Who is the greatest living composer? Perhaps none of us are great enough to answer the question! It is said that only time can decide. Yet we may make some observations an the side; perhaps we can say with fair certainty who the greatest living composer isn’t! On mature reflection, we must admit that he will probably not be an imitator; all great ones in the past have had their own message, and have said it in their own way. We must therefore look for him among those who say something of their own. This limits the field greatly, as 99 per cent of those who pass for composers only make a weak rehashing of what has already been better said by others. And in the search among the composers of originality, we must discount those who are charlatans, and who seek newness for the sake of notoriety; those who do not write which seriousness but to be amusing; and those who have developed no form or craft in the handling of' their new materials and ideas. There are many sincere writers who feel they have done enough when they have written a new chord or rhythm, and never trouble themselves about how this chord or rhythm is to develop into perfectly formed music. Every old master was in regal command over the materials he employed. So must the new master also.
If we sift through the well-known European modern composers with these ideas in mind, only a few remain for consideration. Schoenberg, Stravinsky (in his older style), Webern, Berg, Bartók, and possibly a few others. Perhaps it is impossible to say, now, which of these will prove to be the most lasting in value. Yet Schoenberg stands out very decidedly for several reasons: he was the first to inaugurate, in Europe at any rate, the complete change of materials harmonically and melodically which have become recognized as the basis of the “modern” style. Practically every living composer makes use of the type of new materials, which were first brought into use by Schoenberg, in Europe, and by Ives, in America. Schoenberg has developed the most complete control of his new materials. Schoenberg has developed and mastered a new orchestration which fits his new harmonic and melodic innovations. Lastly, and very important, is the fact that the line of development taken by Schoenberg is a direct furthering of the line of progress outlined by the greatest Teutonic masters – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms. Their greatness lay, at least in part, in constructing large forms built out of a smaller thematic germ, which was developed. Schoenberg not only applies this mode of development to his new materials, but also has found new ways of developing a theme, which are in direct line with the ways used by Mozart and other classical masters. A thematic analysis will show Schoenberg’s Works to be more closely knit in thematic development than those of any other living composer.
I have not spoken of the content. The value of the expressive or emotional side of new music is very difficult to judge. Very fine music may seem at first to be ugly, unclear, formless, etc., only because its medium is not familiar. Music which has no lasting worth may please greatly, because every melodic fragment and harmony it uses, as well as what it expresses, is already familiar through other work. The clew, however, lies in the examination of materials which I have outlined. Fine handling of materials and valuable musical expression always go together. One’s emotional judgement of a new work is to be distrusted, but the materials may be analyzed with value.
What Arnold Schoenberg says in his music I believe to be as important as his developments in musical resources. The pedant is one who sticks to the letter of the rule, never questioning its source. It takes a real composer to take the known rules of procedure and carry them a step further, and to apply them to newly found materials. Schoenberg has Bone this. Few others have. Therefore I nominate him as a most likely candidate for the post of the world’s most significant composer.
Northwest Musical Herald (January 7, 1933)
Thursday, Jun 20th
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