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Reviewed by:
  • Schoenberg's Musical Imagination
  • Steven J. Cahn (bio)
Scholarship Michael Cherlin: Schoenberg's Musical Imagination Music in the Twentieth Century Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 413 pages, $90.00

Michael Cherlin is a most companionable scholarly author: stimulating, musical, and imaginative. His study of Arnold Schoenberg's musical imagination develops a multifaceted interpretive framework for an array of compositions, including chapter-length readings of works spanning Schoenberg's career from Gurrelieder (1900–11) and Pelleas und Melisande (1903) to Moses und Aron (1930–32) and the String Trio (1946). This is unusual. Typically, Schoenberg's works are treated autonomously or grouped according to style period, analytical approach, or compositional technique, rarely as interconnected branches of a larger creative enterprise.

One of the author's motivations, it seems, is to gain a measure of freedom from restrictive tonal, atonal, and twelve-tone analytic paradigms and return to the philosophical roots of long-held Western musical-aesthetic values. The Pythagorean concept of harmonia, which remains at the forefront of musical aesthetics (the idea that dissonance is subordinated to consonance), is opposed to the marginalized dialectical view of Heraclitus, who saw "harmony as necessarily entailing opposition or conflict … never to be overcome or transcended" (2). Associating Schoenberg with the Heraclitean perspective, Cherlin explores Schoenberg's treatment of musical materials according to principles of unity in opposition, manifest through inversional balance or perpetual flux apparent in the music's protean and evanescent qualities. Interpretively and aesthetically, he holds Schoenberg's music, revolutionary or not, answerable to the aesthetic values of both perspectives, "to better connect compositional techniques and their expressive ends (i.e., the way the music sounds) to more encompassing human concerns" (1).

Cherlin's interpretive framework encompasses a breadth of historical, philosophical, critical, and music-theoretical perspectives, but three concepts emerge as primary: Bildung [self-formation], dialectical opposition, and rhetorical tropes. Respectively, these represent the formative, procedural, and instrumental aspects of the framework. Conceived in a nested fashion, the concepts flow from one into the other. Bildung, understood as "culturally based," includes dialectical [End Page 133] opposition within it, while dialectical opposition produces three rhetorical tropes, which Cherlin designates as conflict, flux, and imperfection. These tropes are in turn syntheses of their origins within dialectics and Bildung. Given their association with issues of perennial interest to Schoenberg studies, Cherlin's three framing concepts warrant further interrogation.

Bildung refers to the process of self-formation whereby an individual's innate characteristics are shaped and cultivated through humanistic education. This process leads to the realization of a person's unique creative potential on one hand and an ability to act as a responsible citizen on the other; parochial forms of identity are ostensibly effaced in the process. As early nineteenth-century social policy, Bildung had the luster of enlightened, progressive educational philosophy; Hans-Georg Gadamer called it "perhaps the greatest idea of the eighteenth century."1 Cherlin introduces the concept in its broad scope but elaborates it in its particular historical association with the process of Jewish emancipation in German-speaking lands.2 Bildung was designed not simply to emancipate Jews, but also to emancipate (or alienate) Jews from Judaism and move them toward a neutral (secular humanist) social space. In this respect, Jewish identity existed in tension with Bildung, something that played a role in the formation of secular Jewish identity.3

Herein lies one of the vexed questions of Schoenberg studies: what was the importance of Schoenberg's Jewish identity—in all its religious, secular, cultural, and political complexity—to his identity as artist? Cherlin responds to this question only intermittently, striving to be judicious where he does (there is not a shrill note in the book). In various statements depicting the tension between Jewish identity and Bildung, he justifiably emphasizes the peculiarly Jewish attachment to Bildung and its importance to Schoenberg's milieu, but he distances the composer from Jewish sources or an innately Jewish sense of selfhood:

as a Jew who had never known a Jewish folk tradition (through Bildung, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner and others had become his Volk), Schoenberg couldn't draw upon folk roots that came so naturally to Bartók, Stravinsky and others...


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