Obligatory Anti-Serialist Post of the Week

Oh, inherent bias, what would we do without you? Welcome to Miami, dear readers.

A smart, quirky pairing

In their contrasts, Franz Schubert and Alban Berg make a complementary pair.

Fair enough, I suppose. Contrasts compliment. Is that really quirky? This is quirky. Pairing two composers from the same city that lived less than a century apart seems more like…contrast, or complimentary. You said that. In your first sentence.

Both composers were, in very different ways, intrinsically Viennese and each man died young -- Schubert, most tragically, at 31.

Is dying at 50 (from an infected abscess from a bee sting) really less tragic than dying at 31? I mean, I suppose, maybe. Both tragic, though.

Schubert's genius added harmonic complexity and metaphysical angst to Biedermeier-era complacency.

Interesting sentiment. Note, however the construction: Schubert = genius. Let’s see what happens next!

Berg's lyricism and emotional depth put a human face on the chilly serialism of the Second Viennese School.

Ah, the inevitable backhanded knock on serialism. Schubert = genius. Serialism = chilly. Berg = mediates chilliness with warm emotion and lyricism. Not genius, though. That's reserved for pre-1900 composers.

Michael Tilson Thomas's smart, quirky programming combined works of both men for a bracing weekend Viennese festival by the New World Symphony. Friday night's opening event at the Lincoln Theatre set the tone with Berg's Lyric Suite and Schubert's Mass in E flat.

Mr. Johnson’s review of the Schubert can be read via the link at the top (and it's perfectly cromulent). I am only concerned with the inherent bias about…

Berg remains the most passionate and directly communicative

Passionate! Communicative! Emotional! Lyrical! Fuck that chilly non-genius Schoenberg! He totally didn’t write Pierrot Lunaire (which, in all fairness, is pre-12-tone, but also passionate, lyrical, emotional, and communicative all the same).

of the 12-tone school's early triumvirate (Schoenberg and Webern, being the other two).

You don’t say. And, what’s with, the, comma?

His Lyric Suite was born of an impassioned but apparently unconsummated love for a married woman.

So they say! What else?

Though written in 1928, Berg's Lyric Suite breathes an atmosphere of findesíecle

Although this could be an internet publishing error, someone should proofread these things. Fin de siecle (while I appreciate the italics) is totally ThreeDifferentWords.

Though written in 1928, Berg's Lyric Suite breathes an atmosphere of findesíecle Viennese decadence, the world of Gustav Klimt and Thomas Mann.

Even though…what? Thomas Mann: 1875-1955. Won the Pulitzer in 1929, the year after this particular Berg piece was published. Completely contemporary. Klimt died in 1918, but is still roughly contemporaneous with Berg and Mann. For no real reason, here is a picture by Klimt that is fun to look at.

The romantic inspiration is clear with its Tristan quotation but Berg deftly creates a kind of wrong-note Mahler, fusing subdued tragedy and emotional intensity within serial strictures.

Wrong-note Mahler. Seriously? Crap. (deep breath)

Berg wrote wrong notes!? What a lyrical emotional passionate chilly fool. Those damn serialists! They had no fucking idea.

The sense of romantic yearning and dark foreboding was clearly palpable in Friday's performance under Tilson Thomas. The burnished strings brought out the angular music of the opening movement as much as the mystery and elliptical strangeness of the multi-divided strings in the central movement and the dark-hued somber valedictory of the final section.

To sum up: Berg’s Lyric Suite is lyrical, passionate, emotional, and communicative, which mediates the cold chill of his technique of writing wrong notes, but is still angular, foreboding, elliptical, and dark-hued.



Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, SA. I wonder, though, when will we finally get to the place where words like "cold" and "angular" aren't necessarily negative. Must every piece be described as beautiful or funderful. Other than the regretable "wrong note" line, this seems like a perfectly acceptable review of the piece.

What I take issue with, though, is this tossing around of the word genius. I don't take exception to Berg not being labelled a genius, but why is Schubert a genius? Hell, have you heard symphony #5? or 6? or 2? or 3? Awful, just awful.

--Whatever, I do what I want.

Sator Arepo said...

I think chilly, cold, and angular all (for whatever reason) are used with some derision. He definitely privileges warmth and/or emotion in the review. Is Webern not emotive? I beg to differ.

Anyway, your views are as always welcome.

Anonymous said...

No, I agree that he probably uses those terms as some sort of slight against the piece. My point is that I don't think that they should be derisive -- and if it's possible to disregard his biases, I think that his review reads well.

Sator Arepo said...

I'd agree it's not a bad article all-around, I just feel the need to point out the inherent bias. Plus it was a good excuse to post a Klimt pic.

Also, I hate lazy editing.

Empiricus said...

"findesiecle" [sic]

At least it's italicized. Still, lazy.

Murderface said...

If I may bring in a parallel to (kinda) popular music, Steve Albini's sound (Big Black, Shellac, innumerable albums he's recorded for other people's bands) is frequently called "chilly," "angular," "steely," "geometrical," "sharp," "cutting," etc., in a very positive light. [citation needed]

Within Albini's very loose, broad genre, these descriptors are not usually pejorative. Granted, sometimes they are exactly that. Not every critic is a fan of the Chicago genius (apologies, Gustav, but Albini legitimately is one), and even his admirers recognize that his sonic aesthetic as an engineer doesn't always jibe with the bands he records.

Context is everything with these terms. When Holland uses "cold," etc, we are well aware of his contempt for the music at hand. But within the serialist oeuvre, surely some works are more "angular" than others and that is not only their virtue, but also the manner in which they are emotive.

Still, that isn't what's going on with this review, and SA's complaint is well-earned.

By the by, SA and Empiricus, your voices are merging. This is the first article I've read where the authorship wasn't obvious in the first 10 lines.

Sator Arepo said...

Yikes! Unmerge! Un! Merge!!1!one

Empiricus said...

Good point MF.

I've been wrestling with more than a few recent articles reviewing John Corigliano's Third Symphony, "Circus Maximus." And it's always described as "raucous," but in the most positive (such as, "the manner in which [it is] emotive") way.

The reason why I've been wrestling with these articles...back up. What this reminds me of is every critic's obligatory descriptor, "difficult," in reference to Elliott Carter's music. When considering both descriptor's contexts, "raucous," although meant in a positive way--it, to me, is always the worst, most abrasive adjective.

I know I'm not exactly being cogent, here. Forgive me.

It just seems that repeated exposure (I'm thinking years and years of exposure) to negative reviews using "difficult" or "raucous" or even "angular," is the problem. The descriptor takes on a connotative association, from which association, the Corigliano is free. On the other hand, serial music is not.

Anonymous said...

The context argument resonates with me. I can imagine a modernist fan calling something "difficult" in a laudatory manner; i.e., that one must employ serious musical attention to "get"/hear/understand/whatever the work in some sense. With most critics, the "difficult" label is understood, contextually, as a print media bitch slap of the highest order at the worst, and at best, a subtle warning that you probably won't like it.

Also, for me, "raucous" doesn't seem to have the same kind of connotation as some of the more perjorative terms employed by the Wooden Shoes Fan Club folks. Though the piece isn't really "raucous", in my estimation. The John Adams "Chamber Symphony" is raucous, the Corigliano is massive, lithic, even oppressive; by turns it is also subtle, patient and very beautiful (sorry SA, I know you hate him and all, but the piece is amazing live...)

Murderface said...

Hell, I've said of some of my favorite music, "It's completely impossible to listen to - it's fucking awesome!"

But I'd never do so in print. Well, except for the above. Definitely never for professional publication.

Also: Klimt sucks. YEAH, I SAID IT!

I never liked his work. Everything looks like a goddamned quilt. He's the Disney Schiele. He's the Rococo (in the worst sense of the word) Matisse.

In conclusion: context and repeated usage inform connotation, and Klimt is not fun to look at.

Sator Arepo said...

Even if you don't *like* it, you don't Klimt is fun to look at? I think it is totally fun to look at, even when sub-par.

But that's just me.

Murderface said...

Nope. not fun to look at, either. Too flat to be engaging, too busy to have graphic clarity.

Double fail.