Saturday, January 26, 2013

Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19

In 1911, before composing Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg wrote some tiny pieces for piano. Entitled Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19, they take only five minutes to play. Like crystallized fragments of music, I have always found them to be fascinating in their mystery. How were they written? What do they mean? I used to play them on guitar and they were featured in my debut program at Wigmore Hall in London many years ago.

Here is a fascinating clip of the Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19 with the original manuscript:

Musicians today seek a larger and larger audience; Schoenberg went in precisely the opposite direction. Here is a summary of a recent story about a current musical group. The headline was "Taking Aim at the Mainstream"
Indie-rock duo Tegan and Sara are trying to punch through a glass ceiling with an album of unabashed musical hooks intended to pull in a bigger audience.
Schoenberg was taking aim at the future by focusing his musical efforts on capturing the loyalty of a small group of cognoscenti. What went wrong? Perhaps it was his attitude. The "indie-rock duo" started out with idiosyncratic music and built up a small audience of fans. Now they are writing more pop-oriented stuff ("musical hooks") that should attract a larger audience. Schoenberg instead, confronted with unruly audiences that greeted his brand of new music with derision, founded the Society for Private Musical Performances which you had to join to attend. No applause was permitted and critics were not allowed entry! Call it a kind of anti-marketing. There were only a few hundred members of the society, most of them professional musicians. I have to say that the notion is appealing. In fact, an organization I am presently on the board of, presents a season of mostly chamber music every year and while the public is invited to attend, it is mostly supported by patrons who make substantial contributions. It is the kind of model that can support classical music during these difficult times.

But in the early 20th century, when the mainstream of classical music was hugely popular, it was only music by the notorious Schoenberg that needed special conditions for its performance. Nowadays, it seems all of classical music is in the same boat.

I haven't said much about those pieces, op 19, but apart from doing a cold-blooded analysis, I'm not sure what to say. They have an otherworldly charm, I find.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think profit-making is what has killed modern music. It's created a fatal cleavage between music-as-commodity (Lady Gaga, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc.) and music-as-intellectual-pursuit (Schoenberg, Babbitt, etc.) This divorce is lethal because music must be in the world and of the world. Bach is the supreme example of this: his music was highly educated and based on practices (in the Heideggerian sense of the word).
What I mean here is that Bach was the most highly trained musician in Europe (whereas Lady Gaga is uneducated) but his art targeted specific practices of the people (dances, court rituals, liturgical hymns, funerals, weddings, etc). Bach's imagination was grounded in the wide spectrum of societal needs. Schoenberg and his ilk are crippled because they have only the educated part. Their music is disconnected from practices of the world. These practices are as crucial as gas in your car. They fuel your art. Then your education and genius can use that fuel to take you where you want to go. But practices are what gives you imagination. (Even the ancient Greeks had understood that.) Which is why I find modern composers so sterile: they have all the chops except the most important one, which is imagination.

And the reason is, I believe, the Anglo-American mode of artistic production. On that point, Adorno was right (even though he was wrong on so many other things).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for these very astute observations! How many blogs have commentors who are well-read in both Heidegger and Adorno? I think that I agree with nearly everything you are saying. By 'practices' I think you are referring to what I call the semantic aspect of music or the content as opposed to the form.

But isn't there a third alternative other than music-as-commodity and music-as-intellectual-pursuit? Everything I write seeks to be an aesthetic creation, with aspects of feeling. And I think that early Schoenberg was something like that too--before he developed his system. In the music of Alban Berg, I think we find some of the practices you mention. Though not, I think in the music of Anton Webern.