‘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.
In November 1901, Schoenberg moved to Berlin to take up the post of musical director at the Buntes Theatre, one of the city’s most fashionable cabaret venues. It was a disaster: he couldn’t vamp, couldn’t improvise, and his contract wasn’t renewed. But at least he got to meet Richard Strauss, who hired him as an amanuensis, and whose style and advice shaped Pelleas und Melisande, a symphonic tone poem – the form that Strauss had made his own with Tod und Verklärung and Also Sprach Zarathustra – based on Maeterlinck’s play. Bujic suggests it may even have been Strauss who drew Schoenberg’s attention to the play’s existence. Mahler himself, then director of the Court Opera and a father figure to Vienna’s circle of young musicians, recognised the modernity of the piece. He was particularly impressed by the density of Schoenberg’s writing, and told his wife after he’d read the score that it made him feel old. He wasn’t the only one to notice Schoenberg’s potential. The educational reformer Eugenie Schwarzwald invited him, on his return to Vienna, to hold composition classes at her school. By 1905, the school had become a mini conservatoire. Among those who signed up for lessons were Webern and Berg, later Schoenberg’s most ardent and influential advocates. And as his cultural standing in the city grew, Schoenberg became friends with the architect Adolf Loos, whose purgative aesthetic – ‘ornament is a sin’ – made a great impression on him.
It’s hard to get a sense of Schoenberg’s character from Bujic’s account, which tends to describe him as the sum of his influences: Brahms plus Strauss plus Loos. But an oil portrait from 1905-6 reproduced in the book hints at what he may have been like: bald and severe, he stares out from the frame, his lips frozen in a grimace of utmost seriousness. He can’t have been easy to live with. In 1908, Schoenberg found out that the person who’d painted the portrait, Richard Gerstl, supposedly a friend of the family, had been having an affair with Mathilde. Distraught, he banished her and their two children to Traunsee and took out his angst on the Second String Quartet, his most dissonant work so far. He broke with formal convention by introducing a soprano soloist into the third and fourth movements to sing settings of two poems by Stefan George. The first, ‘Litanei’, begins ‘Tief ist die Trauer die mich umdüstert’ (‘Deep is the sadness that envelops me’) and ends with the plea, ‘Töte das sehnen, schliesse die Wunde’ (‘Kill the longing, close the wound!’); the second, ‘Entrückung’, suggests his ability to manage emotional catastrophe by withdrawing into his work: ‘Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten … Ich löse mich in Tönen’ (‘I feel wind from other planets … I lose myself in tones’). In September, following a gruelling few months of accusation and counter-accusation, Mathilde returned to Vienna. Gerstl committed suicide by simultaneously hanging and stabbing himself – Mathilde said he had taken ‘the easy way out’ – and in December the string quartet had its premiere, its score headed with the dedication ‘to my wife’.
Schoenberg’s work and his rhetoric, in the years running up to the First World War, can seem to contradict each other. He claimed that he was working towards ‘complete liberation from all forms’ and that he had embraced atonality because he wanted his music to be independent, not only from the material world, but from music theory itself, from the system of keys, scales, sharps and flats. Yet the pieces he composed at this time were mystical, richly symbolic and emotionally charged, hardly pure mathematics. For him, abstraction in music was about implying a meta-language, a layer of symbols behind the material world: in the first decade of the 20th century that was provided by the newly excavated unconscious. In 1909, inspired by Freud, he started work on Erwartung, a one-act opera about a woman in a state of hysteria, in which a solo soprano wanders through an expressionistic projection of her mind – the staging demanded a dark forest lit by a blood-red moon – until she finds her lover’s corpse. When she realises she can’t revive him she accuses him of infidelity, before stalking off into the night. Die glückliche Hand, a ‘Drama mit Musik’ composed between 1910 and 1913, is an interpretation, informed by Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, of Mathilde’s affair with Gerstl. A man sings about his love for a woman while she slopes off with a well-dressed stranger; when she returns, contrite, he forgives her – and then she runs off again, kicking a stone at him as she leaves.
By the autumn of 1911, Schoenberg was fed up with Vienna: Mahler, his friend and patron, had died in May; Berg and Webern were both now married and too busy with their families to spend time with their teacher; and a crazy neighbour had accused the Schoenbergs’ ten-year-old daughter of making sexual advances to his son. So in September he moved back to Berlin, where he began working with enthusiasm on his prewar masterpiece. It was a setting of the new German translation of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire, a collection of poems that drew on a symbolic language similar to that of Erwartung: Pierrot at the mercy of the moon, surrounded by arcane symbols, hidden behind a mask. The text was to be declaimed by a solo actress in sprechgesang and accompanied by a small ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Schoenberg was an avid believer in numerology (he was famously triskaidekaphobic) and Pierrot Lunaire was his Opus 21, so he set 21 of Giraud’s 50 poems – or rather, as the piece’s full title put it, ‘dreimal sieben’, three times seven – and he used the numbers 3 and 7, which he associated with art and spirituality respectively, to determine pitches, intervals and time values.
Like his conception of the universe, Schoenberg’s politics were grand. Not only was he sceptical of the socialists’ egalitarianism, he also worried about what would happen to aristocratic patronage of the arts should the socialists get their way. He joined the Habsburgs’ Hoch und Deutschmeister regiment in 1915 as a fervent monarchist, though his asthma barred him from frontline service. Having sided so unequivocally with the imperial order he suffered a minor identity crisis when it collapsed in 1918. He felt that high art was under threat in the new Austrian Republic, and together with Berg and Webern he founded a rarefied musical salon, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen. He also began work on Die Jakobsleiter, an ambitious oratorio, never finished, that used Judeo-Christian mythology to look at the difficulty of finding one’s way in the world. In one revealing fragment, groups of different types of character – malcontents, rejoicers, beauty seekers, rebels, stoics – complain to the archangel Gabriel that their lives have not brought them peace. For Schoenberg, peace looked ever more improbable: in June 1921 he was holidaying in the Mattsee when posters appeared in the streets declaring that Jews weren’t welcome. A few days later he received an official request to leave the area. Die Jakobsleiter then became the sounding board for his feelings of rejection; the work, in the words of Franz Werfel, who was shown an early draft of the piece, of the ‘Jew who suffers from himself’.
With a work on this scale, Schoenberg felt that the expression of emotion was no longer a sufficient structuring principle: he was worried that long passages of atonality would be too daunting without a sense of logic behind them. Serialism, and the 12-tone method, was the solution he came up with. Ironically, given its reputation for producing difficult music, serialism was a way, Schoenberg said, of providing ‘comprehensibility’. His idea was to use a melodic line in which all 12 notes of the chromatic scale were sounded just once: that way, no pitch was more important than another, there was no tonic or dominant. Variations on the melodic line could be produced by playing it backwards (‘in retrograde’), upside-down, or by transposing it to a different set of pitches. Music composed in this way would possess a sense of unity, as each melodic phrase would be closely related to the others: in his famous essay, ‘Composition with 12 Tones’, he compares serialist composition to Swedenborg’s idea of heaven, a place where there is ‘no absolute down, no right or left, forward or backward’. He was delighted with the breakthrough and wrote to Alma Mahler in 1922 that ‘the German Aryans who persecuted me in Mattsee will have this new thing to thank for the fact that … they belong to the state that has secured hegemony for itself in the field of music.’ With the theoretical machinery in place, the pieces flew off the production line: a Serenade (Op. 24), a Suite for Piano (Op. 25), the somewhat long-winded Wind Quintet (Op. 26) and the masterly Suite (Op. 29) for three clarinets, two violins, viola and piano. Both Webern and Berg followed him in embracing serialism, an alternative to expressionism, a way of reining in atonality without going back to old formal rules.
In September 1923, Mathilde died of kidney failure in a Viennese sanatorium. Schoenberg sank into depression, drank and smoked copiously, and set to work on a requiem – until an encounter with Mathilde’s ghost set his mind at rest. ‘I was so pleasantly stimulated,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘I had a general feeling as if something were flowing through me.’ It did not take him long to move on. In the early months of 1924 he took up with Gertrud Kolisch, the young sister of a former pupil, and entered the sunniest span of his career. He was invited to tour Mussolini’s Italy by the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche, and in Florence made friends with Puccini: despite the aesthetic gulf between them the two men held each other in high regard. The premiere of Erwartung, stalled for years by the war, finally took place in Prague. The Serenade (Op. 24) was performed for the first time at Count von Fürstenberg’s Donauschingen Festival, after which Schoenberg wrote to Loos: ‘A festival like that, organised by such a man’ – a tasteful and sophisticated aristocrat – ‘further increases my contempt for democracy.’ He married Gertrud a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday, which saw a series of concerts performed in his honour and the publication of a glowing festschrift. Then in early 1925 he was offered the chair of advanced composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, which rewarded him with his first decent salary and six months off for composing.
But Schoenberg’s politics made it difficult for him to fit in. His conservatism jarred with the younger generation of composers – Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, Hanns Eisler – many of whom were affiliated with the German Communist Party and saw Schoenberg’s music, not to mention his political views, as bourgeois and elitist. (Schoenberg’s desire to prove to them that he was not above popular matters spurred him to compose one of his odder pieces, Von Heute auf Morgen, a short opera about the relationship between a righteous art-loving couple and a pair of vacuous culture vultures.) But the conservatives didn’t like Schoenberg either. They associated him with the left because he had been appointed by a music adviser in the Social Democrat-controlled Prussian Ministry of Education, a former member of the Independent German Socialist Party. And they didn’t like the fact that he was Jewish. Soon after his arrival in Germany, his move to the Academy of Arts was described by the Zeitschrift für Musik as a provocation, a test of German mettle by ‘the Jewish spirit’. As Schoenberg recalled later in his essay ‘How One Becomes Lonely’: ‘I stood alone against a world of enemies.’
He had been creeping back to Judaism ever since Mattsee, but the isolation he felt in Berlin accelerated the process. He began to take an interest in Zionism and started work on a cantata called Moses and the Burning Bush; when he realised his ideas were too big for a mere cantata, he turned it into the opera Moses und Aron. At the same time he started writing a play called Der biblische Weg about a Jewish idealist who settles in a new African Palestine – he was a disciple of Herzl – and is killed when the native inhabitants revolt. It was supposed to demonstrate the superiority of ideas as a means of defending territory; and it provided another opportunity for a dig at the left: ‘The Jews are … a nation without labourers and farmers! How perturbing for the socialists, who have to create social differences before they can think of obliterating them!’ In 1931, he took almost a year’s sabbatical in Barcelona, where Gertrud gave birth to a daughter. The family returned in June 1932, to find Hitler in the ascendant. A week after the Nazis took power there were protests at a performance of a string quartet by the Jewish composer Maximilian Jacrczyk. A month later, the composer Max von Schillings declared he would eradicate Jewish influence at the Academy of Arts. In May 1933 Schoenberg applied for a leave of absence, packed two small suitcases, and fled with his family to France. On 24 July, in Paris, he was formally readmitted to the Jewish faith, and changed the spelling of his name from the German Schönberg to Schoenberg, the way his father had spelled it. Then he set off for America.
Schoenberg’s arrival in the US was preceded by puff pieces in the New York Times, as well as a public fundraising campaign organised by Gershwin (like Puccini, an unlikely ally), but the venture didn’t turn out as he had hoped. He was offered a series of teaching posts – at the Malkin Conservatoire, the Chautauqua artists’ colony in New York and UCLA – but was disappointed by the level of his students and distressed at having to dumb down (the textbooks he produced as a result are now classics). Like so many European exiles he hated what he saw as America’s lack of culture – he called it an ‘amusement arcade world’ – and spent most of his time with his family. His newly readopted religion also had him worrying about style again. He wanted to be a Jewish composer but wasn’t sure how to go about it: in 1938, in a letter to a friend, he worried that he would be left out of the drive to create ‘an authentically Jewish music’ in Palestine. And when Rabbi Jakob Sonderling asked him for a setting of ‘Kol Nidre’, the Aramaic declaration that begins Yom Kippur, he eagerly accepted. The piece he delivered now sounds like a step backwards: lush, cinematic, the sound of someone trying hard to please.
Far more successful was A Survivor from Warsaw, a commemoration of the suffering of the Polish Jews, commissioned in 1947 and written in the 12-tone style. Schoenberg came up with the libretto himself – to be recited, in the manner of Pierrot Lunaire, in sprechgesang – and sketched the piece out on the oversized notepaper that he had ordered to compensate for his failing sight. Just a few days before the creation of the state of Israel, he completed a setting of Dagobert Runes’s Zionist poem ‘Dreimal tausend Jahre’, and started on Israel Exists Again, an unfinished work for choir and orchestra. In 1950 he composed a setting of the Hebrew text of Psalm 130, ‘Shir hama’alot mima’amakim’, and dedicated it ‘to the State of Israel’: he was determined his people should make a home in the world, and hoped he’d be able to join them. Bujic doesn’t mention it, but one of the last things he did before his death in 1951 was to write to the Israel Academy of Music offering his services as a teacher. He concluded: ‘My dearest wish has been to see the establishment of a separate, independent State of Israel. And to become a citizen of that state and to reside there.’
He never made it, and serialism, removed from the world that produced it, had trouble flourishing. Schoenberg outlived both of his most influential disciples, and neither of them was in his good books anyway. Webern, disowned by the master for fighting on the wrong side, was shot near Salzburg by an American soldier for breaking curfew a couple of weeks after the end of the war. Schoenberg remained on good terms with Berg until his death in 1935, and offered to complete the unfinished opera Lulu; but he soon decided he couldn’t live with the way one of its Jewish characters was represented. In most of Europe, though Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder remained popular, Schoenberg’s serialist pieces were reviled by the mainstream. Sir Thomas Beecham, when asked whether he had conducted Schoenberg, joked tastelessly that no, he hadn’t, but he’d trodden in some once. For audiences used to the more whistleable modernisms of Britten or Shostakovitch, Schoenberg’s series were too abstract, his ingenious sets of variations too difficult to follow. It was in France that the torch for serialism was taken up. Messiaen, and his pupil Boulez, embraced the 12-tone technique enthusiastically. Boulez extended the principle by subjecting all the parameters in his music to a series of 12, creating ‘total serialism’: not just 12 tones, but 12 dynamic intensities, 12 rhythmic possibilities, and so on. But the French were interested only in the abstract side. If Schoenberg was ‘spoiled by overestimation’, then Boulez is partly to blame. In his 1952 essay ‘Schoenberg Is Dead’, he wrote that ‘all non-serial composers are useless,’ but criticised Schoenberg for using his discovery for expressionist ends, implying that he hadn’t realised the true value of the technique he had stumbled on. It was that reductive interpretation that led to serialist music being caricatured, as Bujic puts it, as ‘overly rational’, emotionless, though this was never true of Schoenberg’s work. In 1963, the critic Donald Mitchell wrote that though Schoenberg’s serialist works ‘were hardly to be heard, the Method was … hotly disputed.’ The wrinkles ironed out, and the mysticism swept under the carpet, Schoenberg became known as the inventor of a system, the author of a manual, rather than a singular voice to be listened to.