Why listen to schoenberg and cage?

May 14, 2008 at 04:44 AM · What is there appealing about schoenberg, cage, and the like? I understand that the schoenberg violin concerto is technically rgorous, but its tuneless, and has no melody? Why do people enjoy twelve-tone technique pieces so much? I don't really understand.

not dissing any style of music, I just don't get it.

Replies (75)

May 14, 2008 at 05:05 AM · Greetings,

I sympathize although am not so sympathetic to the position ;)

In Beethoven`s day just one chord in symphony number five was so new and contraversial, so outside the musical experience of the time it sent shockwaves not only through the so called intelligentsia but the listening public as well. Even Berlioz writes how mystifying and disturbing this thing is. Is there anyone in the world who now thinks Beethoven five is avant garde and shocking? I actually find Haydn`s late works more bizarre and unsetlign at times. Sometimes his harmony really pushe sat late romantic. It`s easy to forget he was contemporary of Beethoven...

As music has pushed the limits further and further hwoever, I think the new and unsettling has gone beyond what many of us are able to accept as music and thus we reject it and the helicopters its played in. Unfortunately this can lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is a tendency to reject anythign post Wagner when in many cases it is actually a case of struggling to educate oneself as to what is genuine and important in the music. It does take efort and work at times. I waslucky to be brought up on a great deal of 20 c music ranging from Stravinsky and Bartok (do you consider the Rite of Spring, Miraculuous Mandarin or the Bartok quartets to be melodius or enjoyable?) to Varese and Xeenakis so was able to learn to find what is great in them. The ear(mind actually) does take quite a lot of educating at times. Not only is this soemthign of a problem but it is also very important to hear things in the context of their relatonship to other stuff. Ths might sound a bit odd but I think it is an echo of a great quartet player who once said you cannot begin to understand the Beethoven quartets until you have played all of them.

On top of all this is another major factor in the equation: quality. Sometimes the problem is not one of melodic versus non melodic, contemporary versus classical or whatever. It might just be that it is not only a modern work but a -lousy- modern work.

Incidentally, I don`t find the Schoenberg particularly pushes the envelope. Quite a few well known soloists have taken a good shot at exposing its rather conservative and romantic nature. A jolly little number.



May 14, 2008 at 04:52 AM · I can't offer any satisfying answer to the question why people like entirely atonal music because am still struggling with that very same question myself. However, I can offer an answer to the question why one might want to listen to it from time to time.

When I was a teenager, everything seemed very simple: Music was either good or bad. Beethoven was good, Schoenberg et al was bad.

At some point I discovered Beethoven's string quartets and it became my favourite music. However, at first listening, some of the late string quartets didn't quite connect, I found them very challenging to listen to and had it not been for the fact they were from Beethoven, I might not have listened to them ever again, I might have dismissed them, put them on the Schoenberg pile. Only because it was Beethoven did I muster the patience to listen to them and give them a chance to grow on me, and they did! Today those quartets are my all time favourite music.

Thanks to this experience I was able to discover the quartets of Bartok, Janacek, Martinu, Shostakovich and others which I would have entirely dismissed as a teenager. I found again and again, that the kind of music which I don't quite seem to understand at first, the music which grows on me over time, that very often will become the music I eventually will love most. Today, when I listen to something for the first time, I ask myself "does this have the potential to grow on me over time?" and I have found some really great music this way.

If you had played Shostakovich quartet music to me when I was a teenager and told me that I would one day become a great admirer of Shostakovich, specifically for his quartet music, I would have told you to get lost :-)

For this reason, I do listen to Schoenberg, Webern and other atonal pieces from time to time to see if I can find anything in there. So far, I haven't but there are folks who really enjoy this genre. If they do, maybe so can we, one of these days.

But yes, I agree it would be interesting to hear from somebody who enjoys this music what it is they find appealing, which particular passages etc etc.

May 14, 2008 at 12:41 PM · I am fond of the 2nd Viennese School. I also understand that not everybody is fond of the 2nd Viennese School. You don't have to get hung up about the construction techniques in order to receive value from this type of music.

I can't really explain my tastes, except that growing up, I had a lot of exposure to all types of contemporary music in the local public library LP collection. Yes, LPs, it was the 80's.

A really nice source of information about this music is the book "Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg". Another book that is quite good is "Arnold Schoenberg's Journey" by Allen Shawn.

May 14, 2008 at 01:24 PM · Scott,

I sympathise with you. I feel that we lost sight sometimes of what music should be - while it doesn't necessarily need melody or traditional tonality, it should sound nice (or at least interesting).

I would encourage you to listen to Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht, which is earlier and hence more tonal - a fine chamber composition.

May 14, 2008 at 02:55 PM · Another good piece to listen to is Aaron Copland's "Piano Variations", which was also later orchestrated and morphed into the piece "Orchestral Variations". Copland used tone row techniques in an interesting way, and is in the "listener friendly" vein.

May 14, 2008 at 04:21 PM · Benjamin,

"it would be interesting to hear from somebody who enjoys this music what it is they find appealing, which particular passages etc etc."

I like it and listen to a lot of it, however I don't play it and don't aspire to play it. I listen to Philip Glass most days and he is one of my favorites in so far as compositions I would consider "serial" for lack of better words which can not come close to describing it. While his early work is not atonal, many find it a bit of a stretch and rather boring because it is repetitive. I have on occassion looped "Vessels", for example and let it play many times in a row. My brother lived in Asia 30 years ago and use to send me cassettes of folk songs he recorded. They were simple, yet I could not sing them because of the tones used. Tones foreign to my western ears but incredibly rich. They, like this type of composition make you think differently and so I find in interesting to watch my mental and physical reaction to it as my mind tries to find the layers, patterns and systems that are not always obvious on the first listen. It is incredibly relaxing and allows a single point of concentration that I enjoy at certain times, usually when I am alone and feeling a bit introspective. I hope that explains it. I find the more melodic and harmony based classical musicm, which I aspire to play, incredibly stimulating but I am not always looking for that when I listen.

Lastly, the setting is a huge consideration in my opinion and provides context for the sound. Going to a "concert" and sitting in a chair I found incredibly boring for these types of works.

I would love to hear what other fans think as I don't meet too many.


May 14, 2008 at 04:12 PM · I find your post fascinating because I just last week waas speaking to a professional musician about the fact that when I was younger Beethoven still had the feeling of being a revolutionary about him and his music but that now while I may not find it bland I certainly don't hear the revolutionary aspect to it anymore. As buri points out I find late Haydn to be much more of a stretch. As to pieces like Miraculous Mandarin and Sacre--I used to listen to them for their dissonance--now I listen to them for their consonance. My ears have changed because of what I've heard over a lifetime. As for Philip Glass I don't understand the attraction, it is essentially Dadaism in music--at least to my ears. But as one friend always says, "That's why there are menus in restaurants."

May 14, 2008 at 04:13 PM · As a fan of this type of music, perhaps I can explain my own draw to it. For most music lovers, I think it's an acquired taste, not something that is naturally attractive and 'pleasant' because of how harsh and stark it sounds in contrast with the compositions they've been used to.

Diversity is one of the major reasons I am so amorous about classical music. Endless variations, emotions, interpretations, and so many different styles, techniques, that repetition is so minimal that even after years and years, I love a piece as much as I did on day one. Even more, actually, for pieces can have so much complexity and diversity that they very slowly unfurl their beauty to you over the years, as you come to have a more profound understanding and pleasure from it.

In that sense, twelve tone, etc, simply adds more diversity to music. It may take a while to get used to and enjoy it. I definitely didn't enough Schoenberg at first. Through patience and willingness, I've developed a respect and love for this type of music, though.

It adds yet another color to the palette of music. And while one person may find some hues more pleasing than others, can any deny that the greater selection of colors and tones, the increased possibilities only add to the art form?

May 14, 2008 at 04:28 PM · Jay,

Facinating. I think Glass is great, but interestingly my kids love his stuff too. They had me put it on their iPods and they listen all the time. They think it is beautiful. They have heard it from their earliest years and really click with it during homework etc. Kids menu?

Also, I like the diversity discussion. In some ways, this music seems more for living than sitting still and listening. It makes me feel free as I move about through my day. It is like the ambience of life, however, my experience is that I have never seen a formal performance that did not fall rather flat.

May 14, 2008 at 04:27 PM · "From Scott Cesta

What is there appealing about schoenberg, cage, and the like? I understand that the schoenberg violin concerto is technically rgorous, but its tuneless, and has no melody? Why do people enjoy twelve-tone technique pieces so much?"

I do like some of Schoenberg's orchestral arrangements, like his orchestrastion of one of Brahm's piano quartets. His violin concerto is not a good composition. Cage's works fall into that same category. You can't convince everybody though that that is the case. Some people think Jackson Pollock's paint splatter on a canvas (something I or anyone could easily do) is art.

May 14, 2008 at 05:03 PM · Music is a language, like any art, and to understand it you must speak that language. It has been noted that people from other cultures upon hearing Bach for the first time often will declare it cacophonous. As classical musicians, and as members of a Western culture, we have grown up deluged with one musical language (albeit one which encompasses many vernaculars) - few of us, I think it would be safe to venture, have grown up listening to Schoenberg or Varese - so naturally, an initial hearing of Schoenberg might seem cacophonous. But imagine what that listener from another culture would be missing out on if they promptly dismissed Bach as bad music! New music is simply a foreign language that one must learn to speak (and the only ways to do that are to immerse yourself in it and study it) before one can understand and appreciate its beauty and profundity.

May 14, 2008 at 06:14 PM · I sometimes ask myself how people can listen to death metal music where a guy grunts and screams into the microphone while loud, crashing sounds are coming from the drums, and chainsaw-like tones are spilling from the guitars...then I remember that I use to listen to that stuff. Looking back I'm not sure WHY I liked listening to it, but back then I really did love it.

I think it's similar with new music. Some people just like it for some reason, that reason may not be easy, or even possible to explain, it just is.

By the way, I'm a huge fan of schoenberg in his pre-twelve-tone years, though I really do understand his need and desire to create a new way of writing music. There are some days where I just can't stand music (the same old stuff over and over again) and I want something different! I think this is what he was going through at the time.

May 14, 2008 at 07:33 PM · Webern is one of my favorite composers at the moment. I often find Classical and Romantic works to be repetitive and...predictable. I love new and unusually timbre. Listening to modern stuff might be difficult if you are too concerned with melody.

>but its tuneless, and has no melody

I think much of 20th century composers are much more concerned with other things beside melody. If you can listen to the beauty of texture and timbre, you might appreciate it more. Don't beat yourself over it, if you hate it, there's nothing wrong with you. :)

May 14, 2008 at 07:52 PM · 12-tone music can still be beautiful and intriguing. I've performed the Krenek Sonata--the 2nd movement is quite moving, as is many of the works of Alban Berg.

Cage, on the other hand, I consider to be kind of a fraud.

May 14, 2008 at 10:42 PM · Greetings,

thought I`d do some listenign work last night. Listened to quartets by Lutoslawski and Cage 3 times each. The former conjured up images of random but organized chirps in the jungle intersperesed with frenetic outbursts of savagery . Ttremendously dififuclt and impressive work performed brilliantly by the La Salle.

The cage seemed more like an attempt to emualte someone meditating on a very old organ. Lots of slow moving harmonics with a bit of plucking in the background. I found it an uttelry boring waste of time. Anotehr work by Cage that I will not be listenign to again.



May 14, 2008 at 11:14 PM · yeah cage can be really out there... like 4'33. I don't consider that music, im sorry. Its like handing a blank sheet of printer paper to the lourve and calling it a masterpiece.

May 14, 2008 at 11:05 PM · Buri, the LaSalle has a 4 CD boxed set of 2nd Viennese School quartets. Great stuff.

May 14, 2008 at 11:56 PM · I really like the Cage string quartet. To me it seems like he's trying to merge the past with the present. The recording I have is with the Concord Quartet. It's a great performance.

May 15, 2008 at 12:53 AM · Well, maybe it was the recording, Scott. Which version of 4'33" were you listening to? Zappa's, James Tenny's, or the The Magnetic Fields? Each is a tour de force, but maybe the particular interpretation you heard wasn't your cup of tea.

I'd love to perform it one day. When I'm ready.

(If 4'33" didn't do it for you, you might want to steer clear of poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes. I recently saw this performed. Three times. Long story. Still recovering.)

May 15, 2008 at 02:03 AM · Three words: Berg Violin Concerto! :-)

May 15, 2008 at 02:17 AM · Two words: Grosse Fuga

May 15, 2008 at 04:23 AM · Reading the posts here from those who like atonal and/or serial music, It seems to me that many cannot describe why they like it, other than in general terms such as diverse and contrasting.

That's interesting, almost intriguing to me, because I can usually describe in fair detail why I like the pieces I like, or more precisely, I can point out the passages I like specifically and then describe what I find interesting or enjoyable about them. Of course it is much easier to do "live" while listening than writing about it in a forum like this.

Sometimes I "coach" others who say they don't like this or that piece. While listening to it together, I would point out what in particular to pay attention to at certain passages and I would then explain what I find interesting or enjoyable about that particular spot. For example, I would point out how a passage that seems like chaotic noise at one point gradually dissolves into order. Some of Beethoven's late quartets, especially the Great Fugue and many of Shostakovich's quartets have quite a few such passages. I always find it amazing how the "chaos" turns into order or harmony, it has a kind of uplifting effect on me. Note, I put chaos in quotes because even chaos has order, just less transparent, less apparent.

Sharing my personal listening experience of such pieces with others while listening to it together has often had the effect that someone who said they didn't find anything enjoyable about the piece before then found the music to become more interesting and sometimes even enjoyable when they then listened to it on their own some more afterwards.

Before this background, I tend to believe that if I could find somebody who could "coach" me in a similar way with atonal and serial music, say Schoenberg or Webern, while listening together, I might well be able to "learn" how to enjoy that music. But so far, I have not been able to find anybody nor have I been able to find anything enjoyable in that music on my own.

I do agree with all those who said that music is an acquired taste, some music is such that you can find something pleasant in it right away, some music requires "hard work" to become enjoyable. Strange as it may seem, I found that some music can be interesting in a way, but not quite enjoyable. For example, I find some Webern pieces interesting (more so than Schoenberg) but I don't find them enjoyable. Maybe that's an early sign that I will eventually find them enjoyable, who knows.

However, I also found that you cannot force it. For a while I thought it was just a matter of how often I'd listen to a piece and it would open up, but that doesn't seem to work all the time, some pieces do open up, others don't. For me Schoenberg's atonal pieces are those which don't seem to open up no matter how often I listen. I do like the earlier works though, for example the aforementioned Transfigured Night.

I don't think it is the 12 tone technique per se, because Bartok and Shostakovich did use 12 tone technique sporadically in their works and I like those very much. What I can't seem to enjoy are pieces which are composed entirely in 12 tone technique. It is almost as if 12 tone technique is a sort of spice, too much of it and some people then find the resulting dish too spicey to digest. At the end of the day it is a matter of personal taste, you can educate, nourish and cultivate it, but you can't force it.

Yet, I am a curious optimist, so no matter how displeasing I find a piece of music, I would not categorically say "I will never listen to this again".

May 15, 2008 at 05:24 AM · Some music appears to be cacophonous or revolutionary because we cannot find a frame of reference to understand it. Listeners had 150 years to accustom themselves to what Walter Piston refers to as the period of "common harmonic practice" but with the use of brief tonal centers, as in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and finally no tonal centers, the typical listener can no longer rely on the frame of reference of a key or tonal center to make sense of the pitches and their organization. Consider tonal centers and modulations from one key or tonal center to another like bases in a game of baseball in which you have 12 bases ( that is a letter name for each key or pitch center, excluding the differences between major and minor) instead of 3 plus home plate. When you get to second base it can become home plate in a new baseball diamond that diverges off from the original baseball diamond. If you keep creating a new diamond each time you get to a different base in the original diamond or you create yet another new diamond off of a base in the first new diamond you created, and increase the frequency with which you start on a new home plate, you will eventually get lost and lose your sense of center and where home plate really is. This is what happened in Western music with the discovery of unusual relationships of key and increasingly frequent modulations. Tonality, and the fascination with key modulation, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. There is a logical step that goes back to the use of chromatic harmony in Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, on through Liszt and Wagner and eventually Schoenberg. It is not unlike the exhibition I saw some years back of the painter Mondrian who painted the branches of trees and eventually broke with their curved quality and ended up with trees that had branches parallel and perpendicular to each other which led to his unique style of lines and boxes, or Picasso who eventually created Les Damioselles d'Avignon in which cubism and angularity broke with traditional figure painting. One further analogy that comes to mind is the feeling one gets walking on the beach, one inch from the sea on dry sand and then taking one step in to the ocean and experiencing water and wetness. If you are used to your frame of reference associated with dry land, and feel safe and secure on it, then the first time you experience the ocean it may be something of a shock and confusing and bewildering. So, Schonberg's use of pitch and harmony eventually, but in a logical progression,broke with the frame of reference and familiarity of keys that we are still so very used to.

Therefore,to some extent, one can not listen in the same way to Schoenberg as one listens to Mozart, just as you can not navigate in water as you do on land , yet, in other ways, Schoenberg is still linked to familiar territory in the shaping of melodies and creating high points and low and arches and using intervals expressively just as Brahms did (consider some of the wide interval leaps in the violin concerto, for example) or Mahler. The late Romantic tradition of greater range and extremes in melody was maintained by Schoenberg even as he moved away from traditional harmonic practice. Also, there is still tension and release and different degrees of dissonance just as there is in more traditional music.

So in some ways, one can latch on to certain aspects of this music, while others may take more effort or study to understand and appreciate.

I believe enough people have come to appreciate this music that it is likely to continue to get a hearing and an audience but, admittedly, it will never have the kind of appeal and popularity that music by Rachmaninoff has. In the end, chacun a son gout.

May 15, 2008 at 05:45 AM · @ Ronald

The baseball analogy confuses me utterly and completely, but I guess that's because I am not American :-)

Oh, BTW, I would find your post much easier to read if you had a few line breaks in there once in a while to break it up into several paragraphs, it would be much easier on the eyes that way ;-)

Anyway, .... pointing out that Schoenberg's music has design and explaining that design is most welcome, but still it doesn't seem to help me enjoying the music when I listen to it. In fact, I would go as far as saying that just because something has design doesn't automatically mean it is enjoyable, even if the design itself is understood and appreciated.

Likewise, the historical inevitability of 12 tone technique is interesting and I don't have a problem with that viewpoint. Yet, whenever I read how 12 tone technique was inevitable, I get a sense that I as a reader am expected to conclude that as a result, appreciation of 12 tone music is also inevitable. I would disagree with such a conclusion, just because something had to happen doesn't mean it has to be appreciated. In any event, inevitable or not, it does nothing for me when trying to appreciate the music as I listen.

You are saying it "may take more effort or study to understand and appreciate" Schoenberg's music, but what if I don't get any enjoyment from it despite serious effort? What can I do?

To me the most intriguing aspect of 12 tone technique is that music which employs 12 tone technique only sporadically is appreciated by many who don't otherwise like atonal or serial music. For example, I know quite a few people who like pieces by Shostakovich and Bartok which employ 12 tone technique here and there but not for the whole composition, yet the same folks don't like atonal or serial pieces which are composed entirely using 12 tone technique, myself included.

In some way, this reminds me of the stereo frenzy of the late 1960s. When stereo was introduced some time in the 1960s, there were many albums by rock and pop bands where stereo effects were taken to the extreme. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album is one example of this. It was hip at the time but if you listen to these stereo effects today it feels a little over the top. Eventually, stereo became a normal aspect of recordings and the level at which stereo effects were employed in recordings settled down to what might be described as moderate.

Before the background of Shostakovich and others who used 12 tone technique only sparsely, I am asking myself, is it possible that 12 tone technique got composers into a frenzy as stereo did to rock and pop musicians in the 1960s, and as it's novelty status slowly wears off, is it becoming just another ingredient amongst other ingredients, rather than being the only ingredient?

May 15, 2008 at 11:51 AM · Ronald, besides the run on sentences and the lack of paragraphs, I appreciate your post in its entirety. Well said.

Benjarmin, appreciating something and enjoying it are 2 different things. No one can fault you for your personal preferences. I see that you are clearly giving 12-tone its due, and have made attempts to understand and even like it. You are right, it cannot be forced, but your acceptance of its validity is all that is necessary. In response to your saying that 12-tone is over the top in Schoenberg... well someone had to overdo it before others used it just a little bit. There is always someone who will stretch one ideal to the maximum.

I myself struggle with enjoying Schoenberg. The one guiding light I have is that he associated himself most closely with Brahms's logic of composition and I try to find that in his works. For example, Brahm's Symph #4: The theme is based on a pattern of falling thirds. B G E C A F# D# B. It's very mathematical. Schoenberg merely expanded greatly on math.

I am performing Schoenberg's Prisoner from Warsaw this weekend. As a performer I have to approach learning this piece in a completely different way. Since there is no tonal center to call the ground beneath my feet, I find myself thinking very differently.

1. I think like a mathematician, measuring each beat, each measure.

2. I become a thinker, and a blind doer. Each note has to be very thoughtfully prepared because I cannot fit it in by ear. I have to very carefully calculate where on the finger board each note is and trust my ability to find positions only by measuring my kinetic motions, NEVER by ear.

3. I'm constantly questioning myself "was that the right note I played?"

It is definitely not easy to do, but I like being challenged. Ultimately I have to appreciate it for what it is because it is not a sensation that I often feel playing aurally logical music. It's a different way of navigating music. Do I appreciate it? YES. Do I listen to it by choice? No

May 15, 2008 at 12:08 PM · Nate,

I hope that you will soon find yourself at the MoMa standing infront of a Jackson Pollock painting with a different appreciation for it. It's unfair to try to pair Schoenberg or Cage with Pollock since he is so closely related to the jazz movement of the 1950's.

It'd be easier to pair Schoenberg with pointilism or cubism, which are logic, pattern, and mathematical based art movements. But definitely not woth abstract expressionism.

Here is why a 3 year old cannot do what Pollock did:

1. He stopped "painting" dead in its tracks and challenged the viewer to ask "is this painting?"

2. Along with other artists of the NY School (Rothko, Motherwell) they did away with subject matters and made the paint itself the primary focus of their work.

3. He did not paint his paintings.

4. His techniques challenged all traditional techniques of painting in the following ways.

 He did not pre-treat his canvas.

 He laid the canvas on the floor and walked on it, but did not ever touch it with a brush or other utensil.

 He painted on huge canvases like Monet did.

 He used household enamel paint from a bucket.

 He used paint sticks as his tool of “painting”

 He had a limited color palette – industrial blacks, greys, greens, etc.

5. His system was methodical, not wild and random. He stays within the parameters of the canvas bringing order to what LOOKS like chaos.

6. Drips and splatters were directed gestures, not random. He knew where he wanted them to go and controlled their direction… to a certain degree.

7. Believed that by not touching the canvas it gave him artistic freedom. He directed the paint stick over the canvas but the moment that the paint was released into the air before it fell on the canvas was the moment of true freedom of expression.

8. He created a 3D effect using contrast, value, and color. If you stand back you will see that his paintings seem to recede creating a push/pull effect of true depth.

I’ll get off my soap box now but people usually don’t like certain things because they don’t understand them. Schoenberg, Pollock, Cage, even Beethoven. Their greatness is measured in their ability to CHALLENGE their audience.

May 15, 2008 at 03:10 PM · @ Marina

"In response to your saying that 12-tone is over the top in Schoenberg..."

Well, I wasn't exactly saying that it is, I was wondering whether it might be the case.

"well someone had to overdo it before others used it just a little bit. There is always someone who will stretch one ideal to the maximum."

There, you've just described perfectly what I was wondering ;-)

"I myself struggle with enjoying Schoenberg."

"1. I think like a mathematician, measuring each beat, each measure.

2. I become a thinker, and a blind doer. Each note has to be very thoughtfully prepared because I cannot fit it in by ear. I have to very carefully calculate where on the finger board each note is and trust my ability to find positions only by measuring my kinetic motions, NEVER by ear.

3. I'm constantly questioning myself "was that the right note I played?""

Wow, that is rather mind boggling, also what you said about appreciating and enjoying not necessarily being the same. I will need some time to digest that as I haven't thought of it in this way. Anyway, very insightful and interesting.

Anyway, this raises the question ... Do you think this is typical for people who like Schoenberg, or do you think there are those who actually enjoy it in a similar way that we enjoy more traditional music?

May 15, 2008 at 03:14 PM · Why? Penance, of course.

This sort of stuff is not unlike the dreaded "Novel of Ideas" wherein all considerations of plot, character etc are subsumed into the author's dtermination to shove the hapless reader into Understanding the Issue, and making The Point.

All very well, of course, but there are other, better reasons for reading a novel, or listening to a piece of music. What's wrong with seeking grandeur, depth of feeling, lyricism or even simple pleasure?

Sort of like eating prunes; more for the effect than the immediate pleasure, though it must be said that prunes are tastier than Schoenberg.

May 15, 2008 at 03:30 PM · My main objection to serialist composers-is that after a certain point-music stops sounding organized and becomes for intents and puposes mathematically random. I´ve seen studies where someone took a computer made a randomly generated ¨piece¨, and played in comparison to a serialist composition (total serialism)--and few people could tell which was which.

The problem with playing such works is that by striving NOT to be tonal and avoid tonal implication--many composers forget that string instruments are inherently tonal beings. That is they naturally sound their best when when tempering to the open string keys. To play against this tendency (i.e. even tempering like a piano-not just open strings but also intonation) just sounds bad on a string instrument, in my opine. I actually raised this objection to a theory professor for a project--and he didn´t really care about it that much.

May 15, 2008 at 03:21 PM · Personally I can't imagine that Schoenberg is enjoyed in the same way traditional music is enjoyed. I don't think it's meant to. In Beethoven I don't like to get hung up on the architecture of the composition while I'm playing. But with Schoenberg it's constant thinking, constant measuring, constant calculating. It's a physical manifestation of mathematical logic and that's pretty cool.

I cannot claim to be a champion of 12-tone music. However I can relay my husband's testimony. He's a painter and absolutely adores Cage, Schoenberg, Varese, Webern, Xenakis, in addition to all classical music. He EVEN likes MESSAIEN!!! (Sorry but I cannot like a composer who in his own mind cannot acknowledge the existence of Brahms). He's not a musician, doesn't know what the little black dots on the staff mean and thought that Adagio was a title.

Being an artist he's much more open minded to genres of music and can relate genres of art to genres of music. When asked why he likes atonal music his response is:

"Because I don't really get it so I have to accept it for what it is, and that's beautiful... I can't recreate it or hum the tune, and so it's forgettable so it's like one piece can be new to me for a long time. I also like that this composer challenges my ear."

He's taught me to appreciate Cage's 4:33 simply for the fact that it makes one wonder if it is music or not. Pondering on that question is enough to make it enjoyable. He's thinking like an artist here for sure... artists love when their painting gets a negative response for some reason.

May 15, 2008 at 03:39 PM · Marc, I will take your logic to the next school board meeting and plead my case that 3rd graders should not learn arithmetic. Why should they since they will get the same result with a calculator? Does the fact that one is done with a computer and the other generated from the human brain have any value?

"many composers forget that string instruments are inherently tonal beings."

Last time I looked my violin was just a wooden box. The label on the back says:

Active Ingredients : wood, metal, strings, various animal by-products

Inactive Ingredients: human

Uses: To be used for the purpose of creating sound of any kind, all sequences of notes available.

Range: G below the treble staff up to an infinitisimal number of ledger lines above the staff. To be used at the desire and discretion of the human.

Warnings: If you experience headache or the inability to create desired effect after consumption please see a specialist.

Directions: 2-3 hours of practice daily for optimum results. Do not exceed 8 hours a day.

Restrictions: None

May 15, 2008 at 03:41 PM · "Personally I can't imagine that Schoenberg is enjoyed in the same way traditional music is enjoyed. I don't think it's meant to."

The technologist in me almost wants to compare this to what we call a proof of concept. It's not meant to be used in earnest but it serves as a model to learn from. Of course the analogy doesn't work all too well, cause I am sure Schoenberg did intend his works to be performed and stand on their own, not just serve as examples of "here is how you do 12 tone".

"Because I don't really get it so I have to accept it for what it is, ..."

That part I can relate to very well. I look at all art I don't seem to understand in this way.

"... and that's beautiful... "

That part, if indeed it is a conclusion drawn from the former, I don't understand, but hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"I can't recreate it or hum the tune, and so it's forgettable so it's like one piece can be new to me for a long time. I also like that this composer challenges my ear."

Interesting. I feel the same way or at least very similar about many musical works which are not atonal or at least not strictly atonal and which I can nevertheless enjoy like traditional music. Beethoven's late quartets, Bartok and Shostakovich's quartets, they never sound the same to me when listening again, even though i can hum along, I always find a different experience in them. They never get boring, even if I loop one of them for hours. With serial music on the other hand, I get bored at some point, even if there is no repetition in them and I still can't hum along, they seem to exhaust my listening energy :-)

May 15, 2008 at 04:00 PM · "Range: G below the treble staff up to an infinitisimal number of ledger lines above the staff."

Actually, there's this Japanese violinist who produces sub-harmonics at will and with a beautiful tone. If you take this into account, then the possible range goes at least one octave lower :-)

May 15, 2008 at 03:59 PM · Well Marina,

There are some things that are easily done on the instrument-there are some things that take a great deal of effort--there´s a simple reason why we string players like to play things in open string keys and wind players like to play things in flat keys. Yes the instrument can do anything-after a fashion---however some things happen nicely and naturally others are very difficult. Heifetz himself said that to play the Schönberg Concerto, you needed to be born with 6 fingers on your left-hand; although Ms. Hahn has managed to record it in despite of Heiftetzs´ statments.

As far as kids and calculators-it is rather the other way around. Anyone can take a computer program and generate a ¨piece¨ after a manner---the effort needed to not use the calculator is much greater (a la tonality).

A serial matrix used in 12-tone/serial music is basically a hand written out computer algorithm that is quite similar in many ways to a computer random number generator. Even a computer random number generator is not truely mathematically ¨random¨--there is order hidden underneath those seemingly random numbers.

May 15, 2008 at 04:27 PM · I am well aware that certain keys are easier to play on the violin, as are certain techniques, rhythms, etc. But just because some are more difficult than others does not mean they are not valid compositions. Beethoven himself was quoted to say that he didn't care if what he wrote seemed unplayable. I like D Major just as much as the next guy, but I did not become a musician to limit myself to that key. When I want a good dose of D major I listen to Bruce Springstein.

Schoenberg's compositions had nothing to do with computers. Although some similar sounds can be generated on a computer does not mean they are invalid. See my above post about how in art drips and splatters are not necessarily accidents that can be recreated by 5-year olds.

May 15, 2008 at 04:45 PM · I personally don't care if music is created with computers, or likewise if sound is produced using synthesizers. To me the measure is whether or not the outcome is in some way appreciative or enjoyable by somebody. I also learned today from Marina that enjoyment and appreciation may not be the same thing, but no matter what kind of enjoyment it is, as long as there is somebody who says "oh, I like it", that is good enough for me to justify the creation of the piece. In fact, even if the composer/creator is the only person who likes the piece, that'll be good enough for me. Never mind what tools were used to create it, as long as no humans or animals were harmed in the process :-)

May 16, 2008 at 05:24 AM · I second Anne's suggestion of "Arnold Schoenberg's Journey" by Allen Shawn...though I may be a little biased since he is one of my professors! I too am in the same boat as you - enjoying this twelve-tone stuff is difficult, though I AM trying to appreciate it. I'm not going to pretend I know a lot about twelve-tone music, etc. but I will say that it helps to think about how OUT THERE it was for the first people who composed this way. Risky business.

May 16, 2008 at 07:35 AM · "Personally I can't imagine that Schoenberg is enjoyed in the same way traditional music is enjoyed. I don't think it's meant to."

If by that you mean it's not supposed to evoke emotion in the listener and all those other nice things we get while listening to normal music, then I have to disagree. Don't get me wrong, I've been following this discussion and am glad to see somebody like you standing up strongly for Schoenberg's side, but you CAN in fact listen to Schoenberg like any other music. It does perhaps require a little concentration, because your brain is wired (yay eurocentrism) to listen to tonal music, but if you do concentrate, you find that the harmonies are surpring and complex, and there are phrases and musical ideas just like any other music. I say this after having listened and played nearly nothing but Bach for something like a month - after awhile I kind of got sick of hearing the same I-IV-V-I cadence again and again and so turned to atonal music. It's simply refreshing to hear something which doesn't rely on the same "tricks", so to speak (which is obviously a gross oversimplification and also an ignorant statement, but whatever), and which pushes your boundaries a little. I think that's what the serialists were responding to when they said something like the seven note scale has exhausted its possibilities. Anyways, if you can cope with the tonal center changing every two notes, it's great music even for background listening.

Here is a great orchestra playing a highly charged piece. Perhaps it's not Beethoven, but it has form to a certain extent, and it is certainly written in the Romantic vein. Can you appreciate this? I say it's not enough to appreciate it, I say that you should try to love it - if you don't like it at first hearing, you should let it grow on you just like you would let a piece by Beethoven grow on you if you didn't like it at first. There's beauty (and not just the mathematical, abstract beauty - the primal type) in these composers, if you listen :).

EDIT: I should have just read Ron's post to begin with, oops

May 16, 2008 at 05:55 AM · Thanks to all for your comments and suggestions.

My run on sentences are actually analogous to 24 note quarter tone rows, but I'll try to avoid those in the future.

I would not disagree with the thought that just because something is inevitable or had to happen it has to be appreciated. Chances are good, though, that someone will be curious and curiosity and inquisitiveness can lead to appreciation and enjoyment.

If you don't get any enjoyment from something despite serious effort, and your life/survival does not depend on it, I see no reason to worry about it.

We all have a limited amount of time to explore the world around us. I'm sure there will be composers and music I will never have heard of and never get the chance to listen to. Just because Schoenberg has enough of a reputation and enough presence in concert circles to continue to be played and listened to does not mean one has to appreciate it or make an effort to understand it or even enjoy it but I choose to do so.

Perhaps not all art is enjoyable, but I do believe there is a reason for a given piece of music coming into existence and I tend to give the the composer who brought it into existence the benefit of the doubt that he or she was serious and earnest about the desire and need to do create that piece of music.

As I said before, chacun a son gout.

Marina, thank you for your comments. I hope your Haydn Lord Nelson Mass concert went well. I am finishing up the third week of three performances of that piece, each with a different orchestra and conductor. I have not discovered any twelve tone rows in it, but have discovered at least twelve unique hand gestures that the conductors have made without repeating any.

May 16, 2008 at 07:32 AM · "If by that you mean it's not supposed to evoke emotion in the listener and all those other nice things we get while listening to normal music, then I have to disagree."

That's interesting. I'd love to listen to some Schoenberg pieces together with someone like yourself who can get such enjoyment from it and have them tell me which passages evoke what kind of emotions, which spots to look out for etc etc. If that then doesn't help the pieces opening up to me, I'd call it quits and conclude Schoenberg is probably just not for me.

"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKZt6nPrKJQ <- a great orchestra playing a highly charged piece."

Oh, yes, I know this video. I have listened to this many times. This video is what I was referring to when I said I found Webern interesting, not enjoyable but interesting, unlike Schoenberg, which despite all effort tends to get me bored.

I wonder what it is that makes Webern at least interesting to me, while Schoenberg seems to completely escape me. Does anybody else feel in a similar way about those two composers' works?

May 16, 2008 at 01:15 PM · Ronald, Lord Nelson came and went and all I remember is the fury of learning 5 billion notes (first violin). But since I played all of them at the right time I guess it was a success.

It's odd but I find myself in a weird stance with Schoenberg and other atonal music. I support it, appreciate it, try to understand it, and perform it without too much self conflict. So if someone comes along and says "I don't understand it, I hate it" I feel the need to defend it and find it in my self to like it. But if you come along and tell me that I should love it my response is to halt. Strange.

I have to perform a very unique concert this weekend that includes Schoenberg, Wagner, Brahms, and Mozart. I don't think I would be so frazzled about it if I didn't have to CM but it takes a lot of coaxing to convince your section that "it will all be ok" and to switch gears so abruptly.

May 16, 2008 at 01:54 PM · This is a very interesting thread. Thank you.

I have to admit that I don't believe that there is such a thing as "atonal music", unless it is using pitchless sounds.

Either you have tonal centres that shift quickly (more quickly than most people take to register them as such), or you have multiple simultaneous tonal centres (again, that most people have trouble entangling from each other).

In both scenarios, the sets of tonal centres may be related closely or further apart, and this also determines how "atonal" we hear such music as being. It is really "tonally distant" rather than "without tonality"

For someone who has only listened to diatonic music, whole tone scales sound dissonant, as do other scales of limited transposition (as Bartok named them). It is listening to such pitchsets and learning the relationships between the notes that transforms "atonal" into "polytonal".


May 16, 2008 at 02:45 PM · I heard that there were some theses on how atonal music is incompatible with the way the human brain processes informaiton. I would like to hear more research on that.

My only gripe with atonal music is that there is no repetition or motivic material that is clearly discernible, and I feel it gets way too academic in its attempts to avoid tonal centers. Vivaldi, Mozart, etc. could write what they heard in their heads. I'm aware Schoenberg did but other than that, I don't know how one could think in his head "oh wait the melody needs to be more jagged, and the second third of the retrograde inversion transposed 6 will play at the same time against two subsets of the prime row transposed 1 starting on the 4th and 7th pitches simultaneously..." and have any clue how that sounds. It's impossible and that's how it becomes too academic and over the top, beyond what is natural for our brains to discern. Any intentions will appear nice on paper but upon listening, I feel it's quite different.

May 16, 2008 at 03:13 PM · I tend to agree with Graham that atonal music is really tonally distant rather than truly atonal, although 20 year's ago I firmly believed in "atonal music" and did my best to write the purist form of it possible.

I can't agree that there is no possibilty of clearly discernible repetition or motivic material in atonal music. Nothing inherent in "atonality" excludes that. If it's not there, then that's because a particular composer wrote it like that, nothing more.

May 16, 2008 at 06:36 PM · The more I listen, the more tunes I hear.


May 16, 2008 at 07:41 PM · I wish I could read all of the really interesting comments you guys have. This is such a burning issue for me because it broke my heart that I got lost on the Schoenberg Violin Concerto when Hilary Hahn's recording came out! :) Especially when there's 5-star reviews for it and it's the #1 album on the Billboard Classical chart! What was all the fuss about? I even felt it was necessary to tell Hilary that I didn't care for it at the CD release party--Now I feel bad about that after we've come to learn that it caused a rift in one of her early relationships. She must have really felt strongly about it.

Silly, especially because music, like all other forms of art is subjective, and it's there for you to either like, dislike or hate. I read all about Liszt's struggles with his contemporary audiences--Many thought his music's harmonic language was as hard to take as Schoenberg's was later. I guess it just takes time for people to come around to it, like with any music or art.

I do actually really like Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bernstein, Gershwin, Bartok, Ravel, Respighi, Copland--ALL 20th century composers, and all have different levels within their own catalogs of tonal stylings, so why is Schoenberg the one that gets away?

I DID decide to check out several things, like Transfigured Night (Yes, it is much easier to listen to--Perhaps you need to start with this piece before you get to anything harsher); Another disc that features the early violin music of Schoenberg (Mostly unpublished stuff, and quite a bit of it very fluffy Viennese-style music); Another recording of the concerto; Other composers like Alban Berg and his Concerto. Makes a remarkable difference in my impressions so far. I feel like I'm getting it a little more now. It's a work in progress--Maybe Schoenberg intended that.

May 16, 2008 at 08:12 PM · "Oh, yes, I know this video. I have listened to this many times. This video is what I was referring to when I said I found Webern interesting, not enjoyable but interesting, unlike Schoenberg, which despite all effort tends to get me bored.

I wonder what it is that makes Webern at least interesting to me, while Schoenberg seems to completely escape me. Does anybody else feel in a similar way about those two composers' works?"

That's interesting. I can see where you're coming from, though - Schoenberg I guess tries to break away completely from tonalism in some of his works, while Webern (at least in this piece) tries to keep at least some semblance of resolving chords and whatnot.

I completely agree with Graham about it being impossible for music to truly be atonal - your brain is literally 'fixed' in some sense to try and discern harmonies, pitches, tonal centers, and melodies, even if you don't hear it consciously. I think a good experiment to try if you don't hear this kind of thing in serialist music is to listen to a fairly simple piece (say, Weberns variations for piano - there's a good recording on youtube by Gould), and try to name all the chords and intervals between notes. All of a sudden, it doesn't sound like a random assortment of notes with no 'color', but it sounds like 'real' melodies and chords - just with the tonal center changing constantly and no silly things like diminished chords to push along the development.

Back to Benjamin's thing about Webern being more accessible than Schoenberg (for lack of a better word), it may just be that Webern is a better composer than Schoenberg ;). Also, serialists I think tend to write better for ensembles than solo instruments - the extra degree of freedom they have in timbre helps them gear the piece towards the listener (so I guess for some reason serialist music is most natural in polyphonic form? That can't be right).

Also, one of the most common complaints about serialism that I hear is that the tunes are not hummable - maybe this is just because we're not trained in humming serialist music? After all, it takes a lot of ear training in order to both sight-sing and sing by ear when the music is diatonic. However, I think that Ravel and Prokofiev and Shostakovich (post-Romantic composers) are just as hard to hum as the serialists.

May 16, 2008 at 08:27 PM · How did the Schoenberg concerto play a role in one of Hahn's earlier relationships? I'm curious, because it might affect my interpretation of her playing the piece if I know more of her feelings on it.

And I was really curious in why she chose that piece for recording. I am very glad, personally, I am sick and tired of every violinist and their mother's hamster recording the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, etc. Nice to see a change of pace.

May 17, 2008 at 06:48 AM · maybe ms. hahn did the schoenberg because she recorded all of her mother's hamsters...

May 17, 2008 at 06:52 AM · Charles, interesting points. I had assumed Webern was going even further than Schoenberg, but as you suggested maybe not that consistently throughout his work. I believe I heard or read the notion that Webern was a "better" composer than both Schoenberg and Berg somewhere before. If I ever reach a point where I can truly enjoy Webern, not only find it interesting, I will probably conclude that Schoenberg is just not my cup of tea, not because of the use of 12 tone technique but because of personal taste.

As for atonal/serial music not being hummable, I don't think this is relevant at all. Obviously if you like to hum a tune it means you like the tune itself, but the mere ability to hum it means nothing. I am sure everybody is capable of humming at least one tune that they absolutely despise. Likewise, if you are a musician, you should be able to imitate no matter what sequence of pitches if you hear it several times before, but just because you can hum it doesn't mean you like it.

The only relationship I see is this: pieces that you like, you will listen to more often and the more you listen to something the more familiar it will get and at some point it will be so familiar that you can hum it.

I also don't think Shostakovich et al are more difficult to learn to hum. I adore Shostakovich quartets, I listen to them frequently and I can hum along just as well as I can hum along to Haydn's "The Lark". Like all other memory, it's only a matter of repetition.

May 17, 2008 at 09:38 AM · Benjamin, I think that is correct about people humming what they like, so to speak. You say it is only a matter of repetition in order to be familiar enough with a composition to hum it - I wonder if it differs from composer to composer. That is, do you have to listen to a Berg composition more times than a Mozart composition (that's not fair, because Mozart uses repetition in a different way than Berg, but say just a theme) in order to be able to hum it? Plus, serialists like having all these awkward leaps in their compositions which makes them hard to actually sing, unless you're a trained singer :P.

I went back and listened to the Shostakovich quartets again and found myself thinking about how Shostakovich uses tonality and dissonance - and he mostly seems to use it in order to create mood or contrast from the more traditional language. Thus he uses dissonance essentially for the sake of being dissonant. (That's not exactly what I mean - I mean for the sake of not being consonant). I think that the serialists are *tragically* misunderstood - somebody earlier said something about how he used to listen to dissonant music (I believe it was the rite of spring) for the dissonance, and now he listens to it for the consonance. I think that many people think that Schoenberg writes dissonant music for the sake of being dissonant, but in fact he writes dissonant music for the sake of being consonant!

I've also been reexamining why it is that I'm drawn to serialist music at all, and I think it's probably because I listen to music a bit manically. That is to say, I'll listen strictly to one composer or style for quite awhile, and then one day I'll get totally sick of it and will practically trip over myself trying to listen to something else, as long as it's totally different. Lately I guess I've been tripping over myself trying to get away from traditionally tonal music.

Note: I've been thinking about how to get people to like Schoenberg i.e. stretch their ears far enough to be able to listen to it without thinking "this is boring" over and over again, and I encourage anybody to listen to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (e.g. Art of Fugue, Requiem and the fugal part of Jupiter Symphony, and the late quartets, especially the opening of Grosse Fugue - what can I say, I like fugues :) ) - and by a lot I mean a lot. Then move onto some of Schoenberg's earlier works, which are nice romantic compositions (I believe his transfigured night was already mentioned), and then jump right into the scary serialist stuff. If nothing else, it's a good (v.com prescribed!) excuse to listen to a lot of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven :).

May 17, 2008 at 10:56 AM · "That is, do you have to listen to a Berg composition more times than a Mozart composition (that's not fair, because Mozart uses repetition in a different way than Berg, but say just a theme) in order to be able to hum it?"

Yes, that's quite possible. Basically, Mozart is more predictable, but where does that predictability come from? It comes from years of listening to music which was composed using similar principles. If you found some natives on an isolated island who had no prior exposure to any music whatsoever, it is likely that Mozart would be as unpredictable to them as Berg.

"Thus he [Shostakovich] uses dissonance essentially for the sake of being dissonant. (That's not exactly what I mean - I mean for the sake of not being consonant)."

Yes, I think I know exactly what you mean. I tried to describe this earlier by using "spices" as a metaphor. If you have no spices in your soup at all, it probably tastes flat (=boring). If you have too many spices in your soup, many will find it too spicy. The catch would seem to find the right dose, which hits the right balance between the flavour of the spices and other ingredients.

The same would seem to be the case with consonances and dissonances, too much of either doesn't seem to work so well. Most interesting results are achieved when both are used to create contrast. If the balance is lost one way or the other, contrast suffers. In my view, Shostakovich was a great master at creating these contrasts between consonance and dissonance.

"I think that the serialists are *tragically* misunderstood - somebody earlier said something about how he used to listen to dissonant music (I believe it was the rite of spring) for the dissonance, and now he listens to it for the consonance."

I understood this comment in a different way. I believe what the poster was getting at was the pleasure he derived from listening to the aforementioned unpredictability. Since he didn't know the music at first, the most unpredictable events in there were probably the dissonances and it was those surprises that he enjoyed. But then, after a while, he knew the piece very well and the dissonances were no longer unpredictable and surprising, and once familiar they appear more consonant then before, because what is consonant and what is dissonant is relative.

"Note: I've been thinking about how to get people to like Schoenberg i.e. stretch their ears far enough ..."

The approach you described is exactly what I have been doing, initially by accident, eventually on purpose (as I outlined in my earlier posts). It has opened up a lot of other "difficult" music to me, for example Bartok, Janacek, Martinu, Shostakovich, but Schoenberg continues to escape me. Go figure :-)

May 17, 2008 at 11:46 AM · The original idea of serialism was to create a music wherein no particular notes were any more important than any others. If you like, this was to create an egalitarian state of non-hierarchical tonality.

This would also do away with the old forms of expectation, prediction, and the delivery of what was expected/predicted, because that was all based on the hierarchical nature of tonality, and the twekve tone system was suposed to avoid that.

However, when some of Schoenberg's works were analysed (I can't remember which, or by whom off-hand) it was found that he gave prominence to tritone intervals, semitones and major sevenths, thus skewing the distribution of intervals. You could say he used a form of positive discrimination for the less-used intervals.


May 18, 2008 at 08:34 PM · Here is the Hilary Hahn article.

Anyway, I was just listening to John Cage's Prepared Piano music today while I was working out--Just the sheer scratchiness of how that instrument sounds is enough to make that music as cool as it is. I can't even begin to tell you what the actual music is or what it's comprised of. I really enjoy Bartok's Piano Concertos because those pieces are really focused on rhythm and percussion.

May 19, 2008 at 01:42 AM · Just finished a weekend of concerts that featured music by Brahms, Mozart, Wagner, Del Tredici, and Schoenberg. Two friends of mine attended the concert, neither of them musicians. Guess which piece they enjoyed the most??????

May 19, 2008 at 01:59 AM · Is there any free audio sample of Hilary playing the Schoenberg concerto? She says "give Schoenberg a chance" but that statement makes a false assumption about many people, including myself. I cannot even count how many chances I have given Schoenberg and I still don't like it. So, unlike I, too, am being given a chance, the chance to listen to this first, I consider myself excused not wanting to spend money on yet another Schoenberg CD, which I might not enjoy, like so many times before.

May 19, 2008 at 02:51 AM · @ Marina,

no way!

@ Benjamin,

There's some free samples on both itunes and amazon. I haven't listened to it in its fullblown entirety yet (because I'm a poor student, that's why), but it sounds fairly conservative - for Schoenberg, that is. It's no 'worse' than Bartok. You should listen to it, at least for her Sibelius.

And, btw, Mozart was even better at those contrasts than Shostakovich...:) (No offense to Shosty - I *adore* him). That's interesting, though, your spice analogy. There are people (mostly hotheaded teenagers) who do in fact eat onions or lemons or jalapenos plain - or at least put a lot more in their food than most people do. And then there are also people like 'bland' food. Go figure. I think, though, that if you're hungry enough (or not picky enough) you'll eat any of those types and enjoy them. It is true, obviously, that people are, say, more tuned to musical tastes - the same person will tend to have a far more varied emotional response to different types of music than food - but the fundamental analogy holds. I'm curious: do you listen to Stravinsky?

May 19, 2008 at 04:52 AM · @ Charles

"There's some free samples on both itunes and amazon"

I personally found the 20 second samples on itunes too short for this type of music. Maybe I can convince the staff at Tower Records to put this CD into one of the very few spots on those headphone listening stations they have.

"It's no 'worse' than Bartok."

Haha, I quite enjoy Bartok, in particular his string quartets.

"... btw, Mozart was even better at those contrasts than Shostakovich"

Well, whatever the reason may be, I enjoy Shostakovich to the point that I'd say "can't go wrong with Shostakovich, bring it on" but I couldn't say the same for Mozart, no offense intended :-)

"... And then there are also people [who] like 'bland' food. Go figure."

I guess that's why it's called "taste". Like I said earlier, one can educate, nourish and cultivate one's taste, but there's a point where it comes down to personal preference.

"I'm curious: do you listen to Stravinsky?"

Yes I do, and I enjoy plenty of it very much, though not all of it. However, I admit I didn't like it when I was a youngster, it's one of my *acquired* tastes ;-)

May 19, 2008 at 02:15 PM · To hold my attention music must evoke an emotional response. Sometimes I need to listen repeatedly to get a map of the work in my brain before I can understand it enough to even have an emotional response. The "First Communion of the Virgin" by Messiaen fell into this category for me, but once I had listened enough to be comfortable with his world, it had enormous emotional impact. I had to listen to Straninski's Firebird a few times, but also works by Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, and even the late Beethoven String Quartets all needed some introduction. As I become acquainted with a wider variety of music, I find I become more able to enjoy new works.

Some works I feel are simply academic and not emotional in nature. They result from the "what would I get if I..." It is possible that a composer could start with a mathematical system, for example basing a piece on pi, and come up with something beautiful or atmospheric, but without intentional tweaking, these pieces remain somehow static.

I recently attended a performance by Grey Code, an experimental music group out of Brown University. People covered their ears. Some sneaked out the back door. It was tune-less, tone-less, loud noise, although the drummer was rather mesmerizing. There was no emotional content just physical discomfort. It was a case of gadgetry gone amuck!

This year and last, I have had the chance to watch my son compose, discuss composition with his composition teacher and colleagues, and attend performances of new works. My son's method is always based on some overall plan that he has in his head before anything is written. He sings the lines, plays the chords back and forth, plays the entire phrase making adjustments, plays the entire section, checks that one section follows from another etc.... He will write the melody or the bass line and then fill in with the harmony in one section. Other times he works with the harmony first. He is somehow guided by the way it feels and the way it sounds. Although his work is "new" and not restricted in the way that music in the ages of Bach and Mozart were, it is never random. It is really fascinating to watch the process when he tolerates my presence in his "office". I think my appreciation for new music has grown since I have become acquainted with the process of writing music.

May 19, 2008 at 02:43 PM · Although I have specific likes and dislikes, over the course of my lifetime I've come to respond to the whole range of "classical" music, from Leoninus to John Adams, including Schoenberg, and even, occasionally, Telemann. In the past, there were composers to whom I was particularly resistant. Over time, however, I've found that hearing a single composition that really grabs me by a particular composer to whom I've previously not been sympathetic has awakened in me a broader interest in that composer's music and allowed me to expand my horizons to encompass an appreciation for their music. This has happened for me most recently in the case of Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky and in the past, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Chopin and even, when I was very young, Mozart.

More than any other work, the composition that awakened me to the expressive capacities of Schoenberg (when I was a teenager) was Pierrot Lunaire. I recommend that those who don't like Schoenberg listen to Pierrot Lunaire. It's pre-tone row Schoenberg, when he was writing music in no particular key and not according to any system. Here's an excellent recording by Jan De Gaetani, which is paired with The Book of the Hanging Gardens, another very beautiful and expressive work from the earliest period of atonality.

Give it a try. Listen for the subtle tone colors of the instrumentation, the inflexions of the voice, and the wonderful matching of the music to the bizarre images of the poetic text. And in the Book of the Hanging Gardens, you can experience the sense of being suspended in space

that comes from the absence of a fixed tonality. Try to hear in these works the late-19th century sound world of Brahms and Wagner and Mahler and Richard Strauss, but stripped down to the most essential gestures.

Another work that is on the cusp of atonality but that may be more accessible to those who haven't previously enjoyed Schoenberg is the Second Quartet, which has two movements with soprano. Again a wonderful matching of music to text.

If you can experience the beauty and expressiveness of Schoenberg's style in those earlier compositions, you might find yourself able to appreciate and enjoy some of his later works.

May 19, 2008 at 03:28 PM · "If you can experience the beauty and expressiveness of Schoenberg's style in those earlier compositions, you might find yourself able to appreciate and enjoy some of his later works."

You might, or you might not. For me the approach didn't help. Since I am wondering whether this is about 12 tone technique or about Schoenberg alone, I also listen to Webern as a control group of samples. As I listen more to both, Webern gets more interesting and Schoenberg ever more boring.

Also I know a guy who says he enjoys both Berg and Webern, but not Schoenberg.

To me all this is indication that not liking Schoenberg doesn't necessarily mean bias against 12 tone music or "not getting it". I might well be able to enjoy 12 tone music and still dislike Schoenberg.

The folks who design and develop Logic are great innovators and engineers, not necessarily great musicians. The folks who design and develop Photoshop are great innovators and engineers, not necessarily great digital artists. It is clear that Schoenberg was a great innovator and he certainly deserves credit for that. But that doesn't automatically mean he was also the greatest composer using his technique. As others had pointed out, it is quite possible that he wasn't. Also, there is always a point where it comes down to personal taste.

May 19, 2008 at 04:34 PM · "Some works I feel are simply academic and not emotional in nature."

Brahms would argue that music is not emotional in nature at all. According to history, the Great Divide happened between Brahms and Wagner. Wagner believed that music is the embodiment of sentimentality and emotions, while Brahms believed that music is "absolute" and merely a set of forms, patterns, and compositional techniques. Whatever sentimentality came from the music was given by the performer, not the music itself.

Followers of Wagner's logic were Liszt, Strauss, Mahler and the like.

Followers of Brahms were Schoenberg, Schoenberg, Schoenberg.

Wherever Brahms leads me is where you shall find me.

May 20, 2008 at 07:43 AM · "As I listen more to both, Webern gets more interesting and Schoenberg ever more boring."

This is good - it's funny how a little bit of interest in anything turns into a flood of obsession. And I sympathize strongly with that position that Schoenberg gets more and more boring. I also suspect you may be listening to the wrong pieces...your post made me consider the possibility that Schoenberg's output was (extremely or otherwise) inconsistent. Then again, maybe you're listening to the right pieces and they just don't suit your taste :P.

"Wherever Brahms leads me is where you shall find me. "

Can't argue with that.

Then again, I find myself disagreeing with the idea that some works are not emotional in nature. I am of the belief that most composers ('most' includes Brahms and Schoenberg), no matter how they choose to compose, intend to evoke a viscerally emotional reaction. Thus Brahms and Schoenberg wrote beauty into their music through form and abstraction - either way, though, there is plenty of emotion implicit on the page.

May 20, 2008 at 10:28 AM · "it's funny how a little bit of interest in anything turns into a flood of obsession."

Well, if it was some lesser known composer who isn't considered to have been a pioneer, I would probably have moved on by now, but with Schoenberg there is a kind of underlying assumption that if you get it, it will open the door to understanding the music of those composers who adopted 12 tone technique. And if there is any obsession, then it is the pursuit of music hence undiscovered (to me).

The question in the topic was "why listen to Schoenberg" and my response to that was this assumption that learning to understand and enjoy his music by listening to it from time to time may be the key to discover new music, for example the works of other composers who followed. If so, that would be a good reason to listen to it even if one doesn't seem to derive any instant gratification from it. But, of course the assumption may be wrong. Still, you have to try to find out for yourself.

"Brahms would argue that music is not emotional in nature at all."

I am not sure if there are any quotes of Brahms where he actually said or wrote this, but there is such a quote from Stravinsky. Well, I disagree with Stravinsky (and presumably Brahms) in this regard.

Let's assume they were right. That would mean you could not get any emotion from a Bach piece played from an automated device, such as a Pleyel player piano (for which Stravinsky wrote, oh the irony!) or a MIDI software playing back the notes. Yet, there are quite a few musicians who say that Bach pieces generally work on such devices, that Bach even works as mobile phone ring tones, that his works still carry emotion even in the absence of a human player.

Ok, then, perhaps its not the player but the listener who's generating these emotions and there is probably truth in that as well, but I tend to think that it is a combination of them all, that is, the composition itself, the player(s) and the listener, all of them together contribute to the emotional response. None of them is negligible.

May 23, 2008 at 12:45 PM · Some folks suggested to listen to the Schoenberg violin concerto performed by Hilary Hahn. Tower Records actually had this in one of those listening stations this week, so I didn't have to beg. I listened to the whole piece.

First impression, overall the least repelling 12 tone Schoenberg I have come across so far, although the 2nd movement utterly bored me. I can definitely make out that Hilary plays this very well, but her excellent execution still isn't enough to get me over the composition itself. However, there are some passages in it which I can concede to find at least somewhat interesting. I found the third movement to have most of those somewhat interesting passages. Strange as it may seem though, when I do find a passage to be somewhat interesting, it is for the orchestral part, not the solo part, the solo parts just confused me utterly, I could not find anything in them. Nevertheless, this is more promising than other 12 tone pieces/performances of Schoenberg I have listened to.

So, did this change my mind? Not anywhere near decisively. If I am going to buy this CD, it would have to be for the Sibelius concerto - haven't had the time to listen to that yet, but intend to do so soon.

I have also listened to the album "Neue Wiener Schule: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, String Quartets" today. Yet again, I find the Webern mostly interesting, some passages even likeable, the Berg, too, quite interesting, but the Schoenberg ranges from boring to annoying.

There are some pre-12-tone pieces from both Schoenberg and Webern in this set. Of those, I have to say that I liked the Webern pieces a lot more than the Schoenberg ones. Maybe I just don't like Schoenberg so much, not because of 12 tone technique but because of Schoenberg as a composer. Maybe listening to Schoenberg in order to "learn to like" 12 tone music wasn't such a good idea, maybe it has had the opposite effect, maybe I should listen more to Webern and Berg instead.

May 25, 2008 at 06:20 AM · "There are some pre-12-tone pieces from both Schoenberg and Webern in this set. Of those, I have to say that I liked the Webern pieces a lot more than the Schoenberg ones. Maybe I just don't like Schoenberg so much, not because of 12 tone technique but because of Schoenberg as a composer. Maybe listening to Schoenberg in order to "learn to like" 12 tone music wasn't such a good idea, maybe it has had the opposite effect, maybe I should listen more to Webern and Berg instead."

Good for you!

Let me tell you a story.

For the longest time, I strongly disliked Mozart. I couldn't see why anybody liked him, I thought his music was like a scam. I thought he was boring as hell. I liked Haydn, I liked Dvorak, I liked Bach, I liked Beethoven. I couldn't stand Mozart. It took a lot of listening to and playing inferior music to figure out that he's not so bad. Well, actually to figure out that he's a genius. I suppose you could say that my life is now richer or something now that it has "the magic of Mozart" (if you're an alliteration happy promoter, that is) in it, but the only difference is that I used to not listen to Mozart and now I do.

I think that Schoenberg was ahead of his time - it's a little silly to try to get the masses to accept and to like him right now. Right now, those who like that kind of stuff will find it, and those who don't, won't. In a hundred years, his music will be thrust in everybody's personal space as Mozart is now.

May 28, 2008 at 10:17 AM · Charles, I didn't think that listening to Mozart would in any way help to learn to appreciate contemporary music.

However, listening to Beethoven's late string quartets, in particular the great fugue does help to learn to appreciate music written 100 years later, for example Bartok and Shostakovich string quartets.

Of course neither Bartok nor Shostakovich were pupils of Beethoven, but in terms of string quartet music they picked up string quartet music where Beethoven had left it 100 years prior, anything in between was merely attempts to catch up to Beethoven's late quartets. For this reason, listening to Beethoven's late quartets is a good introduction to quartet music composed 100 years later.

Now, one might be forgiven to try to use this as a general recipe and conclude that listening to Schoenberg will be of help to learn to appreciate music of his pupils and music that picked up where Schoenberg left off. What I had tried to explain was that this appeared to be a reasonable assumption but it didn't work for me in the end.

The example with Mozart doesn't really seem to fit this scenario. To construct a similar scenario that involves Mozart, one would have to involve pupils of his, for example, the Czech Vranitzky brothers. If you listen to the Vranitzkys you will find they sound very much like Mozart. Now if you told me that you liked the Vranitzkys but you couldn't stand Mozart, that would be similarly puzzling as my experience listening to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Likewise I am not so sure about your conclusion that Schoenberg was 100 years ahead of his time and thus I might simply belong to one of the people who don't get his advanced art. It seems to me that this should then also include that I couldn't possibly see anything more in the art of his pupils, but strange as it may seem, I do. And as I had explained, I have run into several other people who have had a similar experience. So, does this mean that Schoenberg's pupils who followed him in his advanced art did not actually understand him either and they missed the point, thus their music is not 100 years ahead? In other words, is Schoenberg's use of 12 tone technique the real thing but the use of 12 tone technique by his pupils is a fake or not as advanced?

May 29, 2008 at 01:46 AM · I like a little of Stravinsky, but I don't seek a lot of it out. I can't stand most atonal stuff, and I know it stamps me as a mutinous scoundrel but I don't really go for Bartok either. Prokofiev and Shostakovich I have time for - at least for some of their work.

I justify this by thinking to myself that western music started to diverge in the 19th and 20th centuries, and branched out into multiple popular channels such as musicals, jazz, film scores, and other popular forms, many of which I like a lot. 'Art' music got sort of creatively marooned (imo), became self-conscious and a bit stressed and strained, and started to explore then-fashionable existentialist philosophical viewpoints culminating in an excessive staring into various odd corners of thought.

In short, it freely explored the weird, and became weird. Many people like weirdness, so there you go. Someone once said that the violin is designed as a tonal/harmonic kind of a gadget. I'm inclined to agree. A flute or a clarinet or a keyboard on the other hand seems, to me, to have more natural scope as an atonal instrument.

This is just my personal opinion, that atonal and some vaguely-tonal and some other forms of 'neo' music is weird. I easily accept that others might consider, for instance, Mozart's music to be weird. Or that 'weird' is paradoxically normal, and therefore not weird at all, according to some points of view. All I'm saying is that music started to change radically at a certain time, when atonality started to become well established in 'art' music. Some like this and some don't. Some like both tonal and atonal music and many shades in-between. As we all know.

May 28, 2008 at 01:02 PM · Interesting topic. A lot of 20C music has always mystified me so when I saw Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century" at my local bookstore I picked it up. I can't say it's made atonal music any more enjoyable for me but it was a very readable introduction to the history of the different musical movements and composers since Strauss. I definitely recommend it.

I definitely echo the earlier post about giving Beethoven's late quartets more listens than I would have Schoenberg. Because of course I know that Beethoven is good, right? Maybe if I pretended that I believed the same about Berg and Webern I'd find find that I like them as well.

June 2, 2008 at 05:54 PM · I used to think that Dutch was an ugly language and couldn't understand people who thought otherwise. I had to learn it - and did it with someone who spoke it not only natively but beautifully (a poet.) I found out that it was indeed a rich and harmonious language.

Try starting with Webern 6 Bagatelles and study them with someone who truly loves them (or the 4 pieces)- you may surprise yourself. After that, Berg concerto, or Webern 5 pieces. I think Schoenberg might be the last stop on your journey, not the first. (as if I had tried to learn Dutch from a physics textbook)

June 2, 2008 at 08:10 PM · Alex Ross the New Yorker music critic is now celebrated for his recent book on 20c music, I also heartily recommend it. Get introduced to the music as you read along.

June 3, 2008 at 03:13 AM · Curious all...

Did you listen to specific classical music as a child and do you find yourself coming back to it? When I was little it was Bartok, Bartok, Bartok on the old record player (that is long ago!) In piano I played Bartok, Bartok, Bartok or so it seemed at the time. My Mom just could not wait for us all to play Bartok! It was her concept of what musicans should study even though she didn't play music. In college I went through a "I hate Bartok" phase and now love Bartok and his contemporaries. In some ways do you think your sensibilities are formed in early life?... or maybe I should say your level of tolerance for certain types of intervals etc. I went to a lot of "experimental" concerts as a kid because my Mom was into "exposing me" to new things, and now have fond memories of on of the original "Moog sythesizer" performances and going out for dinner as a little kid after the show. It was exciting to see this new thing even though I didn't have a clue at the time. Just a guy wearing headphones. I think maybe such memories and home enviroment created an openness to these types of works early on and then they are a part of your life and you have to like them. Just wondering how your early memories are reflected in your current taste. Regards

June 3, 2008 at 02:16 PM · I still listen to a majority of the music I heard as a child. My dad was an organist and my mom taught flute/recorder and specialized in Baroque/Renaissance era music, so I heard lots of that. My sisters liked Motown and the Beatles, so I heard lots of that. I liked listening to soundtracks of musicals and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies. When my own tastes kicked in I gravitated towards rock and heavy metal. I still visit all of those areas regularly in addition to listening to all kinds of new music.

I don't see what's so hard to understand about people liking serial music. If you don't like it and have tried and tried, that's great. I have finally found an ear for Schoenberg, Carter, Berio, Wuorinen, Webern, Zorn, etc. etc. I simply like the way the music sounds. I enjoy those sequences of notes and the timbres and colors they make. I love the new sonic world that each piece introduces to me and makes me expand my expectations and rules of how a piece "should" sound.

June 3, 2008 at 05:51 PM · It just goes to show that music comes in different packages, different colors, different tastes--It's as subjective to human response as food.

Might not like it at the moment, but who's to say what you'll think down the road apiece.

I'm giving Schoenberg another chance because I feel like I sort of owe it to him after letting my palate misinterpret it. ;)

After being wooed by his softer stuff like "Verklarte Nacht" and the early unaccompanied violin music, it makes the direction to the serial period much more understandable. It's like reading the backstory or getting to see the first half of a movie you walked in late on. I really like the solo piano music too.

And as an artist myself, I love that I'm being given yet another pathway to harmonic structure from a whole other side. I'm not even a perfect music theory reader, and I find this enriching.

June 3, 2008 at 08:43 PM · J

When I was little my dad brought me a bunch of classical music tapes. He didn't know one from the other so he just picked up whatever. To this day I love Ravel's La Valse, tchaikovsky piano concerto, Beethoven violin concert (menuhin), and prokofiev violin concerti (Stern) more than I logically comprehend. Hearing those pieces always always always takes me back to sitting on my waterbed in 5th grade listening and singing along.

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