Paul Greenberg

Dear Music Critic,

It was wholly a pleasure to be educated about modern, 20th century music by someone who's clearly an admirer of Anton Webern and the rest of the European avant-garde who followed Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone scale right over the cliff.

A mere listener rather than musician and scholar, I'll have to take your word for it that Webern's music, as was once said of Wagner's, is a lot better than it sounds.

To simple me, as I noted in the column to which you took such strong exception, Webern's "Five Pieces," which I got to endure at a recent concert, struck me as a cross between a marble skidding across a highly polished wooden floor and a tray of wineglasses being knocked over, although not as melodic.

When a tray of glasses in the rear of the hall actually did collapse at the onset of the performance, I thought it was the first movement.

When it comes to music like Webern's, I tend to share the reaction of Philip Glass, the minimalist composer, who described it as "this crazy, creepy music." Benjamin Britten it isn't, or even Copland.

Doubting my credentials as a music critic - which is easy enough, since I have none - you wonder what a columnist like me is doing writing about music anyway.

But music isn't a world apart, with no connection to the society in which it is composed. It may reflect that world's political and social trends all too accurately - some of them quite suicidal. Art often mirrors its times, as, alas, Webern's latter music did.

A composer's politics, you argue, should have nothing to do with how we judge his music. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, takes a different tack in his new history of modern music, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century." To quote his verdict:

"The period from the mid-30s onward marked the most warped and tragic phase in 20th-Century music: the total politicization of the art by totalitarian means. Not only did composers fail to rise up en masse against totalitarianism, but many actively welcomed it."

You can hear Anton Webern's devotion to the newest thing in his words of praise for the German fuehrer: "Yes, a new state it is, one that has never existed before!! It is something new! Created by this unique man!!!"

But the composer's deranged enthusiasm for the New Order was not confined to words. You can hear it in his music. It's the equivalent of the italicized phrases and chattering, disjointed exclamation points in his prose.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.