I Love Schoenberg and Cage

Schoenberg's musical notation
based on an afternoon tennis match

     Growing up a devout Christian and serious musician I encountered a few unexpected struggles. Namely, frequent rebukes for studying what was so obvious contrary to my faith. Obviously. Other struggles involved issues of being perceived as prideful, or too different, or not very feminine -- but I want to focus on the first one: that the music I study is at odds with my faith (obviously).

     Fine art can create incredible tension in certain communities, and I have come to believe that this is mostly born of simply not knowing the arts well enough -- as Dr. Hugh Hinton (world class pianist) has pointed out, America has never once in its history taken music education seriously. So we all shouldn't be surprised by the existence of this tension. Saddened, but not surprised.

    But I am surprised when I encounter this "tension" amongst Christians. Of all audiences, we should be the very best. We should be open to surprises, the drama in different forms, story telling in different media, seemingly small truths hidden in vast worlds of darkness. Instead, we are often the most reluctant when it comes to experiencing fine art music.

    Several of my friends recently shared this article from The Imaginative Conservative. Good, smart people there. I'm sure that Robert Reilly and I would make grand friends, and I should mention now that I'm somewhat intimidated mentioning him here. Mr. Reilly outranks me in pretty much every way he can: smarts, experience, bravery (he served in the military, I believe?) success, authority. He probably has more education, too. I'm twenty-six, unmarried, Anglican, and a classical pianist who helps out with the local food pantry.

    I'll get to the point. This article left me exasperated and depressed. I want to do a formal write up about it. In fact, I've written about and devoted much time in studying Schoenberg and Cage during my years at school (and Boethius and Cicero, I might add) -- I should really share some of it here on the blog. But, for now, I want to share just one or two things from my first read through and then, likely over the summer, I'll devote a real blog post worthy of the seriousness of the article.

    First: Order does not equate to beauty. I cannot even begin to convey my horror of this definition. "The music of the spheres" argument for dismissing Schoenberg and Cage is an old one (and tiresome). Hitler was incredibly meticulous and organized. We have documents that tell us exactly what time and by what method particular Jewish children were gassed. I would recommend reading some more Tolkien if you truly think that order creates beauty. I would also recommend that you study some Bach chorales and notice, with delight, the places where he purposefully breaks "the rules." (Music is a discipline of practice and not rules. More on this later). Order can be monstrously ugly and evil.

    Second: Judge the art and not the artist. Reilly gives the famous "emancipation of the dissonance" quote from Schoenberg, and for many reasons it's an important quote. I'll write more about it. But are we engaging with the music or with the composer's philosophy? If, as Christians, we are to dismiss the music of composers on the grounds of their immorality/rebellious philosophy/what-have-you, then we need to stop listening to Mozart. Put the Requiem in the trash. (An aside: there is a lot of writing and scholarship on the "emancipation" quote, as you could well guess, but one important aspect I want to mention here is its historical context: Schoenberg was himself an escapee of Warsaw, and he chose the word "emancipation" as a political statement regarding Poland. Not that we as listeners shoulder "hear dissonance as consonance" as Reilly claims. More on that later).

     Third and finally: the purpose of music is not beauty. This looks like a bold claim, but it really isn't. Two important questions: "What is man's primary purpose?" and what is beauty? Let's the leave the second question for a later post. Consider the first one: if we and all things are here to glorify God, do realize that aesthetically the incarnations of this can be surprising. Giraffes, for example, are to the glory of God. Which is hilarious. So are unmarried women. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade for his friends. So is that disturbing painting "The Rape of Lucretia." Oh, and mud. Mud is glorious. I love mud. Also, I love Schoenberg and Cage.


  1. But I can justly select or not select a piece based upon my purpose (and on the creator's purpose). In the abstract, I'm sure you'd agree. Or at least I hope!

    1. I'm surprised by this response. Of course you have the freedom to listen to whatever you wish.However, I am trying to draw the distinction between a valid opinion and an invalid opinion -- usually informed vs. uninformed. So, if you mean the word "justly" as "you have the right to the freedom of choice" then yes -- but it you mean it as "rightly/correctly" then, well, hmm.

  2. I was speaking purely in the abstract. Suppose for the moment that our opinions were unhindered by my ignorance; that is, we had roughly the same level of knowledge. I argue that, if I were a liturgist or something, I could choose not to select a piece, irrespective of its technical excellence, because it would run counter to my purpose. That's what I was asking. Pardon my lack of clarity. (And if this comment is pointless.)

    1. My apologies for misunderstanding! But we're saying the same thing -- a musically literate liturgist makes appropriate (and powerful) choices. Alas, I have known too many musically illiterate liturgists.... we both know how that Sunday morning turns out. And, honestly, say "musically illiterate liturgists" three times fast.

      A composition's "technical excellence" does not make it excellent for all occasions, of course. There is music for a five year old's birthday party, and then there is music for a U.S. marine's funeral. There was appropriate music for the super awesome welcome home party for the prodigal son, and there was music for the girls singing about David's ten thousands, and then there was music for Israel by the streams of Babylon where they hung their lyres upon the willows.

      But there is also music that simply glorifies God and edifies you. Besides that it does not serve any practical purpose (birthday, funeral, lament, etc.). We must avoid the ugly trap of utilitarianism. Nazi Germany is a great example. So, some music can be classified as functional music and some of it is fine art.

      Pardon the long and enthusiastic response.