15 November 2009

Musical footnote

Atonal music has its admirers and its detractors, but I suppose both groups consider Arnold Schoenberg the towering eminence of serialism (which isn't to imply that I could recognize it if I heard it). Tone deaf as I am, what always grab my attention about musicians are the more dramatic biographical details: for example, Schoenberg's wife's affair with a 25-year-old expressionist painter that resulted in her lover setting fire to his paintings and stabbing then hanging himself when she returned to her husband and two children. And this was in the first decade of the twentieth century, not usually thought of as a period of fullblown romanticism. In the will he wrote at the time, Schoenberg's own approach was far more modern, if not exactly minimalist:

[The will] begins with a long explanation of his painfully accumulated self-knowledge. The argument is tortured: "My wife betrayed and lied to the person she thought I was. He was her creation . . . she never saw me, and I never saw her . . . perhaps she never existed at all."

If he says so.... Schoenberg could on occasion, however, rise to irony as well as existential angst:

Schoenberg, too, preferred to consider his music as the product of historical inevitability. Asked to identify himself during the first world war, he gave his name. "Are you the notorious composer Arnold Schoenberg?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied, "somebody had to be."


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