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It must be admitted that Schoenberg inspires more respect than affection… His disciples’ admiration was unlimited, uncontrolled in fact. The feelings of his opponents, the hatred of what he stood for, were no less excessive. Did he choose this rote of the prophet, revered but feared? Was he even responsible for it? Was he determined on the same ‘failure’ as Moses?
It looks as though, especially towards the end of his life, he was tired of the distinguished but thankless rote that his century had forced on him. The very name of Schoenberg calls up ideological quarrels: it was not simply his work that was disputed, but the very principles of his musical language. Questions of race and cultural differences also played a part. And to make matters worse the issues in this already difficult situation were hopelessly confused by the tensions in his dual personality, half conservative and half adventurous, which alienated a good number of simple souls able to understand and accept only a clear-cut situation.
My own attitude has remained virtually unchanged. I learned to find my way about in Berg’s labyrinths once I had overcome the lack of natural sympathy that proved an initial obstacle. I learned to take a detached view of Webern’s all too shining light, despite the fervour that it aroused. In Schoenberg’s case I am still fascinated by only one relatively short, but important period – though I hasten to add that this includes almost all the chief discoveries of the twentieth century, which have had an influence on music that cannot be gainsaid.
The chronology of his works suggests that Schoenberg composed rapidly and by fits and starts, often under the influence of literary texts that stimulated him. The time taken over a work was generally very short – Erwartung is the most striking example of this. Even large-scale works written over long periods were composed sporadically – abandoned, taken up again, forgotten, restarted... The history of Schoenberg’s works reveals an impulsive, discontinuous inspiration – in fact that associated by romantic convention with ‘genius’. How are we to reconcile this fact with the intellectualism of which he is accused? (We should have first to ask ourselves the meaning of what is generally called intellectualism... but let us for the moment accept its common meaning of arid calculation, the reverse of spontaneity.)
Only one, magic, answer immediately suggests itself, and Schoenberg himself did not fail to provide it when he compared the composer more or less to God... The work exists from all eternity, and the primary material has only to he thought with sufficient intensity in order to be created – ‘let the work be, and the work was’. There could be no question of ‘calculation’ for the creator, it was an integral part of the lightning invention. Its organization resembles a thunderbolt, instantaneous and shattering. How easy it is to understand Schoenberg’s growing obsession with the figure of Moses! The burning bush and the tables of the Law – there can be no more striking metaphor of human creation as inspired and assisted by God’s own creative power.
I am quite ready to admit that I find this messianic attitude irritating – even if it is explained by Schoenberg’s lack of ‘success’. Finding himself the object of hostility and attack, he took refuge in assuming the attitude of a prophet; and it is hard to find any explanation for that famous assertion, in particular – that he had assured the supremacy of German music for some hundred years – except a mad desire to compensate. Did his work as a teacher simply confirm him in a role for which he had a natural predilection?
He was happy to undertake such work as long as it was at a high level, but found it a heavy burden when it was no more than a demanding and wearisome way of making a livelihood. Even so, few other composers of his stature have spent so much of their time teaching and forming other personalities. But even the best teacher cannot invent personalities: he can only discover them and reveal them to themselves. The two most striking and lasting of those revelations occurred at the very beginning of his career as a teacher – by a small, momentary coincidence that was never to be repeated at the same level. Schoenberg himself, as we know, was virtually self-taught, and the instruction and advice that he received were of only relative importance compared with his own work of assimilating the classical and romantic repertory. It may well be that he wished to spare his juniors this hard experience, in the conviction that a thorough understanding of the musical situation was necessary if he was to find his own place in it as a composer. Innovation is possible only after the completest possible digestion of the past.
Was Schoenberg, then, an explorer in spite of himself? Writings and anecdotes suggest it: ‘There had to be a Schoenberg and the lot fell on me...’ – something like that! What a sense of nostalgia overcame him when he thought of the old order, and how painstakingly he worked in the first place to forge links between his own works and the classical masterpieces that he admired and took for his models! His adaptation and transformation of those models was in fact so intense that his close links with the past were unrecognizable to superficial observers. He himself rather forgot his enslavement to the past during the really explosive period of his career as a composer, a period that lasted a dozen years. The musical culture of the past was always present in his music, but latent, in the background; his inventive powers were so demanding that they hardly left room for historicism. His desire to explore and to renew, and the pleasure this gave him, were stronger than his ambition to win a place for himself in the panorama of history. Once he had taken the first step and freed himself from the constraints of the past, Schoenberg’s first concern was to justify himself and then to establish a new order able to bear comparison – victorious comparison – with the old. This explains his sense of triumph when he thought that he had provided music with a new ‘eternal’ law, and his insistence on presenting his new world parallel to the old. Can such a mirage last?
It is common to consider only two phases in Schoenberg’s music the tonal period and the post-tonal, including the establishment of the twelve-note system – as though his abandoning of tonality were the one fundamental fact of his existence. But is this the only primary question? His earliest works are a kind of introduction that includes prophetic types or patterns in which his ideal and his demands gradually take shape as he creates from the gcnerally accepted language a language that is not only personal but highly individual, flooding his polyphony with an ever increasing number of motives and giving preference to melodic rather than the co-ordinating harmonic intervals. This had been done before by Beethoven and, more particularly, by Wagner, in whose music the relationship between harmony and counterpoint is so strained that it almost reaches breaking point.
That break occurred in Schoenberg’s second period, an explosion as much in form – the method of composition – as in actual language. This period was short and intensely visionary (voyant in Rimbaud’s sense), and it involved a long, large-scale and rationally planned distortion of all the musical senses. Dimensions are fused and interchanged; the conception flouts order and finds renewal in the extreme tension and effort of instantaneous invention, involving the exploration of both informal continuity and formalized fragmentation. Still, however, as before, the whole process of composition rests on the endless flow of motives and motivic principles and the play of predominant intervals. Invention expands in an anarchical efflorescence troubled by no scruples of economy. It becomes, on the other hand, the central reflecting point in the subsequent transition towards a final codification of the language. The lava cools and we find ourselves facing a crystallization, or geometrization, of forms, a verification of the constituents of the musical organism, a classification of methods and an inventory of the means available.
Some of the works written at this time are almost like demonstrations, confirmations of a link with the past. This codification is more a security measure than a step into the unknown, and the composer’s chief concern is with the overall insuring of his place in the context of history from the encyclopaedic point of view. At the same time he continues to pursue his fundamental procedure of flooding his music with motives and basic intervals, only now – in the new context – there can he no more conflict in importance between melodic intervals and their harmonic co-ordination, since both depend from the outset an the same principle of combination. Before we even think of examining the consequences of this, still less criticize them, we must be sure of the unity and the determination of the whole procedure.
We can observe a similar evolution in a number of painters belonging to the same generation as Schoenberg, and two in particular – Kandinsky and Mondrian. There is nothing surprising in the name of Kandinsky, in view of Schoenberg’s relations with the Blaue Reiter group, which were more than just an episode in his life, and of the collaboration that was planned with the Bauhaus. As for Mondrian, I do not think that Schoenberg ever showed much interest in him. Even so, if we consider the work of Mondrian and Kandinsky, we can clearly trace the same sequence of prophetic ‘type’ works, explosion and codification that we find in Schoenberg, the same adventures, the same risks and, I fear, the same relapses and the same disenchantments. In other respects it must he acknowledged that Schoenberg’s visual tastes – as shown in his own pictures – were quite different from those of either Kandinsky or Mondrian and (leaving aside all questions of ‘professionalism’) link him rather with Edvard Munch or Odilon Redon.
Something, however slight, must also be said about Schoenberg’s literary affinities. People have inevitably pointed to the rather mediocre quality of the texts he chose to set, or wrote himself, an endless matter of debate not confined to the case of Schoenberg. Cantata and opera texts have seldom figured in anthologies, but what is generally acceptable as dramatic support becomes more of an embarrassment when poor literary quality or dramatic weakness is accentuated by poetic and philosophical pretensions. Schoenberg’s choice of ‘subjects’ nevertheless reveals his profound preoccupations as a creative artist. His exploration of the dream world in Erwartung coincides with his plumbing of the deep springs of musical creation in the unconscious. The references to a distant, vanished poetic world in Pierrot lunaire correspond to his farewell to a musical language that he considered out of date and inadequate. Later in life he completely identified his own personal crisis with the doubts and anxieties of Moses, his attachment to the new law and his despair of ever seeing it adopted. Although the subjects treated by Schoenberg may not convince us by their literary merits, they remain none the less convincing because they reflect very precisely his general idea of musical invention and describe its evolution – whereas his painting remains, as it were, watertight – static, dated.
Does Schoenberg’s power still exist? It has vanished from that part of his work that he considered most worthy to survive, whereas there is still a fascination in what might at first have seemed the most ephemeral of his works. How are we to explain this paradox? I can only repeat what I have already said – that the desire to ‘make history’ is incompatible with actually being historically important. Wanting to see oneself assuming a historic destiny is if you will forgive the trivial comparison – wanting to be at the same time both egg and chick. The biological impossibility of such a claim makes nonsense of even the most pious hopes of ‘immortality’. The ‘desire for immortality’ is nothing new, among poets especially – and this appeal to the unknown forces of the future is observable even among the artists who are most bound to their daily tasks. At what precise moment does this precarious balancing act come to grief and prove a failure? At the moment, I think, when a man prides himself an his desire to set a precise limit to evolution and starts to codify it completely in terms of the present, when he confuses prophecy and prevision. It is impossible to codify the awareness of a historic situation and, more specifically, an awareness of the future. It has often been admitted, even proved, that the future never turns out as expected, still less as imagined. This commonsense view is frequently overcome by the hope that the future cannot really escape our grasp and that we can shape it, even if only for a time – an illusion that makes us less inpatient with accepting the transitory. But is it not precisely the constant reconsideration of what is transitory that the artist must accept, and with it reconsideration of his own beliefs and attitudes? Surely we must accept this evidence that what is transitory is the very stuff of the historical perspective, of permanence in fact?
If I take Schoenberg as a particular instance of this, it was at the exact moment when he was most acutely aware of the transitory and its impact that he played a unique role as a composer. On the other hand his premature attempt at codification and his convictions about the future represent the most evanescent aspect of his work, the aspect most irretrievably doomed to oblivion. How is it possible to foresee the future, and why should we try? And what is more – is it not essential to live simply in the present moment, even if that is ‘the heart of the eternal’? There is no evading the wager – the wager that admits of no deduction, no limitation, no logic and is answered only by the darkest and most obstinately unconscious forces of the self – its ‘fiery heart’.

Schönberg le mal-aimé?, in: Die Welt (7. September 1974); english translation published in: Orientations. Collected Writings by Pierre Boulez. Cambridge/Mass. 1986, 325–329