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How Dead is Arnold Schoenberg?

Arnold Schoenberg Letters

selected and edited by Irwin Stein
St. Martin’s, 309 pp., $8.75

In 1910 Arnold Schoenberg, then thirty-five, began to keep copies of all the letters he wrote. Many of these were about business—teaching jobs, the publication of his works, specifications for performance. He would seem around that time to have arrived at a decision to organize his career on a long-line view involving the dual prospect of his continuing evolution as a composer—for he was clearly not one to have shot his bolt by thirty—and of his counting on pedagogy, for which he had a true vocation, as his chief support.

His plan was to become a private teacher (privatdozent) at the Academy of Music and Fine Arts in Vienna, avoiding by the modesty of such a post both the anti-Semitic attacks and the anti-modernist attacks that he felt would make it impossible for him to be offered a staff appointment. Actually he was offered a staff appointment two years later; but by that time he had got what he could out of Vienna and removed to the more lively music and art center that was Berlin.

The Vienna plan of 1910 had been calculated to play down his own music and call attention to his qualities as a teacher by bringing to the notice of the academic authorities the work of two pupils, Alban Berg and Erwin Stein.

Perhaps after all the two men in whose hands the Conservatoire’s destiny lies, can be brought to realize who I am, what a teacher the Conservatoire would deprive itself of, and how ungifted it would be to take on someone else when I am to be had for the asking. And alas I am to be had!!!

But no sooner was he had than he found a way, always his preoccupation, of leaving Vienna. For though he naturally loved his native city, he suffered from its perfidy toward music. And indeed Vienna is a bitch. Her treatment of Mozart and Schubert proved that. And even those who led her on a leash—Beethoven, say, and Brahms—got little profit out of their dominance, save in the latter case a certain satisfaction from administering through a henchman on the press local defeats to Wagner and to Bruckner.

Schoenberg at twenty-six, in 1901, had moved to Berlin, but two years later he was back home. The 1910 displacement lasted five years, till 1915, when he was obliged to return for mobilization. He was then forty. At fifty he left Vienna again, this time for good, to accept a teaching post in Berlin at the Prussian Academy of Arts. By then he was world-famous, but he was still poor. And he had come to insist in the hearing of all not only on his skill as a teacher but on his absolute authenticity as a composer. He left no slighting remark of foe or friend unprotested.

I am much too important,” he wrote in 1923 to Paul Stefan, “for others to need to compare themselves to me.” Further, “I thoroughly detest criticism and have only contempt for anyone who finds the slightest fault with anything I publish.” These are the words of one who has long since lost youth’s bravado, who has been critically flayed and left with no skin at all to cover his nerve ends.

Except for his usual reaction to critical attacks, mostly foreign by this time, the years from 1926 to ‘33 seem to have been his least painful. He was an honored artist well paid; and he worked for only six months a year, these of his choosing. This freedom allowed him to spend winters South, eventually in Catalonia, where he found relief from a growing respiratory weakness.

The letters from this time are those of almost any successful musician. To conductors and impresarios he itemizes everything, exactly how his works are to be played and exactly what circumstances he will not tolerate. To enemies and to friends he draws an indictment for every rumored slight, then offers full forgiveness if they will admit him right. In fact, he is right; he has had to be. After all the persecutions and misunderstandings he has suffered, he cannot bother to blame himself for anything. He protests, though, against all who refuse him understanding and honor and against all anti-Semitism, especially the anti-Semitism of Jews who descend to that level in refusing his music. For in success he still must fight; fighting has become a conditioned reflex. And he cannot quite relax enough, even with time and money, for going on with the two great opera-oratorios, Moses and Aaron and Jacob’s Ladder. Indeed, he did not ever finish them. For he was tired; his health was undermined; and soon he was to be a refugee.

From the summer of 1933, when he left Germany for good, till his death in 1951, he wrote a great deal of music and did untold amounts of teaching in the Los Angeles region, where he had gone for his health in the fall of ‘34 and where UCLA picked him up cheap at sixty, then at seventy threw him on the scrap heap with a pension of thirty-eight dollars a month for feeding a family of five. America, no less than Austria, be it said, behaved like a bitch. And though he found here through Germanic connections publishers for his work, money dispensers such as the Guggenheim Foundation could not see their’ way to helping him.

The sweetness and the bitterness of Schoenberg’s American letters are ever so touching. The European correspondence rings like a knell, for he never ceases to sing out that save for himself and his pupils music is dead. In America he fancies for a moment that his teaching can bring it to life. Then come the disillusionments, first that the basic teaching is too poor for him to build on (he can thus teach only the simplest elements) and second that American music had detached itself from the Germanic stem. He despises equally the reactionary programs of Toscanini and the heretical modernisms of Koussevitsky, neither of whom plays his works. And in his mouth the word Russian has become an injury.

Fundamentally,” he writes in 1949 to his brother-in-law Rudolf Kolisch,

I agree with your analysis of musical life here. It really is a fact that the public lets its leaders drive it unresistingly into their commercial racket and doesn’t do a thing to take the leadership out of their hands and force them to do their job on other principles. But over against this apathy there is a great activity on the part of American composers, la Boulanger’s pupils, the imitators of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and now Bartók as well. These people regard musical life as a market they mean to conquer [in contrast to his own Germanic view of it as a religion] and they are all sure they will do it with ease in the colony that Europe amounts to for them. They have taken over American life lock, stock and barrel, at least in the schools of music. The only person who can get an appointment in a university music department is one who has taken his degree at one of them, and even the pupils are recruited and scholarships awarded to them in order to have the next generation in the bag. The tendency is to suppress European influences and encourage nationalistic methods of composition constructed on the pattern adopted in Russia and other such places.

He is quite right, of course; and the shoe pinches. The only advantage he can see is that

the public is at the moment more inclined to accept my music, and actually I did foresee that these people, so chaotically writing dissonances and that rough, illiterate stuff of theirs, would actually open the public’s eyes, or rather ears, to the fact that there happen to be more organized ways of writing a piece, and that the public would come to feel that what is in my music is after all a different sort of thing.

The basis of Schoenberg’s claim had not before been that he was doing “a different sort of thing,” but rather that he was doing the same thing Bach and Brahms had done, and even Mozart, and that any novelty involved was merely a technical device for continuing classical music-writing into modern times. He did not consider himself different from the earlier German masters (for him the only ones one need take seriously) or from living ones either, but merely, as regards the latter, a better workman. But in America’s wider musical horizon, which included (along with Germany) France, Italy, Russia, and the Orient, he felt obliged to assert his distinction as a difference in kind. His neighbor in Hollywood, Igor Stravinsky, was doing in fact just that, had been doing so ever since he had observed it being done in Paris by Pablo Picasso. In Picasso’s assumption geniuses were a species, with only a few available, and with consequently the right to a very high price. Poor Schoenberg, who for all his artist’s pride was humble before talent, even student talent, may not have been considered eligible for the big money simply because he naively believed that professional skill and an artist’s integrity were enough. In any case, never in his published letters or other writing did he lay claim to special inspiration, to divine guidance, to a genius’s birthright, or to any form of charismatic leadership.

But in America he felt impotent and outraged that music should be taking off without his consent, that pregnancy should not await the doctor. Indeed he tended to consider all such independences as irresponsible and as probably a plot against his music. Another plot, indeed, where there already had been so many! And so he came to view our movement as the work of men differing from him not only in degree but also in kind. And the integrity represented by himself and his pupils he ended by denying to almost everybody else.

Yet he remained a fine companion; there was no deception in him. And he went on writing letters to everyone in praise of the artists he had loved—in painting, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka, in architecture Adolf Loos, in music Gustav Mahler, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg. For himself he demanded honor and begged money. He despised the State of Israel for trying to create a music “that disavows my achievements”; then later he aspired to citizenship and offered to revise the whole of music education there.

The self-portrait that is distilled from these letters is that of a consecrated artist, cunning, companionable, loyal, indefatigable, generous, persistent, affectionate, comical, easily wounded, and demanding, but not the least bit greedy. That artist we know from his music to have been a Romantic one; but he was too sagacious for that, too realistic. And he was too preoccupied with the straight-forward in life ever to have become aware, even, of the great dream-doctor Sigmund Freud, though they were contemporaneous in Vienna, with neither of them exactly ignorant about contemporary thought.

We know him for a Germanic artist too, for whom every major decision was a square antithesis, an either-or, for whom a certain degree of introversion was esteemed man’s highest expressive state (inwardness is the translation word for what must have been innigkeit), and for whom our century’s outbreak of musical energies represented only a series of colonial revolutions to be suppressed, floods to be dammed, drained off, and channelized, naturally by himself acting alone. The dream is unbelievable, but in today’s world not far from having come true, like Dr. Freud’s sexual revolution.

Schoenberg’s music and teaching are at present a world influence of incomparable magnitude. Nor have the vigor and charm of his personality ever been in doubt. Nevertheless his work is still not popular. Like the music of Bruckner and of Mahler and, until in recent decades only, that of Brahms, it has the savor rather of a cause than of plain nourishment. Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, in the past; Debussy and Stravinsky in our time, have been as clear to us as Santa Claus. Not so Arnold Schoenberg, at least not yet. But the man has long been precious to those who knew him; and now the letters, with their punctilious indignation and casual buffoonery, their passionate friendships and irascible complaints, their detailed accountings and their Olympian self-regard, their undying optimism under the most humiliating poverty and disregard, have given us a man that many will come to love and laugh at and get angry at and cherish, just as if he were still with us.

And perhaps he is. In Vienna, certainly, Mozart still walks beside one, Beethoven is at his window, and Schubert is drinking and writing songs in any tavern. The whole career of Arnold Schoenberg resists historical pinning down. Not in the Vienna of 1874, where he was born, nor in that of 1900, where he was virtually unnoticed, nor in Berlin of the early Teens and late Twenties, where he was a power, nor in the Hollywood of ‘34 to ‘51, where he was merely beloved, in none of these places did he sum up a time. He slipped into and out of them all, just being Arnold Schoenberg, and everywhere except in Berlin being roundly persecuted for that. Even today I would not be too sure he is not writing music over many a student’s shoulder and putting in many a violation of his own famous method just to plague its more pompous practitioners.

Certainly he is being a plague to Igor Stravinsky, whose adoption of that method after the master’s death has left him in a situation almost as skinless as that of Schoenberg in life. Certain known attacks on Stravinsky’s music there, none of them published here, have obliged him, as a confessed Schoenbergian, to take cognizance of these with what grace he can muster, which is considerable. Reviewing the Letters last October in the London Observer, he accepted their strictures with a gallant mea culpa and paid higher praise to their author than he has ever paid, I think, to any other musician.

The lenses of Schoenberg’s conscience,” he said, “were the most powerful of the musicians of the era, and not only in music.” Also, “the Letters are an autobiography…the most consistently honest in existence by a great composer.” Actually Stravinsky’s exit from a seeming impasse has been ever so skillful and handsome. And its warmth of phrase is such as to make one forget almost that the gesture was imposed. Imposed by what? Simply by the fact that a great and living master had been resoundingly slapped by a dead one.

As for how dead Arnold Schoenberg really is, let us not hazard a guess. The Viennese composers have never rested easy.

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