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I. How is it that you have not written for the orchestra for such a long time?

To tell the truth, my last work using the orchestra is the Lieder for Orchestra, Op. 22, but Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder), which is half finished, is also for orchestra, although I have not yet written the orchestral score.
This halt in my production for orchestra can be accounted for above all by the fact – as you know – that I have been occupied since the summer of I92I with my Composition With Twelve Tones, whose laws I have first had to explore with an ensemble of restricted size because, for the moment at least, doubling in octaves seems to me inadmissible.

II. Have you been able to avoid octave doublings completely?

Save for carelessness on my part or a slip of the pen, there are only a few rare places where octaves are doubled in passing. I am sometimes a little more tolerant in handling percussion instru¬ments. But believe me, this is not a question of imperfection but because of the first results of new developments in this technique, which I would prefer not to explain for the moment.
You know that my goal has for some time been to find for my orchestral structures a form such that the fullness and saturation of sound shall be obtained only through the use of relatively few voices. For some time, and more and more firmly, I have avoided creating orchestral sonority by a post facto laying on of instruments, and have achieved it spontaneously through the movement and reciprocal rapport of the individual voices. Take for example Erwartung. You will find in that score a great number of forte nuances when, without octave doublings, only a portion of the orchestra is being employed.
You will recall that for more than twenty years I have been advising my pupils always to consider, whenever they are analyzing a passage marked forte, whether they could conceive it sounding better if marked piano.

III. Since you have, in op. 16 and still more in op. 22, dissociated the orchestra and, ignoring the similarities between groups and families, simply chosen exactly the instruments necessary, I am amazed that your new work should be written for a practically normal orchestra.

If it were not for America, we in Europe would be composing only for reduced orchestras, chamber orchestras. But in countries with younger cultures, less refined nerves require the monu¬mental: when the sense of hearing is incapable of compelling the Imagination, one must add the sense of sight.
In radio broadcasting, a small number of sonic entities suffice for the expression of all artistic thoughts; the gramophone and the various mechanical instruments are evolving such clear sonorities that one will be able to write much less heavily instrumented pieces for them. Even the “agitators” in the musical world hardly ever attempt to yell their ideas anymore, and true artists never at all. The public is beginning to understand without one’s having to resort to shouting into their ears.
But disarmament is as slow here as it is in other areas; so long as there continue to be nations which, in art, have not yet won their place in the sun, so long will America demand large orchestras and Europe maintain them; Europeans will remain incapable of acquiring that finesse of the ear that artists long to see more generally acquired as long as they continue to maintain large orchestras.
From this point of view, I place great hope in jazz. As late as 1918 they were crowding brass instruments into rooms of the smallest dimensions. Now we are beginning to find that a piano and four or five instruments suffice in a large garden, so great has been the transformation in the auditory sense of one part of the public.
Nonetheless, art music has reaped no decisive profit from this progress. Before that can happen, it is necessary for the wind instruments that are found in symphony orchestras to adapt themselves to the needs of chamber music. They have grown too accustomed, through the symphonic repertory, to taking shelter within great masses of orchestral sound, and are not always able to rise to a level of execution that would give greater relief to musical intensities.
Thus I have often had troublesome experiences with the different instrumental groups of the traditional orchestra, from which have arisen great material difficulties in the diffusion of my musical thought. Now I would like, for once, to avoid them, and so I have decided, for all these reasons, to compose for the traditional orchestra.

IV. But how were you able to write all the parts that are required even in your most stripped orchestral compositions? How, in particular, were you able to keep all the instruments of a large orchestra busy in a way that would justify their use from the viewpoint of a just economy of the means of artistic expression?

Notice that the works of my middle period contained already several elements of the technique which is perfected in these Variations, notably in what has been called open work. But this method of promoting the musical thought by variations in color and not by dynamism results in an economy different from the old one, one which cannot be imitated without danger. It is intimately tied, in effect, to the make-up of the musical phrase. In general, orchestral works are constructed today on the principle of gradation, and different effects of contrast are employed in the same way, whether in order to unite or in order to separate. This method, be it said in passing, is extremely primitive, like the symmetry which Bach was already able to dispense with. In contrast, I have for a long time been occupied with the technique of intensity, with the dynamism characteristic of Mozart, which is different from that of Beethoven. With Mozart, the alterations of intensity generally underline limited oppositions only, oppositions born of a need for variation and for characteristic expression, so that the relations of intensity constitute less a means of construction than of expression and, consequently, change more frequently.
Musical color plays exactly the same role in my work. Coloristic changes serve, while animating the expression, to clarify the musical idea. That is their principal function; it is even possible to annul, as it were, the colors and to reduce the dynamic intensity of my works, to make (in a word) transcriptions of them for piano; and if one day we arrive at an age of musical intelligence alert enough to do without the props of a complete materialization, great pleasure will be taken in transcriptions.
One might imagine that in my orchestral style there is not to be found in any given work a passage that requires five trombones, because there is no forte that would correspond to their use. And nevertheless they are found indispensable in many places for reasons of clarity, which is more difficult to recognize.
The influence of chamber music on the totality of my conceptions was equally decisive in forming the character of my musical composition. This comes out not only in my chamber music, in Pierrot lunaire and in my Chamber Symphony, but long predates those productions. The proof is found in a song which I wrote in 1901 and which was performed at the Buntes Theater of Wolzogen to the audience’s enormous indifference. The accompaniment comprised piano, piccolo, trumpet (mostly muted) and side drum. This was perhaps the first specimen of orchestral chamber music and a forerunner of jazz.

V. Why is it that in your later years you have so often written in so-called traditional forms?

I am grateful that you speak of ‘so-called’ traditional forms. I hope that in time it will be realized that the form of these variations represents something new and I will be happy if I am still around when it is realized. The only old thing about traditional forms is their names, and these names are convenient, because we no longer hold to inventing poetic names, as in the time when they said fugue (at least, so it is asserted, but I have proved otherwise) because the voices were ‘fugitive’; rondo because one danced a round and toccata because one ‘struck’ the organ (which merited such treatment less than the musicologists). What good is it to explain that the organ is not being mistreated as punishment for its wickedness, that the German word for ‘playing the organ’ (Orgelschlagen) has essentially the same origin as other German words designating bird songs (Finkenschlag, Wach¬telschlag, Nachtigallenschlag, terms which designate the song of the finch, the quail, the nightingale); and we discover the same innocent character in such words as Schlagschatten (cast shadow) and Menschenschlag (human race).
Who then would claim to fix the forms of a fugue, a rondo, or a toccata? The conservatories, with their pervading influence, have long furnished – and in assembly line quantities – compositional diagrams which they take to be the forms of art; and their students, when they arrive at the age of production, model their compositions after these diagrams (or at least suppose they are doing so, for some of them have a guardian angel – talent). The aestheticians are happy because they have inspired these products, which are thus put an the market, but in reality all this has no existence in art, where every content produces its own form; and only a robot, a tool of the conservatory, as it were, could deliberately check the expansion of form which every work of art tends to produce. To stop the creative process like this is to systematize ugliness itself, and mediocrity, and banality.

VI. Why have you interrupted your work so long?

I am going to do myself a great deal of injustice in answering your question. This interruption merely confirms a truth that everyone already knows: that is, that I am a constructor. Here is what happened:
I began these Variations in May, 1926, and I made such progress that a few weeks later I thought I would be finished in several weeks. A trip interrupted my work. When, after a number of weeks, I tried to take it up again, I was unable to rediscover the idea of the variation I had already begun. I found an irregular number of voices at irregular intervals, beginning motifs of different lengths and breaking the principal line of the composition. About half the work was composed and it was impossible for me to rediscover the principle for the completion of the remainder, of which I had nothing but that sketchy outline. After searching in vain for a long time, I abandoned the work. Yet I kept on returning to it in the hope of finding what had escaped me, and last summer I determined to finish it at no matter what cost. I spent a week in the same fruitless search, working in the meantime on other sections. But I felt that I had to succeed in fixing permanently that variation, with all its relationships of weight and size. I set myself to the task one time more, and after a new effort and a new defeat, I resolved to renounce it and to adopt another principle for my variation.
I had arrived at a stage where it was not difficult to decide.
Just at the moment when I set to work, I found a sheet of paper which I had seen a hundred times without paying any attention to it, and an it was ... the solution that I had searched for so long, a solution that agreed perfectly with the one I had just invented anew!
This is a fate reserved for none save constructors: to have a plan of construction, to lose it and, what is worse, to find it again.

Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (16. Dezember 1928); English translation published in: Arnold Schoenberg – Self-Portrait, edited by Nuria Schoenberg Nono. Pacific Palisades 1988, 29–31