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: