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.”

Yet the correspondence is more surprising in testimony of the opposite kind, in the many proofs that, so far from being a “misfit,” Schoenberg was an eminently sane, well-integrated, and socially responsible citizen, fully able to “function” and to “cope.” At the beginning of the 1914–1918 war, this “decadent” and “neurasthenic,” as he was abused throughout the Establishment world, became a feisty patriot, rallying to the Austrian cause and criticizing pacifists such as Karl Kraus. He prods poor Berg, much less sanguine about the draft, into buying war bonds (“an amount commensurate with your circumstances”), and reminds him that “more than ever it is important to be a man…. In a few months you may have to wield a bayonet.”

Berg, too, is forever analyzing himself, and in music as well as letters, identifying with Wozzeck at some level, portraying his temperament in a theme in the Chamber Concerto, impersonating himself in Lulu in the character Alwa, in the asthmatic breathing of Schigolch, and, on his deathbed, in Lulu herself (“Madame Bovary c’est moi“). Berg knew Freud personally, and was an early advocate of psychoanalysis—in which he signally failed to interest Schoenberg. He wrote to Schoenberg that Webern’s account of psychoanalytic therapy, after three months as a patient of Alfred Adler’s, “seems very plausible and reasonable.” But Schoenberg did not react. Nor does he comment on Otto Weininger’s crackpot theories about the sexes as repeated by Berg—“How can a woman’s illogic stand up to a man’s logic?”—or on Berg’s references to such manifestations of the psychopathia sexualis as his sister’s lesbianism (“a most unpleasant family matter”) and Adolf Loos’s child molesting, or on Berg’s repeated speculations about the deepest origins of illness being mental. Schoenberg’s ceaselessly inventing mind does not have time for nonprobative hypotheses of this kind, and he does not feel the need of any help with his psyche.

What does rouse Schoenberg is Berg’s conviction—which may have come from, and at any rate was confirmed by, Wilhelm Fliess’s Vom Leben und Tod—that the number “23” had always played a crucial role in his life: “Dear Berg…. Everyone has a number like that…. You must see that you become less dependent on these lucky and unlucky numbers by doing your best to ignore them!”—this from twelve-tone music’s triskaidekaphobe, who, sharing the superstition that governs the numbering of floors in American high-rise buildings, wrote “12A” in his manuscripts above the measure before 14.

In December 1912, Berg mailed the score of his Altenberg Lieder to Schoenberg for possible inclusion, wholly or in part, in a concert. When Berg proposed to simplify Schoenberg’s task by sending a piano reduction, Schoenberg took offense—“I am quite able to read the orchestral score”—and went on to criticize the music for betraying a “too obvious desire to use new means.” He nevertheless liked “a number of passages” and thought the songs “beautifully orchestrated,” at “first glance,” of course. True to form, Berg thanked him for his “kind words acknowledging that the score can make a pretentious impression,” and proceeded with a complicated explanation that Schoenberg probably did not read. Ultimately Schoenberg programmed the two songs that were not Berg’s first choices, and omitted the haunting final one, whose performance the young composer most wanted, but which would not have been heard anyway, since Berg’s music and texts provoked protests that led to a brawl and stopped the concert.

The songs are masterpieces, far more striking and original than Schoenberg’s orchestral songs to that date, as well as, arguably, after. They mark a huge leap in Berg’s development, the emergence of the theatrical, lyrical, and structural gifts that were to attain full expression in Wozzeck. All five of them, but especially the last, display a melodic character no less distinctive and much more immediately appealing than Schoenberg’s. Did some conscious or unconscious intuition of this influence Schoenberg’s choice?

What seems clear from the letters and other sources is that Schoenberg did not believe in Berg’s promise as a composer, that he regarded Webern as the more highly endowed pupil and recommended his music, but not Berg’s, to publishers. A year and a half beyond the Altenberg Lieder and with the score of two of Berg’s new orchestra pieces as further tokens of his genius, Schoenberg could still disappoint him with: “I can’t say anything about your work just yet.” Writing to Berg in 1929, Theodor Adorno reminds him that he had confessed to being greatly upset when, after the Altenberg performance ended in a scandal, Schoenberg dissociated himself from him. But this discovery also exposes Berg’s duplicity, since no hint of anything of the kind can be found in his letters to Schoenberg at the time.

Schoenberg’s reaction to the Altenberg Lieder recurred on a larger scale with the stunning success of Wozzeck in Berlin in December 1925, an event that would soon be seen as the peripeteia in Berg’s fortunes as well as in his relationship with Schoenberg. Two years earlier, after finishing the opera, Berg had disparaged it in comparison to Erwartung, that “concentration without its equal in music”—which may be true—as “3 acts of verbosity and loquaciousness”—which is false and gratuitous. This has to be said if only to help account for Schoenberg’s response to Wozzeck, and, in addition, the reader must remember that when the opera was first performed, Schoenberg was in a neoclassical period and further than ever from Berg’s passionate ebullitions.

Seeing Wozzeck a month after the première, and with no preparatory study of the score, Schoenberg sent Berg a brief note, unfortunately resorting to the hackneyed device of first criticizing the performance—“the orchestra stumbles,…the singers exaggerate,…[the] sets [are] irritating”—before vouchsafing an opinion of the work. “Some things I don’t find good,” he writes, singling out the topographical feature of Berg’s vaulting style: “Every scene builds to a great orchestral FFF.” But on the whole “it is very impressive and there is no doubt I can be proud of such a student.”

Berg’s craven reply is exasperating: “That you really didn’t need to feel ashamed of me as a student makes me very happy.” Virtually overnight Wozzeck catapulted him to a preeminent position among the handful of great living composers, and to a popularity that Schoenberg would never know. In the last year of Berg’s life Schoenberg acknowledged: “You…alone in our cause managed to win general recognition.” The infrequent letters of the decade from Wozzeck to Berg’s death reflect on both sides Berg’s change of status, as well as his ability to balance the two claims of artistic success and loyalty to Schoenberg. But the servility remains, an undiscardable habit.

Unlike Schoenberg, who concentrated almost exclusively on himself as a source of creativity in music, painting, and literature, Berg had an ear and a mind for other voices. We are not surprised to learn from the letters that the composer who recognized the greatness of Georg Büchner also sent Kafka’s Country Doctor collection, Dostoevsky’s Idiot, and Broch’s Sleepwalkers to Schoenberg. Yet Berg could not bring himself to oppose his literary-critical perceptions to his teacher’s. In one mid-1920s letter he quotes some less than immortal lines from a poem by Schoenberg and, to the reader’s mortification, calls them “surely among the most sublime in the German language.”

The editors warn that Berg’s musical judgments are “too often colored by his eagerness to please Schoenberg,” and that they betray a “garrison mentality and snobbishness that belong to the less appetizing legacies of the Schoenberg circle.” A fanaticism, rather. In effect, what Berg really thought about the music of his contemporaries is all but impossible to discover. Not that we distrust his verdict on an opera by Szymanowski as “very boring and superfluous.” But such comparatively favorable judgments as those on Charpentier’s Julien (“very fine music”) and Prokofiev’s Oranges (“very engaging, flowing music,” albeit in the salon class) were too obviously put forward for the reason that the composers were beneath the competition. This much is shown by the silence about Stravinsky. Culture clashings notwithstanding, Berg, an inveterate theatergoer, might have been expected to notice Diaghilev’s January 1913 Vienna season, Nijinsky’s Petrushka if not the music, whether or not he attended a performance. But then, Sacre, performed throughout Berg’s world in the 1920s, is not mentioned, and in reporting to Schoenberg on a Vienna performance of his Pelleas, Berg neglects to note that Noces was on the same program.

One other omission is still more conspicuous. We wonder, not for long, why Berg’s bulletins about the fates of operas by the likes of Schillings and Klenau do not include Der Rosenkavalier, which was triumphing just down the street. Richard Strauss had helped Schoenberg at one time, then criticized him, thus becoming an unmentionable—which explains why the reader without other books on the subject would have no way of knowing that Strauss was a figure of some consequence in German and Viennese musical life in the quarter of a century covered by these letters. Apart from a calculated remark about revising an opinion of Elektra downward, and a description of Strauss’s “latest operas” as an “uninterrupted stream of mush,” his name scarcely appears. (A footnote states that Schoenberg and Berg heard the first version of Ariadne together in Berlin.) As shown in this correspondence, Berg’s monotheism compelled him to stoop, as he kneeled, to conceal his true feelings about Salome, to which Wozzeck owes a very audible debt.

The correspondence is herewith published in English first, before any German edition. The editors attribute their coup to “the intense interest of American scholars in the period and in the composers,” and to the persistence of the “quest.” In their case this has meant searching through the files of newspapers and periodicals, comparing other correspondence, tracing obscure acquaintances, and much more. One looks forward to an edition of the Webern-Schoenberg and Webern-Berg correspondence by the same team.

According to the editors of The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence, “postwar publication on the so-called Second Viennese School was…more reliant upon fond recollection…than historical scholarship.” Part of this criticism can be leveled at Joan Allen Smith’s book of interviews with survivors—and their next of kin—of Arnold Schoenberg’s Vienna circle, all of whom refer to him with a reverence appropriate to the canonization process. But the other part does not apply: Ms. Smith’s scholarship is sound, and her book adds substantially to existing character studies of Schoenberg, as for example those published in recent years in The Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, as well as of Berg and Webern (ibid.), “the two sentinels watching outside Schoenberg’s house that nobody nears it.”

The author tells us that her presentation of oral history is based on a technique of juxtaposition employed by Karl Kraus and Walter Benjamin. However that may be, the side-by-side testimony of different witnesses to events of more than half a century ago yields many remarkable similarities and no significant disagreements. The only reservations about the book that the reader might have are that the twenty-five interviewees—pupils, performing musicians, and friends (including Oskar Kokoschka)—were induced to speak American (“Mahler wasn’t a soft guy”) rather than their native tongues, that their false starts and verbal fumbles are all faithfully retained (the ipsissima verba), and that the exegetical and background matter with which their recollections are introduced and interlarded is helpful only for those seeking first acquaintance with Schoenberg’s world.

One of the most valuable chapters contains the complete programs, December 1918–December 1921, of the “Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna,” in which Schoenberg and Webern participated as conductors and Ravel as piano accompanist (for his Mallarmé songs). This most important concert series of the modernist period turned limited resources to advantage by replacing large orchestra works with specially prepared chamber-music arrangements, and two-, four-, and six-hand piano reductions, some of which, by masters including Webern, are of permanent value. From Ms. Smith’s listings, which identify the Vortragsmeister, or coach, for each piece, we learn that Schoenberg himself rehearsed the major Debussy scores, Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, and the Mahler symphonies. The predominance of Reger in numbers of performances (almost sixty) begs some questions—and might have generated one or two from Ms. Smith, since Reger’s music is so little known in the United States, and since Schoenberg named him in the line of descent “from Wagner through Mahler, Reger, Strauss, and Debussy to the harmony of today.”

Berg’s function in the society at one time, as recalled by Felix Greissle, Schoenberg’s son-in-law, was

to see whether there were enough chairs in the hall, and that they were at a certain distance…. I remember Schoenberg coming…. “The chairs are completely cockeyed. This is ridiculous. What did you do here?” Berg, silently, without saying one word, took a measure, a tape measure, out of his pocket and measured and said, “You said you wanted so and so many centimeters; it’s really all right; it’s a half centimeter more.”

Nothing in the book conveys the presence of Schoenberg so much as two other anecdotes. The first, an account by Greissle, of his attempt to live with Schoenberg in 1923:

After his first wife died, and when he felt very lonely, my wife and I offered him to live with him, which we did, for a couple of months, you see; it was very, very difficult. We used to have fights almost every day about really minor matters, you see, and so one day, it was impossible to live further with him. We packed and moved out into our apartment…. The same day, at night…somebody threw pebbles on my window. I opened the window and down there was Schoenberg. He said very meekly, “May I come up?” So I said, “Oh, please do come up by all means.” And he came up, he apologized, and he said, “I’m sorry, you are of course absolutely right, you cannot live with me, that’s impossible.”

The narrator of the other story is Marcel Dick, violist of the Kolisch Quartet:

There was a graphologist in Vienna,…court-appointed…. Webern and Steuermann…took an envelope that had an address on it in Schoenberg’s handwriting…. The…expert…described completely what kind of a person he was in amazing detail and accuracy…. When he ended his presentation, he said, “…this man thinks he’s the emperor of China.”… In California,…Schoenberg celebrated his seventieth birthday and…noticed that a group of his old friends were whispering around in a corner and laughing…. He said,…”What are you laughing at?”…Finally, one of them took the courage and…told him the story of…the graphologist and…that he said that the man thinks he’s the emperor of China. “What, what? Well, didn’t you tell him that I am?”

“Of course he was!” Mr. Dick concludes.

This Issue

November 5, 1987