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Driven to Express Himself

A closer look at the often-misunderstood Arnold Schoenberg reveals a composer yearning to be heard.

October 21, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Reminiscing about life with father, two sons of Arnold Schoenberg recently had a few lively things to say about growing up with a famous composer. At an early event in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's current season-long Schoenberg investigation, they recalled a family drive in the summer of 1948 on Highway 1 past Santa Claus Lane.

In the back seat, the kids--Ronald and Lawrence and their sister, Nuria--clamored to stop. Schoenberg did, and at a juice bar there, playing over the radio, was his early tone poem, "Transfigured Night." That, said Lawrence, was the highlight of the old man's summer. In fact, air time so delighted the composer that he gave Lawrence a dime for every Schoenberg piece the boy found in the weekly radio listings.

The notion that Schoenberg liked to be liked by a mass audience will no doubt surprise his detractors. No one can deny the extraordinary impact Schoenberg had on the music of the 20th century. He was the dominant force in attempting to subdue the power that tonality had exerted on Western music for 300 years.

He liberated dissonance and then went on to create a new form of organizing the pitches of the scale--the 12-tone system--that ultimately inspired the ultra-complex, mathematically inclined avant-garde music that came after World War II. For that, Schoenberg has been personally blamed for modern music losing its audience in the 20th century.

Yet those who are drawn to Schoenberg's music don't just admire it, they really love it. The list of Schoenberg's champions includes many of the greatest musicians of the century, from Wilhelm Furtwngler to Simon Rattle and James Levine, from Glenn Gould to Alfred Brendel and the Juilliard String Quartet. Leopold Stokowski wrote in 1937 that Schoenberg stands alone: "In the evolution of occidental music there never has been a musician of similar character and gifts." Earlier this month, Esa-Pekka Salonen told a Los Angeles Philharmonic audience that he sings Schoenberg in the shower.

Despite all the great musicians devoted to Schoenberg and for all the influence he exerted on the development of music in the 20th century, there seemed little doubt that by the end of it, popular taste had rejected him outright. When the critical votes were taken for the 20th century's greatest composer, Schoenberg was an also-ran, in the company of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. The century's more savvy innovator, Stravinsky, was triumphant.

By 2000, the Stravinsky literature was massive and brilliant, but we are still stuck with only one inadequate and out-of-date major Schoenberg biography. Stravinsky won Grammys (three for a Michael Tilson Thomas-San Francisco Symphony set); Schoenberg didn't even get nominated. Large-scale Stravinsky festivals popped up seemingly spontaneously coast to coast.

As further proof of Schoenberg's rejection, both USC and UCLA, where Schoenberg taught after immigrating to America, betrayed him. USC sent its archive of his papers packing, and UCLA sold the naming rights to Schoenberg Hall to a pop music executive.

But Schoenberg's downward spiral may be short-lived. A wave of protests forced UCLA to restore Schoenberg's name to its music hall. With lavish government support, USC's former Schoenberg Institute now thrives in Vienna as it never did in Los Angeles. And possibly in reaction to Stravinsky saturation, the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg's death in 1951 has inspired new attention to his work. The Berlin Festival in September included a large-scale survey; the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony and Chicago Symphony have all paid recent attention to Schoenberg. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Schoenberg Prism" (see sidebar) has been designed to include the participation of various performing groups and institutions around town and to host several symposiums.

Indeed, Schoenberg's time may finally have come. His music has an enormous amount to say to us. When it takes on extramusical themes, they are the big ones--love, madness, murder, good and evil, God, our ties with the past and quest for the modern. When it doesn't deal with such themes, it is abstract music pure as Bach and as emotionally expressive as any ever written.

Schoenberg himself is an equally big subject. He was an exceptional musical pedagogue whose legacy lives on in famous students--from Alban Berg and Anton Webern in Vienna to John Cage and David Raksin in Los Angeles. He held them all to his own enormously high standards, and those standards have become a model for artistic commitment and moral integrity. Susan McClary, the noted musicologist, has called him "one of the most heroic figures in Western art at any time."

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