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Roundabout with Schoenberg Who Should Arrive in Boston Next Week

“What others count as beauty matters nothing to the artist. He is concerned only with what he needs.” (Arnold Schoenberg in Harmonielehre)

When, on September 13, 1924, Arnold Schönberg reached his fiftieth birthday he was greeted by the mayor of his native City of Vienna in an official reception at the steps of the City Hall. Schönbergian choruses, hitherto considered unperformable, joyously rent the air. There was an admiring populace, consisting not only of his atonal disciples.
When Schönberg was forty, the critical contumely was at its peak. He had just completed a European tour with Pierrot lunaire, “the last word in cacophony and musical anarchy,” as the Berlin correspondent of the Musical Courier characterized it at the time of its first performance. And, in bidding him a sincere farewell to Berlin, a Vienna musician summarized his impressions of the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, as follows: “First, a child bangs aimlessly on the piano, then a drunk pounds like a madman on the keys, and finally somebody sits full weight on the keyboard.” In London, after the performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces, the merriment in the press was general. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, that early champion of freedom of musical expression, Dr. Leigh Henry objected to the vulgarity of a writer’s remark that “the long hair which used to be indispensable has now been superseded by the bald head” – an obvious and disgraceful attack an the appearance of Herr Schönberg, who conducted the performance, Dr. Henry adds indignantly.
At twenty-seven Schönberg had to eke out his meager wages by conducting at a cabaret in Berlin, and also scoring operettas for successful composers. It is said that he had thus orchestrated six thousand pages of other people’s music – and what music! At that time, at the turn of our century, Schönberg already had the Gurrelieder and the Verklärte Nacht to his credit – works of magnificence and poesy well within the respectable code of esthetics. In fact, Richard Strauss, having looked over the first pages of the Gurrelieder, suggested Schönberg’s name for a conservatory position and a Liszt Prize. Biographers still shudder at the thought that Schönberg had to interrupt the composition of Gurrelieder because of pecuniary stringency. There are many budding Schönbergs in our own time, seeking musical amanuensis work in order to squeeze as many devaluated pennies, marks, shillings or zlotys as possible to keep the body and soul together.
Where are their future biographers, and whence can come the urgent aid?
There is something biblical in Schönberg’s spectacular martyrdom. Shuttling between Vienna and Berlin, revered by disciples, derided by scurrilous critics, he is the very picture of a prophet of the faith. Not content with music alone, he pursues literature and poetry, in the most esoteric form of expression. Not an open adherent to theosophical doctrines, he is none the less attracted to the metaphysical lore which relieves him of stressing reality. His poetry, such as the book to Jacobs Ladder, an oratorio begun during the war days, is abstruse and, to the uninitiated, irritatingly tangential. His choice of words to his monodramas, operas, Songs and song cycles is of die same tantalizing sort, when you seem to grasp the meaning at one moment only to see it fade into distressing nonsense at another. Often, coarse matter succeeds evanescent symbolism – thus, an early song of Schönberg, as yet not out of Wagnerian indentures, ends with the words “I think of my dog.” In one song Schönberg “feels the air of other planets,” yet, in his monodramas, he is earthly, too earthly. A metaphysical woman with a child, a strangely unjealous Lover To-Be, these visions of his operas are as difficult to grasp as a stranger’s dream. They are certainly excellent material for easy burlesque, as
newspaper critics of both hemispheres have discovered to their advantage.
Schönberg is also an autodidactic painter. His paintings, cognate with Blake and Goya, but perhaps more directly influenced by impressionists of the pre-war era, are subjective visions. If the observation is correct, that one’s weaknesses in art are often revealed more patently in the artist’s avocation, then subjectivism and adumbration should be Schönberg’s great failings. Much has been said and written about Schönberg’s presentiment of a personal and general catastrophe, as evidenced by his paintings, his writings and his music. The subsequent events must have strengthened this morbid faith, for no sooner had Schönberg settled down in Berlin as a professor of the Prussian Academy of Arts than the Hitlerian cataclysm burst over his non-Aryan and modernistic head. Under the stress of a double stigma, he had to leave Germany for France. The shock of a new discrimination led him, probably in the spirit of an emphatic demonstration, to return to the religion of his youth which he had relinquished some years before. Momentarily in Paris, he responded to a call from America; the last country that still offers a refuge to European undesirables regardless of creed or rate.
What is the essence of Schönberg’s music that makes him the object of veneration to some, an odious figure to many? Obviously, we must draw a line of demarcation between the early, acceptable Schönberg and the later true Schönberg. Although the evolution from the Verklärte Nacht of 1899 to the Accompaniment to a Cinema Scene of 1932 can be traced as one continuous line, the differents between these two works compasses the whole of transition from tonality to atonality. The latter term is usually connected with Schönberg’s name. Atonalists themselves reject the label as inadequate. Atonality, i.e., tonality prefixed with a privative particle, is as unjust a definition as that of the sans-culotte of the French Revolution. After all, the sans-culottes had not entirely renounced the integument for the nether limbs, and the nickname tended to convey a wrong picture. However, both the sans-culottes and the atonalists reconciled themselves to their respective appellations. The works of Josef Matthias Hauer are even advertised as atonal, and the publisher, realizing that Hauer’s “Twelve-tone Music” is hard to sell, adds in pleading tones: “Let us send you these works for perusal that you may delve into their singular art. It is not at all difficult to penetrate into these problems.” Incidentally, Hauer, a theoretician and a die-hard twelve-tonalist, author of the treatise an the twelve-tone technique and an essay, “From Melody to the Kettle Drums,” has calculated that there are 479,001,600 possible combinations derivable from the forty-four Hauer tropes, all within the twelve-tone scale. This number will supply a motive a day to 220 atonalists for 6000 years.
Roughly, atonality is the system in which all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used on equal terms; it is a democracy of sharps and flats; there are no “dominants,” for no tone dominates another tone; there is no keynote to prevent a semblance of one, it is strongly recommended not to repeat a note before the eleven other notes have been made use of, it is indeed a raffle of chromatics, a system of integral chromaticism. It makes new demands on the ear; small wonder, then, that atonality enjoys such a hearty unpopularity among middleclass musicians. As to critics, their ears close up like sensitive pieces of mimosa at the first contact with atonality. The best of them seek refuge in a melancholy resignation: “If this be the music of the future, may I never live to see that future.”
Serge Taneiev, the eminent Russian composer and academic savant of music, wrote twenty years ago to a friend: “The scale is no longer confined to its seven tones, but compasses all twelve, and this not only in the melody, but in harmony as well. There is no tonality.” In our own day, a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, writing in the Sovietskaya Musika, repeats unknowingly almost word for word what the pre-revolutionary Taneiev said in the spirit of justifiable distress. “Atonality destroys all conceptions of tonality, concord or discord, destroys the functional connection among the twelve tones of our scale, defacing and equalizing them. Small wonder that a special society such as the Schönberg Verein had to be organized to listen to such music.”
The “special society” referred to is the Society for Private Performances, which Schönberg founded in Vienna in order to secure serious listening to new music, sans the newspaper critics. The attitude of the Communist party towards atonality as a product of disintegration of Western music resulted in a “bolt” from atonality by one of Schönberg’s disciples, Hanns Eisler; who changed his style abruptly in the direction of the simplest diatonic writing in four-four time, mostly for the use of mass singing. In a collection of valedictory essays on the occasion of Schönberg’s fiftieth birthday, he wrote an article entitled “Schönberg, the Reactionary.” To be sure, the meaning was inoffensive – merely that Schönberg, having established a school and striving to preserve its tenets, has ipso facto become a conservative.
Schönberg is celebrated as the founder of a new school of musical expression, but performers prefer compositions of his youthful consonant days. The titanic Gurrelieder, scored for a very expensive orchestra with eight flutes, four harps and everything else in proportion, has enjoyed several performances during the third of a century of its existence. The Verklärte Nacht, scored for a string sextet, is much better known. But these two works belong chronologically as well as substantially to another century. They have arisen as a magnificent aftermath of Wagnerian splendor. The symphonic poem to Maeterlinck’s play, Pelleas and Melisande, written at the same time with Debussy, reveled in post-Wagnerian harmonies. Of course, the Wagner in either of those scores was greatly modified, and some Schönbergians would not admit it was Wagner at all. Some Wagnerians, among them Ernest Newman, agree with this analysis – from different motives, perhaps. Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony, originally scored for fifteen instruments, has some elements of the new style, notably in the melody and chord building through a progression of fourths.
With the Quartet in F# Minor, Schönberg says good-bye to tonality, not without a practical joke, in the form of a quotation from “Oh, mein lieber Augustin, alles ist hin!” introduced in the second violin against a fully matured atonal quip in the first. But it remained for the “Thrice Seven Poems,” originally known under the title of one of them, the Lunar Pierrot, to catapult Schönberg into fame and make him a target of facile witticisms and dire threats ever since. The craziest paradox of the situation consists in the fact that while critics dubbed Schönberg a wild anarchist who discards all law and order and substitutes noise for sound, the atonal savants explain for your benefit the extreme rationality of these seemingly impressionistic tableaux. In one of the thrice seven, a three-note figure is threaded into every musical phrase, figuration and ornament so that the whole thing is made a mathematical function of those three variants. Through the devices of crab and inversion, or both combined, with transposition not hampered by the late regretted major-minor complex, the thing is created like a homunculus out of an alchemist’s retort.
But this is not all. Schönberg, the author of the astonishing book on harmony, brings all music within the bounds of pure reason. Every old scale and progression finds its place in this sunlit expanse of integral harmony. The timbres go into the pot along with the scales. Thus, in the “Altered Chord,” from his Five Orchestral Pieces, the conductor is instructed to let nature take its course, and not to bring out any seeming themes, for the dynamics indicated in each instrumental part make the very tone color thematic. A marvelous subject for newspaper jokesters. One of them (unidentified) fell a victim of the linotype when, about to burst in a shower of vituperation, an intrusive letter made him say fine instead of five orchestral pieces. Was the linotypist a secret Schönbergian?
The Variations for Orchestra, coming after a long period of silence (Schönberg composed little after the war) were in turn accused of excessive cerebration. At least, this reproach has the advantage of plausibility. We deal with a composer, founder of a new school, based on theoretical deductions from a rational scheme. We are told that melody and harmony are the same inasmuch as harmony may be dismembered into melody through placing its components in spatial succession, after which the resultant melodic ripple can he again gathered into a harmonic column, much in the manner of a retrogressive film reel, which makes a splash in the water integrate back into homogeneous surface. Von Webern, in his Sinfonietta [Symphonie, Op. 21] (famous in the atonal circles), decomposes a timbre-chord into a succession of timbre-notes. Each instrument plays only one note of the motive, the next overtaking the live the moment the first ceases to vibrate. Atonal lore is richer in surprises than we imagine, and one cannot summarize it briefly without doing a great injustice to it.
Schönberg’s latest composition to date, an Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene, with its subdivisions, “Danger, Fear, Catastrophe,” is not likely to be taken up by Hollywood. But what a marvelous background it would supply to a surrealistic film of images and geometric designs! The score, for small orchestra, is the acme of mastery. Here is the twelve-tone system brought into full life. It is simple as atonality goes, and it is immediately impressive. The visionary of Pierrot lunaire and the rationalist of the Harmonielehre have here arrived at a synthesis.
Schönberg’s “influence” on contemporary composition? It is undeniable. Ravel attests the power of Schönberg’s logical scheme animated by impressionistic imagination. Honegger’s Symphony is obviously atonal in its use of the chromatic scale spaced in contiguous octaves. (This “registering” is one of the traits of the Three Piano Pieces, which sounded to the ear of a Vienna musician like a child’s aimless roving or a drunkard’s vicious banging.) There are atonal daubs in Stravinsky’s Rossignol. There are several composers in America who independently use the system of twelve tones. And, of course, there is Alban Berg. There are talented composers writing atonally, and there are unhappy drudges that have no power of selective genius. As in old music of the seven tones, genius, ability, and – horribile dictu – inspiration play a great part in the domain of twelve equal, interdependent, liberated tones.

Boston Evening Transcript (October 28, 1933)