Commentary Magazine

No More Great Composers?

Most newspaper critics are forgotten as soon as they retire—unless they happen to write a book. Take Harold C. Schonberg, who served as chief music critic of the New York Times-from 1960 to 1980 and was for many years one of the most powerful and controversial figures in the world of classical music. Few now recall such marks of Schonberg’s tenure as his quixotic advocacy of obscure 19th-century pianist-composers like Adolph Henselt, or the often jesting tone of his reviews (about Leonard Bernstein’s flamboyant conducting he once wrote that “Bernstein rose vertically, à la Nijinsky, and hovered there a good fifteen seconds by the clock”). Instead, what people remember about the now eighty-two-year-old Schonberg are his still-popular books on music.

One of these books, The Lives of the Great Composers (1970),1 has just been reissued in a revised and expanded third edition, and to encounter it again is to understand why it has been so enduring a success. The Lives of the Great Composers is a highly readable introduction to the key figures of classical music, packed with choice anecdotes and written in a brisk, unpretentious style that reflects Schonberg’s long service as a working newspaperman. But The Lives of the Great Composers is more than just a deservedly popular survey history of classical music. It is also an important document in the history of American musical taste.

Throughout his tenure at the Times, Harold Schonberg was widely seen as the number-one journalistic enemy of modern music. The first edition of The Lives of the Great Composers left no doubt, indeed, that its author took a dim view of much if not most of the music of his own time. Only two 20th-century composers, Bélla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, received chapters to themselves, and Schonberg’s opinion of the latter was conspicuously unenthusiastic (“His music has always commanded more respect than love”). Though he commented favorably on other 20th-century composers—most notably Paul Hindemith, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, and Ralph Vaughan Williams—these, though modernists, were essentially conservative in their musical views and believed above all in the continuing validity of functional tonality as a means of musical expression. As for serialism, a method of composition based on a particular ordering of the twelve tones of the scale pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers, it was damned with faint praise, while the post-World War II avant-garde received even shorter shrift as “a hiatus in the mighty line of powerful, individualistic composers that had extended from Johann Sebastian Bach.”

By 1981, when Schonberg brought out a revised edition of The Lives of the Great Composers, the face of classical music had already begun to change. In this second edition he noted with approval the emergence of a “new eclecticism” in music. Its proponents, who included George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies, George Rochberg, Frederic Rzewski, and David Del Tredici, contended (in Schonberg’s summary) that modernism had gone too far, and that “communication between composer and audience had to be reestablished.” But Schonberg’s interest in the music of these composers was limited (revealingly, he misspelled the names of Rzewski and Del Tredici), and his conclusion remained as it had been in 1970: the “mighty line” of geniuses who had shaped and directed classical music throughout its history had come to an end early in the 20th century, and showed no signs of revival.

That so unabashedly backward-looking a figure should have been in charge of the musical coverage of the most influential newspaper in the United States was regarded by many American composers of the 60’s and 70’s as little short of scandalous. But Samuel Lipman, writing in COMMENTARY in 1980 as Schonberg stepped down from the Times, saw things differently, recognizing that Schonberg’s failure to be engaged by modern music was merely a symptom of a larger cultural disorder:

[Schonberg] reflects rather than influences the musical orientation of the contemporary audience. And that orientation is to music’s past rather than its present or future . . . today’s musical public has come to a fundamental decision: it has the music it wants, and it is satisfied with what it has.2



Seventeen years later, the world of classical music has been turned upside down. Starting in the mid-80’s, the forbiddingly complex late modernism of such composers as Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt gave way to the accessible postmodernism of Philip Glass and his fellow minimalists. For the first time since the 1940’s, the concertgoing public began to pay attention to new classical compositions. The music directors of several major American orchestras, including Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Leonard Slatkin of Washington’s National Symphony, now regularly—and successfully—program a wide variety of 20th-century music; according to a recent report in the Times, the San Francisco Symphony has scheduled performances of works by no fewer than fifteen living composers during its 1997-98 season.

The third edition of The Lives of the Great Composers faithfully reflects this sea change. The two pages devoted to “the new eclecticism” in 1981 have become a full chapter, and in other ways, too, Schonberg takes due note of the new situation in which music finds itself. In still other essential ways, however, the view he offers at century’s end is continuous with the line he took up when he first began covering the American musical scene shortly after World War II. That line has its manifest weaknesses as well as its perhaps underappreciated strengths.

Not surprisingly—to begin with the weaknesses—Schonberg writes here with undisguised relish of the death of serialism:

With all the Sturm und Drang associated with the three-decades-plus of serial music, it all ended with a whimper. After some 25 years of creation, of publicity, of polemics, of public-relations work, of numerous contemporary-music recordings—after all this, how many twelve-tone or serial works entered the ongoing repertory? [Alban] Berg’s Lyric Suite, Lulu, and Violin Concerto (only parts of Wozzeck are serial) are the only three that spring to mind.

In fact, Berg’s Lyric Suite is also only partly serial—an error which reminds us that too many critics of Harold Schonberg’s generation rejected modernism without first considering it carefully, just as a later generation of critical enthusiasts would praise the worst excesses of the avant-garde with an equal (and opposite) lack of discrimination. Although it is quite true that twelve-tone music has failed to attract an audience, and many critics (myself included) would agree that the postwar emergence of serialism as the “international style” of classical music was a major disaster, it is another thing entirely to regard the entire modernist project as a historical aberration, which The Lives of the Great Composers comes close to doing. What other conclusion can one draw from the fact that both Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg—the antipodes of the modern movement—are portrayed as second-class composers who (to paraphrase Schonberg on Stravinsky) will be remembered more for what they did to music than for what their music did to their listeners?

Nor is Schonberg more illuminating or reliable when he comes to give an account of today’s “worldwide flight from serialism.” Among other things, he lumps the Polish “holy minimalist” composer Henryk Górecki together with the American minimalists Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich, casually dismissing them all as purveyors of what he calls the New Baroque:

Part of the attraction of Baroque music was that one did not have to think while listening to it. Its excuse for being was that it wrapped the listener in innocuous sound, the busy patterns moving up and down without really ever saying anything. Diddle, diddle, diddle; diddle, diddle, diddle. . . . Thus it is with minimalism, except that it has even less harmonic adventure than the three chords of Baroque music.

One need not admire the minimalists to be dismayed by the extreme superficiality of Schonberg’s discussion of their music—Górecki and Glass have approximately as much in common as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss—or, just as importantly, by his seeming ignorance of the fact that the end of modernism has been an epochal event not merely in classical music but throughout the whole of Western culture. Astonishingly, the word “postmodern” is nowhere to be found in the final chapter of The Lives of the Great Composers, nor does Schonberg make any attempt to relate the collapse of the musical avant-garde to similar events elsewhere (save for a brief and misleading comparison of musical minimalism with “pop art and op art”).

No less striking is the fact that in revising his book, Schonberg appears to have had no second thoughts about anything. Dmitri Shostakovich has moved slightly upward in his estimation, and Benjamin Britten, referred to only in passing in 1981, now rates a full paragraph. Otherwise, there are no substantive changes of emphasis in the main text. Schonberg still thinks Stravinsky’s reputation is inflated, and still has almost nothing good to say about any modern American composers besides Aaron Copland and (surprisingly) Charles Ives, or any modern English composers besides Britten and Vaughan Williams.

In short, Schonberg continues to hold a fundamentally premodern view of his subject, one in which the history of classical music consists in essence of the story of its canonical figures—the men who wrote the masterpieces. Most of these men turn out to be 19th-century Romantics, and over half the third edition of The Lives of the Great Composers is, appropriately, devoted to the Romantic era, starting with Beethoven and ending with Mahler. As for Schonberg’s overall canon, with the exception of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who earned a new chapter in the second edition, no new members have been admitted since 1970. For Harold Schonberg, the book of musical life is closed.



And yet, despite his narrowness and frequent anti-intellectualism, there is also something tonic about Schonberg’s unswerving belief in a canon of musical greatness. To call this vision unfashionable is to put it mildly indeed: in music as in other areas of the culture, contemporary critics and scholars tend to disbelieve not only in the existence of great men, but in the very idea of greatness itself. But that is precisely why, with all his faults, Schonberg is worth taking seriously.

Characteristically, Schonberg responds to the contemporary point of view by ignoring it. Now as before, he unabashedly titles his book The Lives of the Great Composers, and writes as though no one had ever dared question their significance:

The great composers always, one way or another, altered the course of musical history and have entered into, if not the consciousness of all humanity, certainly the consciousness of Western peoples. . . . Sometimes, as in the case of Mahler, it took two generations for them to become icons. But the great ones always have made their way, recognized as geniuses almost from the beginning. There is something Darwinian about the process. Perhaps survival of the fittest explains the great composers.

Moreover, Schonberg continues to be an optimist, to hold out the possibility—however slim—of stylistic renewal. In 1981, he suggested that what the new eclecticism lacked was “a genius on the order of a Berlioz or a Wagner who could put it all together”; today, he still bemoans the fact that “no leader . . . has emerged.” Classical music, he implies, is not dead but merely sleeping, waiting to be awakened by a great man who will write great music and thereby show lesser men the way.

Is he right? It is worth pointing out that, however out of step Schonberg may be with the progressive-minded, his views happen to coincide with those of most working musicians, who continue to declare their own belief in greatness by regularly performing the music of the “powerful, individualistic composers” he writes about so passionately. Intellectual fashions come and go, but Bach, Schubert, and Wagner are with us still, and show no signs of disappearing into the dustbin of history.

Still, whether a new genius is among us now, busily writing scores that will change the face of music yet again, remains to be seen. It is possible that we are about to enter a new, “post-postmodern” period; it is possible, conversely, that Western music has reached “the end of history,” and will no longer undergo major stylistic upheavals triggered by the innovations of protean minds. But as the 20th century draws to a close, surely it is no longer premature to speak of key figures of the modern movement—figures like Bartók, Berg, Britten, Copland, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and, yes, Stravinsky—as “great.” Whatever the next century holds in store for classical music, it is hard to believe these extraordinary men will have no successors.



1 Norton, 653 pp., $35.00.

2 “Harold Schonberg and His Times,” May 1980.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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