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Book Review

The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg

The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg by Shaw & Auner

(Cambridge Companions to Music)

Jennifer Shaw, Joseph Auner, editors
Cambridge University Press, 2010, xxi + 312 pp
ISBN-10: 0521690867
ISBN-13: 978-0521690867
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

The Cambridge Companion to… series is a byword for compact yet thorough, comprehensive yet timely and authoritative yet accessible studies of composers, topics and instruments in western music. The recent volume on Schoenberg is edited by Jennifer Shaw, who is Professor and Head of the School of Arts and the University of New England, Australia, and Joseph Auner, Chair and Professor of Music at Tufts University in Massachusetts. The book also deserves those highly positive descriptions.

In common with the other volumes in the series, a collection of a dozen and a half or so specialists were commissioned to contribute self-contained chapters each dealing with a separate, though of course connected, area of Schoenberg's life and music. Although these are individual contributions, the editors have done their job well and the essays (of between ten and a couple of dozen or so pages each) reference one another when they need to. The comprehensive index reflects this and treats the text as an entirety.

There are four parts of The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg covering Schoenberg's early years; his Modernist period; the composer's life and work between the two world wars; and his time in America. This is a sensible division and one that well reflects Schoenberg's development. But the book is not a biography (although relevant phases and events in his life are dealt with and their significance explained); rather, it examines his works and situates his massive and lasting achievements not only in the phases of his own life, but also the wider world, and cultural events throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. There is a particularly useful chronology of Schoenberg's life and works spread over ten nicely-laid out and well-annotated pages. There's a slightly shorter and unannotated select bibliography; the book has detailed and useful footnotes grouped, chapter by chapter, towards the end of the book.

Studies of Schoenberg are many and range from the superficial to the dense and imposing. CUP's The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg is one of the best. Indeed, it'd make a good starting point for anyone new to the area, or who has always loved and/or known the works of Schoenberg but never really studied them in depth. One of its greatest strengths is in illustrating the enduring directions in which Schoenberg took music. This is achieved by examining individual and at times sequenced works by the composer. Robert Morgan, for instance, looks at developments in the composer's conception of tonality through his early songs. This chapter also contains examples of another aspect of the writing which brings the book to life: instructive and sober references to the works of other authorities on Schoenberg and indeed contemporary commentators.

Perhaps rather oddly, Shaw and Auner feel it necessary to acknowledge that Schoenberg is still a source of some "trepidation"; though they also aver – implicitly approvingly – that Schoenberg aimed to provoke discomfort. Much of the book revisits and positively assesses the theory that it was out of this very "contrarianism", and his very innovation and love of experimentation, that his productive creative impulse emerged, and was so successful. Further, Schoenberg's context is firmly that of the German and Austro-Hungarian culture in which he grew up and initially worked. In that sense, there's continuity to be explored. What's more, the essays in The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg strike a convincing balance between appreciation of Schoenberg's disdain both for the several cultural milieus in which he worked and the reception of some of his compositions and the extent to which he embraced the rich traditions of which he was a part. This implicitly defines his place as an innovator: Schoenberg was far from being the lone iconoclast of other innovators. More explicitly, the many descriptions throughout the book of the very many other musicians, artists and cultural illuminati whom Schoenberg met, knew, accepted and rejected allows us more precisely still to understand Schoenberg's place in musical history. In short, Schoenberg was a complex person and a perhaps even more complex composer and musician. The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg does an admirable job not of "demystifying" him; nor of progressively pealing away inconvenient layers; but of exposing, exploring and celebrating these complexities.

Most of the authors (Shaw and Auner each contribute a chapter too) make use of copious quotes from Schoenberg and his contemporaries. And those of the composer himself; and of others' notes, commentary and descriptions, outlines and plans of the works. Michael Cherlin, for example, includes Schoenberg's program for Verklärte Nacht [pp 40-41]; Auner reproduces [p 170] a picture of the "Row Device" which Schoenberg (who was an inveterate inventor) used for Moses und Aron. These are far either from being distracting or from distorting the focus of the book: Schoenberg was a many-faceted musician (painter and poet) who drew on the wide, and widely and rapidly changing, array of resources available to him. If in no other way The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg illustrates this in the sheer variety of its inquiry and scholarship: areas examined in tandem with the main narrative range from the tergiversations of his life with its many changes of location via evidence and evaluation of Schoenberg's teaching and attitudes to film and vocal music to the limits of musical immanence. As well as photographic reproductions of manuscripts, score extracts, of course, abound and are for the most part crisp and readable.

In short, there's very little omitted from this carefully-conceived, expertly-edited and nicely produced book on one of modern music's greatest and most influential figures. As a narrative, it's superb – for all its multiple authors. As a source of reference, it's never lacking. And as a whole it succeeds in explaining and representing to us the genius of Schoenberg in its many aspects. It can be unhesitatingly recommended as one of the best blends of exposition and analysis of Schoenberg.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.