Other Arts: Music

Schoenberg's Warning Against the "Tyranny of Sixteenth Notes"
by Paul Winston

Pianist Sarah Rothenberg appeared December 17 at the 92nd St Y in the latest installment of her "Music and the Literary Imagination" series. On this particular evening the concept played out in the following fashion: Ms. Rothenberg performed a selection or two. The hall would grow dark. A negative slide of text appeared on the screen and a voice would recite it. The process repeated.

I discovered a poet I liked (Adam Zagajewski), appreciated Joseph Brodsky's virtual incantation of Akhmatova's "Requiem" and was utterly transfixed by Louis Jourdan's reading of Baudelaire's "L'Horloge". I was also gratified to hear Ms. Rothenberg's rendering of Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, which was well done indeed. And it was a pleasure, too, to hear the same composer's early (and unfinished) Scherzo. I have always marveled at the youthful works of this composer. (My own experience up to this point only went as far back as the String Quartet, Opus "0", a Dvorakian work he later suppressed.) The growth of the composer of the Scherzo into the man who could write both Moses and Aaron and the Variations for Wind Band is possibly the most extraordinary example of artistic development in the history of music.

This periodic act of casting the room into shadow, however, may serve as a metaphor for Ms. Rothenberg's understanding of how (or why) people bother to write music or poetry in the first place. In art, unlike science, theory follows practice. The modern composers selected by Ms. Rothenberg will never discover this fact. It takes the kind of pain that one would never inflict on oneself.

And "tenuous at best" was how the gentleman sitting behind me described the connections between the Zagajewski poem and the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue which followed it, or Peter Schat's fantasy Anathema which followed that.

The problem lies deeper than the mere selection of pieces, although it is foolhardy to compare Bach and Schat at any level, or even the Akhmatova poem and the Ustvolskaya Sonata which followed it. Akhmatova is a very good poet, but the Ustvolskaya may stand as an example of what happens when one ignores Schoenberg's warning against "the tyranny of sixteenth notes". Schoenberg was talking about their tendency to multiply beyond the control of the composer, and Ustvolskaya substituted quarter notes instead, but there were two movements of them. Their accumulation produced such a tiresome effect that I am tempted to paraphrase yet another master: "Sincerity [read "seriousness"] is a sine qua non which by itself guarantees nothing." If the composer did it on purpose, I warn her heirs, it is almost always a mistake. A gesture like this, even for one movement, is practically beyond the capability of a Tchaikovsky or a Bartok. I fear, however, that it was not a mistake. A quote from the program:

We hear in Galina Ustvolskaya's Second Piano Sonata a musical asceticism in which spirituality replaces sensuality, where instead of extroverted virtuosity we find a private soliloquy. Written in the period immediately following World War II, what begins with calm introspection grows subtly, yet relentlessly, into the musical equivalent of a scream, and then gradually disappears into silence.

Oh, heirs of Ustvolskaya, look directly! Do not be misled! You cannot write a piece of music that "begins with calm introspection", "grows relentlessly into a scream and then gradually disappears into silence". You may be introspective, you may scream, you may lapse into silence.

But don't do it all in quarter notes.

Peter Schat also likes quarter notes, but he puts them all at the end. His Anathema ends with a minimalist statement intended to be a contrast to the "watch me play eighteenth century in my left hand and twentieth century in my right hand" exercise which preceded it.

A bad dessert is not a contrast to a bad dinner. And if Signor Alberti knew that people were going to take his mechanical accompaniments to be the forest, he would have chosen to live with Mozart in Purgatory rather than accept Heaven as his reward.

The compunction to compare music and poetry is a natural one. The compunction to compare any art with any other is a natural one. After all, the Greeks, whom most of us consider our artistic forebears (and that possibly because they left the most complete record), had no word for music unaccompanied by words. We have thus labored for 26 centuries believing that the relationship between the two disciplines is familial. But the Greeks probably knew that they may not be effectively placed together (or next to each other, for that matter) without effecting a sea-change in both.

A + B = C.

(A classical composer ("Beauty and the Beast") and jazz performer, Paul Winston is a regular contributor to the magazine. He lives in Manhattan.)

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