Arnold Schoenberg, My Gateway Drug

I’ve always found it difficult to share my passion for the music of Arnold Schoenberg. I get defensive if my enthusiasm is rejected, as if someone were attacking a cantankerous but beloved uncle. But my eagerness to share Schoenberg’s hyper-expressive music remains undaunted. I once served as host when the stellar new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird gave a presentation on new music. I described Schoenberg as a gateway drug: difficult to take at first, but the key to the marvelous psychedelia of twentieth century music. In retrospect, such a description was unwise, and several audience members were concerned that I was encouraging drug use. Far from it! Music is the only drug I advocate, and my inner ear has long been intoxicated with the euphoria of Schoenberg’s art.

Reciting an excerpt from Pierrot Lunaire with Eighth Blackbird.

I asked Eighth Blackbird if they would play one of their party pieces, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for five instrumentalists and a vocalist half speaking/half singing in a technique called “Sprechgesang,” a dark imitation of a German cabaret singer from the era.[1] I told Eighth Blackbird that I had conducted Pierrot, played the piano part, memorized the twenty-one poems, and was dying to recite the vocal part myself. They generously consented and a resourceful cellist in the audience surreptitiously caught a short clip, of which I am unashamedly proud.

My introduction to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School wasn’t until college in a sophomore music theory class, where we learned strict set theory and the twelve-tone technique. The language used for analysis was torturous. An example best illustrates: “Multiple presentation of set forms does not rely on combinatorial relations, but in some instances set choice can be traced to particular degrees of relatedness of the forms, depending on the compositional intent.”[2] That painful sentence doesn’t describe the composer’s intentions, except in the most superficial terms. No wonder my classmates despised this “mathematical,” “intellectual,” “heartless” noise. I shared my friend’s disdain, but I sensed a depth of expression that couldn’t be uncovered with artificial analysis.

My curiosity led me to the library, where I perused dozens of jargon-filled books not worth the paper they were printed on, but I hit the jackpot with Charles Rosen’s slim monograph, which opened my mind to the dark riches of Viennese expressionism: the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the architecture of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, the painting of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, and the whole milieu of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. I already loved Mahler because of my teenage idol Leonard Bernstein’s gratuitous recordings, but I began to hear beyond the surface bombast and appreciate how avant-garde the music really is. Mahler was Schoenberg’s god, and as my understanding of fin de siècle Vienna deepened, so grew my obsession with Schoenberg.

But it took the infectious enthusiasm of American composer and author David Schiff for me to learn how truly expressive Schoenberg’s music can be. David has dedicated much of his life to the stalwarts of modernism: Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Varèse, Boulez and especially Carter. I always think of David’s talon-like hands going through the slithering harmonies in Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony. Getting to know Schoenberg’s oeuvre at the piano – very challenging for the eye and ear and mind – revealed to me the expressive depths of this challenging music.

Gershwin and the Great Tradition

Schoenberg naturally led me to his partners in crime, Berg and Webern, and I’ve often played Berg’s Piano Sonata and songs and conducted Webern’s small ensemble pieces like his Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24. (Making light of Webern’s tragic death in 1945 when he stepped out of his house to smoke a cigarette and a deranged American soldier shot him, I once told a youth orchestra that smoking is doubly dangerous because you might get shot.) I’ve also explored the surprising relationship between Schoenberg and Gershwin. The musical styles of these friends and tennis partners aren’t as dissimilar as you might suspect, and Schoenberg’s moving eulogy at his younger friend’s tragic death is a monument to artistic brotherhood. To highlight this, I once juxtaposed the piano music of Gershwin with that of Schoenberg, Berg and Brahms.

Sometimes an individual piece becomes central to all of one’s musical experiences, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and first Chamber Symphony are certainly central for me. I’m dying to conduct Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande from Schoenberg’s Romantic early period, as well as the Suite, Op. 29 from his later, serial period. But it’s the freely atonal music of his middle period that most excites me, and I think this was the time when Schoenberg’s wild imagination was at its wildest. Without the tonal system to anchor him, or the serial system to restrict him, each piece had to invent an organizing principle of its own. He was avoiding tonality, but you can’t avoid tonality for long without obliquely making reference to it, which is why David Schiff jokes that every atonal piece of Schoenberg’s is in d-minor. Not exactly true, but you do find a lot of d-minor!

Schoenberg: Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11

My favorite pieces from his hot middle period are the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16. The first two piano pieces almost could have been written by Brahms or Mahler, but the third piece is the most radical. It’s the only piece that Schoenberg himself actually described as expressionist, and it has to be memorized because you have to look at your hands the whole time. Incidentally, these piano pieces are integral to Schoenberg’s relationship with Wassily Kandinsky, who made them the subject of his Impression III – Concert.

Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16

The Five Pieces for Orchestra are to my mind the culmination of Schoenberg’s atonal freedom. Each expresses an extreme: of canon, d-minor, color, calm, nature, longing, terror, premonition, anger and torturous angst. They’re beautiful, but they’re certainly not pretty. In the first four pieces, I recognize the specific compositional principles used to achieve his fierce expression. The fifth piece, like the last of the piano pieces, is heatedly inspired, and I find myself wholly convinced by the music without being able to explain how or why.

All music can be understood in terms of how it builds upon and breaks from that which came before it, and with Schoenberg it’s tempting to think that he abandoned the entire musical tradition from which he sprang. It’s easy to hear why one would hear this, but Schoenberg was in fact deeply committed to the entire central European heritage, especially Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and in the generation directly preceding his, Wagner, Brahms and Mahler. He thought of his music as the next step in a logical evolution.

I think that if you’ve gotten far enough inside a composer’s head, mutiny is forgivable - even desirable.

The misunderstanding of Schoenberg’s musical roots extends to the actual interpretation of his music. Pierre Boulez bravely championed and disseminated Schoenberg for much of the 20th century and beyond, but he performed Schoenberg through the lens of his own 1950s modernist perspective, which emphasizes that which is most avant-garde. I prefer greater weight given to the music’s romantic roots, so my favorite conductors of this music are Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle, who bring the music, as it was intended, to the doorstep of Mahler.

Schoenberg wasn’t very helpful to interpreters. Occasionally his tempo and performance instructions are absurdly unrealistic, and I believe that you often have to disregard elements of his notation, or do the complete opposite of what he says. So if he writes senza ritardando sometimes you go slower anyway. I think that if you’ve gotten far enough inside a composer’s head, mutiny is forgivable - even desirable. There are certainly reasons to criticize Schoenberg’s music: sometimes the expression is limited to shades of angst; some of the later music loses its expressive integrity to the serial language; the complexity of texture frequently obscures his intentions and makes balance difficult for performers, like in his insistence that all instruments play all the time in the first Chamber Symphony.

Schoenberg: Blue Self Portrait (1910)

Schoenberg: Blue Self Portrait (1910)

But with Schoenberg, there’s an endless supply of tantalizing material surrounding his music. He was an inventor, an author, a (bad) conductor, a polemicist, a demanding but committed teacher, and a very good amateur painter. While at Rice University, I had his Blue Self Portrait portrait enlarged to mount in my apartment, and during parties Schoenberg’s massive blue skull would dominate the festivities. It wasn’t until I saw the original at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna that I realized that the dimensions of this painting are much closer to a miniature. And while in Vienna, I also paid tribute to the remains of the man himself.

So at the risk of once again pushing musical drugs, let me encourage my fellow musicians and music lovers to try a little Schoenberg. He is, along with Stravinsky, the key to all subsequent music. Perhaps listen to the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, directly followed by Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. If it makes you frightened, or nervous, or startled, or if you shudder at the sustained dissonance, that’s the point. Find and enjoy the sometimes-uncomfortable beauty of the human existence. I find it exhilarating to plunge into these depths, and when I emerge, my mind and ear and heart are cleansed by the fire that Schoenberg stokes.


1. On my first foray into this fiendishly difficult piece, I had twenty-five rehearsals with my old chamber music buddy Cristi Macelaru on violin. (Don’t miss Cristi’s later performance when he stepped in for an indisposed Boulez with the Chicago Symphony.)

2. Bailey, Kathryn. The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms in a New Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 8.