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An Interview with Arnold Schoenberg

“I do not ask my pupils to write in my style, all I ask is that they write logically” – this is the underlying principle of Arnold Schoenberg’s teaching, as he explained it this summer. Logic is an important thing with the Austrian composer, it appears prominently in the title of his forthcoming treatise, Der Musikalische Gedanke und die Logik, Kunst und Technik seiner Darstellung. The lack of logic – of the power to bring out and develop all the potentialities of a simple musical idea – is to Schoenberg the greatest fault of young composers today.
In laying stress upon logic, however, Schoenberg does not underestimate the role played by what he calls “fancy” or the inventive imagination. Although he submits a composition to rigid analysis when it is finished, he realizes and teaches that the creative process itself is spontaneous.
The methods of the conservatory, in his opinion, have had a detrimental influence on musical teaching in the last fifty or sixty years. In place of rigorous training in logic and inventive fancy, they have offered prescriptions or rules of thumb that may seem to help, but actually do not go to the bottom of the problem. They develop a kind of craftsmanship, but they do not teach the composer to find the richness that is inherent in a tiny musical seed. As a result, they consider musical form only as a skeleton on which themes are hung, not as a living, organic thing, generated by developed out of the material itself.
These reflections, the fruit of more than thirty-five years’ teaching, were voiced by Schoenberg when I called upon him in August in his cottage at Chautauqua, New York, where he spent the summer. Mrs. Schoenberg was present to act as interpreter, for her knowledge of English is more extensive than her husband’s; and from the next room came the prattle of their two-year-old baby daughter, who speaks English with a slight Southern accent, for her recent months have been watched over by a Negro mammy.

As Schoenberg continued to discuss musical matters, he dealt more specifically with American teaching. Admitting that he could not know, but could only divine, American methods, Schoenberg stated his impression that students in this country are not as thoroughly grounded in harmony and counterpoint as they are in Europe. For American schools as such, the musician had nothing but praise. In the training of virtuoso performers, he believes, American institutions are unsurpassed. But though what American students learn is good, for composers it is not enough.
In contrast, Schoenberg spoke with particular admiration of the training given in Vienna, where an uninterrupted tradition of two hundred years has been built up by such great teachers of composition as Porpora, Albrechtsberger and Sechter; and where Brahms, himself, laid the foundation of modern harmony.
“There is much interesting invention in the work of American composers,” Schoenberg went on. “They have the foundation for a good personal style. But they do not spend time enough to gain technique.” He was loath to set any limit to the number of years that should go into the training of a composer, but cited the example of two of his famous pupils. Alban Berg had studied harmony and counterpoint for three years and had written songs before he came to Schoenberg, there to complete a total of seven or eight years of training. Anton von Webern, similarly grounded in harmony and counterpoint, studied with Schoenberg for six years.
“It’s not necessary for me to see much of pupil’s work; I can tell his talent by speaking with him and seeing him. And I am rarely disappointed,” Schoenberg added. Should Americans go to Europe to study? The question brought an emphatic affirmative from Schoenberg. “There should always be an interchange of ideas. Wherever you find anyone good, learn from him.”
For the rest of the interview, Schoenberg discoursed about some of his own pupils – Berg and Webern; Adolph Weiss, “very talented and earnest with a considerable reputation in Germany already”; Zillig “recently successful with an opera”; von Hannenheim. With pride, Schoenberg told how operas based on his own twelve tone system have been successfully performed in Germany, even under the new regime; and he spoke with warmth of Krenek, who though not a pupil, has nevertheless been influenced by Schoenberg. Talk drifted to painting and Schoenberg expressed his admiration for the work of his old friend, Oskar Kokoschka.

There were other opportunities of gathering Schoenberg’s ideas in the course of the summer. He was to be seen at most of the concerts of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Music Society and at the performances of opera in Norton Hall. And he taught in a shingled studio in the Chautauqua woods, seated at the piano, with a large pipe organ as inert background.
Schoenberg talking and Schoenberg teaching are one and the same. If he reaches logic, he practices it as well. As he reads through pupil’s composition there is one question ready on his lips when each new theme appears, “Where did this come from?” The musical germ from which the new motive sprouted must be found in the opening measures of the work before the teacher is satisfied with it’s logicality. Sometimes the young composer is unaware that his new theme has grown from an earlier phrase of his, until the fact is pointed out. So much the better, for it shows that inventive fancy has been at work, spontaneously but none the less logically.
Next to logic, counterpoint is the object of Schoenberg’s strongest emphasis. “Polyphony is natural to me,” he remarked, “and from my earliest childhood I have written in a contrapuntal manner.” Therefore he demands in every composition that each voice shall be independent, and in every orchestral score that each instrument shall have something interesting to play.
Basically this emphasis is part of Schoenberg’s insistence upon meaning in music. Every note, every voice, every idea, every theme must have some significance in the total work. Harmonies that are without contrapuntal significance, like themes that are unrelated to the ideas that have gone before, are anathema.

MEANING, LOGIC, FANCY – this trinity of principles guides the teaching as it does the work of Schoenberg, making him clearly as one of the intellectual leaders of modern music.

Musical Review (October 1934), p. 3, 6