Boyd Tonkin: Schoenberg was looked on as something shocking - now, anything goes

The Week in Books

During the opening weekend of the Southbank Centre's year-long festival built around Alex Ross's landmark book The Rest is Noise, Gillian Moore - the centre's head of classical music - re-told a story about Arnold Schoenberg. In 1914, the Viennese composer - a patriot for all his radical tendencies - enlisted in the Austrian army. An officer supposedly said to him (and I paraphrase very liberally), "Schoenberg? Aren't you the 'orrible little man who composed all that ghastly tuneless music?" To which the hapless avant-gardist replied, "Yes, sir, Sorry, sir. But somebody had to do it, sir."

Did somebody have to do it and, if so, why? As the centenary of the First World War nears, it's no surprise that contemporary culture has begun to return to its origins in the convulsive years before, during and after the deluge of 1914-1918. Schoenberg loomed large in the first tranche of events inspired by Ross's magisterial panorama of 20th-century music and society. Listen to his achingly gorgeous Verklärte Nacht of 1899 and the late-Romantic sound-scape just about survives. By the time of the eerie burlesque of his Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 - deftly performed by musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music - a bomb has gone off in the palace of art. From Freudian psychoanalysis to Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity (charmingly explained by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy with the aid of his twin daughters), these explosions in the mind preceded the carnage of the trenches and the fall of old empires. Whatever the chains of cause or correlation, the West then entered an era of upheaval that still persists.

That Modernism - to use the handiest single-word formula - still retains its power to baffle or shock hints that we still live within its parameters. Björk, a musician Alex Ross much admires, loves Pierrot Lunaire and has performed its sinister-ethereal cabaret role. But if even a pop star famous for her bold experiments were to plant Schoenberg into a mainstream gig, plenty of fans of the elfin Icelander would still turn as pale as Pierrot's chalky face.

The anniversary of 1913, the year of riotous fisticuffs in the audience at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Paris and at the revival of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony in Vienna, is a perfect occasion to celebrate the divisive excitement of golden-age Modernism. All the same, it's one thing to hail, and learn from, the unfinished Modernist revolution in the arts; quite another to make a fetish of its almost-antique monuments and masterpieces.

In the case of literature, I tend to think of the diehard Modernist clique as the "1922 Committee", after the Tory backwoods posse of that name. That was the year in which the dying Proust last worked on In Search of Lost Time and Joyce published Ulysses. For the literary 1922 Committee, nothing much of any value has happened since - except in so far as writers still follow those masters. Such a loyalty can yield invigorating outcomes. Will Self's novel Umbrella, arguably his best, sought to resuscitate this "classical" Modernism of the 1920s.

But Self, or any other artist today, can and does choose this style off the shelf. It's yet another option in an age of limitless eclecticism. In other words, by signing up to Modernism in 2013 you prove yourself as just another Postmodernist in the era of "anything goes". That is our plight, and privilege: a long march away from the "somebody had to do it, sir" sense of destiny that drove Schoenberg. Last weekend, Alex Ross compared music now to the 1920s, another pick-and-mix decade without a single "dominant trend". Should we consider that plurality as liberty, or loss? So long as 2014 spares us from the miseries of 1914, I'll enjoy the cacophony.

Winner: the unlikely feminist avenger

Few of the tributes to the late Michael Winner have made much of his strange interlude as a radical-feminist film-maker. In 1993 he directed (with stars Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams) a movie of Helen Zahavi's sulphurous - and elegantly written - novel Dirty Weekend, in which a Brighton woman goaded to breaking-point by sexual harassment goes on a vengeful killing-spree. It seems Zahavi gave up fiction, although Dirty Weekend was republished last year. But don't expect to catch the gory Winner flick on TV soon.

How mighty Maus showed the way

Over the years that we have run our "Book of a Lifetime" column, hardly any work has ever been chosen twice in quick succession. A few weeks, ago, the graphic novelist Bryan Talbot (the winner, with Mary M Talbot, of the biography category in this year's Costa Awards) picked Art Spiegelman's ground-breaking memoir Maus. This week (see page 35), the up-and-coming French novelist Laurent Binet pays his own homage to the same work. It could be that, in the UK, the pictorial narrative has just about reached the tipping-point towards general esteem and literary credibility that it has long enjoyed in France – with a recognition that the form can showcase many other qualities beyond its visual-verbal mix. Next Tuesday, the overall Costa winner will be decided. A victory for the Talbots' Dotter of Her Father's Eyes would surely clinch the case.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders