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Arthur Berger

By Leon Kirchner

Orson Welles, who knew everyone worthy of being known, was asked who were the five most extraordinary people he had known. His response: “They would not be known by you or the general public.” Why? “They had little or no Blubber.” (A resonator apparently that broadcast the “outstandingness and the extraordinariness of the known.”) H. G. Wells, whose voice was slight, high, and unnoticeable, put it even more reassuringly in Experiment in Autobiography, “Had I been a basso profundo I might have ruled the world.”

Arthur Berger unfortunately had little or no Blubber, nor had he a basso profundo, and when asked to write a book about his own life in the 20th century, “doubted he had the craft and necessary skills of a fiction writer, nor was he convinced that his origins or childhood pursuits would be of sufficient interest to anyone.” Yet he did write and complete a work, which won last year’s Deems Taylor Award and is a beautifully written account of the life of an observant teacher, critic, theoretician, and composer in the 20th century.

By the time he was sixteen, he had entered the College of the City of New York and transferred to New York University to complete his undergraduate studies. This period as a New Yorker was interrupted by his time as a Harvard graduate student where he was awarded a fellowship for the study of his art in Western Europe. He knew that his direction would be as a composer or musicologist. It was during the time he was completing his requirements for the Bachelor’s degree that he became a stringer for Hearst’s Daily Mirror, which began a twenty-year career as a music reviewer. His final berth was with the Herald Tribune as the principal reviewer of 20th-century American music under the tutelage of Virgil Thomson (another stringer was Paul Bowles).

He tells us how, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the ’30s seemed a time when democracy was at its peak. Artists of all persuasions were responding to dialectical materialism and Marxist ideology emanating from Soviet Russia. Even the poet Wallace Stevens had to come to grips with this outlook. Berger attended his lecture at Harvard with his friend Delmore Schwartz and noted Wallace Stevens’s response: “The greater the pressure of the contemporaneous, the greater the resistance.” Berger’s involvement in the intellectual and artistic turmoil of the times caused him to stop composing altogether between 1934 and 1939.

Copland was the dominant figure in the ’30s and the developer of two styles: one for the phonograph and radio for the workers (Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Lincoln Portrait), while continuing to write such masterpieces as Piano Variations (1930), Short Symphony (1933), Piano Sonata (No. 2, 1941). As he reflects upon these works, Berger likens his thoughts to those of Henry James in the preface to The Wings of the Dove:

The enjoyment of a work of art, the acceptance of an irresistible illusion, constituting, to my sense, our highest experience of “luxury,” the luxury is not greatest, by my consequent measure, when the work asks for as little attention as possible. It is greatest, it is delightfully, divinely great, when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the skaters’ pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it. The sound of the crack one may recognize, but never surely to call it a luxury.

He further expands these thoughts under the influence of David Prall (Harvard philosopher and aesthetician whose classes he had attended):

I learned that “surface,” “aesthetic surface,” or “qualitative surface” was extremely important. Indeed was the differentia of art! All the relationships within the work were felt, perceived, by virtue of the fact that they came to us through the sensuous surface.

Paul Rosenfeld, whom Berger greatly admired, was writing appreciatively and early (1920) of Schoenberg: “There is no living German whose music we want to hear other than Schoenberg’s.” On the basis of the few early works of Schoenberg’s available to American listeners, Rosenfeld recognized that he could claim a place in the line of the masters although he was not sympathetic to the direction Schoenberg was taking (Erwartung, Kammersymphony, Die Jakobsleiter):

There is a strain of Brahms in Schoenberg…. There must be some overtheorizing habit of mind in the man, threatening him always to snap his grasp upon the universe and still it is as one of the exquisites among musicians that he comes to us. Since Debussy no one has written daintier, frailer, more diaphanous music. The solo cello in Serenade is beautiful as scarcely anything in the new music is beautiful.

In the ’50s, Stravinsky and Schoenberg “finally make peace as rapprochement or friendly takeover.” In the ’60s, it was Milton Babbitt who led the Princeton school in a brilliant transformation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique into the environment of set theory, eliminating the “Brahmsian strain.” Even among the ancient theoreticians, Berger favors Aristoxenus, Greek father of all western theorists of harmony: “His contribution was scientific yet different from the scientism of Pythagoras, his contemporary, and he insisted upon the judgment of the ear.” Berger found Babbitt’s exclusive definition difficult: “There is but one kind of language, one kind of method for the verbal formulation of concepts and the verbal analysis of such formulations: scientific language and scientific method.” Many of the most prominent musicians of the day had been influenced by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique in diverse ways—Babbitt in the U.S.A., Boulez in France, Dallapiccola in Italy, and numberless others throughout the world. Even more remarkable are the critical passages between Adrian Leverkühn and the devil in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustuswhich gives Babbitt’s set theory a raison d’être without disavowing Schoenberg’s “Brahmsian strain” nor his position as “one of the exquisites among musicians that he comes to us.” The devil speaks:

Composition itself has grown too difficult, desperately difficult. Where work and sincerity no longer agree, how is one to work? But so it is, my friend—the masterpiece, the structure in equilibrium, belongs to traditional art, emancipated art disavows it. The matter has its beginnings in your having no right of command whatsoever over all former combinations of tones. The diminished seventh, an impossibility; certain chromatic passing notes, an impossibility. Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself, which by now embraces the very means of tonality, and thus all traditional music…. The diminished seventh is right and eloquent at the opening of Opus 111. It corresponds to Beethoven’s general technical niveau, does it not?… The principle of tonality and its dynamics lend the chord its specific weight, which it has lost—through historical process no one can reverse.

But Goethe, as had many others, had already observed:

Who has art and has science,
Religion too has he.
Who has not art, has not science,
Let him religious be.

I had known Berger for a half century, but not until I read Reflections of an American Composer had I realized that, in his novel of ideas, this theme was one of the most characteristic aspects of Berger’s musical thinking, like Yeats:

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song,
Thinks in a marrow-bone.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2004.

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