This is Schoenberg for people who fear Schoenberg

This is Schoenberg for people who fear Schoenberg


norman lebrecht

June 23, 2015

A US orchestral manager told me the other day that nothing chills the box-office in 2015 like Arnold Schoenberg’s name on the programme. More than a century after his first notoriety, Schoenberg is fixed in the public mind as a kind of musical emetic, a foul-tasting medicine you take to cure a bad digestion.

It doesn’t have to be like that. My Album of the Week on is not exactly Schoenberg for Dummies, but the kind of thing you could take a bank manager along to without fear of default.

Click here and all will be clear.

arnold-schoenberg smoking

You know it’s good for you.


  • Novagerio says:

    Verklärte Nacht – Pelleas und Melisande – Gurrelieder – ” a foul-tasting medicine you take to cure a bad digestion?….

  • Halldor says:

    The problem is not that Schoenberg didn’t write beautiful, expressive and approachable music; it’s – as you say – the name. It’s absolutely toxic. You can programme Gurrelieder, Verklaerte Nacht or Pellas und Melisande till you’re blue in the face: they will stay away in droves. The music itself has nothing to do with it. I once half-seriously thought of billing some on a concert programme as unknown early Mahler just to get it played.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That seems like an excellent idea.

      As for audience’s unwillingness to be musically offended, the legendary Sol Hurok explained: ‘If people don’t want to come to the concert, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.’

  • James McCarty says:

    Reminds me of an old Rodrigues cartoon in Stereo Review from back in the ’60s.

    A guy is walking past a record store when he sees a sign in the window:


  • John Borstlap says:

    Schoenberg’s early music up till and including his ‘free atonal period’ demonstrates how he could have developed, picking-up tradition again in the twenties like Stravinsky did, and then spicing it with Viennese chromaticism. Alas, he invented the twelve-tone-system and from that moment onwards, much went wrong.

    Indeed in Gurrelieder there are many great beauties. Unfortunately, the score is overblown with totally unnecessary musicians. He could have done it with a regular size orchestra. At too many places, the many doublings turn the music into fat, indulgent emotionalism.

    • Halldor says:

      See also: Mahler (G), Strauss (R)…

    • Boring Fileclerk says:

      Actually, I believe that Josef Matthias Hauer invented the twelve tone method of composition at least a year or two before Schoenberg. Sadly he is no longer remembered in the concert halls. His compositions where things of pure and rare beauty.

      • John Borstlap says:

        They were (are?) acoustical objects, and meant as such, not music. Hence the contradicion in Schoenberg’s system where he tried to get both the ‘objective acoustical event’ and ‘music’ in terms of rhetoric and thematic development.

  • Michael Endres says:

    I have a slight suspicion that it also has to do with the way his music was or is sometimes performed.
    An example of this would be Opus 11 played by Eduard Steuermann.
    If played in this highly expressive, cantabile manner the music speaks and is very approachable. But if its performed in a more clinical approach it is a much more tough diet.
    A similar case:
    Webern’s fiendishly austere Variations Opus 27 become a different piece when one looks into the copy with all the interpretatory suggestions by Webern ( written down in Peter Stadlens copy, which is actually available as a facsimile form UE ).
    One can see Webern wanted above everything else a singing and expressive sound ( sometimes he writes into the copy ”always bring out top voice “(!) ,”rush”, “slow down” etc ).
    Stadlen had worked the Variations with Webern and premiered it.
    No “analytical” playing, but highly personal, expressive and free playing seems what Webern had envisaged.
    The highlight every detail of the extremely intricate construction was –like in an Ockeghem mass– not the prime purpose.
    Its a long shot from some of today’s versions of these pieces.

    • John Borstlap says:

      After WW II Webern was ‘discovered’ by the young generation of composers who thought the music was deliciously sterile and with all the romanticism of the past deleted, so perfectly suited to the urge to begin anew and break as much as possible with prewar aesthetics. Thus, an entirely wrong notion of this music got established.

      Still, W’s scores include often quite ridiculous instructions, like one single eight note ppp with added remark: ‘molto espressivo, wie ein Hauch’. He wanted to get expression into a texture which does not give room to it, as if there are two different layers: that of the text and that of the expressive intention. I think W’s best works are the ones before his dodecaphical settlement because there, a unity between expression and texture is still experienced aurally – however nihilistic and alienated – but it works.

      • Michael Endres says:

        What’s wrong with ppp and “molto espressivo” and a single eight note ?
        I once heard Gidon Kremer performing as an encore a short piece from Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, and there were many such notes, barely audible and extremely expressive.
        The hall ( Berliner Philharmonie ) was so quiet you could have heard a needle drop,
        “Wie ein Hauch” indeed.

        This claim that everything Schoenberg and Webern wrote before the dodecaphonic phase is sort of acceptable, after that the music fails I cannot subscribe to.
        But rather soulless performances of these works have certainly not helped, as this music is not only highly organised but also extreme in its expressive demands.

        The misunderstanding of Webern et al after WW2 is regrettable, it seems to me the agenda was driven by theory and political issues rather than a halfway objective search for facts.
        But that’s nothing new.
        Gerhard Henscheid wrote in his his delightfully funny and sarcastic “Kulturgeschichte der Missverstaendnisse” ( History of cultural misunderstandings ) : “Missverstanden wurde praktisch Alles !”.( Practically everything has been misunderstood .)
        Hence we still get told that Bach’s Art of the Fugue has been written for no specific instrument, the Meistersinger are nationalistic, Peer Gynt is a sort of North Polar event and Liszt a salon composer.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A single note ppp ‘molto espr’ exists at the very limits of musical expression, it is impossible to ‘go further’, it is the ‘hauch’ before one dies. Webern then organized these death seufzers in a strictly organized system and in such context the expressive effect dissappears. Music happens between the extremes of such almost nothingness and Strauss’ tutti chord with organ at the beginning of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’…. You cannot have an average of extremes.

        • william osborne says:

          There is one well-known occasion when Liszt wrote a piece for one of the salons of Felix Mendelssohn. As reported by one of the guests, Liszt showed up in a Hungarian costume described as “wild and magnificent.” He told Mendelssohn he had written something special for him. With a lot of swaying and extroversion, he played a Hungarian melody with variations. All were duly impressed at the hero of the day.

          The guests then asked Mendelssohn to play but he demurred because he had not been practicing. Liszt insisted, so Mendelssohn sat at the piano and played Lizst’s Hungarian melody and then his own variations, even imitating Liszt’s extroverted movements. According to the witness who wrote about the event, Liszt laughed and applauded, and admitted that no one, not he himself, could have performed such a bravura…

          • Michael Endres says:

            Nice story, haven’t heard of it, but as a very devoted Mendelssohnian ( Check the Oehms Label in September for a new set of the 48 LoW Nice story, haven’t heard of it, but as a very devoted Mendelssohnian ( Check the Oehms Label in September for a new set of the 48 LoW ) I am delighted to read that !

            But during his long life Liszt,unlike Mendelssohn, experimented continuously, and not only in pianistic terms,where he –together with Chopin — revolutionised piano playing.
            His main achievement seems to me the further development of the sonata form after Beethoven in his b-minor sonata and a continuous development away from tonality.
            E.g. the thematic material of his Faust-Symphony –consisting of 4 chromatically arranged augmented chords — is one of the first ‘dodecaphonic ‘ themes in music history,not in a strict sense of course, but the effect is destabilising tonality .
            There are numerous stunning examples of his late style that reach far into the 20th century, here are some examples :
   ( at 3.12 tonality is finally smashed to pieces, and the piece ends ‘open’, no more conciliation with a central key ).

          • Michael Endres says:

            PS Sorry about the muddled beginning, something went wrong here.

          • william osborne says:

            Thanks for these links. Truly fascinating music. In Mendelssohn’s “Reisebriefe” (page 315,) he includes a letter to his sister Fanny dated December 28, 1831, in which he wrote that “Liszt was the most dilettantic of all dilettantes. He played everything from memory, but with the wrong harmonies.”

            At the time, Liszt was only 20, and this was 51 years before the composition of “Unstern” and other late works in which he pushed against tonality. There’s probably no connection, but it makes me wonder if Liszt was already exploring elements of atonality or polytonality even as a young man.

  • Randy Schoenberg says:

    Why don’t you name the anonymous orchestra manager? This is just the same insidious bias/fear of the managers that has existed for decades. Where’s the proof? No doubt this manager programs all sorts of audience-killing music, without giving it a second thought.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Because, you will surely understand Randy, it was a confidential conversation.

      • Halldor says:

        I could name you five or six orchestra managers who’ve said similar things. But there’s not much point because this isn’t about a cabal of philistine grey-suited managers (boo! hiss!) suppressing Schoenberg’s music: it’s simply an honest statement of a measurable fact, and a real concern for anyone whose job is to make sure that their musicians continue receive their pay-cheques. Most would love to programme the Second Viennese School; but there is only so much money that any arts organisation can afford to pour down the plughole.

        Remember this?

        That came at the end of 8 months of attempting to sell this beautiful work without apology. The end result was still, as I recall, an audience of around 400 – in a 2100 seat hall, in a city of 5 million people.

        • MacroV says:

          Something must be different in the UK. American orchestras play Gurrelieder from time to time; if they don’t it might have as much to do with the high cost of putting it on as with the deterrent effect of Schonberg’s name on the program.

          And you can go on the Digital Concert Hall and see a very healthy and enthusiastic crowd when Sir Simon last conducted it in Berlin.

          And for all the talk of box-office poison, Schonberg seems to get played a decent amount by orchestras. Opera companies even do Moses und Aron on occasion.

          • Halldor says:

            It’s perfectly possible to programme audience-deterrent repertoire; the loss simply has to be factored into the budget. WNO’s recent, superb, Moses und Aron played to quarter-full houses but was underwritten by substantial donations.

            The fact that, even given the financial risk, these works do get played fairly regularly should in itself serve as proof that managers as well as artists are willing to stick their necks out for something that is artistically worthwhile.

      • Randy Schoenberg says:

        If the anonymous orchestra manager said he wouldn’t program a composer because he/she was gay or black or whatever, would you also refuse to disclose the name? Why pretend this is a rational bias, when it isn’t?

        • Randy Schoenberg says:

          I could provide plenty of anecdotes too, but where are the actual studies? They don’t exist. The managers program what they think they can sell, but they aren’t rocket scientists and mostly have no clue what can and cannot be sold. It’s all a guess. But safer to guess with the conventional wisdom than against it. So they all opt not to program what they think won’t sell. And because they don’t program it, audiences don’t hear it, making it harder and harder to program, etc.
          I am on the board of LA Opera and I am still hearing complaints about the cost of the Ring cycle, even though the company spent/lost as much on plenty of other operas (including Puccini and Mozart) in the same time period. As another anecdote, the NY City Opera production of Moses und Aron had about 90% attendance, higher than the company average, and yet the chairman of the company later railer against Schoenberg. See It’s all about bias, and not at all about the facts and figures of the music business.

  • Kaznowski says:

    ==I think W’s best works are the ones before his dodecaphical settlement

    Completely agree with John. Am thinking of those little ‘Twilight-Zone’ types pieces : Opus 6 + 10 sets of pieces for orchestra, Opus 11 for cello, those bagatelles for string quartet.

    Compared to these little gems, AW’s final piece – the 2nd Cantata – sounds very dull

  • PDQ.BACH says:

    Edward Greenfield, many years ago, recommended Schoenberg’s rousing military piece “Die Eiserne Brigade” (1916) as a gateway drug for Schoenbergophobes. He may have been only half-joking, although you never know with Greenfield.

    I’d like to see an experiment: announce it as a work by John Williams, gauge the reaction of the audience, then tell half the audience the true composer and ask them again.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Some years ago, a matinee concert programmed some episodes from Monteverdi operas but it was marketed as Mantovani, and indeed it was a full hall.

  • suzanne says:

    I love all phases of Schoenberg’s composing. Funny that Picasso doesn’t get pigeonholed into cubism the same way Schoenberg gets labeled – and too often rejected for – 12tonal music. Am looking forward to hearing his beautiful song cycle Buch der hängenden Gärten (15 Stefan George poems) this weekend.

    • Joel Levine says:

      If you encounter a Picasso work (or any painting, sculpture, etc) and don’t like it,
      you can walk on and look at something else. In the concert hall, you’re stuck for the duration of the piece. I don’t like holding my audience hostage.

  • John says:

    Unfortunately, Schoenberg will probably always be box office poison, and that even goes for his early works. For the time being, at least, he’ll continue to be a niche taste among more knowledgeable listeners who want to hear his music, particularly the middle and later works.

    As I’ve gotten older, I have become much more interested in the later works. I went to school where his brother-in-law was on the faculty (Rudolf Kolisch), and so always held a special place in my listening world for this music, and that of his Second Viennese School colleagues. For many, it’s not easy music to know. And as Leonard Bernstein once observed about Bach, loving it means knowing it.

  • MacroV says:

    The review is kind of obvious: Gurrelieder is wonderfully listenable, and orchestras that avoid it (or Pelleas, or Verklarte Nacht) out of box-office fear are really just showing that they are incompetent at marketing – and think their audiences are stupid.

    And even the more less tonal Schoenberg can work if smartly presented; Simon Rattle did a great “2nd Viennese School Symphony” of sorts with a combination of Schoenberg’s 5 Pieces, Webern’s Six Pieces, and Berg’s 3 Pieces. At the Proms, no less. Watch it on the DCH.

  • william osborne says:

    In the next six months Berlin, Madrid, and Paris will all see performances of “Moses and Aaron.”

    • william osborne says:

      That should be one “A” in Aron. Apparently Schoenberg was superstitious about the number 13 and Moses and Aaron has 13 letters.

      • John Borstlap says:

        In the end, Schoenberg was killed by numbers, because dying on the 13th and he knew it. There is no thirtheenth note in dodecaphony.

  • Una says:

    Not in England! We love Gurrelieder and Verklärte Nacht. They both bring in audiences here. Wonderful recording of a Janet Baker and Alexander Young on EMI from many years ago, and they were hardly 20th century music specialists. Just wonderful. Schoenberg is now old hat and last century for us here.

  • pooroperaman says:

    I once stopped a group of students from going to Les Miserables by pointing out that the music was by Schonberg.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Schoenberg SHOULD have written the music for les Miserables…. no composer could express misery as well as Schoenberg.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    It’s as good to witness yet another recording of the glorious Gurrelieder hitting the shelves as it is perplexing to note the evident perception that Schönberg continues to retain his box-office poison status even almost 65 years after his death.

    Norman – whilst much of what you write about the work’s history in your Sinfini piece is correct (the work was originally intended for a competition run by the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein) – and whilst Mahler’s friendship with, support for and influence on Schönberg was a vital sustenance for the younger composer – Gurrelieder had been pretty much fully composed (in terms of its form, design and content) by around 1903 before Mahler had even begun his Sixth Symphony, let alone his Eighth. When Schönberg abandoned work on Gurrelieder at this stage, it remained only to be fully orchestrated (a mammoth task, to be sure and undertaken several years later, as you say). I think it would therefore be fairer to say that, whilst Mahler’s Eighth Symphony could well have exerted influence over the orchestration of Gurrelieder (most especially its Part 3), the die of Gurrelieder’s scale and ambition had been cast by 1903, some seven years before the première of Mahler’s penultimate completed symphony.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Both works suffer from elephantiasis, in an attempt to outdo Wagner, who began this inflation craze.

  • Michael Endres says:

    @William Osborne
    Of course Liszt was a visionary already in early stages of his career and it is a regrettable fact that Mendelssohn did not seem to be aware of this or refused to acknowledge it.
    One amazing example is the first version of “Harmonies poetics et religieuses” from 1834.
    A feverishly intense work written down without any bar lines (!) and an unstable tonality.
    From that early piece on Liszt gradually eroded tonality step by step,
    the late works only being a logical consequence.

    Apart from all that: his best works are deep and visionary, a particular favourite of mine
    the noble “Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude”, here played by one of Liszt’s most profound interpreters : Claudio Arrau. Some transitions in this work are anticipating impressionism, written in 1847. ( e.g. from 3.32 , 7.12 or 15.30 on ).

    • John Borstlap says:

      At the end of his life, Liszt was questioned by a student what he thought about ‘the future of music’, upon which Liszt turned sombre, and said that he thought that tonality and the distinction between consonant and dissonant woud disappear, and that ‘this’ would be entirely acceptable – and then he played a cluster on the piano with all twelve notes together. Also in one of Jules Verne’s novels, a startling prediction can be found: in one hundred years (from ca. 1860 onwards) society will be highly technical and life so much easier because of it, and humanity can do wonders, but art will have died, and music will consists of mere noise, like someone banging with his under-arm loudly on the piano (exactly as in Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke). The domestic scene which is quite instructive in this context brings us to old Wagner and old Liszt, living together for a short period in the same palace on a Venice lagune, Wagner working on his Parsifal downstairs and Liszt on his ‘late pieces’ on the 1st floor, the sound of which greatly irritated Wagner who told his wife (Liszt’s daughter): ‘Your father is going senile and I have to listen to it!’

  • Glenn Hardy says:

    Great topic and great discussion thread! And a complete absence of acrimony. Thanks to all who shared their insights and experiences.