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Right on the edge of useful

Saving Schoenberg

Posted Tuesday, June 14, 2005 7:46:37 AM by Sheri German

Sheri German

Perhaps saving Mozart is not so impossible. At least most young people have heard of him. And now, with the 250th anniversary of his birth set for celebration in the summer of 2006, his name will again gain prominence in the media--well, at least as much prominence as one can expect for an "old master."

But what about Arnold Schoenberg? Never heard of him? Don't feel bad. Most people haven't. And if they have, and they have heard some of his music, they probably don't like him. Schoenberg is the father of 12 tone (or atonal or serial) music. You know: random notes and beeps and senselessness. Or so it seems. Actually, such music is elaborately planned construction. Schoenberg devoted a lot of time to chess. Does that tell you something about his organizational skills?

Last summer, on a trip to Austria and Germany with my son's orchestra director, we spent a day in Vienna. Upon disembarking from the bus, my teenaged daughter and I trekked to the Schoenberg Center. Even in Vienna, we had some trouble locating it. When we asked passersby, we got "Schoenbrunn Palace?" "No. Schoenberg Center. Arnold Schoenberg." Shrug. Don't know.

Finally we did locate it. We walked into a small, office-like lobby on an obscure floor in an obscure building. There was a young woman at the desk. No one else was there. We asked in our American English if we could visit the exhibit. The young woman looked at us-especially my teenaged daughter- incredulously. She seemed to think we had stumbled into the wrong place. When we convinced her we hadn't, she gave us each a headset with music clips and commentary to listen to as we went from exhibit to exhibit. She warned us that it was very cold in the exhibit rooms because the scores were kept in archive conditions. We assured her we didn't care.

Then for a glorious couple of hours, my daughter and I looked at original scores (under glass) and listened to examples of the music, as well as analysis on its meaning. We heard examples of every genre, from opera to chamber music to piano pieces. We heard the voice of Schoenberg, and then the voices of his children as they explained the passion in their father's music.

Passion? In 12 tone music? Yes. And clearly the ardent young woman and other curators of the Schoenberg Center felt passion for keeping his music alive, even for Americans. As we were leaving, I asked if the center sold a CD of the audio on the headsets. The young woman sadly shook her head no. We started to leave. A look of inspiration came over her face and she told us to wait. She got on the phone and engaged in a conversation in German. When she put down the phone, she told us to come back in about 20 minutes. The center's engineer was going to burn a CD for us!

And so he did. And that is how we came by a most original souvenir of Vienna, Austria. It will belong to my daughter one day. I will pass it on to her, along with a love of 20th century music, and along with an expectation that she will do her best to save Schoenberg.

Category tags: Music