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ARNOLD SCHOENBERG'S JOURNEY, By Allen Shawn, Farrar, Straus & Giroux:, 272 pp., $26

January 20, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI

Why would anyone pick up Allen Shawn's "Arnold Schoenberg's Journey"? Schoenberg's rep has become that of the surgeon who replaced the heart of music with a mathematical machine called "the 12-tone row" and, worse still, the pagan who assassinated key structure and replaced it with the godless relativism of atonality, in which every pitch is just as important as every other.

With the joy of the boy who fell in love with Schoenberg when he was a 13-year-old piano student, Shawn claims that the music of Schoenberg, in fact, is "no more 'difficult' than the work of other early-twentieth-century modernists such as Kandinsky, Eliot, Kafka, or Joyce, for whom even the general public has a feeling of affection, of receptivity, of the kind of trust that one accords great art in which there is much that one simply doesn't grasp--at first or perhaps even ever."

While one might wonder in which of America's shopping malls one might find this "general public" with a crush on Kandinsky (although T.S. Eliot perhaps deserves a star in the pavement as the original lyricist for "Cats"), the 50-year scope of Schoenberg's work--from his 1899 romantic "Verklarte Nacht" through the "orgiastically beautiful evening-length" "Gurrelieder," the remarkable cycle of words and music that make up his "Pierrot Lunaire" through his 1947 unabashedly 12-tone Piano Concert--is a Baedeker of European classical music from Brahms to Boulez.

Schoenberg's own personal journey, although well-documented, is fascinating. A secular Jew born into the cultural mecca of Vienna, Schoenberg was in all senses a self-made man with a contrarian streak that discouraged any who might want to help make him. He taught himself composition. At age 25, he converted to Lutheranism. Then in Paris, 35 years later, in the wake of the rise of Adolf Hitler, he converted back to Judaism, with Marc Chagall at his right hand holding the tallis. He eventually found a haven teaching in America, not among the ivies but beneath the palms of Los Angeles.

Yet what is left of Schoenberg 50 years after his death? Tonality is as rampant as kudzu in contemporary conservatories. The revolution that shocked audiences is passe, if even remembered. It is not Shawn's goal to answer that question. He describes his book as neither a biography nor a musical study "but rather a linked series of visits to points of interest in Schoenberg's life--'soundings,' if you will." Not entirely facetiously, Shawn declares his intention to give Schoenberg's work "a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received."

And Shawn's is certainly not the magisterial examination of Charles Rosen's 1975 critical biography or the careful consideration of Robert Craft's essays that championed Schoenberg and his arch-rival Igor Stravinsky. Nor does it advance our knowledge of Schoenberg beyond what Walter Frisch compiled in his 1999 collection, "Schoenberg and His World."

Shawn takes an eclectic approach, sometimes using Schoenberg's painting (from self-portraits, landscapes and somewhat fantastical abstract canvases that Schoenberg painted between 1906 and 1912) as a guide to the music, sometimes sugaring the book with anecdotes of his own relationship as a listener and a teacher of the composer's works. Even so, Shawn feels the necessity, fairly frequently, of injecting arguments that need the illustration of written music--and therefore require not only musical literacy on the part of the reader but a handy piano.

Still, Shawn, a composer and teacher, writes with an enthusiasm for the music of words, a passion he evidently inhaled as a child of the New Yorker's longtime editor William Shawn and continues to breathe as the husband of writer Jamaica Kincaid. If Shawn's exhalations lead readers to put down the book and put on a CD of Schoenberg's opera "Moses und Aron," the maestro could hardly complain.


Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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