Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Schoenberg's Poetry

In his Master Class last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Robert Mann coached three of the best string students (all of whom I have heard in many enjoyable recitals) in the opening sections of Arnold Schoenberg's Opus 45 string trio. He began his comments with the observation that, while there are many capable performances of Schoenberg's music that are true to the notation, most of them fail to find the music behind that notation, so to speak (my phrase, not Mann's). He raised this point with the anecdote that Schoenberg had heard him perform his string quartets with his colleagues in the Julliard Quartet. While all the Quartet members asked Schoenberg to be as harsh in his criticism of their performance as possible, Schoenberg chose not to do so, instead expressing mild satisfaction.

Although Mann did not make this point directly, I wonder whether episodes like this one (if not this particular one) were behind that Schoenberg remark I have been recently invoking:

My music is not modern; it's just badly played.

Mann knew that the music was there in Schoenberg's notation or, to put it another way, that the notation reflected the music Schoenberg heard in his head. However, something impeded the Julliard Quartet from reflecting that music back out of the notation; and it seemed is if Mann's personal memory of that struggle motivated his approach to coaching this student trio. Unfortunately, it was clear that the coaching was also a struggle, except that this time the struggle involved what I have called "impediments to effective description," which, as I observed, are "dangerous hazards." Sometimes the challenges come at us from all sides, whether they involve structure (with or without Schoenberg's concept of "structural function"), sonority, the pace of the temporal flow (or "journey"), or even the slightest of rhetorical gestures; and we get tangled up in our communicative actions while trying to come to grips with all of these factors.

I thus found myself as interested in Mann's approach to coaching a performance of Schoenberg as I was in Schoenberg's music itself. I was reminded of Donald Schön's account of a master class over the first two sections of Franz Schubert's Opus 15 "Wanderer Fantasy," which he ultimately characterized as "multimedia." Mann seemed willing to draw upon any communication channel available, making him as much a performer as the students. One thing that struck me particularly, however, was his getting beyond the pitches to the phrasing of the rhythms. This reminded me of an essay that Virgil Thomson had written about John Cage for the April 23, 1970 issue of The New York Review, in which he remarked:

What the Schoenberg school actually used as a substitute for structure was the evocation of certain kinds of emotional drama familiar to them from the Romantic masters. This is why their music, though radical in its interval relations, is on the inside just like good old Vienna.

It struck me that, since Schoenberg had rewritten the rule book on interval relations, so to speak, the key to his evocative power lay in his rhythms; and those rhythms lie at the heart of our associations with "good old Vienna." (Can you think of Vienna without thinking of waltzes?)

Following this path I realized that one might approach Schoenberg's rhythms the way one approaches the rhythms of poetry. This is far from an original idea. I had encountered it in The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard Meyer, in which they tried to reduce all rhythmic structure to the poetic feet of classical meter:

  1. iamb ˘ ¯
  2. anapest ˘ ˘ ¯
  3. trochee ¯ ˘
  4. dactyl ¯ ˘ ˘
  5. amphibrach ˘ ¯ ˘

Unfortunately, Cooper and Meyer quickly immersed themselves in note-by-note classifications of short (˘) and long (¯) syllables, thus losing sight of vaguer qualities, such as the "flow" of these rhythmic patterns, which, like the flow of the Danube itself, had come to capture the essence of "good old Vienna."

Schoenberg had travelled quite a distance from "good old Vienna" by the time he wrote this trio. In fact he was living in Los Angeles; and the trio was intended as a chronicle (which he actually called "a humorous representation") of his experience with a severe heart attack. Nevertheless, that flow of rhythmic patterns (perhaps including that of the heart itself, even when going into and coming out of cardiac arrest) may still provide the key to how we communicate what is going on in this trio and how we, as listeners, can join with the performers in the question to find that music behind the notation.

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