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Schoenberg is one of those composers whose life and work are near impossible to encapsulate in one short volume. While Bujić remains calm and collected about the challenge, he is occasionally breathless in his references and keeps one foot firmly in the scholarly camp. So while rigorous, the biography falls short of the truly approachable life-and-works narrative.

The depiction of Vienna at the turn of the last century, a nigh-mythologised metropolis, is served up with restraint and detachment. It justly places individuals such as Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner at a slight distance from each other. There’s none of the hackneyed idea that they all drank coffee in each other’s gardens. But without Vienna’s whirlwind, the catalysts for Schoenberg’s adherence and subsequent rejection of tradition are more prosaic. The music, as Bujić then points out, tells a very different story.

And when it comes to the really juicy bits of biography – Schoenberg’s wife’s affair with the dashing but depressive painter Richard Gerstl – the relationship and Gerstl’s suicide are dealt with in rather concise terms. The second string quartet, composed against these turbulent times, is described in a similarly abrupt manner. While you admire the restraint, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of sensation, particularly when the music is so sensational.

The major (and rare) achievement of the book is its slow but sure description of Schoenberg’s move through post-romantic tonality, atonality and serialism. The explanation of musical language is always tricky – the dancing about architecture conundrum – but Bujić remains clear and honest without baffling. And particularly deft is his invitation to listen to Schoenberg in a different way. He never claims it’s easy, but asks the potential listener to throw out their romanticised ideals of music as beautiful background and embrace the abstract challenges of the Second Viennese School. Where Bujić is less careful is in the dizzying breadth of his references.

Taken at a cautious pace, Bujić’s biography, like its subject, dazzles and delights. But when it assumes certain credentials on the part of the reader (or listener), its power can drift.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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