You don't need a hummable tune to make great music

'Plenty of works have established themselves while only ever being loved by a tiny élite'
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Rumour has it that the Royal Opera House is having a disappointing time with its double bill of two classic 20th-century operas, Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung. Certainly, audiences have not exactly besieged the box-office at the prospect of these two intense, psychological dramas, and if you were really persistent, you could probably haggle them down to half-price for a stalls seat by now.

In a way this is extremely odd. Neither piece could be regarded as remotely obscure, or falls into the category of "new music". Erwartung was written in 1909, Bluebeard in 1911. Their composers would not have thought at the time of, say, Beethoven's string quartets as forbiddingly new, but somehow, as these remarkable and beautiful works approach their centenary, they still seem difficult and unfamiliar to the great majority of opera-goers.

It is not even as if the status of these pieces is in any serious question. Duke Bluebeard's Castle is not as ferociously original a work as Schoenberg's, but its importance and fascination has been universally acknowledged since its premiere. Only a very eccentric ideologue would question the fecundity and inventiveness of Schoenberg's first atonal works, of which Erwartung is the most extensive and ambitious, and a little effort will reveal it as a gorgeous and unique score, as important and exciting as Ulysses or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. What on earth is the problem?

In part, I suppose, it is a basic misunderstanding of what music actually is, and an ill-advised attempt to propose an idea of what music ought to be. The two vulgar objections to Schoenberg are that his music is dissonant, and it contains no tunes. The first could hardly be more mistaken; Schoenberg's was actually the first language in Western music since Gregorian chant to contain no perceptible dissonances. The second is completely absurd – anyone could sing stretches of Pierrot Lunaire after they'd heard it a few times – but even if it were true, it would hardly be a criticism. Most of Beethoven's best things – the first movement of the Eroica, the Egmont overture, the late piano sonatas – run their course without ever producing anything identifiable as a tune.

In short, there is a sort of distaste here which is too often disguised as a proper, reasoned objection to the whole project. If you don't like the sound of high Viennese modernism, that is fair enough; no one can like everything. There are a lot of things which make me feel sick – baroque music, late Mozart, Donizetti, Delius – but that is just personal taste. What I do feel is that the richness and complexity of high European modernism means that it is difficult to sympathise with on a superficial encounter; the huge rewards of this thrillingly creative period come with a bit of patience.

The relationship between the greatness of a work of art and its popularity is not a simple one, and plenty of the greatest works of music have established themselves while only ever really being loved by a tiny élite – The Art of Fugue, the Hammerklavier sonata, the songs of Hugo Wolf or Duparc. The curious thing is that one does see an enormous potential for popularity in these extraordinary pieces; the garden of blood in Bluebeard or the slithering close of Erwartung. Perhaps it is only years of critical discourse, stressing the difficulty, the rebarbative fury of these composers, that stands as a barrier. And you emphatically don't need to be an intellectual to appreciate them; indeed, in the case of Erwartung, nobody at all understands how it is constructed, and anyone who loves it will have submitted to its simple physical thrill.

The odd situation that we find ourselves in now is that new music seems much less forbidding than the great classics of a century ago. An opera house will find it much easier to sell seats with a new opera, even with something utterly fourth-rate like Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassie, than with the great masterpieces of central European modernism. There are not many ballet or opera companies now which would risk performing Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin, Schoenberg's Die Glückliche Hand or Hindemith's Murderer, Hope of Women; even much less forbidding works such as Busoni's Doktor Faust or Berg's Lulu are relative rarities, pushed out by absurd and conventional novelties which no one will remember in 10 years' time.

For all those reasons, a major company mounting productions of two thrilling masterpieces deserves encouragement, and a little effort on our part. It would be all too easy for the Royal Opera House to give up, and never stage anything but things everyone already knew. But when an opera house resigns itself to an endless round of Figaro, Aida, Tosca, then the game is up. An orchestra needs to be driven to its limits from time to time; an audience needs to be given the chance to discover what pleasure and excitement lie at the edge of fruitful lands. Without those opportunities, we might as well give up on music altogether.

p.hensher@independent.co.uk

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