|Arnold Schoenberg's grave|
By now the story is old and tired: Soon after Schoenberg-the-man was buried Pierre Boulez proceeded to bury Schoenberg-the-composer in the infamously cold-blooded pseudo-obituary entitled Schoenberg is dead. Temperamentally Boulez's unceremonious postmortem of Schoenberg's creative legacy was the work of a pathologically ambitious scoundrel, if not a borderline sociopath. Intellectually it was an exercise in musicological triviality and ideologically motivated nonsense.
The triviality is the essay's "central message" - that much of Schoenberg's supposedly revolutionary music is essentially 19th century music in which the tonal organization of pitch had been replaced by serial organization. Big fucking deal! As if without Boulez's help experienced listeners could not have recognized Schoenberg's decidedly old-fashioned rhythms, his traditional orchestral palette, and (to paraphrase the composer Iain Hamilton) his continuing submission to "the tyranny of the theme".
The nonsense is the essay's underlying suggestion that these traditional aspects of Schoenberg's music justify a deflationary view of the historical significance, aesthetic merits, or the continuing influence of Schoenberg's oeuvre. Denigrating Schoenberg's achievements because they fell short of total serialism makes as much sense as chastising Euclid for failing to extend geometry to spaces with arbitrary number of dimensions, or dressing down Einstein for failing to apply quantization to gravitational fields.
I recalled this sordid bit of musical folklore because one of the two live broadcasts of Schoenberg's Op.42 I listened to recently was conducted (of all people!) by Boulez. With Barenboim as the soloist, the performance proves that Schoenberg is very much alive, and it does so by presenting the music exactly as it was described by Boulez half a century earlier: as a 19th century concerto in every respect except for its serial organization of pitch. Barenboim's achingly arched phrasing, nuanced dynamics, and pellucid, silvery tone would be wholly appropriate in the Chopin E-minor concerto. And the orchestra under Boulez - the supposedly austere, analytical, detached Boulez - radiates as much autumnal warmth as I would expect from Brahms' E-minor symphony. Performed so affectionately, as a nostalgic, wistfully lyrical dodecaphonic homage to the late 19th century, Schoenberg's concerto is an irresistibly charming piece of vintage modernism.
The second live broadcast, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist, de-emphasized as far as possible the music's 19th century roots and, as a result, offered no less convincing a proof that Schoenberg is very much dead. With Aimard's steely and serious handling of the piano part, backed by refined but coolly impersonal playing of the Berlin Philharmonic, the tonal allusions of Schoenberg's tone row sound contrived, the themes sound amateurishly awkward, the old-fashioned Viennese rhythms have a limping quality, and the overall effect is that of faux modernism which is as hopelessly dated as the schmaltziest of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte.
Both performances, however, involved musicianship and instrumental craft of the highest order, and both (as far as I can tell) were fully consistent with Schoenberg's instructions given in the score. Which leads me to suspect that Schoenberg-the-composer, like the poor Schrödinger's cat, is both dead and alive, and that this paradoxical superposition of states collapses into one or the other definite state only when Schoenberg's music is experienced through an actual performance.
I don't mean this quantum mechanical metaphor as a some musicological or metaphysical thesis. (There is enough scientifically illiterate lunacy in the humanities as it is.) I only want to illustrate the fact that no other composer's music strikes me as being capable of such schizophrenic duality when heard in different performances. The music of some composers simply leaves me intellectually and emotionally cold no matter how it is performed. With other composers, the music remains intellectually and emotionally absorbing in all high quality performances, however different their treatments of the music's formal elements may be. But with Schoenberg's music (beginning with Op.4) one and the same composition can make me hold my breath in awe or fall asleep from boredom.
So perhaps the young Boulez wasn't completely wrong in his terse assessment of Schoenberg's music, but only half wrong. Or should it be half right?...