August 12, 2011

Schoenberg, Boulez, and the Schrödinger's cat

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supposedly revolutionary music is essentially 19th century music in which the tonal organization of pitch had been replaced by serial organization.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 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?...


sasha said...

MMmm Looks interesting Boom..I guess this piece and the violin concerto have somewhat evaded me up till now..And I hold 'Moses and Aaron' as one of Schoenberg's great works while generally preferring the free expressionist period that preceded these works..Time to re-access this work, methinks..Apropos of Boulez I completely agree with you..Those comments by the then young Boulez way-back-when probably made for great news copy but simply did the legacy of Schoenberg no favours..Here was a man who had stood in the face of anti-semitism, musical ridicule and god knows what else whilst at the same time carving out a new musical landscape that will still fascinate 200 years from now..Can the same be said of Boulez and his works??? Many thanks.

sasha said...

Fascinating to hear both these performances..O.k I've only listened to them once back to back so my view may change with time..I kinda feel as you do Boom bout the Barenboim/Boulez performance..It luxuriates the music to a degree..I found it somewhat lethargic and ponderous..Beautifully executed mind you and wonderfully recorded..The Berlin performance is altogether more to my taste..Tense, rhythmically more alive and altogether leaner in approach and sound conception..Still weather or not the composition can be placed amongst Schoenberg's important works remains questionable..I guess, for me, things start to get very interesting again (in this 'final' period) with say 'A Survivor From Warsaw' and especially the 'String Trio'..This marks a return to that more free wheeling expressionist writing that was the hallmark of the pre-dodecaphonic period..Please, please though I'd love to hear any more such postings you may have of Schoenberg, Berg or Webern.

john schott said...

Another thoughtful provocative mini-essay, Boom! I take a back seat to no one in my love of all things Schoenberg, and yet I too have felt "one and the same composition can make me hold my breath in awe or fall asleep from boredom".
I might change the "or" in that sentence to "and". For instance the Septet-Suite Op 29 - I often feel, in the first ten minutes, "oh this is great!" and then around movement three I'm thinking "boy this does go on, doesn't it?" Von Heute Auf Morgen can be great until about the half hour mark, etc.
The piano Concerto has been among the most fortunate Sch. pieces on record - Brendel/Gielen, Craft/Oldfather, Boulez/Serkin, Ax/Solonen are all very compelling.
At any rate, even though I have not commented on your blog for a whiile, I wanted to let you know that I always read your thoughts with interest and enjoyment. Regards.

duvidl said...

Great Blog! but I can't seem to find the download link. Where do I look?

David said...

It's been fascinating hearing these two performances back to back with Brendel's. All 3 are committed & in their different ways make their case for Schonberg. I will have to listen to them all again, by then I might have begun to get to grips with this concerto. But my first impressions of the Aimard are less 'clinical' than yours, Boom - though I think I was listening more to the BPO being cool, sleek & yet still lyrical than I was to Aimard! The Boulez though -as you say - is stunningly romantic in conception. I am definitely looking forward more to re-hearing both these than the rather older Brendel - which is intself interesting to me, as Brendel normally appeals to me more than Barenboim! It's good to keep learning...! Thanks for this opportunity; I may get to grips with serialism yet!

laybl said...

Boulez comments re Schonberg bring to mind Orwell's essay about Tolstoy's attack on Shakespeare and King Lear. Orwell ended the essay with the prophesy that Lear would still be performed centuries after Tolstoy's pamphlet was forgotten.

Meanwhile, who's feeding the cat?

Would appreciate link to the performances...

Boom said...


You need to email me, so that I can send you the links.

ivan said...

it seems to me that Boulez was right AND wrong, not just HALF-right/ HALF-wrong.

dead AND alive, not half-dead and half-alive. ;)

Boom said...

>> ivan said...

it seems to me that Boulez was right AND wrong, not just HALF-right/ HALF-wrong.

dead AND alive, not half-dead and half-alive. ;) <<

Ah... but superpositions of states are described by probability amplitudes from which probabilities of observing pure states are calculated.
Nothing wrong with a superposition of two states whose probabilities are 1/2 and 1/2 (half right, half wrong)