The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What will it take for me to like Schoenberg?

October 14, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, it happened again.

For 40 years or so, I have been trying to like – not love, just like — the music of the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

Here and there I have my moments or glimmers of success – and I don’t mean with their early music that owed a lot to late Romanticism.

I mean the mature stuff.

And by and large, I just can’t get into the 12-toneists, the atonalists, the serialists, the whateverists.

They simply don’t speak to me – even though I like other modern composers including Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The most recent occasional was the fantastically played recital on Oct. 1 by UW pianist Christopher Taylor. It celebrated 1810 and 1910 as anniversary years.

Taylor performed Schumann’s rarely heard “Forest Scenes,” which has the modernistic sounding “Prophet Bird” and Beethoven’s “32 Variations in C Minor” before moving on to two sets of Schoenberg’s piano pieces (Op. 11 and Op. 19) followed by Stravinsky’ virtuosic piano arrangement of the “Petrushka” Suite. (His wonderful encore was the “Stoptimetime Rag” – also from 1910 — by Scott Joplin.)

You can hear it by going to the link below and clicking on the loudspeaker icon next to the concert listing:

Well, there I was listening to Schoenberg (below), to the minimal non-melodic sound blips.

It was listening to a radar screen instead of looking at it.

I understand the historical importance of Schoenberg and his experimental language to bypass traditional tonality.

But for me it just doesn’t work.

I don’t want to hear it and I would never waste my time studying it or learn to play it.

Leonard Bernstein, using Noam Chomsky’s innate grammar competency as a model, talked about how many humans are hard-wired for tonality. I don’t know about others, but it rings true to me.

I’ll take the First Viennese School – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – every time, anytime.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from others.

So here is a sample from Op. 19:

How did Schoenberg first speak to you?

What do you most like or dislike about his music?

Why do you think it doesn’t speak to me and so many others, even a century after its composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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