Kenneth Marcus, associate professor of history, discussed the crisis of modernism in the arts on Oct. 21 in the President’s Dining Room.
Faculty and students gathered with their lunches and open ears to listen to Marcus’ lecture on “Arnold Schoenberg and the Perils of Modernity.”
“I know we don’t need another crisis right now,” Marcus said. “But a more appropriate title for my lecture should be ‘Arnold Schoenberg and the Crisis of Modernism.’”
Schoenberg, a controversial composer, played a significant role in the modern era from the 1890s through the 1940s in Europe as well as in Southern California.
He fled the Nazis in Germany in 1933 and arrived in Los Angeles the following year.
Times were changing with the effects of World War II, immigration and the advent of the Nazi party.
Schoenberg saw a need for artists to reflect on these times. One powerful method for an artist to express his or her views is through music.
Schoenberg opted to help resolve the crisis of modernism by integrating tonality and atonality to reach new audiences, which characterized his Los Angeles period.
Tonality is defined as specific hierarchical pitch relationships that are based on a central tone. In the early 20th century, Schoenberg decided to stray from traditional keys and compose music that lacked a central tone, or atonality.
He is famously known for developing the 12-tone technique, a compositional method manipulating an ordered series of all 12 notes in the chromatic scale.
The idea was for modern music to fuse different styles and cultures together in a critical time of broken tradition and development of new ideologies.
“It was interesting that Schoenberg changed his religion three times and involved that in his work despite receiving criticism for it,” Amanda McCadden, sophomore liberal studies major, said.
Schoenberg, raised Jewish, converted to Protestantism in his adult years only to convert back to Judaism in 1933.
It was not a popular decision among his earlier colleagues and friends, and much of his work reflected his continued dilemma with isolation.
Part of Marcus’ extensive research on Schoenberg included interviews with his children still living today.
Another aspect of Schoenberg’s desire to reach out to the modern era was his personal struggle in dealing with the Jewish genocide.
He was torn between his German identity and what was happening to fellow Jews.
Schoenberg integrated his feelings about the current era into his music as a way of confronting the crisis of modernism.
“People either loved his work or rejected it completely,” Marcus said. “But for the most part, his work was well received.”
Many believe the crisis of modernism was not solved.
But nobody can deny the tools that Schoenberg left other composers, who often feel the need to break away from tradition and rigidity.
Marcus performed extensive research on social and cultural movements and the connection with music.
He traveled to Vienna, Austria to visit the Arnold Schoenberg Center and to Basel, Switzerland to research archived information at the Paul Sacher Foundation.
He is the author of several books including “Musical Metropolis,” which focuses on cultural development in Los Angeles.
Marcus believes that music is a great way to make history come alive.
“Because he is so knowledgeable about music, society and history, he is able to bring a major figure of the 20th century to life, in ways that less universal scholars would be able to do,” Al Clark, associate vice president of academic affairs, said.
Mark Vidal can be reached at email@example.com.