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From: Alistair Hinton, UK

It is good to witness someone else responding to one of Patric Standford's occasional series of 'Provocative Thoughts'; it is especially welcome when the respondent opens with such good sense as Mr Wozniak does in his first sentence and much of the remainder of his first paragraph.

The context in which he places many of the minimalists not only makes good sense but also serves further to illustrate that his view is not merely geared to the overly simplistic and unhelpful 'tonal is good, atonal is bad' school of non-thought.

His assessment of Ives's work in this context may be rather over-optimistic, particularly in the context of its own time. Ives wrote little during his last three decades, the fate of much of what he had written up to the mid-1920s looked to be anything but assured. Ives's present-day reputation is as secure as his work is well known; the current listener's view of him is accordingly very different indeed to that of many of his contemporaries.

The waters begin to be a little muddied when Mr Wozniak invokes Babbitt, Boulez and Wuorinen. Whilst his quotations from them are undoubtedly -- and sadly -- genuine, they tend to demonstrate that one is usually better off listening to a composer's music than to isolated examples of his/her polemics of any given time. How does Babbitt, all of whose music is not as unapproachable as some of his statements have led certain listeners to believe (even Elliott Carter is said to have found some of it 'difficult' at one point!), relate today to his remark quoted here? What might Wuorinen, many of whose works reach greater swathes of listeners than Babbitt's do, make of his statement today? Boulez's remark should be taken in context of others from many years ago, most notably on the desirability of engulfing the world's opera houses in terminal conflagration and the evidently welcome death of Schönberg; since those days, Boulez has conducted numerous operas in several major opera houses and arguably done as much as any conductor to bring the music of Schönberg to the attention of audiences. No -- the sheer fatuity of the three remarks Mr Wozniak cites proves to perfection that you just can't guarantee that a composer will always offer nuggets of wisdom just because he/she is a composer.

Sadly, from this point forward, many of Mr Wozniak's observations trace a most reprehensible deteriorative course.

Calculation is indeed not inspiration, but what is the good (to audiences or anyone else) of the latter without the former? -- and where would the great masses of Palestrina, the fugues of Bach, the quartets of Beethoven, the symphonies of Brahms and Mahler, the operas of Verdi and Wagner, be without their fair share of calculation?

Mr Wozniak redeems himself briefly with the suggestion that 'atonal music is most effective when it is posited, either explicitly or at least implicitly, as a foil to tonality'; it may only be a personal viewpoint, but it is a challenging, intelligent and thought-provoking one which well may be widely echoed. Berg understood this at least as well as Ives did -- and perhaps also earlier -- although, important as Ives was (and let it not be forgotten that Schönberg -- of whom more later -- admired Ives greatly), Mr Wozniak strains credibility beyond reasonable limits in his claim that he was the 20th century's 'greatest composer'.

As I have observed, however, tonality has never 'died'; recognition of this weakens the validity of what Mr Wozniak writes about 'the work of those more recent composers who have resisted abandoning tonality'. It is unrealistic to claim, as Mr Wozniak does later, that composers have only recently 'resisted abandoning tonality' -- as if we have only just emerged from some kind of exclusively atonal Dark Age. In any case, it would be surprising if he really considers the results of recent composers' upholding of tonal language to be somehow superior to those of the many and varied composers who continued to explore tonality throughout the 20th century (such as Bartók, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Prokofiev, Martinu, Shostakovich, the British and American symphonists and literally hundreds of others).

Thereafter, Mr Wozniak continues his headlong plunge to rock bottom. His bizarre joint exemplar of Schönberg and Cage has at least the dubious virtue of affording temporary amusement. Cage's brief period of study with Schönberg proved notably fruitless for both, the older composer branding the younger one 'not a composer but an inventor' and the younger one claiming that the older one disapproved of his efforts because of their lack of desire to ensure any foundation in harmony. This hardly provides a background to justify linking the two men in any kind of unholy alliance, as Mr Wozniak implies. The suggestion that one of the greatest Austrian masters of musical composition does not even deserve the title of 'composer', was a 'mere dabbler in acoustical experimentation' and was responsible 'for expunging serious art music from the consciousness of the public at large' and 'for the life-threatening illness of art music today' is absurd beyond belief.

From here to the end of his response, Mr Wozniak reveals that his principal agenda is to berate and undermine Schönberg at all costs and in every conceivable manner, regardless of facts, reason or true historical perspective. He momentarily lapses back into sense when questioning the 'purported limitations of tonality', but even here he omits to state whether he believes that most composers who prioritise atonality over tonal writing do so only because they perceive such 'limitations'. He paints a picture of Schönberg as a composer whose self-chosen mission was to overthrow his musical past, rather in the manner of Boulez's rant decades later; this is so false as to be almost laughable. Even in his final years, Schönberg proudly continued to cite Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as his models, even retorting to one unsuspecting critic's (largely correct!) description of him as an auto-didact 'I am a pupil of Mozart!'. The influences on the young Schönberg of Wagner's harmonic language and Liszt's thematic and motivic transformatory processes are plain for all to hear. Most significantly of all, the vast (some might say disproportionate) amount of space that Schönberg devoted to his other great hero in his book 'Style and Idea' in the chapter entitled 'Brahms the Progressive' -- a massive central thrust almost analogous to the immense essay 'The Kind of Poetry I Want' in Hugh MacDiarmid's book Lucky Poet -- offers the most powerful argument yet that Schönberg was one of the most tradition-conscious of all the major composers in the first half of the 20th century. Schönberg taught many students during the latter half of his life; I doubt that a single one would claim that he ever wavered in his teaching from promoting the disciplines of his great forebears. Even Boulez's reprehensible article Schönberg est mort was fuelled entirely by vicious rejection of what he saw as Schönberg's backward-looking stance. In sum -- if Schönberg's attitude to the legacies of his musical past amount to the accepted conduct of a 'crackpot egomaniac', then my understanding of that barb clearly does not exist.

Likewise, in his own music Schönberg never consistently 'abandoned' tonality. Admittedly, he was not above making the kind of fatuous statement with which Mr Wozniak credits Babbitt, Boulez and Wuorinen; his classic gaffe here was the claim that he had developed a system of musical composition that would 'ensure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years', a notion which the composer Ronald Stevenson deliciously demolished in his observation that this was a 'strange idea for an Austrian Jew to have'. On the other hand, his equally famous remark that there was still plenty of fine music to be written in C major was not merely sincere but factual in its recognition of the many and varied ways to compositional salvation, not least those which draw on the series of traditions with which he identified and which he sought in so many ways to uphold; one has only to consider the Second Chamber Symphony and Variations for Wind Band to find ample evidence that, even some years after his first serial works, he was not above writing fine and compelling tonal music himself.

Mr Wozniak's final salvo represents the nadir of his diatribe; here, he not only credits Schönberg with 'inventing the 12-tone system' but also claims this 'invention' to be no more than a cynical ploy to make 'his own reputation' rather than 'music'. Let us consider these two issues separately.

Schönberg can at best (or worst, if you will!) be credited with formalising and codifying a serial approach to musical composition. The thought processes that brought him to this were by no means unique; Busoni had given some thought to such a notion, Skryabin and certain of his followers during World War I got rather closer to it and the work of Joseph Matthias Hauer (which will have been known to Schönberg) must also be taken into due consideration. I will openly admit that the music Schönberg wrote within the confines of this 'system' was arguably not his best or most vital -- but then this is part of my point; Schönberg's desire to be considered as a 12-note composer, not a 12-note composer was not only genuinely felt but also reflective of the kind of composer he actually was. Furthermore, it must be said that, by the time Schönberg had begun to work within that 'system', non-tonal expressions of many other kinds had already become well established by means of his own 'free atonal' works, Varèse's pieces from the early 1920s and the music of Matthijs Vermeulen, to cite just a handful of examples.

As to Schönberg's 'reputation', his 12-note serial offerings began only some two-thirds of the way through his life, by which time he had already established a very considerable reputation -- albeit in some cases a controversial one -- with his early songs, the first two quartets, Pelleas und Melisande, Gurrelieder and the First Chamber Symphony (all tonal) and Erwartung (not so tonally based); he had also gained much respect as a teacher and his remarkable prowess as a conductor was certainly reflected in contemporary reviews (the composer Sorabji even going so far as to claim that, had Schönberg opted first and foremost for a conducting career, he would have attracted recognition in that field on a level with Toscanini). The suggestion that Schönberg deliberately espoused 12-note serialism as a mere canny career move is woefully unrepresentative of the reality of his creative development as a whole; in any case, the very fact that the Mr Wozniaks of this world still feel inclined to write of him as they do more than half a century after his death suggest that such a move would hardly have constituted the surest route to universal international acclaim! I suspect, however, that such an idea may well have afforded Schönberg himself a chuckle or three; the portrayer in music of 'Kleine Modernsky' was not, after all, entirely devoid of a sense of humour ...

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Copyright © 10 September 2005 Alistair Hinton & Chad Wozniak, UK&USA


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