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Blue Self-Portrait, by Arnold Schoenberg, circa 1910. Courtesy the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Blue Self-Portrait, by Arnold Schoenberg, circa 1910. Courtesy the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

The Lexicon of Musical Invective may be the only music reference book compiled mainly out of spite. Edited by the composer and conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, it’s a selection of hatchet jobs culled from the classical music press of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of the pleasure of the Lexicon is the simple fun of reading a takedown—more fun still because ad hominem insults were once a fixture of music criticism. But by emphasizing “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgments,” Slonimsky was also trying to make a point about society’s reluctance to accept new music, and about the time it takes the human ear to grow accustomed to new sounds (roughly a generation, he thought). Thus we read early reviews complaining that Wagner wrote the “music of a demented eunuch”; that the overture to Fidelio is “incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting.”

Though not the longest entry in Slonimsky’s Schimpflexikon, Arnold Schoenberg’s is, pound for pound, probably the meanest—and the most entertaining. Schoenberg’s atonal compositions are “hideous, without vitality, and signifying nothing that matters,” says one typical observer. Other reviews claim the work is reminiscent of “feeding-time at the zoo,” “a lecture on the fourth dimension delivered in Chinese,” and “a farmyard in great activity while pigs are being ringed and geese strangled.” Even the well-wishes are barbed: “So a Merry Christmas to Mr. Schoenberg,” one critic writes, “a merrier one than he enjoyed before writing this score.” (Not that Schoenberg should have cared. “Art,” he once said, “is from the outset naturally not for the people.”)

After the Second World War, Slonimsky’s generational maxim seemed to have been proven right: atonal music and its high-modernist serialist variants had spread across the globe (anyone who had not absorbed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, Pierre Boulez said, was “USELESS”). Or, at any rate, they had spread to institutions across the globe—becoming firmly ensconced in the academy. Audiences never quite came around, and by the Seventies tonality had begun to creep back into the limelight, marking the beginning of an age in which the world of contemporary composition would become increasingly varied and fractured.

Those wondering how all this turned out for Schoenberg will find a clue in the somewhat depressing subtitle of Harvey Sachs’s lucid new book, Schoenberg: Why He Matters (Liveright, $29.95). “Now that atonality and the twelve-tone technique (and its offshoots) have been with us for a century,” Sachs writes, “we may safely say that they have proved to be dead ends for most listeners and for many—perhaps even most—professional performing musicians as well.” While contemporary critics fretted that Schoenberg’s work would become the music of the future, Sachs’s book asks to what degree it will survive at all.

“Whale and Boat,” by Cara Barer © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

“Whale and Boat,” by Cara Barer © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

In a survey of seven major orchestras, Sachs counts only a handful of performances of work “by the man who may well have been the most discussed and influential composer of the twentieth century.” Add to this the persistent notion that Schoenberg single-handedly destroyed the future of music, as well as the basic difficulty of so much as remembering a melody from any of his works—let alone learning one of them—and the concern begins to seem more than a tendentious hook.

Neither an argued thesis nor a full biography drawn from fresh archival research, Sachs’s book is a succinct guide to Schoenberg’s life and work, one designed in part to make the composer’s music accessible to a wider audience. Much of the book’s appeal lies in that implicit promise to help find the beauty hidden in what can seem, to the uninitiated, a writhing mass of noise. Sachs is neither a hater nor a glassy-eyed enthusiast—not guilty of what Virgil Thomson once called “music-appreciation,” by which “music is neither taught nor defined. It is preached.” Instead, Sachs is, as he puts it, “a writer and music historian who is Schoenberg-curious.”

So he avoids the high-handedness and sanctimony one sometimes comes across in works by devotees—the implication that anyone with half a brain or a whiff of artistic integrity would immediately understand the appeal of work that sounds at times like (and, in at least one case, probably was) a musical depiction of a nervous breakdown. He freely admits that some of Schoenberg’s early works seem to him “emotionally (and instrumentally) overblown,” that “some of his attempts at depicting psychological or philosophical concepts in his large, atonal musical canvases seem wrongheaded.” Of the abstruse libretto to the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter, Sachs writes, “Comprehension of German may be more a hindrance than a help.”

Twelve-tone selection dial. Courtesy the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Twelve-tone selection dial. Courtesy the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

This is not to say that he doesn’t admire the music—he does. And there’s real pleasure to be found in the way Sachs writes about it. He clearly describes, for instance, the genius of the way in which Schoenberg composes the voice of God in his opera Moses und Aron, which Sachs calls a nearly ideal vehicle for twelve-tone music (although not, he gamely adds, “for reasons that Schoenberg would necessarily have considered desirable or even valid”). Schoenberg creates the sound of divinity by using an entire chorus—one made up of all vocal ranges, from bass to soprano, and including a boys’ choir—which “intones a weirdly mysterious mix of cross-rhythms and dodecaphonic sound plus Sprechgesang à la Pierrot Lunaire.” The effect is perfectly eerie.

The book’s biographical passages tend to drag, and feel at times like padding, but Sachs does what he sets out to do. And as for how to get there—how to come to understand the music on its own terms—the simple answer is through careful and repeated listening. After all, Schoenberg’s system introduced a completely new sound world—it’s only natural that it would take time to grow accustomed to it.

Returning to Pierrot Lunaire as I read, I found for the first time that I was able to hear some of the delicacy and clarity for which its admirers have long loved it. The heart of the book is clearly distilled by its epigraph, drawn from one of Schoenberg’s letters: “You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.”

For all Schoenberg’s pronouncements about the artist being at odds with society, he still wanted his work to be widely heard. “I . . . wish nothing more ardently,” he wrote to a conductor, “than that people would look upon me as a better version of Tchaikovsky—a little better, for God’s sake, but that is really all I ask for.” It’s hard to imagine how he envisioned this coming about. Film scoring might have done it, but his flirtation with Hollywood in 1936 ended in complete disaster. Salka Viertel remembered it as a case of Schoenberg’s uncompromising artistic integrity: When MGM boss Irving Thalberg offered Schoenberg $25,000 to compose the score for The Good Earth, Schoenberg counteroffered by demanding complete creative control of the film, including the dialogue, which he specified would have to be delivered in the same pitch and key as the music he composed. He also wanted $50,000. (In the end, the sound department punched up some music based on Chinese folk tunes that a technical adviser brought in.) It’s a neat story, but it omits the fact that Schoenberg went so far as to produce some musical sketches for the film—one of which was in the key of C.

Noon, by Sarah Lubin © The artist. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery

Noon, by Sarah Lubin © The artist. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery

Though Schoenberg longed for recognition, he wanted it on his own terms. The writer and independent filmmaker Henry Bean, faced with a similar dilemma, found what seems a much more sensible solution than a lifetime of angst and resentment. Explaining to an interviewer why he left literary fiction for filmmaking, Bean said he saw that the market for his first and only novel, published in 1982, was around ten thousand people. “I didn’t just want to be talking only to those people. When I thought about movies,” he continued, “the movies I thought about were much bigger and more open and addressed more people but in many ways had the same concerns.” Though he’s gone on to a successful career in film, it’s no insult to that work to say that the recent reissue of Bean’s novel, The Nenoquich (McNally Editions, $18), makes one wish he had kept writing books. It is a mature work, a novel about people coming to terms with the end of the collective mania of Berkeley in the Sixties as much as it is about sex and violence. It’s mordant, dark, and funny, written with an eye for the telling detail, through which an entire personality unfurls itself before our eyes, fully formed. It is disturbing and unsettling in the way of great writing. It even has a plot.

It is 1970, and our narrator, Harold Raab, living in Berkeley among the embers of the radical movement, decides to have an affair with a woman he’s never met. Twenty-six years old, he has recently quit his job, and writes diligently each morning in his notebook, which constitutes the novel we read.

Harold lives with roommates: There’s Shaw, who the first time Harold met him was “in a pose like the discus thrower’s but more extreme, and in his hand instead of a discus was a dark green bottle with a burning rag in its mouth,” but who now loafs around the apartment, sometimes reading abstruse theory (“You and Shaw are what’s left of the leisure poor, Harold,” a friend remarks). There’s also Donna, a burgeoning jazz pianist who thought Shaw was trying to pick her up one night and, when she realized he wasn’t, stayed; and Jimmy Wax, a film editor whose mother writes often to urge him to reconsider medical school. They pool their money and take turns cooking, watching old Lee Marvin movies and talking into the night. You can hear the collective “Okay, now what?”

The answer, for Harold, comes in the form of a snatch of overheard conversation between Jimmy and his girlfriend. “Well, she’s mad about him, isn’t she? At least in the physical sense.” Recording the moment in his journal, he remarks on the peculiar shudder it produced in him:

The very flesh of the word “physical” (the rough texture of the opening consonants sliding through the narrow vowel to the fricative surface of the S, and from there through the second vowel, narrower still, until the whole word bursts in the calm pool of the final syllable) seemed for a moment the purest expression I had ever heard of a love that was indistinguishable from sexual desire. I felt myself grow hot and tight. I wanted someone, but for what?

Though the what takes time to reveal itself, the someone, we learn, is Charlotte Cobin, the young wife of a young doctor, both bronzed and beautiful. “They’re kind of marvelous looking if you like Californians,” a friend tells Harold as he gradually accumulates information about her, his obsession deepening. But in fact, she enters his notebook even before she enters his life. Before he’s so much as learned her name, he writes in his journal: “The woman is not his type. She is too tall, too young, too cheerful, too frank. . . . He is as much offended by the woman as attracted to her.” His very words seem to conjure her into being.

It’s a disturbing enough premise, somewhere at the nexus of Highsmith, Nabokov, and Sentimental Education, but the grimness of it is leavened by Harold’s charm. He’s funny and beguiling, as when he worms his way into a dinner party where he knows he’ll find Charlotte. Here he is sizing up her husband, Joshua:

He was one of those gentle giants who evidently began lifting weights at the first whiff of puberty and kept at it straight through until he emerged from adolescence diligent, patient and credulous, a believer in cause and effect (in that order), in short, a medical student.

Joshua seems to be onto him, and as the conversation takes on an edge, Harold allows himself the pleasure of some aggressively obnoxious riffing: “ ‘You see, evening,’ I said, gesturing at the window, ‘was invented for the working class, but it turns out the rest of us need it just as much.’ ” And then, to the reader, “What does it mean to be an asshole? It means you can’t stop.”

Charlotte is charmed all the same, and after a few false starts, things progress. She still believes in “the great ideologies of the sixties,” and Harold gives her “the whole big pitch, Christ in the wilderness, Zarathustra on the mountain.” But the relationship is also a physical one. “Is fucking enough?” Harold wonders at one point. “Could you make a religion out of it? Or a career?” The answer, in short, is no, though not for lack of trying:

We have virginal fucks; betrayal fucks; deadly, insect fucks; the slow, swooning fucks of mythical birds, fucks that flush the brain; Marxist fucks; baseball fucks; winter fucks; Tuesday fucks; Proustian fucks; fucks standing between drying sheets in the cold March sunshine; love fucks; banana fucks; farewell fucks; Mathilde de la Môle fucking El Greco fucks; sweet summer corn fucks; and this is only the beginning, or the middle, and fucking but a single phase of the moon.

However likable an asshole he may be, as the book goes on his act of predation becomes gradually more horrifying, and the existential angst—the sheer extent of his self-loathing—increases to levels that may not be to everyone’s taste. (Schoenberg would not be out of place in some of the later scenes.) It culminates in an ending that verges on the Grand Guignol— the ruin of Charlotte’s life and, arguably, Harold’s.

Complaints notwithstanding, the book is remarkable. It manages an acute realism even as the artifice of Harold’s notebook—the way that his entries seem at times to give rise to the action of the book as much as to depict it—functions as a meta-commentary on “the disease of narrative.” It will be particularly useful to young writers wondering how to capture the weft and warp of a deeply political time—to portray characters with political convictions—without writing a pat political novel, or abandoning psychological complexity, thematic ambition, form, and humor.

Speaking of Grand Guignol, I should at least nod to a mass market mystery made for summer reading: Independence Square (Simon & Schuster, $26.99), by Martin Cruz Smith, the tenth book in the series that began some forty years ago with Gorky Park. This latest entry finds long-suffering Moscow detective Arkady Renko in June 2021, in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, aging and slowing down—early signs of Parkinson’s, from which Smith also suffers—and relegated to a desk job. So when a muscled Russian hood asks him to find his daughter, a violinist and dissident gone missing, he figures he has nothing better to do. But then an acquaintance is discovered facedown on a chessboard, the back of his head gone. The bodies pile up, and as Renko drags himself from Moscow to Crimea and Kyiv, grumbling all the way, a conspiracy worthy of Eric Ambler reveals itself. The whole thing is shot through with wonderful detail of quotidian Russian life—“the hopelessness, the comedy and the tragedy of it.” Summer in a bottle.

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July 2023

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