Serial Killers


I'd doubt this is near the top of anybody's priority list, but this contrarian article entitled "Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan" has got me madder than a post-op tranny with a protruding adam's apple. Here's a long quote that gives the gist of the argument:

Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.

This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion…

With Beethoven…we leave behind the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and begin the descent into the narcissistic inwardness of Romanticism.

Although subsequent investigations have shown that the "music of the spheres" does not actually exist, my beef isn't with the author's assumption that mathematical perfection is the supreme goal of music. And this article is in general agreement with the current notion that twentieth-century modernism was not so much a revolutionary movement as a continuation of the nineteenth-century romantic cult of the individual. No, what's got my dickie in a flap is the umpteen-millionth gratuitous slam against Arnold Schoenberg. Now I'm not a big Schoenberg fan—but that's just the point: Practically nobody is a big Schoenberg fan. So why is it that the inventor of 12-tone serial music—which nobody listens to, that has been abandoned by history, and that may or may not have dominated classical music academia for a period of less than a decade—gets blamed for everything from ruining classical music to inspiring bureaucratic bloat? (I'll leave aside the slam against Anton Webern, who certainly was a victim of hooliganism—first of the Nazis who hounded him out of public life for his association with Schoenberg's "Jewish" musical style and then of the drunken American soldier who shot and killed him during the postwar occupation.)

Even Pope Benedict XVI has to take a sidelong swipe at poor Schoenberg. In his more celebrated comments about the evils of rock and/or roll, the pontiff also condemned "Modern so-called 'classical' music" that "has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter—and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings."

Schoenberg is the Andres Serrano of classical music complaints, somebody who's only kept around as an example of wretched excess—usually referred to by people who have never seen or heard the original wretchedness. (You can sample some of his super sounds here.) To listen to the complaints, you wouldn't know that in his own lifetime, Schoenberg saw himself as an embattled standard-bearer holding up the true faith of German Romanticism against neoclassical backsliders like Igor Stravinsky and the post-deBussy French school. The mid-century French guys like Francis Poulenc, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, etc., were all occasional enlightenment-style composers whose stuff is neither atonal nor offputting. Listening to them, or to Olivier Messiaen, who lived into the 1990s, you don't hear a peep of 12-tone horror. (Messiaen should have a special place in Il Papa's heart because he not only rejected fads like serialism but was a big Catholic; his opera based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi is so long I don't think even Messiaen ever listened to the whole thing.) But still people refer to serial music as if it's responsible for killing people.

The final unfairness is that serial music was actually a pretty interesting thought experiment that opened up how people think about notes and composition. And it yielded at least one great work: Schoenberg's opera Moses & Aron. That one got a performance at the New York City Opera in the early nineties, and it was pure nitro. So like Mussolini, I say Hands off Schoenberg!