I have to start out with Schoenberg, and for me, to start with Schoenberg already puts everything on the wrong track. (If this offends you, read further at your own risk, because it’s only downhill from here.) The assumption of Schoenberg’s importance, given the continuing unpopularity of his music, is founded on the further assumption that what we’re teaching is the evolution of the musical language. In fact, the very title of our music history sequence, The Literature and Language of Music (“lit’n'lang” in departmental parlance, reminding me of “live ‘n’ learn”) presupposes that there is a language of music evolving through its canonical examples. If you want to trace a certain absolutist attitude toward atonality, and the development of the 12-tone row as a technical device, Schoenberg is of course essential to the sequence of events. But does his music, therefore, deserve pride of place in the literature?
That's from Kyle Gann, who teaches at Bard and represents the vital strain of American music that lives outside of the academy.
100 years later, Schoenberg looks increasingly like an anomly, but an important one. He was essenially reactionary, seeking to preserve the past by clothing it in something of a contemporary system. I know his work because I'm a composer and it's important to know it, but I don't enjoy it. I don't think he was a top flight composer (although Berg and Webern were) and his best work are the late Romantic pieces, they speak in what seems to me his true voice, while the atonal works are so over-determined and self-conscious about their means.
There's a back issue of The Wire, somewhere, where Steve Reich has a briliant offhand remark about the twentieth century being an argument between Debussy and Schoenberg that Debussy won. The point is the Debussy found he didn't need to use the traditional forms, like sonata and variations, in order to make finely structured music that retained the expressive and structural power of tonality. Schoenberg, thought to be revolutionary, believed in the superiority of German music which meant the superiority of the forms he already knew. He, unlike Debussy and Stravinsky, never really imagined new forms, nor a quality music without a national quality. He was a fucking dinosaur.