“Howling and stamping at the piano he had been working without food or rest for twenty-four hours. Page after page the staves were massed with symbols having something to do with like or the expression of it. The sensual experience was the pivot of all his being and thinking. Not once had he contemplated the logic, the efficiency, the impeccability of design: they were subterranean, subservient, a by-product of the passion of his mind…”
An imaginary and unlikely contemporary narrative, it is, in fact, a slightly altered description of the scene Schindler and his friend Horsalka came upon when they visited Beethoven “howling and stamping…filthy and without food for 24 hours” in the “terrible disarray” of his studio as he worked on the “Credo” of the Missa Solemnis
I the summer of 1819.
Historical events since have cooled the artist’s ambiance somewhat; the pendulum had swung; a contrasting and faintly antique theme appeared. The precise, objective language of this “new-old” theme implied spectacular developments when, as in the “sciences,” the artist dealt exclusively with the “substantive” and exorcised the “unverifiable”.
While in the public mind Schoenberg was the composer most associated with the origin of “substantive information” in the arts in the guise of the twelve-tone technique later serial composers found his materials redundant, aesthetically outmoded. But Schoenberg’s contribution was not so much in the invention of the twelve-tone technique as in the results of the heroic protagonism between devastatingly abstract methodology and the enormous musical reservoir at his command: an intuitive reflection of the fierce technological versus biological encounters which had begun to produce warning tremors in our civilization.
The problematic and ungainly vertical combinations forced upon his ear by the selection of numbered notes were still “heard.” Their harmonic, and structural obligations, which in Schoenberg led to fascinating and intricately balanced gestalts, led, in the works of his apostles once removed, to their displacement by “ingenious” if sterile combinations of the row. It was soon clear that this new music was regressive and resulted in lifeless gesture. The “howling and stamping” of Beethoven was at lowest ebb.
The new “serialism”, in “liberating the eye” from ear-bound passions, had surprising backlash consequences. The transition brought us Pollock-like constellations of sound. Graphics, games and theatrics evolved an amusing and catalytic compost. Whatever its lasting value, it reintroduced a joy in sound-making activity reminiscent and more human in scale. The orchestral apparatus invigorated by imaginative electronic onslaughts demonstrated its superior vitality and immense soniferous landscape.
The approach may be exclusively sensual and musicians may take perverse delight in the extravagant use of these innovations, yet it is clear, a new and hopefully more creative balance is being wrought between our sensual and intellectual resources, one in which it may be possible to achieve such fancies and grand architectonics as to make us feel deeply our human worth. Enough, perhaps, to “stamp and howl” at the piano once again.s