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Meredith Oakes was a music student in 1960s Australia, where Schoenberg’s method of composition was hailed in university circles as the ne plus ultra of modernism. Stravinsky, while not exactly a footnote to music history, never seemed to be held in quite the same esteem. It is only in the decades since that Oakes has come to understand that the latter’s influence has been infinitely more far-reaching than the former. This leads her in this essay to question the nature of progress and explore what it means to be modern.

This slim volume is not quite what I was expecting, but it is none the worse for that. From the title I imagined it would be an academic text about the relationship between the two composers. In some ways it is, but it is more a personal reflection on Oakes’s own changing attitude to music. There are quite lengthy digressions: between pages 27 and 41 there is no mention of the name Stravinsky. In a book of 64 pages, that’s a sizable chunk, yet the discussion of Wagner’s technique and its relevance to Schoenberg in the same section is so absorbing that the reader is carried along.

It’s notoriously difficult to write about what music sounds like, but Oakes has some delightful turns of phrase. ‘If you take a simple chord like CEG and just stretch the G upwards by a semi-tone,’ she explains when describing traditional western harmony, ‘you get a dissonant chord that feels as if it wants to spring back into place like elastic.’ Elsewhere there are flashes of humour that make this an engaging read: describing her and her fellow students’ reaction to hearing Pierrot Lunaire for the first time, she writes ‘what right-thinking teenager of any generation could fail to respond to something so dark and twisted? … We took to him like Goths taking to black hair dye.’

Oakes concludes that it is rhythm that separates the two composers. Schoenberg was essentially a prude, she argues, who intellectualised everything while Stravinsky was in touch with his animal, primitive side. No prizes for guessing which composer’s star is in the ascendant now.

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