Although there are many excellent points in your article “American Tragedy” (7/12) on American orchestral music in Washington, your alleged composer-cum-music-expert, Steven Mackey of Princeton University, spreads enough disinformation to warrant a few corrections. While it may be true that some of Arnold Schoenberg’s music may be difficult for the general concertgoer to digest, Schoenberg’s atonal music and his 12-tone compositions shouldn’t be dismissed so casually by Mackey as a “blip” in the Western canon. Schoenberg is often a scapegoat when it’s time to find someone to blame for the decrease in attendance at orchestra concerts, but Mackey shouldn’t be so dismissive of Schoenberg’s music.
There is no denying Schoenberg’s genius, and his post-Romantic music represents some of the most beautiful compositions in his catalog. (Check out his string sextet Transfigured Night.) His atonal style, encompassing such masterworks as Pierrot lunaire and Erwartung, broke the mold for composing in the early 20th century. Later, the works he composed using his 12-tone system—his Piano Concerto, Wind Quintet, and the opera Moses und Aron, among others—let his genius shine through at all times. His students Alban Berg and Anton Webern used Schoenberg’s 12-tone method to great success. Berg’s Violin Concerto and his opera Wozzeck are remarkable works, certainly well accepted in the repertoire, and Webern’s slightly altered take on the 12-tone system yielded equally famous and accepted works, such as his Variations for piano solo and his 5 Movements for string quartet. Schoenberg’s compositional techniques were even later adopted by his rival Igor Stravinsky. You can be sure that most, if not all, of the pieces I’ve mentioned are taught in universities around the world in undergraduate and graduate music courses. How can they be a blip?
And let’s clear something up: the “Darmstadt School” is not the school of Schoenberg. Schoenberg, along with Berg and Webern, represent the Second Viennese School. Darmstadt represents the followers of Olivier Messiaen, who worked toward a compositional style of complete serialism; that is, every aspect of the compositional process (dynamics, rhythm, pitch, etc.) was to be controlled by an elaborate preconceived system. The main problem with Schoenberg’s atonal style and his 12-tone method is that there were (and still are) a lot of third-rate composers, with little understanding of how to compose in these styles, writing really bad music and alienating audiences. The backlash caused by this terrible music is neo-Romanticism, which suffers from the same problem: third-rate composers trying to write like the masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in an attempt to please their audiences. That’s why composers like Danielpour get such tepid responses and polite applause.
A poor carpenter should never blame his tools when things don’t turn out right, but that is what Mackey is suggesting. A composer of little talent, given Schoenberg’s “tools” and a decent idea of how to construct a piece of music, is sure to fail miserably with the public. It’s not that Schoenberg’s styles are proprietary; it’s that one needs a hell of a lot of talent to write well in an atonal (or neo-Romantic) style. Audiences can be biased and fickle, but they can also be very astute when they are being fed a subpar product.
And Mackey continues to spout faulty generalizations later in the article, saying that 20th-century music can be divided between those who follow Claude Debussy and those who follow a European model that represents a more strident and severe form of composition. His comment reminds me of a composer seminar I attended once, where Ned Rorem claimed that all Western music could be defined as either French or Italian. In essence, Mackey is propagating this dichotomy. It makes for a neat cocktail conversation, but it’s crap, pure and simple—the music of 20th-century composers is just too complex to fit into these nice little boxes, and I cringe when I think of all the composition students that Mackey is influencing at Princeton.
Next time, find someone who is knowledgeable about composers.
Silver Spring, Md.