From Schumann to Schoenberg
Cover: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 by Schoenberg
Breakfast was not a good idea before tackling measures seven and eight that featured sixty-fourth notes and tremolos, as well as a meter shift from 6/8 and 3/8 to 2/4, among other mind-bending directions. Is playing music meant to induce nausea?
At age ten, I took one year of piano lessons. Adolescent brain plasticity allowed easy memorization that I eagerly indulged to avoid the drudgery of learning to read music. When I quit, I joined the long line of those that got away, leaving only my teacher to lament any innate talent I left on the un-pressed keys in that New Jersey suburban house.
Forty years later I reunited with the piano. My older, menopausal brain barely could memorize one measure of music, let alone hold a whole score. I had to make peace with the page and learn to read. PANIC: rebounding sightlines between my hands and the score was—IS—hard. Such dexterity is a slow go for the amateur with no shortcuts: years seeing and playing notes in different contexts of actual composition is the only way. Ten years in, and this language slowly imprints. Somewhat. That I'm still at it surprises me.
Stage fright evaporated my fantasy of delighting my friends with popular show tunes at raucous singalongs. Therefore, my relationship with the piano has become more of a head game. I confront each score as a puzzle to be decoded: a strict blueprint, but one with wiggle-room for emotional connection and individual expression. Sound quality produced both by close listening and the feel of my hands on the keys is trumping accuracy, which I dream, may lead to more precision. Mostly, my perseverance testifies to the prodigious intellect of my teacher. She nurses me through the whole painstaking process of making something decent happen musically. Still waiting on that, but Carla Levy has the patience of a Jewish Job.
What's in a piano score? Turns out exponentially more than the rote tricks of "Every Good Boy Does Fine," "FACE," "Great Big Dogs Fight Animals," and "All Cows Eat Grass," or rather, "All Cars Eat Gas," since I came of age far from livestock and when vehicles were boats with wheels. How shuttered I was to the notational encyclopedia written in and around those ten black lines of treble and bass clefs! A full decade of adult years into this wide landscape of an instrument and I was still staging a forthright attack on notes a, b, c, d, e, f, and g, their sharps and flats, and the number of beats they require. Coordinating the black and white of the page into in my head and out through my fingers to the ebonies and ivories of my 1890's Steinway with timing and rhythm is elemental, but also not seeing the forest for the trees. Though Carla repeatedly intoned how much more there is to good sound—namely, feeling—doggedly I kept gnawing toward some succulent marrow of how to hit the "right" notes each and every time. I'd vow to listen more and panic less, but still conclude each piece with both botched notes and little expression. That is, until one unlikely piece of music opened a window toward better understanding. Schoenberg's atonal assault on traditional western music forced my more intimate alignment with the composition, deep and vertical as opposed to horizontal and pushed. I dwelled rather than paced and, paradoxically, found more time to breathe and hear. I connected to the piano better and the strange sounds spoke to me. No two people were more surprised than my teacher and me.
As an adult, my first piece was "Of Foreign Lands and People," number one in Schumann's Kinderszenen, Op. 15. I am still trying to play it as well as Horowitz when he wore short pants. Easy access to YouTube great performances is friend to my ear, if foe to my ego. To hear what a composition should be in all its glory does help, if only to internalize the beat structure, thereby skipping the dreaded counting of "1 & 2 & 3 &," which frees up brain matter for the thousand other things one must multitask to play this instrument. I fell in love with the romantic melodic beauty of Schumann, playing at some level all thirteen pieces in the suite, still emphasizing the first as well as "Child Falling Asleep." Years reverting to two compositions cast doubt on my sanity and my ability. In my head, I quit often. But Carla's repeated emphasis that these childhood-themed songs are not child's play soothed. Spare genius should not be mistaken for simplicity. An absence of technical pyrotechnics, combined with dwelling long-term in a composition, forces a deep knowledge that can transcend perfectly finding the right keys. The greats can do it all, but not every master, and not always. Soul creates the magic. Again and again Carla explains and plays as example. Yet, again and again I would hunt the notes above all else and run down the rabbit hole of theory to make sense of it—continuing to be impatient with pauses, afraid of silences, breathless about the next measure, reluctant to forgo the pedaling that fakes wholeness
I dallied with the other Romantics—Brahms and Grieg, and lived in Impressionism with Debussy for quite some time, but remained loyal to Schumann. It is gorgeous music that never grows old. Even the much-overplayed "Träumerei" couldn't ruin Kinderszenen for me. While Carla and I have a good laugh about the German versus the French versus the Russian style of tormented genius and bemoan the bottomless pit of theory that perplexes as often as it enlightens, from the mysteries of dominant and tonic (I protest the terms are backwards) to the curious evolution of the half-step relationship that "leads" all of western classical music, we also have shed tears over passages where the arc of melody turns dark or unexpected in as little as a chord or even one note. Or, when we isolate a top or bottom line that makes the piece, revelatory because of what precedes or follows, those heady moments that bend the heart. This thrilling sensitivity flattened my beloved Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith: I actually feared deafness to certain frequencies until I realized that Classical's intricacy pales the rest.
Enter Arnold Schoenberg. Occasionally punctuating Carla's decade-long masterclass on the evolution of the western ear and our mutual lovefest for the Romantics was her threat to foist something "atonal" on me. The very word elicited long, deep Carla moans and warnings of its canonical blasphemy. She would play a few snippets and we'd alternately cackle and debate what music actually is. "I could compose that!" I would protest, equivalent to the idea that any child could splatter a Pollock. Can "random" sound become musical with enough familiarity and the right touches? Did Schoenberg ruin everything? Had his student Webern and the later Cage, Carter, Davidovsky, and Kirchner all been barking mad? Is Glass a performance artist fraud? Or genius? At the very least, is this the only way the western canon could glide along in the long, rippling wake of Bach and Beethoven? Are the masters scaling their graves?
This year, in the dead of winter, Carla brought me Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Opus 19, a.k.a. Six Little Pieces by Schoenberg. The Belmont Music Publishers edition quivered black print on a shiny pale gray cover—enter if you dare. Sardonically, we chuckled at the jarring sound, Carla straining to sightread a score that obeyed no rules of engagement—no obvious chords, dominants, resolutions, or even a key signature. It contained plentiful discordant intervals— evil tri-tones and major sevenths—plus, arguably, no journey and no return. This cacophony assaulted after years of melodically sensible compositions pleasingly perforated with only occasional aching dissonances that resulted in sweeter resolutions. Carla and I pictured patrons enduring Schoenberg's compositions before the intermission as a literally captive audience that coughed, impatiently shuffled, rolled their eyes, and applauded perfunctorily—restless protests recorded online for posterity. But then I played this music. And learned it. And played it some more. And could not let it go. I practiced more often, and experienced little frustration.
We started with II, which appeared the least dense. It proved accessible and gave us courage toward III, followed by V, IV, and VI. Quite unexpectedly, we began to find musicality, even pleasantness in it. Equally unpredictably, I found the notes with a quality sound and an evenness of nerve that was lacking with my Romantics. Ease of body and mind helped me feel my way and the absence of any anticipated rhythmic melody relieved pressure to keep up. I was braver about making mistakes, less defensive in approach and able to play as a whole organism, rather than disparate brain, arms, hands, thumbs, ears. My eyes comfortably travelled from page to fingers and back again to each unique measure. These scores are as precisely prescriptive as any other, but Schoenberg's lawless arrangement of notes allowed me more room to maneuver.
My newfound confidence simply could be attributed to the notion that any blown notes might go unnoticed, at least to my own ear or, worse, that I could mold the music to what I could play as opposed to what Schoenberg had intended; that is, I could pretend I was getting it right. But, even after listening to performances enough to lodge them in my head as distinctly as any more easily embedded Schumann or Debussy, I remained both intrigued and at home in this no man's land of Six Little Pieces. While über-experienced Carla misses being able to predict and anticipate the likely patterns that notes might follow, it is my very amateur unfamiliarity that encourages me. There is no straightforward anything: no majors or minors, no inversions, no dominants and tonics, no clean octaves, or clearly defined augmenteds and diminisheds—absolutely nothing that Carla could readily conclude "this is really a this or this is actually this with a this on top." I have to admit it was fun to watch her try to find any theoried tonality. But all that misrule presented me a reading of each vertical line of notes, one at a time, each measure its own enterprise, a series of gestures or more digestible small bites rather than one big plate. Generally, I despair when Carla describes her ingestion of whole measures at a glance while I am still not seeing even treble and bass clef together and therefore long decades away from true reading. Schoenberg's strange, uncomfortable music provided advantages of not being able to read ahead and in totality. It remains that this music still confounds. Embraced and well-loved? Not so much. How devilish to compose such seemingly non-derivative music on a keyboard landscape that has been fully codified over centuries! This was particularly clear in the hardest piece we reserved for last. Number I, paradoxically the first of the six, was dense enough to induce my aforementioned queasiness. Its thickness dispelled any notion of atonality being defined simply as sparse. The first problem I encountered is the 6/8 meter signature, which means it moves right along. Counting out "1-ee-and-a" six times per measure warped my brain and made a hash out of the first 100 or so times through until I just slowed down. Dealing with sixteenth notes is tough enough sledding for a rhythmically challenged beginner, but, oh, those thirty-seconds and sixty-fourths! Those double and triple bars, let alone the rests and dotted notes! Once I sort of embody 6/8, Schoenberg changes to 3/8 at measure six, then 2/4 at seven, only to return to 6/8 in fourteen. Next up was the dyslexic flip-flopping of bass and treble clef that occurs nine times in the composition's economical seventeen measures. And that is just in the bass staff.
More mayhem ensues: there are notes and chords well above and below the comforting lines of the central keyboard. So, like a flat-tired vehicle bumping along the shoulder, perpetually I veered to get back on the road. Not to mention the ties and slurs. There are sixty-nine, if I counted properly. Sixty-plus other signposts written either in German, or universally symbolized, squeeze into this already overcrowded palette. The absence of a key signature demands that practically every note is sharped, flatted, or naturaled. Finally, there are periodic triplets (even Carla says to fake those) and tremolos that underlie rolled chords. It is enough to make one cry until one cannot breathe if one doesn't find some humor in it all, which, thankfully, as an amateur I am allowed to do. Other scores may post this many directions, but in Schoenberg I was forced to notice and pay attention to them, rather than ignore and go by ear. I feel for the, admittedly few, professionals who take this work on and I am pained on their behalf just thinking about it. Oh, for a familiar pattern to cling to here or there! But, as Carla would often say about performing Mozart—you're out there naked.
So, perhaps reality set in with this last "first" piece. My Schoenbergian honeymoon may be over, but the marriage continues with lesson therapy. Obsessed, I listen to YouTube performances and email them to Carla at midnight. I replay them ad nauseam, yearning for any coherence of sound, some tender musicality that could derail Schoenberg's atonal freight train shoving aside all that generally has been considered pleasing to ear, mind, heart, and soul. I wonder what my neighbors think as Opus 19 floats through the beams and drywall of NYC apartment living? I hope that they, too, can have a sense of humor about my current preoccupation with this German. I had believed myself to be THE last person to like this stuff, but go figure: I do. I ain't quittin' you, Arnold! I will continue to search out the beauty of your brave dissonant experiment in between the notes as well as on them. And, I plan to explore your legacy; next up: John Cage's Haikus and Webern's Klavierstück, Opus posthumous.