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


  1. To me the simple issue with Shoenberg’s music is that I cannot hear its structure, therefore it sounds like random noise, similar to what my 2 year old sounds like at the piano. Listening to random noise is boring and annoying. Whatever else they may or may not claim, I can guarantee you that 99.99% (and perhaps 100%) of the population that listens to 12 tone music will experience it as random noise.

    The issue then becomes whether (1) I and 99.99% of the population are cognitively incapable of deciphering the structure in the music through active listening; or (2) the structure of the music simply cannot be communicated to or enjoyed by the listener, and bears no emotional content or meaning in the traditional sense (and is therefore arguably worthless)

    I can say with confidence that I have a better ear than 1 in a thousand as I have had perfect pitch since age 5, easily memorized concertos as a pianist from a young age, and received musicianship marks near the top of the class for tonal harmony at a prestigious music school. Despite this, I am incapable of hearing a structure of any musical significance in 12 tone music.

    Nevertheless, it may be that this music contains some kind of legitimate emotional content that is encoded in a manner that it is so subtle and complex that it can only be appreciated by one in a hundred thousand, or one in a million. Certainly there are many fields, such as theoretical physics, where the most advanced concepts are only capable of being understood by one in a million, or one in a billion. I can’t dismiss that possibility out of hand because as a classical music lover, I am often put in the position of telling popular music fans that they lack the ability and training to truly appreciate works of traditional composers such as Bach or Beethoven

    Comment by Don — January 6, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  2. (1) Schoenberg was not a pianist. He didn’t write much piano music. What he did write for the instrument isn’t very good. Try the String Quartets 1 and 2 instead.

    (2) Schoenberg’s atonal and twelve-tone music is HIGHLY emotional. It’s just that the emotions are fear, anger, despair, etc. That’s the whole point. This short video sums up what I mean:

    (3)Schoenberg’s music is not mathematical, and in fact was usually composed incredibly quickly in fits of artistic inspiration. Beethoven did much more planning and sketching than Schoenberg did.

    (4) There is nothing wrong with liking Schoenberg’s early Romantic works. They are masterpieces. But if you take the time to investigate, you will realize that there is no gap between those early works and his atonal and twelve-tone works. The one very clearly evolves into the other.

    Comment by John — December 18, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    • John,
      Thanks for reading and then replying with such understanding and detail.
      I will investigate some of what you offer in the coming weeks and then perhaps blog about it.
      As for his expressing emotions: Sorry, but Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” inspires much more visceral fear in me than does Schoenberg.
      Probably my fault, not his.
      But I live with me, not him.
      And there is nothing wrong with different music for different sensibilities.
      Again, thanks. Maybe this time will be the charm.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 18, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  3. I just read a piece about Schoenberg in the New Yorker wherein Alex Ross says that Shoenberg felt that the purpose of music was to disturb. In that, he was successful. And in a historical context, perhaps it was the time for music to be shaken up.

    In the present, I believe that people turn to music for comfort – there is enough in the world that is already disturbing. The bottom line is that people don’t want to pay $100 to attend a concert in order to be disturbed.

    Comment by Larry Wells — October 17, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    • HI Larry,
      You make a good point via Alex Ross.
      But I think I would disagree with it a bit.
      Schoenberg’s music doesn’t shock or disturb me so much. It bores me and annoys me.
      I like Shostakovich, yet I find his music a lot more disturbing than Schoenberg’s. You can hear the Stalin Terror in it.
      I also find some Mahler deeply disturbing. Even Beethoven has disturbing moments for me, especially int he late string quartets.
      Historically, Schoenberg make have filled a need to shake up the musical world, but as music rather than musicology, it just doesn’t do it for me.
      Yes, we seek comfort in music today, as you say. But I would say we seek beauty and that beauty is the comfort.
      But either way, I don’t find it in Schoenberg.
      I’d like to hear what more readers and listeners, pro and con Schoenberg, have to say.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 18, 2010 @ 8:46 am

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  5. Well, my other train of thought was this, and is related to Torke’s perspective, with which I agree: from about 1950-1980 or so, the serialists absolutely dominated classical composition, and their “reign” is now viewed by composers such as Torke as “the tyranny of the row.”

    This was the view that “serious,” “progressive”, composition could ONLY be based on 12-tone and additional serial approaches, and that composition based on tonality and conventional techniques, however expanded, were the province of composers who were a) corrupt and/or b) not-very- bright.

    Probably the best-known spokesman of the serialist “mandate” was Pierre Boulez, and his influence was considerable. If I recall, he said something to the effect that “we must abandon tonality — that’s what got us into this mess in the first place”, referring, I think, to the post WW II European despair in 1945-50. I can understand his thinking in this regard.

    Since 1980 or so, the tendency of American classical composers has been to move away from severe serialist methods to those with predominantly tonal referents, albeit greatly expanded, with serial/12-tone materials available predominantly for color.

    This is, I believe, where the classical music landscape is right now, and I believe will continue for some time. It is an acknowledgement that most classical music lovers actually listen to the music, and cannot process material that is “challenging” to the ear (and mind) from beginning to end.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — October 14, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    • Tim,
      What outstanding and valuable additional remarks.
      Thank you for sending them
      I have to agree: Music should not be a cerebral puzzle form beginning to end.
      Music shouldn’t be over-intelletcualized though neither should it be simply emotional — at least for me.
      Again, I am grateful for your comments and reasoned judgments and terrific sources and references.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 14, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  6. We surely have a lot in common. I love hearing/playing the Russians, particularly Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, et. al. but Schoenberg, John Cage and similar modernists, no thanks. So much of the atonal milieu consists of mathematical tricks that may make some sort of organizational sense, but as far as musicality, lyricism, a tune you can hum? Almost never. What’s the sense?

    Comment by Larry Retzack — October 14, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    • HI Larry,
      I agree.
      I like melodies.
      I like feeling in the music.
      Too often Schoenberg et al feel like a crossword puzzle in notes instead of words.
      I’ll pass.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 14, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  7. For me, the best commentary regarding the music and influence of Schoenberg were the reflections of contemporary composer Michael Torke, in an NPR interview several years back.

    Briefly, he stated that classical 20th century composition was essentially a battleground between the Schoenberg and the Stravinsky forces. At least in America, he argues that the Stravinsky forces had already “won” that battle by the end of the century. Speaking as a composer, he acknowledged that the rigor and “unsentimentality” of 12-tone writing taught him and his colleagues a great deal, really — but, having said that, he believes that there are limits to which human beings can process sound — and the 12-tone method (and other serial methods) simply hasn’t respected that aspect sufficiently, in his opinion.

    The other commentary that comes to mind is that of British musical critic and writer Bernard Jacobsen. He indicated that the fundamental problem with 12-tone method is not so much the destruction of tonality overall as it is the destruction of the bass line. Put another way, contemporary composer Frank Zappa said that he could make a 12-tone melody “work,” so long as he could keep his “boog-a-loo” beat underneath. My gut reaction is that this observation is closer than any other reason for my own aversion to atonal and serial compositions.

    I was at the Christopher Taylor concert — I agree that it was phenomenal; and, if anyone can make a case for Schoenberg, it will be people like him: people with an enormous breadth and depth of perspective. I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) that the two sets of piano pieces were NOT 12-tone, but rather atonal expressionist. In his capable hands, I could at least hear what Schoenberg was getting at — and that’s a considerable accomplishment in itself.

    The other

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — October 14, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    • Tim,
      I like your analysis ands appreciate your references, though I have to stick what my ears tell me– and that is not good news for Schoenberg.
      I agree that Schoenberg has an excellent advocate in Taylor. But even the best advocates don’t convince me except in small incremental ways, as you say.
      It looks like your reply was cut off an “the other…” for some reason.
      Can you send the rest? I have a feeling that you were about to make an important point.
      Thanks for reading and replying so intelligently and in depth.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 14, 2010 @ 9:29 am

  8. […] original here:  Classical music: What will it take for me to like Schoenberg … Posted in 19, Classical Tags: Classical, classical music, Concert, igor-stravinsky, […]

    Pingback by Classical music: What will it take for me to like Schoenberg … | Download MP3 whit — October 14, 2010 @ 6:03 am

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