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Two years ago while working on a research project, I found myself in urgent need of information which only Arnold Schoenberg could give me.
I knew he resided in the area of nearby Los Angeles, but had no friend to introduce me.
The Los Angeles directory listed Arnold Schoenberg at a Brentwood address. Half hoping I could reach him and half dreading the embarrassment of self-introduction, I placed the call.
A man answered and I asked, “Is it possible to speak to Mr. Schoenberg?”
“Yes . . . yes, of course.”
I waited expecting to hear another voice. Then realizing that no other was being called to the phone, I squeaked, “The composer?”
“Yah . . . who is calling?”
I explained. Tentatively he asked, “You work on a newspaper? A magazine?”
“No”, I replied, “I write occasionally on musical subjects. I am a music teacher.”
“Are you a good music teacher?”
I mumbled something – heaven knows what! – and he chuckled.
After some hesitation he asked, “What do you know about me?”
“That you compose, that you are a strict teacher of harmony and composition . . . that you have the face of a Pierrot.” Oh! How did that last remark slip out? I was terrified!
“Who says I have such a face?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Schoenberg. Max Graf, in ‘Legend of a Musical City’.”
After a long silence, a sigh came over the line. Then, “Perhaps you will call me again in two weeks. I am very busy just now, but I think I will make a time for you to see my face!”
During the next two weeks I studied everything available about Schoenberg, asking dozens of musicians, “What do you think about the music of Schoenberg?”
No answer was luke-warm. Everyone felt very strongly. Apparently no one likes, admires or mildly enjoys his music nor is it ever merely disliked or tolerated. Reaction to my questions jumped from ecstatic cries to Bronx cheers, with no middle ground. One friend asked me to bring her a pebble from Schoenberg’s garden. Another was contemptuous that I should be interested in “that madman and his crazy music”.
I feared that a visit to the home of so controversial a figure would be very uncomfortable. It seemed he must be either saint or demon!
In two weeks I talked to Mrs. Schoenberg, who said she would see me and answer my questions if he were not available. With nerves screaming like the trumpets in “Die Glückliche Hand.” I drove hub-deep in September heat devils through twenty miles of continuous traffic to meet Mrs. Schoenberg and possibly her husband. Approaching the estate, I mentally heard the chorus in the scene following the trumpets. It seemed exactly to fit the plight of a weary research worker; “Must you once more endure what you have so often endured before? . . . . And still you research! And torment yourself! And know no rest, unfortunate one.”
I stood by the great wrought iron gate, wondering why I didn’t get a job in a nice cool drug store! A small, trim woman standing in front of a wide flung door must have seen my hesitation, for she called, “Are you afraid of dogs?” A fat cocker puppy was dashing up to greet me and another peeped ’round a bush.
“Not little baby dogs,” I answered. And so I met Mrs. Schoenberg with a puppy lolling between us, begging for affection.
We entered the large cool house where many gift-wrapped packages created a holiday atmosphere. “Tomorrow is his birthday,” she said. “He is not very well, but a few people will be coming in. Most of these presents are from his pupils.”
“We used to have such parties ,” she added wistfully, “but Mr. Schoenberg is no longer well. We do not have large parties anymore.”
It is easy to remember every word Mrs. Schoenberg says, because her voice is inexpressibly beautiful. Unlike American women, who often speak in a monotone, her voice swings in a large range without being sing-song. If one sings sol, re, re, do and then pronounces “Mrs. Schoenberg” on these tones, one can get some idea of the charm of her Viennese lilt.
Her short blond hair is uncurled and she must be wearing glasses. I do not believe style or clothes enter her mind except to wear something clean and comfortable, yet this young wife is not overshadowed by her famous husband, but has great individuality and unpretentious charm.
She was a choral conductor and stage director in Vienna, where her brother introduced her to his teacher, Schoenberg, at a concert. They were married in 1924, in Vienna and came to America in 1933.
She is a very hardworking mother, the three children being still at home. The one daughter, Nuria, was born in Spain. She was graduated in June from University High School and is now about to begin medical studies. The two boys, Ronnie and Larry, attend parochial school. Ronnie plays tennis quite well and Mrs. Schoenberg spends great deal of time driving him to meets and tournaments. Larry, eight years old, is beginning to play tennis, also. Both boys are native Californians. They strikingly resemble their father in appearance.
On the day of my first visit, after Mrs. Schoenberg and I had been taking for some time, I became conscious of someone waiting for a lull in our conversation.
Rosy, tanned and unwrinkled, his face seemed characteristic of a mischievous child or
– equally – of a very wise old man. Strangely it suggested both Puck and Merlin. I was first entranced with his lopsided smile, then amazed that his head – bald except for a “Saint Joseph fringe ”– should be so beautiful.
Then I saw that his ears were somewhat pointed-like a gnomes or a brownie’s.
Of course! This was the “face of a Pierrot!”
Pierrot, Puck, Merlin, brownie, gnome – all these are clumsy words written in a feeble effort to convey the enormous emotional impact one feels upon first meeting Schoenberg. When enormous vitality and a penetrating mind plus the magnetism of genius all are clothed in elderly, frail body, the effect is bound to be other-worldly.
Before he spoke, I sensed the power of Schoenberg. It was there – a presence benevolent, serene, ancient and compelling. No words were necessary to cause this effect.
Turned on, warming up but not yet “playing” a radio set emits a soft insistent hum, I remember the feeling I had, waiting to hear his voice for the first time. But before I heard his voice I felt a strong conviction that has this man never written a note, he would nevertheless have been a world-shaking figure.
Later, I learned that his mind was indescribably complex, yet he can view gigantic problems in a way that reduces them to simplicity.
Schoenberg turned the conversation to writers, telling a story about Max Graf. Graf had written early in Schoenberg’s carrier, “One should remember his name.” This much of the story. I knew from Graf’s own book. The sequel from Schoenberg was, “The next time we met, he called me Schönfeld!”
I asked if he had himself written anything except the “Harmonielehre” and he said he was then working on an article about Brahms.
One time I wondered why it so often happens that newspaper and magazine accounts of interviews and events are often apparently willfully twisted and distorted.
His reply was thoughtfully given – “The hardest thing for a human being to do – and especially a writer – is to tell the truth. It is so very difficult not to add something to make the story more colorful, or to subtract something so as to make the subject of an interview appear ridiculous and the writer therefore brilliant by comparison.
“Because it is so hard to tell the truth, people tell lies.”
When I heard expressed anger that a certain writer wrote very inaccurately about him, Schoenberg said very compassionately, “He was a failure as a musician. He played the violin a little. He could not become a great musician because truth was not in him. He writes but
– poor man! – he cannot say the truth.”
One doubts whether he reads anything written about him. In fact, he reads very little. “I would rather think for five hours than read for five hours,” he once remarked.
When he does read, it is often Balzac. However, it is quite evident that he has in the past read enormously and that he remembers what he has read. Once when I thought I was quoting Liszt, he said. “If Liszt said that, he was quoting Schiller!” He was right!
Conversation with Schoenberg are apt to touch on many subjects in an hour. He has strong opinions, but is open for discussion. He loves to be challenged and to argue. Perhaps this is true of any person with an active mind, but since most of his associates are in considerable awe, he probably cherishes a debate the more because it is seldom offered.
He enjoys the visit of Arthur Schnabel very much, but when asked about friendships with other concert artists, he said, “What have they got to say to a composer, and what has a composer to say to them? Schnabel is different. He writes music.”
Schoenberg is always serious when discussing music. No matter what else has been said, no musicologist worthy of the name doubts his sincerity of integrity.
Contemporaries of his youth have painted him as a violently emotional young man who loved to shock his fellow frequenters of the Viennese coffee shops with such statements as: The C Major triad is an affect which can only be applied rarely, and then after most careful preparations. What they did not record was that such assertions were intended to start a lively discussion! Asked about this statement, Schoenberg shrugged his shoulders and said, “I probably said it. I loved to make ‘wisecracks’.”
He relieves the tension of his pupils with “wisecracks.” His pupils are required to do the most demanding exercises in traditional harmony and the most meticulous analyses of classic masterworks. He is relentlessly critical. It would be wrong to say cruelly critical – always they feel his brooding tenderness. That flaming young emotion that sometimes shocked his Viennese companions has never burned out, but is translated into warmth and light.
“Very few are talented in composition,” he says. Nevertheless, he believes that the unendowed may find the act of composing a valuable practice in itself, whether the results are satisfactory or not.
As a composer, he was motivated only once by externalities. “I was about eight years old and had had one violin lesson. I heard my mother discussing money with my father. We were comfortably situated financially but I believed she was worried. So I wrote the violin part of what I hoped would be a saleable sonata and took it to my teacher at the second lesson! That was the only time I ever composed for money!”
“Did you always want to compose?” I asked.
“I am not sure if I ever wanted to compose . . . rather, I never wanted to be a composer. A composer is ridiculous! He doesn’t try to improve anything. I have often wished I could do something about carburetors . . . something mechanical. Or be a carpenter!” he replied.
Mrs. Schoenberg said, “But he is a carpenter! See the little shelf for the clock? He made that!”
Visiting in our home, he was delighted to see my husband’s woodworking shop. “How Arnold would love to have this!” said Mrs. Schoenberg. “Like little children he makes inventions!”
Among his “inventions” is a game – a woodblock puzzle – which Larry enjoys, a holder for five sticks of chalk (for staff lines) and a method of pasting wastepaper in layers from which he makes a sort of plastic used for fancy boxes, chessmen and other small objects. One box is shaped like a violin.
He takes a craftsman’s pride in his bookbinding, pointing out that one book would lie quite flat wherever it is opened.
He used to paint in oils, generally self-potraits. “Because ”, he explained, “I am willing to sit for myself and always am available when I want to paint.”
I asked him when he had had time for all these hobbies and he replied that he wakes very early in the morning – often before five – and hates to lie in bed. Not wishing to disturb the household he occupies himself with these little activities.
“Also sometimes my mind is in a ‘delicate condition’. I am not ready to put down notes, but tiptoe around ideas while they are forming,” he said.
Recently these delicious morning hours have been invaded by the tortures of an asthmatic condition. He deplores anything which keeps him from working, and suffers more from the limitation imposed by the disease than from the physical effects. The condition is more bothersome than dangerous, according to his physician. A recent physical examination proved him quite sound, except for asthma but since then he has suffered a very severe attack from which he is recovering slowly. While he has a pleasing temperament and is far from being a “difficult” person, he is sometimes upset by the restrictions of age and ill health.
I believe Mrs. Schoenberg was rather pleased than otherwise when the University of California at Los Angeles retired him. He furiously declared “I had not begun to reach the age of retirement! Maybe some teachers have nothing to give after a certain age, but I am still full!”
Schoenberg’s classes were always in demand and no less so in Los Angeles than in Berlin. But as Mengelberg has said, “Reger and Pfitzner will remain a negligible quantity for the land of Scriabine, the land of Puccini, the land of Debussy; but from the spirit of Schoenberg the world cannot shut itself of.”
It has so come about that the university, after all, merely freed the great teacher. Though his home is difficult for most to reach . . . miles out in fashionable West Los Angeles where few if any struggling young composers live, there is a group of disciples who gather on Sundays for lessons.
One wonders if anyone in the history of music has been such a strong influence during his own lifetime? Frederick H. Martens, in “Schoenberg,” one of a series of little biographies published by Breitkopf and Härtel declares that Schoenberg’s influence “transcends the narrowed circle of his own adherents, Egon Wellesz, Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Anton von Webern, and affects the followers of Strauss and Reger. A Ravel, a Stravinsky, a Malipiero have already admitted their indebtedness to him” (This was published in 1922.)
Last year I attended a master class given by the head of the Juilliard graduate school, head of an academy of conductors and choral directors , worker at Tanglewood, Bach editor and savant Julius Herford. A member of his class asked this great teacher, “To whom will we turn for such study as this when you have gone?” He replied with the question, “Why do you not go to Schoenberg?”
When I interviewed Arthur Schnabel on teaching practices, he referred to the “Harmonielehre,” regretting that the newly published translation was an incomplete text.
Schoenberg’s attitude toward teaching is very Socratic. “Teaching is learning from the pupil,” he says. “If I teach him all I know, he has merely a collection of theory and facts. It is necessary to lead him to think and search for himself – to find the truth which is – for him – the truth.”
I told him of troubles I was experiencing with a talented pupil, explaining that where the boy was concerned I had lost confidence in my ability. I wailed, “Perhaps I will ruin him!”
Mr. Schoenberg, lopsided, enchanting smile flashed as he answered, “No genius can ever be ruined by a piano teacher! From what I have heard, I think the only mistake you are making is in assuming he is a genius.
”Genius is a blessing and curse. In this sense: Supposing an apple tree knew that plums were selling very high on the market. ‘I will produce plums!’ but it would have to go on producing apples, for that is where its genius lies.
“I think your pupil may have a genius for making you work hard, but perhaps he is not endowed with the ability to work hard, himself. That is the great difference between talent and genius. Genius fires itself.”
In the ensuing discussion, I referred to “beautiful” music. The word was unfortunate. Schoenberg snapped, “Always you talk about beautiful! Why do you use that word with reference to music? It is too vague. No one knows what beauty is … the word means many things to each person and so it no longer has meaning.
ׅ“Some people say that my music is not beautiful. If other music is beautiful, so is my music.
But I think beautiful is too poor a word for any serious music!”
He had given me a card from the American Society for Aesthetics. I held it up and looked at him questioningly. “Oh,” he said, “We study this question. The society was organized in my house one time during a conclave of artists. My work forces me to be an aesthetician.”
I asked if he belonged to any other organization. He twinkled merrily and replied, “Sure! Ascap!” I have hoped very much that this article might give a true word picture of the personality of my friend with “the face of a Pierrot.” I did not want to distort this picture. I wanted it to be as lifelike as possible. Yet I realize that I can “paint” him only from my viewpoint and as he is now. If readers of SOUTHWESTERN MUSIC find discrepancies in this picture, comparing it with European articles, I must ask them to remember that my picture is not of Arnold Schoenberg of Vienna, of Berlin, of the school room or of the podium.
I have known him only in his home and in ours, and on drives. I have seen him in conversation with a tiny, shy child; with a carpenter whose girlfriend had just deserted him; with young musicians and with my husband and myself.
In this intimate, friendly atmosphere I have been overwhelmingly grateful for his friendship. I have forgotten long ago that he is a “great man,” because he has in all our contacts shown himself as a simple, friendly, kind, tender and very gentle and humble man.
Tremendous integrity and sincerity have been proven over and over again. But sparkling through these heavier qualities is always that puckish, whimsical humour which delights little children, relieves difficult lessons and makes every visit a treasured memory.
Yet that whimsicality has perhaps contributed more than anything else to the fact that so many ludicrous statements are attributed to him by people who are insensitive to his nature. The following incident may explain why he is sometimes misrepresented:
One time I attempted to discuss possible improvements to the pianoforte. I suggested a convexly curved keyboard would be helpful, since the arms move away from the body in a quarter circle, and not in a straight line.
Evidently, Schoenberg didn’t want to discuss it, so he declared, “The piano is already an obsolete instrument!”
Still wanting to get him to talk about instruments, I suggested the string bass could be more easily fingered if tuned in fifths.
“You play the bass?” he asked.
I said I did and told him about my fine old Mittenwald.
“And can you make on your bass a beautiful tone?” he asked.
I hesitated. He chuckled and I thought he was about to quote Brahms. Instead, he said, “Why bother to tune string basses?”
“Now,” he continued, “I will tell you seriously what I think about instrumentsֹ’ possibilities.”
He looked at me searchingly and realized I was dead serious, so he announced in playfully dramatic tones, “Do you realize that only a piccolo player can make a tone long enough to suit the size of his instrument?”
I laughed but wanted to continue this ridiculous conversation, so stubbornly persistent, “What kind of instrument do you predict for the future?”
“Oh,” he said, “Something like a giant cash register. One man will push buttons and out will come the symphony. Of course, the union will see that there are several hundred stand-by musicians employed.”
“But,” I argued, “could there be interpretation, with such a music machine? There would be no possibility of individualistic playing!”
“Yah!” he crowed, “you’re telling me – a composer – as if that were objectionable?”
On the strength of this conversation I have no idea and probably neither has Schoenberg of what he seriously thinks about instruments.
Nevertheless I should not be at all the surprised sometime to read that he hates the piano, thinks the tuning of strings unimportant and believes music should be played in a mechanical manner.
Nor would I blame very much a writer who said such things. One must be very sympathetic to his nature to understand when he is serious and when he is joking. Should I again ask about these things, he would probably take delight in mystifying me still more.
He never jokes about music itself, however. And on the subject of teaching his remarks reveal a feeling on his part of consecration to that work.
Concerning early composers he says, “I am devoted to them, naturally. As you are devoted to your music teachers and as pupils are devoted to you. Mozart I revere, because he taught me form and orchestration.
“There is no new or old form. I did not invent the canon and fugue which I use in my composing! Where form is concerned, there are a number of schemes.
“I like to use canons. The main voice must have accompaniment and the closer the relationship the more they fit. To accompany a theme by a mirror form is certainly a matter of using closely related material!
I like to write music so that it is very condensed. I have the aphoristic manner and use devices to keep from unconsciously repeating myself. I like my music to be brave and precise. This is my style.”
In June, when I consulted him about this article which was written expressly for SOUTHWESTERN MUSICIAN, he was glad that I would not write about his music, even though he knows that I would write appreciatively.
“It is too early to evaluate any modern composition. We only now are beginning to have knowledge enough to appraise Bach!”
Perhaps it is this conviction that has kept him from any criticism, on his part, of his contemporary composers many times, but I have never known him to disparage anyone’s work. Nor is he at all concerned when criticism is directed toward his own work, whether it be praise or discredit. He smiles and says, “It is too early to tell!”
After the Ojai Valley Festival, the Juilliard String Quartet played for Schoenberg at his home. He was filled with happiness to hear the way they played the first, third and fourth quartet. The second requires a voice and lacking a singer they could not play this work for him.

[…]
“They are really excellent, technically, too.”
I asked him to tell me what recent events in his life I might report and he said, “I have good news from European countries. My music is being very much played and of course I am glad. I have been invited to lecture and conduct in England and in Switzerland and to attend my seventy-fifth birthday celebrations.
”It was even arranged that a plane would come for me, and I would have enjoyed this very much, but have decided it would not be wise after this illness.”
Among the many reports from Europe comes news that the “Gurre-Lieder” will be given in Vienna in September; “Pierrot Lunaire” will be given in Paris and repeated in Berlin; in Frankfurt Am Main there was a Schoenberg Festival on June 26 and 27 directed by Winfred Zillig, a former student of the composer.
The British Broadcasting Company arranged to play a string trio. A trio was also to be played in Berlin. And so on.
How wonderful it is that he has lived to enjoy the return of music – especially his own – to Europe!
I was shown the cablegrams which he sent in response to the announcement of the West German Radio that there would be a broadcasting dedicated to his music. Translated, it reads, “That I have the honour to participate in this festival concert fills me with pride and thankful joy for I envision thereby more happiness than the purely personal – a testimony that music must be free from every limitation if it wants to obey faithfully its inner – its own! – laws. For this and for many other things, I thank you most cordially.”
The interview was over and characteristically he turned the conversation away from his own activities. My husband was asked about the progress of his garden. When he told about the endless stone work necessary to developing our hillside, Mr. Schoenberg wistfully sighed, “I would like to do something like that!”
As we left after many expressions of friendliness, we realized again the elation that comes from a visit with this great living master . . . our friend “with the face of a Pierrot.”

The Southwestern Musician 16/1 (September 1949), p. 4-5, 13, 18-19, 30, 35