Set on Being Singular
‘The second half of this century will spoil by overestimation all the good of me that the first half, by underestimation, has left intact,’ Arnold Schoenberg prophesied in 1949, 16 years after his move to America. He was a man, he felt, whose time had never quite arrived. Before the First World War he had struggled for recognition; afterwards, in the age of Brecht and Weill, he was seen as a relic from the heyday of German expressionism. The overestimation, when it came, came in the wrong place: though his reputation grew in Europe after the Second World War thanks to Boulez’s proselytising, he found himself in exile, forced to teach to support his family and struggling to prove himself to the tough American crowd. Part of the problem, in Bojan Bujic’s diagnosis, was the perception of Schoenberg as a certain kind of ‘difficult’ composer (overly formal, lacking in warmth), which scared listeners off, or provoked accusations of elitism. (Schoenberg is difficult, Bujic argues, but not in the way people think he is.) But it also seems, if Bujic is right, that the lack of understanding that has dogged Schoenberg’s career and afterlife is due, at least in part, to his character. Logician and mystic, split between two religions, contemptuous of the left but despised by the right, Schoenberg was so set on being singular that it was impossible for him to make himself at home in the world.
He was born in 1874 in Leopoldstadt – a ‘voluntary ghetto’, in Joseph Roth’s formulation, on the outskirts of Vienna – to Hungarian Jewish parents: a cobbler with an extravagant moustache, and a piano teacher from a family of cantors. His father died when he was 15, forcing him to take up a clerical post at a bank, by which time he had already renounced the family religion. He had decided that he was an atheist, but he also recognised the value of the Bible as a tool for moral instruction. A letter to a cousin, with whom he was infatuated, gives a sense of the intense teenager’s way of thinking: ‘I must oppose you, as a non-believer myself, by saying that nowhere in the Bible is there any nonsense. All the most difficult questions concerning morals and law-making … are resolved in the simplest way.’
Schoenberg took violin lessons and taught himself the cello using a viola equipped with zither strings and held between his knees. Alexander Zemlinsky, a childhood friend who had completed the Vienna Conservatoire’s preparatory course, filled in the gaps, shaping the bits and pieces that Schoenberg had picked up into a respectable grounding in harmony and counterpoint. When the bank he worked for went bust in 1897, Schoenberg felt confident enough to tell his family that he was going to become a professional musician, despite his lack of formal training. Through a couple of friends in the Social Democratic Party he became a conductor of workers’ choirs, though he was far from being a socialist himself, and later recalled the alienation he felt when choristers addressed him as ‘comrade’. Assured of his own genius, he thought it unlikely that all men were created equal. His earliest compositions were conservative, more in line with the contrapuntal style of Brahms than the harmonic invention of Wagner. His first string quartet, performed by the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein thanks to Zemlinsky, who was on the committee, was well received: one influential critic, excited by his untutored flair, called him a ‘new Mozart’.
In 1898, he converted to Protestantism. Unlike Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism, this doesn’t seem to have been motivated by expediency – quite the opposite. Catholicism was the dominant creed in Austria – Schoenberg was swapping one minority faith for another – and few Protestants were inclined to welcome a Jew into their church: 1898 was also the year the Protestant politician Georg von Schönerer launched his pan-Germanist ‘Los von Rom’ movement. Bujic is sure that Schoenberg acted out of genuine religious conviction. This may be so, but converting was also a gesture of self-determination: a way for Schoenberg to distance himself from Judaism without joining the Viennese cultural mainstream.
Post-conversion, Schoenberg became more confident as a composer. His string sextet Verklärte Nacht, still his most popular work, was more adventurous harmonically, owing a clear debt of influence to the chromaticism of Tristan und Isolde. It was based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, a leftist notorious for his risqué subject matter, and as one of the first pieces of chamber music to try to tell a story it riled the more conservative wing of the Viennese critical establishment. In the poem, a woman confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child; the man responds that his love is so strong it doesn’t matter: ‘There is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me, from me in you. That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child.’ Schoenberg’s decision to set such a romantic text may have been influenced by the relationship, by all accounts fiery, that he had just begun with Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde. Zemlinsky had introduced them on a summer holiday in 1899; they married two years later, after Mathilde became pregnant. The relationship certainly fed into Schoenberg’s next major work, the oratorio Gurrelieder, a setting of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s tale of the Danish king Waldemar’s love for his mistress Tove.
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