End of Road for Serialism?

Schoenberg's legacy - under fire of late - is proving its merit in the concert hall. MUSIC: COMMENTARY

DURING the 1940s and '50s, at the meetings of panelists who awarded major foundation and art-agency grants to composers, there used to be a saying: ``If you could leave the room humming a tune from the music of any applicant, that composer was not going to get a dime!'' Romantic, idyllic melodies had become decidedly unfashionable. Despite its failure to intrigue concert audiences, 12-tone music - considered by many a dissonant style appealing to elitists - had achieved sovereignty among most composers and critics. To receive serious consideration in musical circles, you had to be a serialist - a proponent of that embattled but entirely dominant Viennese musical tradition ruled and administered by Arnold Schoenberg and friends.

Since those years of domination, 12-tone music has paid dearly for its sovereignty. The 1970s and '80s saw the kind of creative rebellion against Serialism. The so-called Minimalist composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams have deconstructed the Serial tradition, producing works many critics and musicians find naive and simplistic, while others applaud it for its freshness and accessibility. More recently others have defected from the 12-tone ranks.

Does the rebellion against Serialism announce the death of musical modernism?

Many people think it does, and a great many more fervently hope that they are right. In a recent column in the New York Times, music critic Donal Henahan announced that Serialism is in trouble. In fact, he insinuated that 12-tone music is a musical dead end. I seriously doubt it.

For one thing, there are too many distinguished instrumentalists and conductors who embrace the music of the greatest 12-tone composers. For another, some of the most ``difficult'' compositions by Serialists are being widely and increasingly performed in concert halls and on recordings.

And, finally, the future of 12-tone music is also guaranteed by the fact that some of our most accomplished composers have been profoundly influenced by the legacy of Schoenberg.

Ultimately the future of music can only be discovered in the concert hall. A couple of months ago I attended a concert of the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi offered an exceptionally handsome performance of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, Op. 42, with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. To me and, apparently, to much of the rest of the audience, the music sounded less brittle and far more inviting and ``familiar'' than ever before. Time changes the way we hear music and the way music is performed. Von Dohnanyi and Uchida approached Schoenberg's concerto as a masterwork rather than a curiosity.

Though the piano line is a highly condensed obbligato, rather than an opportunity for virtuosic display, the concerto possesses a grandeur and sweeping lyricism, especially as performed by Uchida.

Composed in 1942, when Schoenberg was again experimenting with tonality, it is not the anomaly many would like to make of it. And contrary to the commonplace criticism of the mood of Serial music, it is not ``barbarously morbid and neurotic.'' Nor is it the kind of music that only appeals to an academic elite. In Cleveland, a capacity audience of subscribers was overjoyed with the performance. And so I came away thinking that if 12-tone music is really in trouble, it is only because concert music, in general, is in trouble.

That predicament, however, does not mean that the life of music is at an end. Somehow, music survives the greatest neglect and the strongest repression. We need only consider the Soviet Union, where the impact of musical modernism has survived despite the fact that for years the official party line abhorred experimentation such as Schoenberg's.

When Gennady Rozhdestvensky recently conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the American premi`ere of the Alfred Schnittke Concerto for Viola and Orchestra with soloist Yuri Bashmet, the exceptional performance made its case for the future of modernism, bringing extended cheers from the audience. Part of the delight was not merely familiarity and pleasantry, but also puzzlement, challenge, bewilderment, and - finally - astonishment. How very much we want to be astonished!

Schnittke is capable of astonishing an audience. He is a product of very wide musical influences, which he uses in his compositions without apology. His openness to experimentation was unsettling to the officialdom of Moscow, where he has lived since 1948. When his Symphony No. 1 was premi`ered in 1974, the Soviet authorities required that ``disturbing'' piece to be played in Gorky. Not until 1985 was a performance allowed in Moscow.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's eloquent performance of the Schnittke Viola Concerto with Mr. Bashmet is unfortunately unavailable on recording, but a fine interpretation on compact disc provides a wonderful experience, featuring Japanese violist Noboko Imai and the Malmo Symphony conducted by Lev Markiz (a Swedish BIS recording, BIS CD 447).

Whatever the problems of modern music may be, surely the Schnittke Viola Concerto vivifies the subtle ways in which the Romanticism of Wagner and the Serialism of Schoenberg have persisted as essential elements of our musical language. It is a work on a grand emotional scale that is dedicated to a darkness and pathos typical of the best music of the 19th and 20th centuries. In its long slow movements, it also recalls the inventive, late works of Shostakovich as well as the gorgeous lyricism of Berg's Violin Concerto. So, if the future of music is heralded by this 1985 Schnittke viola concerto, then the future looks very good indeed!

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