Schoenberg: Why He Matters (Hardcover)
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2023
A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
“[A]n immensely valuable source for anyone desiring an accessible overview of this endlessly controversial and chronically misunderstood giant of 20th-century music.” —John Adams, New York Times Book Review, cover review
An astonishingly lyrical biography that rescues Schoenberg from notoriety, restoring him to his rightful place in the pantheon of twentieth-century composers.
In his time, the Austrian American composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was an international icon. His twelve-tone system was considered the future of music itself. Today, however, leading orchestras rarely play his works, and his name is met with apathy, if not antipathy. With this interpretative account, the acclaimed biographer of Toscanini finally restores Schoenberg to his rightful place in the canon, revealing him as one of the twentieth century’s most influential composers and teachers. Sachs shows how Schoenberg, a thorny character who composed thorny works, raged against the “Procrustean bed” of tradition. Defying his critics—among them the Nazis, who described his music as “degenerate”—he constantly battled the anti-Semitism that eventually precipitated his flight from Europe to Los Angeles. Yet Schoenberg, synthesizing Wagnerian excess with Brahmsian restraint, created a shock wave that never quite subsided, and, as Sachs powerfully argues, his compositions must be confronted by anyone interested in the past, present, or future of Western music.
— John Adams, New York Times Book Review, cover review
In this study of Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian-born composer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1933, Sachs blends fleet-footed biography with an accessible analysis of Schoenberg’s works.
— The New Yorker, Best Books of 2023
[A] concentrated meditation . . . It may be recommended for anybody with an interest in the work of the Viennese-American composer Arnold Schoenberg—and perhaps especially to those who have never quite been able to “crack” his music . . . Despite his postwar decades in California, Schoenberg—with his rattles and shimmers, his craggy melodies and pervasive angst—never quite escaped the nightmares of what was then a crabbed and bloody Old World . . . Mr. Sachs’s fine study should inspire a fresh understanding of his life and work.
— Tim Page - Wall Street Journal
[A]n earnest attempt by an engaging writer and insightful music historian to explain Schoenberg’s significant achievements and understand the lingering resistance to his works . . . compelling.
— Anthony Tommasini - Atlantic
Sachs dissects Schoenberg’s complex musical works in an accessible way for the lay reader, thereby encouraging an understanding of the thinking and creative process with which Schoenberg wrote . . . To the end of his days, and beyond, Schoenberg has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Sachs admirably goes the distance in restoring Arnold Schoenberg’s singular position in the musical universe.
— Judith Finell - Los Angeles Review of Books
Lucid… Sachs’s book is a succinct guide to Schoenberg’s life and work, one designed in part to make the composer’s music accessible to a wider audience. Much of the book’s appeal lies in that implicit promise to help find the beauty hidden in what can seem, to the uninitiated, a writhing mass of noise. Sachs is neither a hater nor a glassy-eyed enthusiast—[he] is, as he puts it, ‘a writer and music historian who is Schoenberg-curious.’ This is not to say that he doesn’t admire the music—he does. And there’s real pleasure to be found in the way Sachs writes about it. He clearly describes, for instance, the genius of the way in which Schoenberg composes the voice of God in his opera Moses und Aron, which Sachs calls a nearly ideal vehicle for twelve-tone music... The effect is perfectly eerie.
— Christopher Carroll - Harper’s
Sachs deftly weaves together biography and informed opinion to give the reader a full portrait framed in musical and historical context . . . In a letter to a new acquaintance, Schoenberg wrote, ‘You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.’ Sachs makes it easy and enjoyable in this thoughtful and concise work.
— Carolyn Mulac - Booklist
A convincing, laymen-friendly reappraisal of a great musical theorist, teacher, and composer.
— Kirkus Reviews
Schoenberg: Why He Matters makes the case for Schoenberg’s importance in the avant-garde canon, arguing that anyone who cares about 20th-century classical music needs to care about Arnold Schoenberg.
— Literary Hub
I, too, was ambivalent when it came to the works of Arnold Schoenberg. But Harvey Sachs puts everything into perspective, both historically and musically—making the reader want to enter the fascinating mind of this remarkable composer. Written in a style that is thorough but accessible, this book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to have a fuller understanding of a composer who changed the face of music.
— Leonard Slatkin, internationally acclaimed conductor
Few authors have written more memorably on music than Harvey Sachs.
— Simon Williams, author of Wagner and the Romantic Hero
Finally, an eminently readable book on Arnold Schoenberg’s life and influence, equally accessible for practicing musicians and casual classical music fans. Sachs has threaded the needle perfectly, elucidating one of the great paradoxes of classical music and posing an unanswered question: Will the composer’s monumental influence on the twentieth century return in the twenty-first?
— James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera