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Arnold Schönberg had been staying in Prague of several days, industriously preparing a performance of his symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande. But it was not that calm, professional work that drew all eyes in his direction; the noisy, controversial success – not unlike an uprising – of his important work threw him into the spotlight.

That is the way of the world – and Schönberg, incidentally, does not think much of it; right there, where interest in him was beginning to take hold, in Prague, he hurriedly turned his back on the city. Yesterday at 12 noon, he steamed back home to Berlin’s Penaten at express-train speed. But he had had a meeting before the journey, which he valiantly withstood – and he did not keep his opinion of the denizens of Prague to himself, either. I had expected it to come quite differently, but his verdict was very flattering to them. “Nowhere has there been such sustained and intense disputing about me as in Prague,” he said, although Vienna had certainly not been gracious to him, either. “But they listened to my work seriously and, at the end, their endurance proved that they had taken it seriously, too, for or against. That does much credit to both sides.” […]

“In Vienna, they did not even want to hear me to the end – but that was doubtless planned – and the same work (my F-sharp Minor Quartet) was performed in Munich without the slightest demonstration. And after yesterday’s experiences, I hope for a worthy, objective reception in Prague, too, if the work should be played here again in future.” In fact, just such a performance will be given soon; the Rosé Quartet will devoting itself to the piece on March 18 in the Kammermusikverein – a piece which is already peculiar enough, even if only in that it has a vocal part, which Madame Gutheil-Schoder will interpret here.

“What can be the reason for this opposition, when we cannot assume that it is comprised only of personal or artistically knowledgeable enemies?” I asked. “That seems quite clear to me; people cannot stand distinct persons. I call distinct persons the ones with strong personalities, who speak honestly and resolutely what they feel, without concessions. Maybe Lehár is such a distinct person, too, but he’s a pleasant sort and I’m one of the unpleasant ones,” the composer retorted ironically.

“Yet with your harmonies being so unfamiliar, you really cannot take umbrage if they do not compel people at once,” I said, in an attempt to defend the catcallers. “After all, you admit that some of your work sounds ugly because it is supposed to portray something ugly…”

“No, no, not ugly by any means – just chilling, eerie. After all, what is beautiful or ugly in music? I don’t think dissonances sound ugly. At most, I find only a slight difference between dissonances and consonances; it is always just a question of transitions. Dissonances are actually the animating element in music, like conflict in a play. Dissonances are the driving motor which alone propels all motion. Old Bach himself was writing the worst dissonances, and the ones I write are certainly not worse than Bach’s. But our ears are used to him; with me, they still get annoyed.”

“Your new type of expression may well indeed cause difficulty for critics; even when the value of your music is evident to them, how should they put the proof into words for their readers? Put yourself in the critics’ place – what would you have to say about yourself, self-critically, to laymen?”

Schönberg paused before answering. “Some people spend their whole lives without reaching objectivity and clarity about themselves – how could I do it in just a few minutes? – but, well, if I had to write, I would first ask, ‘Can we sense honest expression in this person’s intention, is there a person at all behind the work, and how extensively has he expressed himself? – and finally, in which category do I place his intention? – is it among the low or were his intentions of the highest?’ And asking these questions about myself – can I answer them differently other than in one sense? Every answer other than the advantageous one would of course be a justified motive for suicide.”

And there was no jocular hint of a smile on Schönberg’s wise visage at this manful, proud confession. It was plain that a person was standing by those words.

“Yet all the same, knowing the poem which hovered before you in the work performed yesterday certainly makes it easier to understand such harsh arrangements of sounds. You have also written absolute music; would you be able to say whether those works – the Sextet or the two string quartets, for example – are also based on a cohesive idea, one which listeners could initially cling to?”

“Not at all. I even conceive the Pelleas music as absolute – and I have written no program music since then. Would I choose notes if I could express what I feel in words? Of course an association of specific notions bonds me with the work, but they could be different for everyone – and who knows whether the association is complementary, as with colors, where red evokes green in the eye? Those who understand me understand me without words. Do you recall what Schopenhauer said about music? ‘Music is an opera and the world is its text’ – approximately, I think. That is the glorious part of music, for me – that, despite all the speaking out, it allows the creator to remain closed off, to keep his innermost secrets unrevealed except as they arise in the music, which only the like-minded understand.”

“And yet you are not standing there alone, an errant mass in the history of music – you must also have had your masters, too. Where do we look for them? Is there a pathway to you via others, from earlier times?”

Schönberg affirmed and negated at once. “Naturally I have learned. We have all learned from Wagner, Brahms and Liszt, from Hugo Wolf. I was pretty well finished by the time Strauss came along. The younger ones – Pfitzner, Mahler – already found me intellectually accomplished. I owe nothing to them. On the other hand – you might smile in disbelief – I learned very much from Mozart, especially concerning internal structure and forming melodies.”

“And what about Debussy?” I asked. “Your Pelleas was written at more or less the same time as the Frenchman’s music drama; how do you judge Debussy’s interpretation of the poetry, which is somewhat different from yours?”

“I like Debussy very much,” said Schönberg modestly; “he was more mature than I when we both approached the work, and he likely matched Maeterlinck’s style better.”

Another exchange of friendly glances – outside the wind was whistling like a train, and I closed the door quickly behind me. What a mysterious art music is! Here was a man, serious, simple, charming and modest, intelligent and sharp-tongued, yes, but not malicious, assured and full of the best intentions. But the song and the poetry in him – they have caused people to join against him in animosity, stirred them bitterly – and the people cannot come to an agreement about him. Will they understand him someday? “All in good time,” says Dehmel.

Bohemia, morning edition (March 2, 1912)