Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 3 (Spring 2002)

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, by Allen Shawn
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. pp.340

It is difficult to know what to do with Allen Shawn's new book. It is the latest of several books on Schoenberg to appear in recent years, but is by no means in the same league: in 2000, Bryan Simms published The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg, an excellent, insightful, and comprehensive book, and the first full monograph on the subject; Charlotte Cross, also in 2000, edited a diverse collection of essays entitled Schoenberg and Words, concerned mostly with Schoenberg's texted music prior to the First World War and his adoption of the 12-tone method. Shawn's book, on the other hand, is not a scholarly work, which he admits at the outset. A composer, Shawn describes his book as a "handshake with the subject," an introduction to Schoenberg's life and works. There is very little new in this book aside from its "appreciative" tone, perhaps the only thing to recommend it to devotees of Schoenberg. If nothing else, it is a heartfelt attempt to (re)introduce Schoenberg to the world, and Shawn makes a compelling case for simply sitting down and listening to the music before deciding to hate its too-modern, dissonant soundscapes. Shawn proceeds through Schoenberg's life and oeuvre chronologically but selectively, choosing important works and moments in the composer's life in order to provide a series of snapshots or "soundings." As well, by offering into evidence the plurality of Schoenberg's roles as composer, chamber musician, teacher, conductor, painter, Jew, thinker, father, and inventor, Shawn attempts to foster a more sympathetic understanding of his life and legacy.

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey is divided into five main sections. "Bridge Passage" covers the years 1874 to 1908, from Schoenberg's birth to the year of his turn to atonal composition. Shawn discusses in detail here the work Transfigured Night of 1899 (Schoenberg's breakthrough work) and the Gurrelieder of 1901, which would provide Schoenberg with his greatest public triumph in 1913. These early years are characterized loosely by Shawn as the Brahms and Wagner years, culminating in the Second String Quartet of 1908, a work with one foot in the past and one in the future. The second major section of the book is entitled "A New Form of Expression" and deals with Schoenberg's atonal, Expressionist works from 1909-1913, including Erwartung, Die Glückliche Hand, and Pierrot Lunaire. In this section Shawn also examines Schoenberg's paintings from the era and his harmony textbook, the Harmonielehre. The third section, "Silence, Order, and Terror," addresses the years 1914 to 1933, discussing Schoenberg's compositional silence during the First World War, the emergence of the 12-tone system in 1923, and finally his emigration to the United States in 1933. Here Shawn focuses not only on the technical developments in Schoenberg's compositional style, but also on anti-Semitism in Austria in the 1920s and 30s, the composer's return to the Jewish faith and the significance of this return to his music (in particular, the opera Moses und Aron). In the fourth section, "America," Shawn examines the years 1933 to 1951, from Schoenberg's arrival in America to his death. He includes an evaluation of the Schoenberg/Stravinsky polemic, a discussion of the Piano Concerto, and a strange, brief chapter entitled "On being short" (in which Shawn postulates that Schoenberg's shortness contributed to, among other things, his philosophical outlook and oversized ego). The fifth and final section, "Afterlife," deals with Schoenberg's influence on twentieth century music and also offers an overview of opinions on Schoenberg from a number of critics, composers, and commentators, including Robert Craft and Leonard Bernstein. Shawn's book concludes with several pages of suggested reading.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Arnold Schoenberg's Journey is not in the same league as other recent publications on Schoenberg, and this is true for several reasons. It is, first and foremost, comprised almost entirely of material culled from standard sources. This material, moreover, is cited in an occasionally slapdash manner, with only direct quotes cited in the endnotes; paraphrased material does not receive a citation (this becomes problematic when ideas clearly adapted from other sources are not cited). The book also contains a number of factual errors, a few of which were pointed out to me by Robert Falck (University of Toronto), including some wrong dates and misidentified pictures (Shawn gives 1947 as the date of Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive," which was actually written in 1933; he cites 1907 as the year in which Schoenberg held open rehearsals of the Chamber Symphony op. 9, rehearsals which were actually held in 1917; in discussing the importance of Bach's influence on Schoenberg, Shawn describes a sketch by Schoenberg as depicting a piano with the name "Bach" inscribed on it, when the name is actually "Ibach," the piano manufacturer). The musical analysis, which Shawn claims to be his own, is not particularly original, and consists mainly of musical examples from Schoenberg scores used to illustrate the description of a particular musical effect/texture. In the end, there is neither enough analysis nor biography to make this book useful to anyone but interested amateurs. Perhaps this is an unfair critique, given Shawn insists this book is not intended as a scholarly text ("more searching than analytical, more suggestive than definitive," says the dust jacket); however, I don't think this excuses Shawn from shoddy scholarship simply because he insists his book is a "sketchy" portrait. Shawn's constant reminders that the book is an introduction often seem like an a priori attempt on his part to rebuff just this kind of critique.

In the end, Arnold Schoenberg's Journey is a very readable book, accessible to the musical amateur (though not, I suspect, to the reader who can't read music, as Shawn includes descriptive analysis using technical musical terms, and relies heavily on musical examples). It is a book that takes a warmly appreciative, rather than clinical, approach to its subject, and is written in a clear, almost conversational style. It is not a comprehensive portrait of Schoenberg, musically or biographically; rather, it seeks to introduce Schoenberg to the uninitiated, to contextualize the man and his music, to cast both in a more positive light. Shawn concludes, rightly I believe, that Schoenberg's music, though not easily heard or understood, is nonetheless well worth the effort of listening, and Arnold Schoenberg's Journey is an attempt to persuade lovers of classical music to do just that.

-Alexander Carpenter