Proposing that Arnold Schoenberg has been more discussed than heard, more tolerated than loved, Allen Shawn puts aside ultimate judgments about Schoenberg’s place in music history to explore the composer’s fascinating world in a series of linked essays“soundings”that are both searching and wonderfully suggestive. Approaching Schoenberg primarily from the listener’s point of view, Shawn plunges into the details of some of Schoenberg’s works while at the same time providing a broad overview of his involvements in music, painting, and the history through which he lived.
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Arnold Schoenberg's Journey
By Allen Shawn
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2002 Allen Shawn
All rights reserved.
On September 13, 1874, Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna into a poor Jewish family of Hungarian ancestry. His mother, Pauline, a pious Orthodox Jew, came from a family of cantors. His father, Samuel, a shoemaker, was described (by Arnold's cousin Hans Nachod) as a "free thinker ... a dreamer, an anarchic idealist." Schoenberg was the eldest of three children. His sister, Ottilie, was born in 1876; his brother, Heinrich, in 1882.
Schoenberg took violin lessons at the age of eight, later teaching himself the cello by playing a large viola fitted with zither strings as if it were a cello. This hybrid instrument, a viola-as-cello that he held between his legs but on which he used the violin fingerings he already knew, could perhaps serve as a metaphor for Schoenberg's life in music. It was but the first instance in what would prove a permanent search for resourceful and innovative solutions to problems. As an adult he even developed a distinctive way of holding a pen because he felt that the standard way didn't give a person adequate control over his or her handwriting. The viola-as-cello idea specifically reappears in the Serenade movement of Pierrot Lunaire, when, in illustration of Pierrot scraping "with grotesque giant bow on his viola," it is the cello that carries the melody.
At age ten Schoenberg began composing small compositions for the instruments he knew, starting with duets composed for his violin lessons and progressing to trios and quartets he played with friends, relying on installments from an encylopedia subscription to inform him about the rules and practices of music. He eagerly awaited the arrival of volume "S" to learn about sonata form. He also was guided by his friend and teacher Oskar Adler (1875–1955), who, in addition to instructing him in violin and viola, gave him his first notions of music theory and harmony.
His father's death on New Year's Eve 1890 brought an end to his official schooling, and he found a job as an apprentice at a bank to help support his family. In a letter to his cousin Malvina Goldschmied written during this period, the seventeen-year-old described himself as a "nonbeliever" who nonetheless recommended a close study of the Bible — a synthesis of his father's skepticism and his mother's faith. Disagreeing with his cousin's characterization of the Bible as "nonsense," he wrote that, on the contrary, one could find in it "all of the most difficult questions concerning Morals, Lawmaking, Industry, and Medical Science ... resolved in the most simple way, often treated from a contemporary point of view." He also urged her to read his own letters to her more carefully, saying that each sentence contained something specific and that "if perhaps the surface seems smooth to you, the water is very deep, and often the smoother the surface the deeper the water." Having enclosed flowers in his previous letter, he now risked adding near the close of this one:
(I .. l. ... D ...!)
which she could decode as "Ich liebe Dich."
Although cousin Malvina rejected his amorous advances (she eventually married the operetta librettist Robert Bodanzky), she said in later years that even then she sensed Schoenberg's greatness, though she was not sophisticated enough to appreciate everything he had to say or, in particular, his sense of irony.
Eventually Schoenberg did purchase an inexpensive cello and learn the correct fingerings. He joined a small amateur orchestra, Polyhymnia, conducted by the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, and held his own as the cello "section." In 1901 he married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde, a highly educated and intelligent woman who was also a fine pianist.
Of great significance to his development as a composer were two facts: that he had early firsthand experience as a chamber musician and that he was not — and never would be — a performing pianist. Even his music for extraordinarily large forces possesses a chamber music quality in its contrapuntal and soloistic treatment of each instrument. Furthermore, it could only have been written by one steeped as a performer in the chamber music tradition. Throughout his life, Schoenberg's gifts as a coach and a conducter were greatly admired.
Zemlinsky, only two years older than Schoenberg himself, gave him some lessons in composition and introduced him to the music of Wagner, as well as to the progressive artists and intellectuals who frequented the Cafe Griensteidl (also known humorously as the "Cafe Megalomania"). Primarily, though, Schoenberg taught himself, becoming an avid concertgoer and devotee of current music. A relative later recalled him during those years as "wild and energetic."
He particularly loved Wagner and later estimated that as a young person he had seen each of the Wagner operas some twenty to thirty times. But in his first compositions he drew most obviously on Brahms as a model, and it should be remembered that Brahms, who lived until 1897, composed such works as the Clarinet Quintet (1891), Clarinet Sonatas (1894), the opus 118 and 119 Piano Pieces (1892), and the Vier ernste Gesänge (1896), during the years that Schoenberg was writing his first songs and piano and chamber pieces. Brahms remained a lifelong touchstone, for the concision, asymmetry, and harmonic adventurousness of his musical language, which left an evident imprint on even twelve-tone works such as the Piano Concerto, but also for his subtle relationship to both tradition and innovation (the subject of Schoenberg's 1947 essay "Brahms the Progressive"). From Brahms Schoenberg also learned the "chamber music" way of thinking — in which each instrument in a work is a lively, soloistic participant — that characterized even his orchestral music.
Scholars note this "distinctly Brahmsian phase up to about 1897" and discern "a more chromatic, Wagnerian" one in the pieces written from 1897 to 1899. Yet nothing in Schoenberg's early music reaches the heights of the churning, tonal restlessness of Tristan und Isolde.
Although he was born poor, Schoenberg came of age in a milieu in which Jews were exerting a powerful intellectual influence. Arthur Schnitzler was the most widely read novelist and most frequently performed playwright in Vienna. This was also the city of, among others, the young Sigmund Freud, the architect Adolf Loos, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Buber, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Oskar Kokoschka. The controversial composer Gustav Mahler became director of the Vienna State Opera in 1897.
Even while the lives of emancipated Jews were similar in most respects to those of bourgeois Catholics and even Protestants, anti-Semitism was always in the air. Schnitzler, in his book My Youth in Vienna, writes of his bitter memories of the tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish students when he was a medical student (a reason young Jewish men became particularly adept at fencing) and quotes from the so-called Waidhofen Manifesto of the mid-1880s barring Jews from membership in student organizations and fraternities. He quotes these lines from that document, and they are explicit: "Everyone of a Jewish mother, every human being in whose veins flows Jewish blood, is from the day of his birth without honor and void of all the refined emotions. ... He is ethically subhuman."
Throughout Schoenberg's childhood, manifestations of this seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism could be counted on to reemerge throughout Europe at regular intervals, a hysterical outlet for primal fears and insecurities, fed by envy (for instance, of the German Jewish banking families), paranoid fear (of the rising working class), ancient religious prejudice (dating back to Martin Luther, among others), and pure fabrication (such as the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which surfaced at the beginning of the century in Russia and was cited as evidence that the Jews were plotting a takeover of the world). The Dreyfus case in France, which inspired Theodor Herzl's proposal for a Jewish state, occurred when Schoenberg was twenty.
Schoenberg spent his early years as a composer in Vienna and in Berlin, where he lived during three different phases of his life, from 1901 to 1903, from 1911 to 1915, and from 1926 to 1933. While in Berlin the progressive artistic climate seemed to foster social satire and political commentary, in Vienna, the city of Freud, artists tended to pursue expression that was removed from a political and social context, art turned inward to the aesthetic, spiritual, and psychological realms. Bruno Bettelheim interprets this as a cultural reaction to the decline of the Hapsburg empire, a response to the loss of Austria's six-hundred-year hegemony over Germany. Vienna began to flourish intellectually at the very moment of the dissolution of the empire that had established its centrality to begin with. As the Prussian empire, with Berlin as its capital, became consolidated in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Vienna began its cultural exploration of the inner world of man in literature, painting, and music. Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. Simultaneously there was a veritable explosion of lighthearted, escapist entertainment in the operettas and waltzes of Strauss, Lehár, and Suppe.
Influenced by a friend, Walter Pieau, who was an opera singer, Schoenberg, although perhaps still a "nonbeliever," converted to Lutheranism and was baptized on March 25, 1898, with Pieau present. We can only speculate about his reasons. Thirty-five years later, in Paris, after fleeing with his family from Nazi-dominated Austria, he converted back to Judaism in an official ceremony witnessed by Marc Chagall. Many of his greatest works from his final two decades were explicitly or implicitly sacred and Jewish. Among the many paradoxes and internal contradictions of Schoenberg's life was one he shared with many of the artistic comrades of his early life: the fact that his patriotic devotion to the culture of Germany and Austria from which he emerged did not prevent him from being forced from it as an outcast.
Another paradox is that it was the very reverence this famously "atonal" master had for the tonal tradition of his forebears that spurred the thoroughness of his extension of it. His own (tonal) Theory of Harmony is among the few truly stimulating books of music theory, and the only one that can also be read as a work of literature. Not only are his early works "tonal," even a number of his later works either are tonal or have pronounced elements of tonality.
* * *
Schoenberg's compositions are generally described as falling into four main periods.
1897–1908 Looked at in this way, the first phase of his work would begin with those first pieces growing out of Brahms and Wagner and the world of romantic tonality then at its zenith in the music of Strauss and Mahler and in the final song cycles of Hugo Wolf and would embrace his string sextet Verklärte Nacht (1899), the oratorio Gurre-Lieder (1901), the orchestral tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) (which was written almost contemporaneously with Debussy's opera based — as is this tone poem — on the Maurice Maeterlinck play), the String Quartet no. 1 (1905), and the forward-looking First Chamber Symphony (1906); 1908 was the pivotal year in which, in his String Quartet no. 2, he first introduced passages without a tonal center into the middle of a tonal work.
1909–13 The year 1909 saw the completion of the song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens, in which key signatures were dispensed with altogether, opening up a radically new world and leading to such works as Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909), Erwartung (1909), Three Pieces for Piano, op. 11 (1909), Six Little Pieces, op. 19 (1911), Herzgewächse, op. 20 (1911), Pierrot Lunaire (1912), and Die glückliche Hand (1913), which have been called both "expressionist" and "atonal," although neither term pleased the composer. It was in this phase that Schoenberg spoke of music in rather expressionistic terms, writing, "art belongs to the unconscious." This was also the period in which he produced the bulk of his visual artwork and, surprisingly, in which he put on paper his understanding of the tonal system in Theory of Harmony (Harmonielehre).
1921–32 An internal search can be inferred from the compositional silence of the years 1913–23, interrupted only by the production of the Orchestral Songs, op. 22 in the years 1913–16. What followed in 1921 was the creation of a conscious organizing principle for this new nontonal realm: the "method of composing with twelve tones." The twelve-tone era represented an organizational and "tonal" breakthrough, a way forward that was fantastically fruitful for this artist. To this phase belongs the Serenade, op. 24 (1923), the Piano Suite (1923), Variations for Orchestra (1928), and the operas Von Heute auf Morgen (1928) and Moses und Aron (1932), among many other works.
1933–51 The last phase began with Schoenberg's flight from Europe and his establishment of himself as a teacher in the United States. An extraordinary heterogeneity characterizes this period, in which he affirmed his renewed connection to Judaism in such pieces as the Kol Nidre of 1938, A Survivor from Warsaw of 1947, and the Modern Psalm of 1950; created entirely twelve-tone masterpieces such as the Violin Concerto and the String Quartet no. 4 of 1936, and the Piano Concerto of 1942; and composed works such as the Ode to Napoleon (1942) and the String Trio (1949), which seem to synthesize the preoccupations of a lifetime — including the once-abandoned tonality — into a single opus.
* * *
The tone of Schoenberg's music was his own from early on. Neither Brahms nor Wagner had the unusual combination of temperamental traits that makes his work so strangely airy and vibrant, complex yet also transparent. The early songs that resemble Brahms seem less weighty than Brahms; they seem to float in space. And the more "Wagnerian" passages of the Gurre-Lieder seem somehow less earthbound than Wagner, more limpid, outward-opening, both more contrapuntal and more architectural.
It is almost as if the tonality in this first period of his work "resolves" — in some unanalyzable way — only provisionally, leaving one with a sense of being suspended in midair, as if the very force of gravity exerted by tonal principles had itself weakened. Or perhaps that is only a trick played by our contemporary ears, that when we hear these early works we imagine that he was already instinctively employing tonality in quotation marks, as it were, as a choice rather than as the only possibility.
Friends of the composer in all his phases commented on the speed and naturalness of his composing process. When he was writing, the ideas seemed to tumble out almost irrepressibly. Although, to be sure, there could be much struggle and willed construction involved, this was at bottom a music of inspiration, composed in concentrated bursts of energy. Even the two-hour Gurre-Lieder was entirely sketched out in short score in only thirteen months (March 1900 to April 1901). The pattern persisted throughout his life. The Prelude to the "Genesis" Suite (1945) was written in just a week. When he could not compose — and there were several long hiatuses in his evolution — he simply wrote nothing. Oliver Neighbour sees in this joy in work a key to the odd buoyancy of even his most disturbing creations: "His sheer zest in the making of music is one of his most persistent characteristics: it accounts for the feeling of resilience that accompanies his exploration of even the darkest regions of experience and tempers his findings."CHAPTER 2
Many chamber works (including an important early string quartet perfected under Zemlinsky's guidance) and countless songs preceded the composition of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), generally considered Schoenberg's first major work. Having assimilated in these first pieces much of the language of Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, and Wagner, Schoenberg could trace himself back to the world of the original Viennese School — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Beethoven, it should be remembered, was still alive only fifty years before Schoenberg's birth.
By 1899, the year of Transfigured Night, Schoenberg's compositional mind was fully formed. Here are the transformations of themes, the complex polyphonic layerings, the sense of drama one will find in Five Pieces for Orchestra and later works, albeit still in a context that to our twenty-first-century ears sounds completely "tonal." Today Verklärte Nacht is performed with some frequency and pleases even those who dislike the rest of Schoenberg's music. To many listeners in its day, however, it opened up mysterious, alarming new musical vistas.
Excerpted from Arnold Schoenberg's Journey by Allen Shawn. Copyright © 2002 Allen Shawn. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Six Little Piano Pieces
BRIDGE PASSAGE, 1874-1908
1. First Loves
2. Transfigured Night
3. Dawn: The Gurre-Lieder
4. Berlin Cabaret
5. Coming Apart
6. An Inner Compulsion
A NEW FORM OF EXPRESSION, 1909-13
8. Listening to Five Pieces for Orchestra
9. Paths to (and in) Erwartung
10. Wrong Notes
11. Six Little Pieces
12. Theory of Harmony
14. Die glückliche Hand
SILENCE, ORDER, AND TERROR, 1914-33
15. Incident at Mattsee
16. Critics and Disciples
17. A Clearing in the Forest: Twelve-Tone Music
20. Moses and Arnold
22. 1940: Stravinsky and Schoenberg
24. On Being Short
25. Piano Concerto
26. Death and Rebirth
27. Seventy-fifth Birthday
28. Death and Rebirth II
29. Writings about Schoenberg
30. Last Notes: Portrait in Retrograde