How Dead is Arnold Schoenberg?

Arnold Schoenberg Letters

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

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg; drawing by David Levine

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…

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