The Emperor of China

The Berg–Schoenberg Correspondence: Selected Letters

edited by Juliane Brand, edited by Christopher Hailey, edited by Donald Harris
Norton, 439 pp., $29.95

Schoenberg and His Circle: A Viennese Portrait

by Joan Allen Smith
Schirmer Books, 319 pp., $24.95

The history of early twentieth-century music has yet to be written, and where it has been writ large must be rewritten, the editors of The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence declare. This chronicle of the relationship between two of its greatest composers, and of the interaction between them and Central European musical life in the years 1911–1935, immediately establishes itself as part of the rewriting. As fragments of autobiography, the letters fascinate far beyond the confines of music history.

Fewer than half of the eight hundred items in the not yet completely collected correspondence have been included, but the selection seems trustworthy, and, in any case, not many readers will be left feeling hungry for more. Nor are they likely to object very strongly to the cuts and substituted summaries in several of Berg’s letters, which outnumber Schoenberg’s more than three to one and are at least six times longer. Berg’s side of the correspondence is a trove of information, but it is so lacking in candor, after he has learned what will and will not go down, that the reader can hardly wait for Schoenberg’s ripostes. And Schoenberg, the same man to everybody, never diplomatic or political, has the more original mind.

Berg’s thralldom to Schoenberg and the contrast between their antithetical personalities are the main interest of the letters. The two rarely discussed music at the level of discovery and innovation in composition; Schoenberg, in his creative introrseness, did not confide in Berg on such matters, did not, on the evidence of this book, so much as mention the existence of Pierrot Lunaire to him until a few days before the première. For exchanges about music, apart from questions pertaining to the publication of Schoenberg’s works and comments on concerts and their preparation, we can look forward to Schoenberg’s and Berg’s letters to Webern, with whom, the editors tell us, both composers were “much readier to share…artistic motivation.”

The first communications, during the summer of 1911, are from Berg, who, at the age of twenty-six, has completed seven years of study with Schoenberg but cannot break the teacher-pupil dependency. Schoenberg, at thirty-seven, has written epoch-making music (not yet performed), is known by reputation throughout Europe, and a year later, with Pierrot Lunaire, will be recognized as the most influential composer and teacher of the time. As a musical radical without precedent, an esoteric, an intellectual cult figure—his pupils became his disciples—he was more harshly attacked all of his life than any other composer in music history. In consequence, he became rebarbative, prickly, spiteful—and not only to his greatest pupil, Alban Berg. After more than a decade of abortive attempts to be heard without ructions in Vienna, he organized a society for private performances that excluded critics and non-member audiences. In contrast to the small, quick, dynamic Schoenberg, Berg was tall, ponderous, effete, a hyper-Romantic who as yet had made no mark as a composer. Schoenberg remained his polestar …

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