Schönberg & the bloody fist of Modernism

29 January, 2008

John Keillor recently praised Schönberg (Schoenberg, Schonberg) in the National Post. He is certainly a Schönberg Man: “Today, Schoenberg’s genius … is questionable only to insincere people.” (Which means: ‘if you say Schönberg wasn’t a genius, you’re a liar!’ No, I know he really means ‘you don’t truly appreciate Art, certainly not in the socio-cultural-philosophical-political-universal way I do’) “A century of avant-garde music was thus born. Academics and connoisseurs really appreciated the results….” Note peculiar use of adjective “really”.

Basically, Keillor propounds the Modernist party line: Year Zero; Progress towards Utopia; Historical Inevitability. These are the implicit and sometimes explicit assumptions of all threads of Modernism. You might also recognise them as the principles of the various monstrous, murderous Communist goverments and revolutionary groups of the 20th century. That’s right: Communism was a Modernist project (Fascism was too, but in a more cryptic way – “Forward, to the Glorious Past!”).

The similarities, in the areas of politics, social policies, the Humanities, architecture and the arts (sorry, the Arts), are undeniable. “We must progress.” “We need a new way forward.” “The old ways are not merely antiquated but actually Bad.” “Innovation is the supreme virtue.” “The blueprint for the future requires the eradication of the past.” “The New Way is Historically Inevitable (as proved by pseudo-scientific gobbledegook).” “Those who deny the New Way are not merely mistaken, or deluded by sentiment – they are Reactionary, they are Bad, they are Anathema.” “The artifacts and methods of the past must be eradicated.” “Reactionaries are to be cast out, derided, belittled, attacked at every opportunity.” Etc.

Thus realism in painting, for instance, was deemed not merely old-fashioned, but UNACCEPTABLE. Russian peasants who accumulate some wealth were designated CLASS TRAITORS. And yes, composers who didn’t take on board Schönberg’s blueprint for inevitable progress, or at least pay obeisance to the tenets of Modernism as above, were mocked by the academic in-crowd and denied performance opportunities. (“Any musician who has not experienced … the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.” Pierre Boulez)

Of course, the Modernist composers didn’t get played much either. An abstract painting can still have desirable properties of colour and form, but truly abstract music (by abstract I mean removed from tradition and the human world) is just noise, which people prefer to avoid. And since the Modernist clique didn’t have the power to force attendance (unlike the good old USSR), they had to settle for monopolising what funds were available from the public purse, and blocking the Reactionaries at every opportunity.

Now tonality is back (a bit), and the Modernists are fighting a rear-guard action.

Part II

Where is classical music today (or, as some call it, “art music” or “serious music” – but that’s a rant for another day)?

Like most people, I don’t give a damn about contemporary classical music. It’s well known that certain famous musicians hate the stuff, but play it in order to garner kudos. Gorecki’s 3rd symphony was a bit of a hit, but really it’s a slight piece overinflated by its Important themes, and not much of an advance from the East Europe wrist-slitting school, except a bit more glowingly cheerful. Not worth much attention. John Adams? Pah! There are other names too, but – whatever. It’s all fairly unmemorable, uninteresting stuff.

Now I know that the previous centuries also saw a huge amount of banal music composed, which has since been winnowed by posterity. Nonetheless, banality seems to be universally abundant at this point. I think this is due to a hangover of fear from the period of Modernist ascendancy. Composers are still desperately ashamed of the sin of melodism, strange if you realise that all the Greats were melodists of high ability.

How have composers, critics and administrators been trapped in a drab ghetto by the anxiety of influence? Do they ever listen to their many CDs of “old” music and exclaim, “Why don’t we have anything that good?” It’s a peculiar situation, and the solution comes in two parts.

1. Postmodernism

Aaargh! How I hate to use the ‘M’ word! Nonetheless, it is useful in this context. The simple issue is this: Why is it important for composers to write “contemporary” music?

Composers of previous centuries tended to write in a style identifiable by period, and, as this style evolved both gradually and sporadically, composers seemed to naturally, unconsciously keep up. This was partly due to cross-influences, fashion, technology and audiences, but chiefly because there was nothing but contemporary music. Music in public life was ephemeral (apart from some church music), and when it went out of favour, it went out of earshot. Composers had resort to ancient crumbling scores (Brahms was a noted antiquarian but actually only collected a few composers), but the most accessible music was recent. Only in the second half of the 19th century did older music begin to see performance in concert, and this depended on the local bandmaster, and was hardly wide-ranging or consistent.

But now pretty much all the best music of the past 500 years is available to us on CD. Every day someone listens to a Beethoven symphony (for example) for the first time, and is blown away. Contemporary composers should be competing against all this. It would be a tough but worthwhile endeavour. But instead they have taken the coward’s way out by insisting that only recent, comparatively mediocre music is a valid influence and point of comparison. I don’t see the current situation improving much until it’s acceptable for a composer to claim his chief influences as, for example, Handel and Dvorak.

Bach, Beethoven, Liszt and Ligeti are all my contemporaries now!

2. Restore the influence of folk and pop



4 Responses to “Schönberg & the bloody fist of Modernism”

  1. keillor Says:

    Did you even read my article, tough guy?

    When you spell Schoenberg’s name with an umlaut like that, you’re undoing a spelling change that Schoenberg made to spite the Nazis who ran him out of his native country. Though I don’t get the impression historical context means much on this site.

    You just wanna fight, don’t ya?

  2. eyeresist Says:


    “Take that, Hitler!” Presumably you send a lot of angry letters to the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna.

    What a crank.

  3. keillor Says:

    No, but I almost got a job there, long time ago.

  4. eyeresist Says:

    Must… not… take… bait!

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