the pieces that I named are masterpieces, because of my experience hearing them, studying the scores, and also from playing Schoenberg and Webern piano pieces. I don’t have any trouble saying, for instance, that the Webern piano variations (Op. 27) is a wonderful piece, at least for me, because I practiced it intensively, and got the music in my blood.
    But other people might have other opinions, as they have every right to. The one thing I’d caution, though, is not to submit questions like this to popular vote. Some art, by its nature, is just not suited to appeal to large numbers of people, but that shouldn’t diminish its value. I often think about the joke that people make about the Velvet Underground: “Only 10 people bought their albums, but each one of them went out and started an influential band.”

    Though I guess I might offer one peaceful challenge. Do many of the people who so strongly reject 12-tone music actually hear what’s going on in it? I wonder how the man you mentioned might react if he did some of the things I did, many years ago — worked my way bar by bar through parts of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet, and sang the main melodies as I read the score. I’m not saying this makes me a superior being — very likely it marks me as a geek — but a conversation with someone who rejects 12-tone music without, perhaps, knowing any of it at all well, can be a difficult conversation, because I and the other party will have such different frames of reference.

  6. says

    The thing about opera for me is, with all these people screaming their guts out on stage, you must have a director and conductor who understand the necessity of establishing an oppositional, distilling subtext of great power. Otherwise hamminess, obviousness and emptiness prevail, more often than not.

  7. says

    I am not a particular fan of the 12-tone style, but there are indeed varying levels of how the row is used throughout the past several decades. I have played solo works with the row, but also concerti. Two friends, Keith Emerson (in his Concerto no. 1) and Lowell Liebermann (in his more recent Concerto no. 3) disguise the row in a melodic pattern, which permeates a work, or section, which develops into a more recognizable neo-Romantic palette. I like this way of utilizing the row, so it makes sense to those who are appalled by the use of the row.

  8. Dennis says

    I don’t understand the vehenmence directed toward 12-tone music. Yes, some (perhaps much) of it is crap, but so is some (perhaps much) tonal music. I think it has been drummed into people’s heads that 12-tone music is merely cold, cerebral, sterile, emotionless, academic writing, and thus they dismiss it before ever really hearing it. Joyce once said the Homerian framework for his Ulysses was mere scaffolding that he used to create the work, and that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand every parallel or allusion in order to enjoy the book. I think of 12-tone music the same way now. Like the scaffolding a builder uses to help build a beautfiul building, the 12-tone system is the scaffolding used as a means to help the composer reach his desired end; once the work is complete, the only thing that matters is how it sounds, not what method the composer used to create the sounds.

    I must concur with Greg on the Berg, Schoenberg and Webern pices mentioned above. For a long time I avoided anything by them, or other 12-tone composers, but now I agree they are masterpieces, by any standard. I would include Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto (recently newly recored by the wonderful and lovely Hilary Hahn), his chamber symphonies, his string quartets, and many of his Lieder in that category also. As for Berg, his Lyric Suite, Three Orchestral Pieces, Wozzeck, and Violin Concerto are truly masterworks also. I defy anyone to listen to Berg’s Violin Concerto (dedicated to Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who died at 18) and call it sterile, emotionless, academic music! Ditto Wozzeck – a truly powerful and disturbing (in a good sense) work.

    Dennis, I very much agree with everything you’ve said here. Including your praise of Hilary Hahn’s CD of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. It’s wonderful, and ought to put to rest any question once and for all about whether the piece is really music. Which brings up yet another point — that often these pieces are badly played, with the Violin Concerto (Schoenberg’s, though not Berg’s) at the head of the list. So we don’t always hear what they sound like.

    I wish that people wouldn’t talk about whether a piece is 12-tone. Just listen to it as music. That’s what Schoenberg so strongly wanted. Can anyone tell, simply by listening, whether a piece is 12-tone, or whether it’s merely atonal?

  9. David Kulma says

    Greg, are you sure that Die Soldaten can be good in another production? I remember watching it a few years on video, and being in pain the whole time. I particularly remember one moment when I believe Marie is singing what is supposed to be a love aria. I was sitting there thinking that Zimmermann was giving the listener a moment of repose, but I was as on edge the entire time. Any and every emotion during that opera was abject pain, even when it was not supposed to be. Maybe the staging did not help, but I consider most of its problems due to Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

    I’m not at all sure, David. I was trying to be fair, and also I was emphasizing how much the wrong idea the frozen, gigantic production at the Lincoln Center Festival seemed to be.

  10. Robert Berger says

    I have always found that listening to

    recordings of 12 tone music, and any kind of

    complex music can be very helpful. With repeated hearings, the music often starts to

    make much more sense,and is no longer so


    As a performing musician myself, I once

    played a performance of the Webern”Six Pieces

    for Orchestra”. As the rehearsals progressed,

    this thorny music actually began to sound


    I haven’t heard Die Soldaten on CD or seen

    a production, but woulld certainly like to.

    I believe there is a new recording conducted

    by Michael Gielen, an acknowledged master of

    difficult music like this; I don’t remember

    the label. And Anthony Tommasini in the NY

    times gave the recent production from

    Germany a more favorable review than you did,


    I think a lot of 12-tone music is melodious. I’m tempted to make a recording right now of me singing some tunes from the Schoenberg Fourth Quartet, and from Lulu.

    And Robert is making an excellent point about repeated listening. I spent a lot of time with two Elliott Carter string quartets last fall. My question to myself was: Can I actually follow this music? Can I hear all the musical events, can I group them into phrases and sections, can I remember what happened a minute ago, can I try to anticipate what’s coming next? I do all those things easily with tonal music, and with simpler atonal scores. But I thought I didn’t like Carter, and wanted to test myself. Did I really know any of his music? Even five minutes of any piece? And what would happen if I tried to get the music in my gut?

    The result? I ended up loving it. So I could ask people who say they don’t like atonal or 12-tone music the same questions I asked myself. Are they really hearing it? “Really hearing it” doesn’t mean liking it. It means really following the musical flow, and remembering what you’ve heard. I’d gently challenge people who don’t like 12-tone music to try the experiment, more or less equivalent to Robert’s experience playing Webern. (Though far less intimate, of course.) You have to pick a good recording, though. Hilary Hahn’s Schoenberg Violin Concerto might be a good place to start. Or any recording of the Webern Piano Variations, since the pianists who play it tend to play it well. I love the one by Krystian Zimerman on the DG complete Webern set conducted by Boulez (whose performances of Webern aren’t ideal, by the way — too austere).

    As for Tony liking Die Soldaten: Of course critics disagree. And thank God for that! Do we want to live in a one-party musical world?

    One last point. I don’t think it really matters that Die Soldaten is a 12-tone piece. I don’t think many of us could tell by listening that it is — or, for that matter, that the Carter Fifth Quartet isn’t. (Maybe none of us could hear this.) The important thing is to listen to the music, and save details of its construction for later analysis. A pianist who worked with Webern on the piano variations said that Webern absolutely refused to discuss the 12-tone structure of the piece, saying that this was the composer’s concern, not the performer. I can’t blame any performer who’s curious to see how the 12-tone procedures work, but nobody should feel they _have_ to do it. The important thing is to feel the flow of the music. And the 12-tone structure may not have too much to do with that — a big contrast, by the way, with pieces that have tonal harmony, because in tonal works the harmony is a central part of the flow and phrasing. Not necessarily in 12-tone music. And in fact if you analyze a number of 12-tone pieces, you might find that the technique is used in so many ways that it can’t guarantee any single kind of audible result. (For instance: in Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet, the row forms often pass by one at a time, so you keep hearing the 12 pitches — technically “pitch classes” — literally in groups of twelve. Maybe you can’t identify that by listening, but it’s happening. While in the first movement of Webern’s Symphony, several forms of the row unfold simultaneously, so you don’t hear collections of 12 pitches passing by one at a time. You hear a lot of repeated pitches — and in fact Webern makes a great point of that in the piece. He builds parts of the music around those repetitions, and does various things in his composing to make sure we hear them.)

  11. says

    You may be interested to read David Byrne’s review.

    Thanks, Darcy. Very interesting. I’m struck by many things in this — how commenting about atonal music really isn’t Byrne’s strength, since he mostly dances with familiar steps. And thinks that learning atonal music is harder than it really is, because he’s not used to hearing it. It really does have harmony and melody.

    But that’s the least important thing. Well, maybe not — Bryne goes to the production out of some general cultural interest, and is so thrown by the music (despite his lovely observations of details in it) that he doesn’t quite know what to think. Whatever Die Soldaten is, it’s not the Finnegans Wake of music, since Finnegans Wake is a far richer universe, touching on many more kinds of culture than Die Soldaten does.

    Byrne’s cultural take, though, is very sharp, especially his terrific remarks about the raping Santas: “When I saw the approach of the evil Santas, I got all excited — we’d suddenly descended into slasher movie territory. Killer Klowns: The Opera! The folks around me did not seem amused; I’d never seen so much seersucker in one place in my life.” This audience, in other words (and I’d agree), didn’t get that killer Santas have a thousand pop culture references, and I’m not sure the director of the Soldaten production knew this, either.

  12. says

    Well, I’m clearly late to this party, but wanted to congratulate you on another convincing contrarian post. The oversimplification that you describe in this opera — bleakness laid on thick, without nuance or meaningful contrasts or tensions — reminds me of the exaggerated, self-satisfied “darkness” we’ve seen in many widely-praised plays and films of recent years (Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore leap to mind, as does the indie hit American Beauty, which struck me as overwrought rather than poetic). Even our sharpest critics seem to be seduced by this stuff, buying into the facile equation of bleakness with a sophisticated world-view. Look at Ed Rothstein’s review of the 1991 City Opera production of Die Soldaten, or the respectful-to-laudatory notices the new production is getting (Anne and Clive Barnes being exceptions, although Barnes seems to have no problem with the work itself, just the production). In each case, there’s a legitimate layer of sophistication — in this case the formidable serial score and the industrial scale of the production; in McDonagh’s plays the ironic humor; in American Beauty the visual stylization and artful voiceovers — that serves to mask the fundamental obviousness of what’s going on. But it’s that overriding “LOOK HOW HORRIBLE IT IS!” attitude that somehow makes otherwise sophisticated critics and audiences see art instead of melodrama. Your critique exposes a vein of middlebrow taste that runs through our nominally highbrow classical music world. Heavy-handed and simplistic are fine as long as the work is “serious,” and obviously it’s serious because it’s about suffering. Certainly the Soldaten example reinforces your argument (pace Steven Johnson) that high culture has no monopoly on subtlety and complexity. From what you and Anne have written, it sounds like this opera — especially in this production — lacks those qualities in both theatrical and musical terms.

    My question is whether the simplicity of Zimmermann’s dramatic vision here is somehow linked, as a creative mindset or disposition, to the orthodox serialism of the score. You write that it doesn’t really matter that Die Soldaten is a 12-tone piece, and I fully agree with your point there. But from another angle, might there be some commonality between the embrace of a totalizing system like 12-tone composition and the embrace of a totalizing dramatic idea like “society is a brutalizing force”? One could argue that both are potentially too easy, too tidily pre-ordained as solutions to an artistic challenge, at least if one follows them rigidly. Ditto for Zimmermann’s decision to cast each scene in a particular musical form, which could be seen as an a priori, formalist gimmick that relieves the composer of the responsibility of being “in the moment” as he creates the musical drama. Don’t we need a little more messiness, spontaneity, and contradiction to make an artwork deeply human? Of course, if you follow the “rules” of tonality or sonata form too rigidly you come to the same place; no algorithm is likely to write good music. As you say, a piece of music has to work for the listener as music, whether or not we know a lot about the methodological, formal, or dramatic ideas underlying its construction. But we have good reason to be impatient when we come across an artwork that feels like it could be reduced to those underlying ideas. All of which means that the 12-tone method isn’t to be privileged over any other, nor disparaged: it’s just another set of tools for making what had better be, in the end, good music.

    Yet this equanimity raises several questions: Why is it important to defend the method (e.g., by reference to particular masterpieces) or discuss it at all when we’re reviewing a piece or writing program notes? (Maybe Webern was right to be so taciturn with his performers.) Why are we still so exercised about it a century after its invention, as the comments to this post attest? Why has it, as a method, failed to find much of an audience outside professional musicians — again, with the exception of Lulu and a few other works that have nudged their way into the repertory? Why does it seem off-limits in many circles to discuss what seems to be, in hindsight, the intrinsically negative nature of the method: its aims of avoidance (of tonal hierarchies and the satisfactions associated with them) and rejection (of the historical development of musical grammar)? I don’t know the answers, but I’m fascinated by the latent tension in this conversation between the very sensible idea that we don’t have to know what’s going on in 12-tone music in order to enjoy it as music — sensually, affected by melody and harmony etc. — and the equally sensible idea that we have to listen to it carefully and over sufficient time in order to get what’s going on in it, which will somehow unlock our enjoyment.

    Now I’ll go order Hilary Hahn’s Schoenberg concerto.

    Thanks for this important contribution to the discussion, Peter. Again you’ve helped me calibrate my thinking. Of course it matters whether a piece is 12-tone. It mattered to the composers. Schoenberg even (notoriously) said he’d guaranteed the supremacy of German music for the next thousand years. (He said that years before Hitler. I wonder if he ever qualified the thought after he’d fled the Nazis.) And a 12-tone piece is different, internally, from non-12-tone pieces. Those difference should in some ways be audible. (When Webern started writing 12-tone music, I hear in those first pieces a choice of pitches I don’t think he would have made in the free atonal pieces he’d written previously.)

    But we don’t normally see 12-tone music discussed in these ways. Instead, people seem almost hypnotized by the mere fact that a piece is 12-tone, and then might treat it with exaggerated respect, or else feel they have to explain what 12-tone music is, and then reassure everybody that the music doesn’t have to sound as mechanical as the procedure does. (How 12-tone music really works is almost impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t either written it, or worked their way thoroughly through a 12-tone piece, doing more than merely counting the notes of the rows. Counting the notes, labeling or otherwise marking the rows in the score (whatever method anybody uses) won’t tell you what the rows are for, or what effect they have. All that lies in the recurrent intervals the rows produce.)

    It’s in reaction to such simplistic, reified analysis that I start saying that the 12-tone nature of a piece doesn’t matter. Better just to listen to the music, as it sounds, than to get spooked by the 12-tone system.

    But on a higher level of analysis and criticism, of course we have to ask what difference the 12-tone system makes. It seemed to make Schoenberg more fluent (though he was always a fluent composer, who wrote very quickly). It made Webern more organized. I find 12-tone music delightful to write, and sometimes do it as an exercise, though I have three 12-tone variations (tributes to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) in a string quartet I’ve written. I find it very fluent, and not at all limiting.

    But as an excited discovery for Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in the 1920s, and as a mark of orthodoxy in the 1950s, the technique will obviously have different meanings. So while I think 12-tone composers before WW II only benefited from the system, composers afterward (at least after the excited explosion of serial music just after the war) may have been constrained, in ways that go far beyond compositional technique. So maybe the lack of deep imagination in Die Soldaten has some inner relation to the music’s compositional schemes. Though the idea of giving each scene an abstract musical form of its own worked perfectly well for Berg in Wozzeck (and, in very different ways, in Lulu, too). If a composer’s mind works that way (and Berg’s certainly did), loving complex composer’s games, then why not go for it? It’s the kind of weird-ass challenge — involving lots of discipline — that can be inspiring. I’ve done that in some of my music. In an unfinished opera, I layered two independent vocal conversations over the accompaniment from a previous scene. I found that nothing but fun to write, and the music (or so I flatter myself) doesn’t sound forced at all. Nobody needs to know what’s going on, compositionally, but I know that from my view the scene is better because I played the game I did.

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