16 October 2008
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
During my student days, I had the privilege of studying theory, analysis and composition with Arnold Schoenberg, one of the great masters of the structure and function of “the theoretical” in music of past centuries, in its “process” in the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, etc. And yet he was the master of what is, unfortunately, often call the twelve-tone “system” Twelve tone what? “System?” He disliked the implications of this word and substituted “technique” (twelve-tone technique).
His works have lost neither their communicative power nor their singular formal structure. As stated by Paul Rosenfeld in the early 1920s, Schoenberg is “one of the exquisites among musicians…Since Debussy no one has written daintier, frailer, more diaphanous music. The solo cello in Serenade is beautiful as scarcely anything in the new music is beautiful.”
I remember as well, Schoenberg himself in a class I attended saying: “One can still write a masterpiece in C major, given the talent for composition.”
Composition itself has grown too difficult, desperately difficult. Where work and sincerity no longer agree, how is one to work? But so it is, my friend—the masterpiece, the structure in equilibrium, belongs to traditional art, emancipated art disavows it. The matter has its beginnings in your having no right of command whatsoever over all former combinations of tones. The diminished seventh, an impossibility; certain chromatic passing notes, an impossibility. Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself, which by now embraces the very means of tonality, and thus all traditional music…The diminished seventh is right and eloquent at the opening of Opus 111. It corresponds to Beethoven’s general technical niveau, does it not? …The principal of tonality and its dynamics lend the chord its specific weight. Which it has lost—through historical process no one can reverse.
So once again theory and practice had gone their separate ways, guided by “historical process.” In this case, the Devil sells a new theory to a composer of genius, Adrian Leverkühn (presumably Arnold Schoenberg) in Thomas Mann’s great novel, Dr. Faustus. But even in the great ones such as Palladio, Schoenberg, et al., their theories hardly begin to “cover” their works. The most recent example is the dethroned theorist, Derrida: “No piece of writing is exactly what it seems”; it is “laden with ambiguities, contradictions.” Once can speculate interestingly on the reversal in Palladio’s heavenly derangement of his theories in his actual works, not in his drawings, leaving us with the overwhelming impression that something of greatest importance is missing in his theories.
I decided not to take the Devil’s advice, I pursued further this intricate and profound connection between past and present, and, utilizing what I have learned concerning the characteristic elements of contemporary music, I experimented with the idea that Schoenberg tossed out: “One can write a masterpiece in C.” Whether this is possible or not, it is certainly a worthy trial, a pursuit that Schoenberg, ,revealed in pieces like the Chamber Symphony Opus 38, particularly its second and final movement. It is a seductive idea, one that I have been pursuing of late, to reveal possibly one of the ways that necessary intimacies between the past and present keep the art of music alive and well.
— Leon Kirchner