Schoenberg and Dika

Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-1976)

by Dika Newlin
Pendragon Press, 369 pp., $18.95

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg; drawing by David Levine

In September 1938, a precocious girl of fourteen and her mother, leaving father and husband at home in East Lansing, Michigan, boarded a train bound for Los Angeles. The child had not only been admitted to UCLA, but also to its composition classes taught by Arnold Schoenberg.

Three years earlier, Dika Newlin, aged eleven, had written a piece of music that attracted the attention of professionals, among them Vladimir Bakaleinikoff, the conductor, who, after a spell in film music in Hollywood, returned to Michigan convinced that Schoenberg was the supreme teacher of composition. At this time, anyone advising a young student such as Dika would in all likelihood have recommended Nadia Boulanger or Hindemith, the Curtis or Eastman schools. Bakaleinikoff insisted that the girl should go to Schoenberg, and that any sacrifice was worth the goal. The steps by which this was attained do not require recounting here. Sufficient to say that the diaries kept by young Dika about her association with the master contain the only intimate views of Schoenberg the man so far published, as well as the first detailed account of his teaching in the American period. For this reason, Ms. Newlin’s Schoenberg Remembered will be read by generations to come.

On one level, the book is a chronicle of classroom events and reports on the author’s progress. But the main interest is in a drama: a battle of two giant egos. Something of Schoenberg’s has long been known from other sources, but never so closely observed as by Ms. Newlin—it takes one to know one. The enduring value of her diaries lies in the glimpses they offer of Schoenberg’s sessions in musical analysis, which serve Ms. Newlin as a theatricum anatomicum for analyzing Schoenberg, and from which she quickly emerges as a kind of challenger. In one corner of the arena is the sixty-five-year-old world-champion composer and musical revolutionary—though not yet recognized as such by the world of music in general, which is still ignorant of his works. The contender in the opposite corner is a fourteen-year-old kiddy-composer who will take the great man’s measure in her diary, providing, it may be, the only three-dimensional portrait of him to survive.

In some ways the contestants were well matched. For one thing, the self-esteem of each is relatively equal: “All the local lights present were making much of him, and of me, too…,” Ms. Newlin writes. For another, neither has even the semblance of a super-ego in the accepted meaning of the term—though Schoenberg requires none, thanks to his exceptional endowment of intuitive, and perhaps even psychic, powers. Then, too, both combatants are peculiarly able to arouse feelings of guilt, though their stratagems for this are not always successful on each other. (“Probably I should not go to him,” Dika writes, after a spat, “but will do so this time to give him a chance to redeem himself”;…

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