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Inside 20th-century music

By David Owens / January 14, 1982



An enigma still with us

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In the huge list which we could call ''Most Misunderstood, Misrepresented Composers of the 20th Century,'' pride of place would very likely go to Arnold Schonberg. Certainly no other major figure in modern music has been so adored and so villified, so legendary and so notorious as the man we credit with bringing the ''method of 12-tone composition'' into being. Twelve-tone serialism , that arithmetic-laden system in which all twelve tones are treated equally, none being of greater importance than others, was basically Schonberg's brainchild. But so often, the man is unthinkingly branded as an iconoclast and as nothing else.

This is the problem when we try to judge a man's career on the basis of just one particular aspect of it. As a 20th-century citizen, Schonberg had many rich facets, including his mastery of Expressionist oil painting and his extensive political interests and influences.

But, in sizing up Arnold Schonberg for our time, it seems relevant to point out some elements in his makeup that probably forcedm him to take the step of formulating the 12-tone method, which virtually ruled composing style until just a couple of years ago.

Schonberg grew up in the era of Brahms, and had an extremely orthodox musical grounding in all that the 19th-century German tradition stood for. His eminence within the Mahler idiom is well known to lovers of his Transfigured Nightm (1899) or the mammoth cantata, Songs of Gurrem (1901). But it was his classical streak that eventually demanded from him a ''system.''

Being a young man very much with his times, Schonberg was drawn into the Modernism and Expressionism of the early 1900s. The heady goal of newness was All to this era, and Schonberg proved more than equal to that. By 1909 he had produced Erwartungm (a chamber opera), and by 1912, Pierrot Lunairem , a setting of 21 poems for voice and five players, both of which stretch the sense of experiment and search, seemingly to the brink.

In truth, it was and is the brink, because in them, and even in his first and second string quartets as well, Schonberg's process of choosing notes and their relationships is seen, on close observation, to be one of virtually free association. This was strikingly new in those days, although it bears an interesting resemblance to the kind of free association found in neophyte composers whose minds are not fettered by a knowledge of disciplined training.

This unbelievable freedom was certainly backed by mastery, but the implications of where this was leading both him and music could not have escaped Schonberg for long. Such freedom was next door to anarchy, and he knew it.

(Debussy was in the camp of the ''searching'' Moderns too, but quite different. Compare piano pieces of Debussy like ''What the West Wind Saw'' or ''Steps in the Snow'' with Schonberg's piano pieces, Op. 11 or Op. 19.)

Schonberg's music, perhaps more than that of most Expressionist composers, was straining, after World War I, under the weight and pressure of the ''anything goes'' ethic and its demands for constant change and expanding novelty. After Pierrot Lunairem , a work of staggering originality - and free association - his lake of musical taste and inventiveness was starting to be fished out.