Tom Simone is a professor at the University of Vermont, where he has taught for over 40 years in the English department. He’s translated the first two parts of Dante’s Commedia and is currently in the process of finishing its third and final part. Together with Paul Orgel, he has organised one concert per semester for the past 7 years that explores a literary era through its classical composition.
Do you know any stories about Schoenberg?
My teacher, who was a pretty good pianist and taught music history, actually met Schoenberg. He told me about the meeting. It happened around 1951 or 1952.
So, just before he died?
Yes, that’s right. Schoenberg apparently said to him, “I’m really interested in the electric piano, because of the different way of doing music.” I couldn’t figure out what he meant. This was before computers were around and tape recorders were just coming in. Schoenberg, even at that time, was interested in new ways of thinking about music.
What is it like for you to listen to Schoenberg’s music?
I don’t listen to it as much as I might. Obviously, there’s Verklärte Nacht (Op. 4), though that’s semi-Wagnerian. Schoenberg’s actually hard for me. For example, Berg’s more accessible for me in many ways.
What is it that makes it difficult? Is it the dissonance?
I think it may be the logic. I don’t understand it very well. It’s disorienting, since it makes you look at the music’s organisation in different ways. You need to listen more to get over the initial weirdness. I like the early, romantic works. What I particularly like is A Survivor from Warsaw (Op. 47). The narrative gives you a way into what he’s doing musically. I haven’t seen Moses and Aron live, but I’ve listened to it a number of times. I do like the string quartets, though. Maybe it’s because it’s a smaller ensemble. I like some of the early piano music too, when he was first discovering the twelve-tone method.
They’re quite beautiful. And quite short.
Maybe being both shorter and with a smaller group of instruments lets me access the music in a less complex way than with the later orchestral works. Though I do like the Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31).
You know quite a lot!
Well, I know some, but not intimately.
What do you think he was like as a man?
From what I can understand, he had very strong opinions. Obviously, he had to defend who he was both personally and musically. I remember a story of Berg coming to him with a piece and being criticised very harshly. Berg was very disoriented, because Schoenberg didn’t like to criticise his music that much. I think Schoenberg was very determined and in a way struggling to be in control of himself and what he was doing.