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”; and, “I had prepared for the oral exam…by making myself up to look interestingly ill.”) Finally, though the aspiring composer worships the renowned master, she nevertheless possesses a mind of her own, and speaks it in her diaries on almost everything Schoenberg says or does. Thus, in spite of areas of agreement—“Schoenberg and I shared this taste,” the fifteen-year-old writes on one occasion—there are vast differences: “He thinks Verdi is a great composer. I do not concur.”
Although Ms. Newlin might see the matter differently, Schoenberg emerged the winner; at the end of her third year, he did not invite her to return, this despite her triumph at being awarded a University Fellowship (“I was the indubitable first out of 142 applicants”). On the night of the performance of her string quartet, June 6, 1941, she had “thought of staying away, to give Uncle Arnold a well-deserved punch, but [I] let my better nature get ahead of me.” This cherubic side directed her to sit “in the back of the auditorium by myself and wear a hat with a veil, so he got scared for fear that I’d left town without bidding him a fond farewell…. He refrained from insulting anybody all evening.” Perhaps Ms. Newlin should have titled her book, as she once considered doing, “Schoenberg in My Life.”
Apart from the two principals in the ego department, the only others of any importance in the cast of characters are Schoenberg’s family and dog, and Leonard Stein, the composer’s assistant, who, though not listed in the index, appears throughout, frequently as the focal point of one disaster or another:
…We played it splendidly, to my mind. Stein skipped a few beats, but not so that you’d notice it….
Stein broke a record today by bringing one measure of orchestration. Uncle Arnold had to spend nearly the whole hour explaining what was wrong with it. He wrote 12 p’s over it and crossed out all the notes….
The author’s classmates provide little more than a backdrop. Apparently, a similar relationship existed in East Lansing, where young Dika was secretly given high-school entrance exams for only three years of grade school, her “diminutive presence” having angered her classmates’ parents, who “feared that I might give their children an inferiority complex!” (Ms. Newlin adds, characteristically, “It wasn’t the last time I would be perceived as a threat….”) It follows that at UCLA she was soon doing more work than the other members of Schoenberg’s classes (“I had to present my variations…I brought the number up to seven; no one else had more than three”), receiving his highest marks, and invited to become a private pupil. Whatever the effects of her brilliance and domineering personality on her faceless fellow students, they are mentioned only because of their poor showings: “Y. was slow on the uptake,” and as for Miss E.,
I might have commented that Schoenberg wouldn’t get music out of her manuscripts, but confined myself to saying that, as much as I remembered, we had not handed in our variations on that day. At that, I think she would like to have killed me!
On one occasion Schoenberg berated Ms. Newlin for the sloppiness of her writing:
“No more, Miss Newlin, no more. There’s no use, I cannot help you. I cannot read one word of these hieroglyphics…. I absolutely refuse to look at your music so long as it is like this. You must write a clear manuscript. Why you not write like Miss Temple, hm?”
Whereupon Ms. Newlin describes Miss Temple as “a neat but untalented student,” and, a few days later, in another class, remarks that “Schoenberg did not look at our work today. A cursory look at Miss Temple’s current masterpiece got him shuttled off to a discussion of chorale harmonization….”
At times, the classroom of advanced composition students could be mistaken for a kindergarten. Here is a scene from “Structural Functions”:
When he asked me to describe the codettas and retransition [in the first section of the first Razumovsky Quartet], I did so in this way: “The retransition begins in measure 98.” That didn’t seem to satisfy him; he asked several others for the answer, but didn’t seem to be satisfied with theirs, either. Finally, he asked, “Why…do you not see that the codettas end in measure 97 and not in measure 98?” “But that’s what Miss Newlin said!” shouted Abraham…. “But you did not say this!… You said that the codettas end in measure 98!” “I did not!… I said the retransition began in 98….” “Mr. Stein…did I misunderstand her? Did she say this? Now, don’t become embarrassed; tell me frankly if she said it, for I might have misunderstood her!” “Well,” muttered Stein, “all I heard was 98.” (He has to keep his job, you know!) “Mr. Abraham…did she say it? Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!…Say yes or no!” “YES!” (…from the whole class). “And I still say she did not say it!” [from Schoenberg].
At this point, one of Ms. Newlin’s positive attributes should be mentioned. She became fanatically devoted to Schoenberg’s artistic principles, and to his music, in much the same way as Berg and Webern did three decades before her. But her horizons expanded far less in the direction of the music of these earlier pupils than in that of Bruckner and Mahler. At twenty-three, Dika Newlin published a classic study of Schoenberg and these two predecessors, the first in English to exhibit a profound knowledge of their interconnections and of the subject as a whole. Shortly after that she translated René Leibowitz’s Schoenberg et son école (i.e., Berg and Webern), which became one of the most influential books in American musical life in the early 1950s.
The most troublesome aspect of Schoenberg Remembered is in the question of genre. Practically all of the book is in diary form, yet much of it reads like a memoir. In her foreword, Ms. Newlin asserts that, apart from using pseudonyms and initials to protect people’s identities—such as “St.” for Schoenberg’s assistant!—and normal English spelling for the composer’s pronunciation, “the diaries are as I originally wrote them.” Yet at the end of the volume, she refers to her work of “editing…for the readers of the present day.” These editorial additions and changes are voluminous, however, and they require demarcation by italics, brackets, footnotes, type-face, or other means. For instance, after only nine entries, she writes of Schoenberg’s “…character. (Which I never did admire, by the way. I always thought him mean….)” This, transparently, is a conclusion of a later date, and not, as the entry begins, an observation of “this afternoon.” So, too, in the phrase already quoted in this review referring to Ms. Newlin’s fellow student, Miss E., “…as much as I remembered of it…,” why is the verb in the past tense, when the action is in the present, and would, Ms. Newlin be likely to forget what she had said only a few hours before? Moreover, are “by the way” and “you know” diarists’ expressions—except in unusual cases such as that of Anne Frank? And who is the addressee in such questions as “Did you ever hear of such a mix-up in your life?”
More important, the reader is utterly confused by the language of the diaries, in which, on the one hand, the fifteen-year-old writes such a sentence as
…after any prolonged period of highly concentrated and alembicated happiness, a corresponding period of depression should occur…
and, on the other, refers to Schoenberg as “Nuncie,” “Schoenie,” “Arnelie,” a “scream,” “goofy,” “loopy,” and calls his home “the dear old loony-bin.” (Interestingly, Ms. Newlin makes Schoenberg sound more Japanese than I, at any rate, remember him. “Ah so,” he says, and “This all the same,” “This fine,” as if he only rarely used verbs.) Furthermore, in 1940, such expressions as “I trow” and the “latest wrinkle” are anachronistic—from opposite time zones. But these questions aside, Ms. Newlin is responsible for the writing that she acknowledges to be of recent vintage—“To whoever would listen he would talk…”; various libraries were “handy hideouts for peaceful proof-reading far from frenetic felinity”; “Uncle Arnold was infernally diabolical”—and this is puzzling. How can an intellectual and multilingual woman write this way? Is it an example of Eliot’s famous contrast, with reference to Thomas Carlyle, between intellect and intelligence?
Withal, nearly every page contains illustrations of Schoenberg’s deserved reputation as a great teacher. This lies, above all, in his philosophy. He says of a colleague, “All he must do is teach what he knows; this easy; what I do, I teach the student what he must know; and this hard.” Ms. Newlin observes that, for Schoenberg,
A rule is like a law of nature and admits of absolutely no exceptions. Hence, he gives us few rules…and much advice. This latter is not meant to be followed slavishly, but rather to develop our ear so that we can use our own judgment…. He sees no sense in teaching us to write…in the “Palestrina style.”
Here is the essence of Schoenberg’s approach. For him it was absurd to learn to duplicate music of an unrepeatable past. He obliged his students to become self-reliant with an understanding of music from the inside, and to think creatively—rather than academically, in, say, a scholarly, and perfectly sterile, argument on sonata form.
To mention only three instances of Schoenberg’s pedagogy touched on in the book, Ms. Newlin paraphrases him on the subject of too rapid emotional change, since Beethoven, resulting from the traditional use of the major key for the subordinate theme in a minor-key piece. As an example of this weakness of “going too quickly from clouds to sunshine,” Schoenberg mentions Brahms’s C minor Quartet. But surely the key does not necessarily define the mood; Schubert, for one, can be as sad in the major as in the minor.
The second point shows Schoenberg’s acuity in making distinctions, in this case between “modern” thematic counterpoint and an earlier kind based on motives. Contrapuntal art, in his immediate background as well as in his own work, consists in combining two or more themes in as many ways as possible, whereas in older counterpoint all of the voices are strictly derived from the given motive.
The final point will surprise many, including musicians. Schoenberg, Ms. Newlin says, “Doesn’t believe in teaching harmony and composition concurrently,” harmony being so complex a subject that to learn it while composing would require too much time. What, then, is the student composer’s harmonic language? Schoenberg, self-taught in this regard, evidently thought that others should follow his example. But the question of the harmonic dimension in his own so-called twelve-tone music remains controversial, and the theory of it cannot be said to offer an entirely satisfactory explanation.
The book is more informative about the quirks of Schoenberg’s mind outside music than in it, and about the idiosyncracies of his personality and character. Unfortunately, Ms. Newlin directs us to what she considers to be his best remarks and most eccentric behavior, while virtually ignoring the truly revealing statement or story. Thus she introduces as a “terribly funny incident”—albeit wholly lacking in mirth for this reviewer—the composer’s attempt to mend a chair with a loose seat, ending in an accident of a splinter in his finger: “He screamed and yelled bloody murder, made the most terrifying faces, and pulled…until the blood came.” She also cites as “typically Schoenbergian naïveté” the composer’s “exclamation” one day, “in a voice replete with childish joy and wonderment,” “Oh look, it rains! Is it not wonderful?” In what way is this observation either Schoenbergian or naïve? Yet a deeply revealing incident, the story of Schoenberg’s temporarily runaway dog, Roddie, is passed over lightly. The composer’s reaction is indicative of his unparalleled self-centeredness. Not considering that all dogs have natural urges, and, at one time or another, take off on their own, Schoenberg insisted that the animal be given away. As Ms. Newlin explains, “He won’t have a dog that is disloyal.”
The author also seems not to have comprehended one of Schoenberg’s most famous witticisms. According to her, he admitted “having made errors in the Gurre-Lieder in writing low Bs for the cello and viola” (actually one low B in the third division of cellos at 100). But the story is that when someone observed to him that he had written a nonexistent note in the final tutti in that work, he riposted: “Leave it out: we won’t hear it anyway.”
The reader can decide for himself if “cruel” is a justified adjective to describe many of Schoenberg’s remarks to his students, and perhaps it is unfair to extract examples from the context of the book as a whole. Yet it must be remembered that Schoenberg, at the summit of his art, was obliged, in one class, to teach as many as thirty-six, of whom few, if any, could have been qualified to receive the instruction he was able to impart. Another consideration, also overlooked by the author, is that, all his life, the composer himself had been harshly abused and that this did not thicken his epidermis; in one sense, he was giving back what he had received. Certainly it was ungracious of him to say to a pupil who claimed to have thought of a “soaring” melody, “You mean, perhaps, snoring,” yet to Schoenberg this was simply a joke. But at times he does seem to be truculent with both Leonard Stein, the “harassed” and “docile” as Ms. Newlin calls him, and herself. One day when Mr. Stein appears with no work and gives the excuse that he has been moving, Schoenberg quips, “I think you’ve been moving all year.” And to Ms. Newlin he says that “the judges know so little that they will surely give the prize to someone like you, or to one who knows even less, if this is possible.”
A few mistakes should be corrected if the book is to be reprinted. Ms. Newlin gives the wrong title for Schoenberg’s Opus 34 (see p. 207) and says of this music that it “was not really for the movies, but only symbolically.” (Only symbolically what?) And when Ms. Newlin repeats Schoenberg’s story about the man who shouted after a performance of Pierrot Lunaire, “Not a single triad,” she neglects to mention that the very end of the work, the part that the listener would be most likely to remember, contains several of them. On another page (155), she writes that
Stravinsky attended the dress rehearsal of Pierrot Lunaire on October 9, 1912. He was deeply impressed, and discussed the work with Ravel…early in 1913. The fruits of this discussion were Ravel’s Mallarmé songs and Stravinsky’s Japanese songs….
In truth, Stravinsky was in Russia on October 9, 1912, and by that date had already sketched two of his Three Japanese Lyrics. He first heard Pierrot December 8, 1912, and did not see Ravel until almost four months after that.
Schoenberg Remembered is an invaluable history of a Los Angeles that is now all but completely buried. This reviewer, who at a slightly later date than the author knew all of the places and most of the people that she mentions, read the book with unanticipated nostalgia. Here are Peter Yates’s Evenings-on-the-Roof—the Neutra house on the same street as the Stravinskys’ Russian Church—and the rehearsal orchestra made up of film-studio musicians, which was conducted by both Stravinsky and Schoenberg (and, for that matter—horribile dictu—by this reviewer, too, who remembers Alma Mahler and Bruno Walter listening to him rehearse Petrushka and Haydn’s Symphony No. 31). And here on page after page are Klemperer, Krenek, and many other fascinating musicians, though none more fascinating than the subject of the book, of whom it may be said, as Ms. Newlin quotes him on J.S. Bach, he had “an infinite knowledge of the biology of tone.”
December 18, 1980