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.

southbankcentre.co.uk/therestisnoise

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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links