I did an interview with a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio yesterday exploring the difficulties being faced by the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  After a thorough dissection of the mistakes that led up to this current mess with both orchestras, and much of the classical music industry thereto, I have come to one undeniable conclusion – it’s Schoenberg’s fault.

Here’s the awful truth – from a layperson’s point of view the music of the Dodecaphonists is just plain ugly. Here’s the first corollary to that truth – that particular conclusion, on the part of the lay public, has not changed in the past 100 years!!!

No matter how you slice it when it comes to our paying public the vast majority of them simply do not like the music of the Second Viennese School.  Frankly, I can’t blame them.  Now before you all start baying at the moon about how I don’t understand this music I’d like to mention that I voluntarily took 3 graduate level classes in 20th Century music theory.  I’m a nerd.  Back in the day I could run tone rows into their retrograde-inversion faster than most people could do simple addition.  I knocked off a basic structural analysis of the first of Berg’s 3 Pieces for Orchestra in under 2 hours.  As I said, I’m a nerd.  But I find this music to be completely soulless and, yes, ugly.  And I’m someone who has an understanding of it.  Imagine how Josephine Average feels.

From the perspective of Ms. Average this music does not seem to speak to most people’s souls.  Whether that’s the fault of the people or the music I shall leave to a different discussion.   But take Le Sacre du Printemps – it’s old hat now and people are excited to hear it.  Bartok?  Do a cycle of the 6 quartets, or program the Concerto for Orchestra,  and the audience will jump to their feet.  Ives? Despite still being a 100 years ahead of his time there’s something…….. enticing…. about his music that people can latch on to.  There are dozens of composers from the last 100 years who started off being viewed as avant garde that today are part of the accepted canon.  Not played as much as Beethoven, certainly, but played and appreciated to the point that their music won’t send audiences screaming to the car park.  But announce that your next season will have a heavy focus on the 2nd Viennese School and watch your subscription renewals drop like a paralyzed falcon.

There is much room for argument here, but I posit that the concept of elitism in classical music really took hold in the late 1940s through 1970s, despite the best efforts of egalitarians like Bernstein. Prior to that time the middle class had firmly embraced classical music.  A large portion of American households had a piano and it was considered de rigueur for everyone who aspired to be middle class (or higher) to have some music education.

Then the postwar era hit, and suddenly classical music was…… ugly.  And very, very unhip, Bernstein & company excepted.  Along came jazz, bebop, rock’n’roll, and the accessibility of these musical forms left classical music in the dust.  Is it a coincidence that during this time the Dodecaphonists ruled the roost, and that if you were a composer going through a college degree program you couldn’t even try to sneak a melody past your doctoral thesis board without being ridiculed?  In the width and breadth of this mighty land the universities and colleges during this era were the bastions of the Dodecaphonists.  All other music, especially anything with a melody, was old fashioned and derivative.  Goodness, as late as 1991 I heard a university professor at USC bemoan the fact that Leonard Bernstein wasted so much time writing music that had, godforbid, jazzy overtones.  His rant was disparaging in the extreme, and to the end of my days it will be one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t immediately walk up to him and kick him squaw in the nuts, pardon my Swahili.

Every time there is a crisis involving an orchestra you can bet the local newspaper mentions something about how elitist classical music is.  Unfortunately, some of that may be correct.  But a lot of it isn’t.  Indeed, amongst musicians I have found precious little racism, sexism, or outright bigotry.  There have been particular instances (we are human), but in general musicians don’t care much.  Personally, the only thing I care about is: can you play your axe?!?!  Past that it wouldn’t bother me if you were some godless 3 eyed mutant from Mars.  Just play in tune and in time, fergodsakes, and please at least pretend to look at me when I give a downbeat.

But our paying public is different.  One of the main reasons why they perceive us as being elitist is that they don’t understand how in the world we do what we do. For them playing a violin is alchemy! Give them a violin and it would be a miracle on the level of the loaves and fishes if one in ten even held it the right way.  Then, starting in 1945, for at least two full generations those few Joe and Josephine Averages who actually were interested in classical music were constantly subjected to music that they just …….. loathed.  There is no other way to put it.  Of course, whenever they objected to hearing it they were told “Well, you obviously just don’t understand!  (Sniff!!!).”  And we wonder why the public views classical music as elitist?

Full disclosure – I do on rare occassion run into people who claim to be huge fans of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and their proponents.  I am always surprised and mystified when this happens, but it does happen.  Obviously these people find something in the music that the rest of us fail to grasp a hold of.  Either that or they are completely deluding themselves.  Once again – discussion for another day.  None-the-less, they are a very, very, very small (and vocal) minority of the audience I deal with regularly.

Second corollary to the truth mentioned at the beginning of this post – Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Josephine Average are the people who pay our bills, and if we are intent on alienating them by programming music that makes them want to look up and emulate the art of Seppuku, then sooner or later said alienation is going to come home to roost.  Or, more likely, that time is right now, in the form of the continuing paralyzing disaster that seems to have encompased a good chunk of the orchestral industry, characterized by the distinct ambivalence of the middle class to the fate of orchestras throughout this country.

Me, I’m going to go listen to some King Crimson.  Much more interesting than the 2nd Viennese school ….. and better lyrics.


33 thoughts on “IT’S SCHOENBERG’S FAULT!”

  1. At the risk of being “elitist” I’ll be happy to be one of the few who really needs Schoenberg to feel I have a complete musical-emotional vocabulary. You still have to listen to Beethoven, but by the time you are really starting to understand Brahms you need to make that next step into Schoenberg.

  2. Huh? There is no “truth” to what you say. It is all a matter of conditioned taste. When most pop still follows early 19th century classical song structure/harmony and the 20th composers you mention actually do deploy tone row techniques (Read George Perle’s Twelve Tone Tonality and I believe Bartok’s 4th String Quartet as well as footnotes about Sacre’s use of tone row technique) or use quotation to offer a latchkey for listeners (eg Ives) then your knowledge is not as impressive or as deep. It seems you dove into the deep end for a while, practiced your sturdy breast stroke, came out and after a few dips you decided it wasn’t for you.

    People’s listening habits are conditioned much by the ambient sound they hear and with 19th century song structures being beaten into their heads everyday, it may be a little stretch to get SOME purely serial music. BUT Schoenberg himself grew less and less strict with his technique there have been gorgeous music written in this method. Check Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, Phantasie for Violin and Piano, the 3rd string quartet. Seeger wrote a fantastic string quartet building upon the serial technique.

    With your logic, you could put the blame on any composer or method – what would happen if Frescobaldi, the experiments of CPE Bach, and large scale choral works of Gesualdo were programmed solely (performed in their original form or as orchestral arrangements)? I doubt they’d attract the critical mass of ticket sales to have on almost every other concert as is done with Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, etc…

    The problem may be that programmers and performers have to be blamed for creating a mausoleum of music from 1750 – 1950 (with the musics after 1911 diminishing and focusing on the composers you mentioned). And the other reason is how we educate people – music education in grammar schools is non-existent so people have rather untrained ears anyway. Why do you think so many universities have to dumb down their aural and theoretical skills courses?

    Now one point – as your experience relates knowing a method and body of music does not mean you will like it and run to hear it. But it does change how you listen – and my other question is have you done aural training in free tonal music? There are books out there – check Lars Edlund’s freetonal melodies for singing. I digress, my main point is you cannot blame a method or broadly accuse a composer with as diverse an output as Schoenberg for an orchestra’s problems. Possibly one of the many reasons is there is no need for all the live orchestras when you can get better and better renditions from a computer or refer to stellar performances on I-tunes. Another may be is programmers and performers fail to adapt to the timbres and sound possibilities some composers are exploring by transferring the timbres and intonations found in commercial music and electronic over to the orchestra.

    In the meantime, I hope I read far more logical and erudite music criticism from you in the future than this opinion paper.

    • Conditioned taste? My taste is as well conditioned as anyone else’s, it works out in the mind gym every concert I perform or rehearsal I attend or score I study and conduct. Early Schoenberg, love it. Music with no soul, no matter who writes it? I can do without it. And yes, I get to decide for me. You know who I liked in the 70’s? George Crumb! At least the sonorities were meant to be evocative and even pleasing…ON PURPOSE. By compositional intention. My kind of contemporary art leader.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to outline your background so that we know that the idiotic assertions weren’t being made from a mere layperson, so these are very qualified idiotic assertions. Besides being a pointless attempt at fabricating a reason of the death of classical music, it is a moot one, much like blaming a slow down in rickshaw production to the prevalence of horse drawn carriages.

    The first fallacy is that orchestras rarely play or program the works of the second Viennese school. Joseph Straus has already proven this and if you rifle through programs of major orchestras and concert venues over the years, as he did, and you are earnest, you’ll discover that the music you site has definitely not dominated the concert programs.

    Contrary to much of what you maintain, I have many students who hear the works of these composers and are really impressed and engrossed. Try and tell me that t the Mets productions of Lulu or Wozzeck aren’t well attended and received? Are you telling us that there aren’t tunes or melody in the works of these composers? Schoenberg’s piano concerto or Berg’s violin concerto don’t have a tunes?

    And how many of these fleeing droves would recognize a work by Schoenberg or Webern?
    Truly a bewildering and poorly written, nearly irresponsible article.

    New Music concerts are a niche market, and I can tell you with certainty that there are also a fair number of life-long committed musicians who withdraw from attending concerts because they are rife with works by the dreadfully predictable and flaccidly inspired works by many of today’s Darlings. So there are as many people avoiding the type of concert about which you are fantasizing.

    It seems more that you are just letting us all know that you do not like the music of the composers you mentioned. Thanks for your opinion, but to claim that these composers whose works are nearly never played are the culprits is ridiculous. It is a dead argument, but even still, your opinions are quite thinly supported. All you’ve given us is that you are musically trained, but not very smart, that you dislike the music of the second Viennese school and that you have the least hip and outdated taste in pop as as proof that your argument is sound.

  4. Sorry, but this is just bizarre. The vast, _vast_ majority of twentieth-century and contemporary music played by orchestras in the US and Canada has far less to do with the more abstruse aspects of the Second Viennese School than it does, to use your own examples, Stravinsky, Bartok, Bernstein, and, yes, King Crimson.

    I find myself not quite sure if what you write here is your actual opinion, or that of a hypothetical orchestra-goer who may not have heard much, if any, contemporary orchestral music (or chamber music, where the same tendencies are in the ascendant, though to a slightly less dominant degree than in orchestral music).

    Whether you like the music of “Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern” (and for a professional musician to lump those three together is pretty surprising in itself), the fact is that it is pretty much totally irrelevant to what any orchestral musician or audience member is likely to encounter. You may celebrate or rue that fact, but it’s a fact, and makes this whole post seem like it’s coming from an alternate universe.

  5. Continuing to place blame on revolutionary composers for the economic state of our symphony orchestras is the most complacent, unresearched, and predictable response you can muster? Perhaps if we address the issue of arts funding being cut, school music programs being cut, and anti-intellectualism running rampent in 21st century America, then we can start to understand why large, financially unsustainable orchestras are having difficulty during the worst economic disaster since the first have of the 20th century. You’re answering the wrong question.

  6. You need MORE than a PhD to say that it’s Schoenberg’s fault. Sir, your career may have been successful, but you need to stop writing such posts. If you are a music director of a symphony, good for you. Now I don’t have a respect for your orchestra whatsoever, and I don’t think that any professional musicians should openly condemn a composer, unless you’re like Stravinsky (which was not nice of him either, though). While praising a composer doesn’t make you look so bad, condemning is a risky thing. Have a responsibility as a music director please. Your words can affect the image of your orchestra.

  7. I doubt Robert Fripp would agree with you. From Fripp’s online diary (which you can access at the DGMLive! website):

    Saturday, 28th November 1998
    04.53 Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet is playing behind me […] When I was twenty, not long before turning twenty-one, and listening (consecutively / simultaneously) to Sergeant Pepper, Stravinsky, Hendrix, Bartok, Clapton with Mayall, I heard one musician in many bodies, singing / playing with one voice, in one language with many dialects. This was the perception / insight / experience which took me from the world of the about-to-be-becoming partner in estate agency, soon to set off to London to study for a degree in Estate Management, and instead sent me into as fine a liberal education as I might conceive: that of the working (and aspirant) musician.

  8. In 1913, Pierre Monteaux premiered “Le Sacre de Printemps.” In 1944, Kousevitsky premiered the Concerto for Orchestra. Some conductor/music director had to be the first to program Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten and every other “modern” composer currently in high rotation at professional orchestra concerts. I hope you choose to become one of these honorable stewards of classical music someday. As it stands, you seem capable, but unwilling, to seek out the best of atonal music to share with your patrons. Granted, there is a lot of bad new music out there, but hasn’t that always been true? Whose job is it to sort through all of the “un-melodic” music and find the next Debussy if not yours?

  9. Can second Viennese school composers be hard for audiences, especially on a first hearing? Yes. Even after a hundred years? Absolutely. Are they responsible for the problems facing orchestras right now? Hardly. I think others posts above outline the numerous problems with this article; that it’s answering the wrong problem, that arts education has greatly decreased over the decades in this country, and that orchestras have a lot of non-Viennese school related checkbook problems all by themselves, to name a few. But I will point out that one should not conflate Classical music with orchestral music, a habit which seems more and more ingrained to the point that one automatically thinks of one as equal to the other. They’re not.

  10. It boggles my mind that somebody with your level of experience and education could write something so unintelligent. I’m not talking about your opinions, I’m talking about your writing style. This is not a well thought out critique of modern music, but rather an extremely jaded, condescending and incoherent rambling chock full of logical fallacies and indefensible assertions. But I guess there always has and always will be people who refuse to progress like yourself.

  11. Well the music of Shoenberg, Webern and Berg is now 100 years old – and rarely played at that. Even Boulez and the post-war atonal crowd are 50 and 60 years in the past. You’re gonna lay the body on that doorstep? And no mention of minimalism – the form that restored tonality to serious music – also rarely heard.

    I have a different theory – with all due respect: Prima donna conductors who want to be the last word in the interpretation of Beethoven and the other usual 50 suspects we always hear at the symphony. It’s the 21st century! When is the symphony gonna start to be relevant again?

    • god, i could not agree more. stop with the next Beethoven set, please, and go exploring. when i did Martinu’s fabulous 1st symphony @ Carnegie Hall less than 2 months ago it was the first time it had been played in New York since 1953! And that’s MARTINU!!! not exactly the most outrageously challenging music ever, but tremendous. there is a LOT of great music out there. have the guts to program it.

  12. I think that the main point you are getting at is that fact that the elitism in classical music is what is in fact destroying the industry still today and it happened to begin in the same time frame as the Second Viennese School, not necessarily that the decline of classical music is Schoenberg’s fault. I noticed that a lot of people are being very critical towards this post (and I’m reading your response next!) but I think it’s because they are jumping towards the wrong conclusion about what you’re saying.

    With this in mind, your point on the musicians not actually being elitist is an important fact here. Forcing the belief onto that someone does not like a piece of music because they don’t understand it is the completely wrong thing to do. The listeners that do this are the people keeping classical music in an elitist culture. One thing my post-tonal theory professor told us that stuck with me is that the fact that a piece of music is 12-tone is the least interesting thing about it. People are entitled to feel however they want about music and it is no one’s place to tell them that they are wrong because of their thoughts on what they heard.

    In my opinion, however, it is the people who are more “educated” about music to program in a way that allows the listener to take it in in their own unbiased way. Of course Berg’s Three Pieces will not be received well when programmed next Beethoven 3, and it is the job of the “educated” to realize this and program knowledgeably and effectively. This being said, people are still entitled to feel however they want about the music but at least hearing it without having other’s opinions forced onto them should be the standard at concerts in order to help break down this barrier.

      • yeah, isn’t that nice? that a random visitor would summarize your own point for you? And think about it, people who are Classical fans are minority ANYWAY. Talk to 100 college students today. How many can tell the difference between Bach and Beethoven? Just focus on your orchestra, you don’t have to perform any music that you don’t like. It’s THAT simple. Perhaps, you might invite Justin Bieber as your guest performer. If you care that much about money, you’re in the wrong business. You thought your music degree would bring you WEALTH? WHAT? Anyway, you focus on your own orchestra. Let other people perform whatever they want to. Your logic simply fails.

  13. As I see it…
    During the majority of our “classical music” history there was little distinction between popular and art music. Bach, Vivaldi, etc., wrote dance suites, Handel wrote theater, Mozart wrote a lot of party music and everyone from Beethoven to Rimsky-Korsakov filled their music with folk and pop references. Dvorak made an entire career out of presenting reworked pop music. People like to hear what is actually pertinent to their lives. Classical composers took folk and pop elements and “put a bow tie” on them- raised them to the level of high art. Looking at concert programs from the 1800’s, one sees much that we would call “pops concert” music. The audiences were hearing contemporary folk music presented in a high art form, it was their folk music, and they were hearing new music all the time. Starting around 1910 or so, composers seemed to abandon people’s music and went their own way. The result was an estrangement between the audience and the artist. The music that was accessible to the public was becoming farther and farther removed from their own experiences and times and they, understandably, felt less in common with it. Art does not work in a vacuum. The audience needs a direct connection with it. Audiences respond well to the works of Edgar Meyer, the music of the Silk Road Project, and the like. As a professional violinist I love Webern and Berg but I understand that the average audience will be left scratching their heads at such music. I’m aware that many of today’s standard pieces were vilified at their premieres, but that they soon became accepted into the repertoire. Audiences want what touches them today, not just the ideas from 150 years ago. Unfortunately, much of the music from the 20th century does not seem to touch people and the music that does touch people is becoming less and less relevant to their current sensibilities.

  14. “Full disclosure – I do on rare occassion run into people who claim to be huge fans of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and their proponents. I am always surprised and mystified when this happens, but it does happen. Obviously these people find something in the music that the rest of us fail to grasp a hold of.”

    Similarly, I know people who actually WANT more buttons on their remote control than they have, because they get off on playing with the things. I know people who purposely install Ubuntu on their laptops because they like playing around with OSs. I know people who still would rather build their computer from the motherboard out.

    They’re just geeks.

    I know FAR MORE people who are angered when they have to keep seven kinds of cables straight just to print a boarding pass, who resent inadvertently signalling alien spaceships when they try to change the channel on their TV, and who actually prefer iPhones and iPads because they have NO BUTTONS ON THEM AT ALL.

    The R&D-happy geeks are always in the minority. The problem with classical music is that the R&D geeks have been in charge of the store for far too long. I’m not at all an Apple bigot who worships Steve Jobs; the guy was as much a soulless corporate bastard as Bill Gates, no doubt. But he knew what people wanted from a device. The world of classical composition badly needs a musical Steve Jobs to smack some sense into them to get them to stop designing their junk for early adopters who get off on that stuff. Just like we want computers that JUST WORK, we also overwhelmingly want music that just says what it’s trying to say.

    BTW — you want to find out what average schmoes think of Bach and Beethoven? Go to YouTube and see how many kids with used Fenders are covering their stuff. It’s not a few. the number of people who play that Cello Suite Prelude on everything from pedal steel guitars to electric basses to ukuleles will more than convince you that your average person loves that stuff. Find one kid with a fretless bass who covers anything by Alban Berg. You can’t.

    It’s refreshing to find someone who finally says this. Yes, modern composition is elitist — you’re either a geek who wants to immerse yourself in the OS manual for the whole morning, or you’re an idiot. Look to the world of technology, and you’ll have seen this argument already. Geeks loved their pet computers that no one else could use, and most ordinary people loved Macs. Geeks derided Macs for decades as fit only for mere girls and old people.

    The best part though, is that the ordinary folks won that argument. Most personal devices nowdays have no buttons whatsoever on them, and don’t even need an owner’s manual. Your iPhone practically tells you how to use it when you look at it. And the geeks now act like it was their idea all along.

    Eventually, they’ll rediscover melody and act like they saw it coming, too.

  15. I recently conducted an experiment with my 5th grade general music class. I played them recordings of two Piano Concertos: one by Bartok, and the other by Schoenberg. While they were listening, I had them draw a picture inspired by each piece. Then I had them RATE each piece, on a scale from 1-5. OVERWHELMINGLY, THEY PREFERRED SCHOENBERG.
    Later, outside of class, I told one of the kids that the composer of the second piece (Schoenberg), was one of the most controversial composers of the last hundred years, and that many people think his stuff “isn’t even music.” He gave me this really confused look, then shrugged and said, “I dunno. I thought it was pretty cool.”
    I have found that if you play a GOOD recording of any of Schoenberg’s String Quartets, his Piano Concerto, his Suite for Seven Instruments, or his Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus, people will like it as much as almost any other 20th century composer unless you TELL THEM it’s Schoenberg.

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