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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 through thick and thin.

Schoenberg’s letters are epigrammatic (“the modern-minded cling to the abstruse and enjoy it only if it remains unclear to them”), ironical (“the people seemed to despise me as much as if they knew my music”), tactless (he acknowledges Berg’s gift of a book with “I never…would have considered acquiring [it] myself…. The ones I want are missing”), and bullying (“I am extremely annoyed, for I realize how irresponsibly you treated the matter…. Now I know I cannot depend upon you”). But Schoenberg’s humor balances his testiness (“Enter rehearsal numbers as follows—a number every 10th measure;…at the 20th measure—2; at the 30th measure—3;…at the 82,756,930th measure—8,275,693”).

Schoenberg the teacher dominates the book, and some of its best lines are his instructions, musical and moral: Do not “skirmish with journalists,” he writes. “It intensifies hate but lessens contempt.” Urging Berg to “get involved in practical music making,” Schoenberg gives matchless advice on how to conduct a rehearsal: “Talk as little as possible. Never try to be witty…. There are only the following kinds of mistakes….” At least one remark belongs in Bartlett’s: “Of course he seems to have quite ‘a mind of his own’ and that is probably where he is weakest.”

Berg, at the opposite extreme, is effusive and expletive-prone (countless sentences begin with “Oh,” and underscoring is compulsive), hyperbolic (“How right you are in this, as in everything,” “My debt to you…has long since exceeded infinity”), obsequious and self-abasing (“I must thank you for your censure“), religiose (on a photo of Mahler’s birthplace: “Doesn’t this resemble the shelter in which Christ was born?”), and weepy (“Of the inner joy I felt when I read your words, I cannot speak—for that there are only tears”).

Berg’s epistolary style provokes what he refers to as Schoenberg’s “affectionate admonitions,” though the affection is hard to find:

Dear Berg…. Please number your questions so I can find them more easily when I answer you. [There are] so many excuses, parenthetical asides, “developments,” “extensions” and stylizations that it takes a long time to figure out what you are driving at…your formalities…. Break that habit!!

And later: “One sentence on each point, clear and concise…. Surely by now you have learned from my letters.” Schoenberg even complains about the length of Berg’s address, whereupon self-addressed envelopes are sent, adding to the irritation. But Berg’s style does not change, even though he drafts his letters.

When the correspondence begins, Berg is in Vienna, Schoenberg in Starnberger-see, where he has fled because a neighbor in his Vienna apartment house has alleged that his nine-year-old daughter was corrupting the neighbor’s five and eleven-year-old sons. In the beginning, and as it will be thereafter, most of the letters center on a real or imagined slight. The initial misunderstanding, for which Berg sends a treacly apology, is the possibility that he has “overrated” Schoenberg, something Schoenberg “fears.” This leads to a new career for Berg as Schoenberg’s factotum, and he is soon mediating with a lawyer in the affair with Schoenberg’s neighbor; arranging to sublet Schoenberg’s apartment, dispose of the contents, find a mover, oversee the shipment of furniture to Berlin; making panhandling calls on well-known music and art patrons in a campaign to raise money for Schoenberg’s support. Rather more in Berg’s line, Schoenberg puts him to work correcting the proofs and compiling the indexes for his book on harmony, although, as he writes, “It probably won’t appear any time this century.” Needless to say, these onerous and time-consuming tasks are unremunerated, except for the “honor” and “privilege.”

What the reader should bear in mind from the outset is that Berg did not know the revolutionary creations of Schoenberg’s greatest year, 1909, the Five Pieces for Orchestra and Erwartung, that breakthrough to atonality which is still the central event of twentieth-century music, and that the music of the composer he quite literally worships (“dear idolized Herr Schoenberg,” “your holy person”) dates from an earlier period. Berg was never able to keep pace with Schoenberg, and as late as 1928 he remarked on his wish to become “as familiar with your later works as I believe I am with the first half.”

The correspondence concerning Berg’s labors in connection with Schoenberg’s mammoth Gurrelieder—transcribing the piano score and correcting its proofs, checking the orchestra parts for mistakes, writing the concert guide—sets the tone of the book. Not altogether unpredictably, Schoenberg rejects Berg’s first and second efforts with the piano reduction as “too difficult,” and raises for him the awful prospect of having to do it over yet again: “You’ll make a simpler one next time.” Berg’s corrected proofs are also returned to him, “[because of] an incredibly many errors…. I think you frequently misread transposing instruments and various other things,” and even Schoenberg’s compliment on the subsequent vetting is tied to a remark about remaining errors. When the piece is finally scheduled for performance and Schoenberg wants to have the orchestra parts compared to the score, Berg, back up for once and showing his instinct for self-preservation, estimates that this would take “at least five hours a day for five weeks.”

As Berg starts on the Gurrelieder guide, Schoenberg warns him against “poetry” and “flowery adjectives.” When it is finished, Schoenberg tells him to apply an editorial bistoury and “cut 15–30 pages,” which is half of it: “Don’t let me influence your decision,” he adds, as if Berg’s reactions were unforeseeable (“the least criticism from you…robs me of almost all hope”). Years later, Schoenberg returned to the subject of Berg’s guides with “[if you do any more] you shouldn’t design them so that they are practically unintelligible without the score…. In…the Gurrelieder guide…there is a bit too much ‘scientific’ text with x2 * y3 + ab. 2[3q5 ± (f * I2 – – -/+ * Ibpa?!———4fffsf]: 26aA.”

The pattern of humble offerings from Berg and crushing responses from Schoenberg does not change until Wozzeck (1925), after which Berg is accorded, but cannot fully accept, equal footing. Earlier in the correspondence Schoenberg has admitted that “the minute I see something, I immediately feel an urge to contradict.” One letter from him begins: “Dear Berg, I am sorry to have to tell you that you are wrong, although you used almost two pages trying to prove you were right.” When Berg talks about the “fun” he is having with his “radio set,” Schoenberg says that “turning it off remains the greatest pleasure.” When Berg sends some windy observations about kite-flying, Schoenberg pounces on him with, “Your conclusion about the flight of kites is wrong,” followed by the correct explanation in a few sentences, one of them containing the thought that “only the immaterial possesses stability,” on which, of course, Berg battens.

After Berg claims a “tempo machine” as his brainchild, Schoenberg says that he described “exactly the same device” to a friend two years earlier. In response to Berg’s gift of a book about the Jesuits, Schoenberg tells him that it “only confirms a number of things I had already thought myself.” Yet Schoenberg is no less annoyed when Berg’s letters do not come: “Why haven’t I heard from you? Have you lost all interest in me?” In the second year of the First World War, Schoenberg remarks that it might be “easier to bring about world peace than clear the air between us.” But the belligerence seems to be all on his side.

Was Schoenberg paranoid? According to his widow, as the present reviewer can testify from correspondence as well as conversations with her, Schoenberg believed that he was jinxed, that an encroaching malignant force foredoomed him and his work to misadventure. His references in these letters to a “persecution complex” and to his periods of “self-delusion” are probably not of much significance, since he is constantly analyzing himself (as well as Berg, whose asthma he dismisses as “autosuggestion”). But such statements as “I must always be prepared for the nightly ambush of conspirators” and “I detect a hint of defection in the slightest negligence” certainly sound like danger signals, as does his “accusation” that Berg was “cultivating” his friendship “only with an eye to posterity.”

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