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August 11, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 5): Second Viennese School

The work of the Second Viennese School -- Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg -- is still embraced by orchestras in some lucky places, but not in these parts. The neglect isn't just unfortunate. I'd say it's criminal.

Reasonable folks can disagree about the ultimate value of the revolution started by Schoenberg and championed for decades by many a composer in many a land, but there is no way to ignore the impact and importance of the atonal style that changed forever the course of music history. To keep the masterworks of Schoenberg and his followers off of our concert programs makes as much sense as removing the cubist paintings of Picasso or the abstracts of Pollock from museum walls.

Yes, for a lot of folks today, this would mean some tough times on subscription night at the symphony (and, of course, a tough sell at the box office), but that cannot be used as an excuse to keep all of this brilliant and challenging music out of earshot. It's all a matter of how a program is constructed, how the music is delivered.

Back in 2000, during an interview I did with Mario Venzago, the subject of the Second Viennese guys came up, and he had this to say: "I just did a tour conducting Berg with incredible success, so I know it is possible for people to accept this music. I think much of the public is simply afraid of the names Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Perhaps we should play their music under a different name -- Monica Lewinsky, maybe." (That was much funnier in 2000.)

I'd especially love to hear Schoenberg's ...

Variations for Orchestra, a stunning and involving example of the composer's 12-tone method, played by the BSO, and I could imagine placing it in a whole program of works that incorporate variation form -- maybe ending with Beethoven's Eroica, which would reward the audience for having to confront the daunting Schoenberg score.

The great thing about Webern, in terms of wary listeners, is that he wrote so concisely; the pieces might be thorny and demanding, but they don't last long at all. Yet what a universe of sound and meaning he produced with each carefully chosen note, each wisp of tone.

And if there's one composer who ought to be sell-able and ought to connect with audiences now, it's Berg. His Violin Concerto, one of the most profound pieces in the entire repertoire, should come around much more often (it has been eight or nine years since the BSO offered it, if I recall correctly). There is much to savor in his other works as well, for Berg infused Schoenberg's 12-tone system with a kind of soulfulness that remains thoroughly compelling.

Here are some samples of music by these three bold Viennese pioneers, music we've been missing here:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 PM | | Comments (4)


Speaking of Berg, Wozzeck and Lulu, especially the later are not works that I listen to at home on CD. But I do go to see them whenever they are staged - I am looking forward the Met revival of Lulu, for example. And even a DVD at home makes a difference.

I would agree with Don about Berg's operas: they are _extraordinarily_ engaging when seen live (preferably staged, not just in concert form, though I would take _either_ means!), but I have several recordings of each that practically never see the light of day.

More importantly, how in the _world_ can anyone not mention Schönberg's penultimate work, "Moses Und Aron" -- which, despite being incomplete, is immensely powerful, both musically and dramatically. The scoring is genius!

Many of his other vocal works are outstanding, too. I remember my first experience with "Pierrot Lunaire": I fell asleep about halfway through the first piece, and I soon awoke as if I were still in the most visceral nightmare I'd ever experienced. The effect was as profound as it was disturbing. (The ancient recording added to the ageless horror of the moment.)

I think a great deal of the public's ignorance of Arnie-Alby-Tony stems from the general perception that what these three gentlemen started (through no ill-willed fault of their own) was, somehow, the "death" of classical music. (They weren't _trying_ to chart the Grand Course of Future Composition for the rest of the world!)

The reality is that many of the hacks who followed them (and who claimed Our Three Atonal Guys as their idols) made music which was based more upon concepts and processes than genuine thoughts and heartfelt emotion. As concept piled upon concept and processes multiplied, complexity mushroomed, and -- all of a sudden -- you had a great deal of academic composition whose goal was to be thornier and thicker than the last muck-fest. (You could almost blame Webern for encouraging this approach in his later music -- too easy to imitate and "think like Webern," but not nearly as easy to actually _compose_ like Webern!) Thank goodness for composers like Cage, Feldman, and Penderecki, who managed to reinject the primal importance of _sound_ into music-making!

One thing's for certain: all three members of that vaunted "Second Viennese School" composed with their hearts first, and we -- as well as any aspiring composer -- must never forget to do the same!

Amen. TIM

Here's an interesting thing that I found over the week-end while browsing conductor Eugen Jochum's repertoire: he never conducted one note of Berg, Webern, or Schoenberg! Jochum had a large repertoire but his tastes in contemporary music were geared towards tonal works. Some of the composers he championed were Egk, Bialas, Holler, Hindemith, Bartok, the most "difficult" one being perhaps Karl Amadeus Hartmann, himself worth knowing (in small doses at a time!)

I could do without Egk and Holler, however and don't know too much of Bialas.

The repertoire was published a few years ago in a two CD set from Tahra with the occasion of Jochum's 100 birthday anniversary.

Very good article. You are right the keeping their music out of the repertoire is a crime.

Thanks for the support. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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