One afternoon – school often adjourned early – I strolled in to find a very young officer of the Seaforth Highlanders sitting at the piano and drawing from its vitals some very strange harmonies. This was my first meeting with the music of Arnold Schoenberg. The young officer was Caryl Wood, digitally an indifferent pianist, but with a superb memory and sensitive musicality, who could quote almost any work at least for a few bars and whose taste leaned toward the curiosa of the art. As such he had collected several excerpts from Schoenberg’s Op. 11, which he played over and over again interspersed among bits of Debussy, Franck, Reger and Scriabine. Just as this was my first hearing of notes by Schoenberg, it was also my introduction to the Schoenberg legend. Briefly, this is that Schoenberg is merely a cerebralist, an experimenter, a laboratory mole, a mathematician, an originator and compiler of tortuous theories. Wood was no silly Chauvinist, so his animus against Schoenberg was not founded on the then popular notion that there was no balm in Gilead nor in any point between the British and Russian fronts. But he had imbibed his notions from London musical circles, which were at that time in full cry, with insular determination and primness, against all heresies that threatened the musico-esthetic heritage of Mendelssohn and Handel.
Always excited and even fascinated by any expression that menaced the composure of sacred cows, I was delighted with the spoonfuls of Schoenberg that Wood doled out. Arduous chores in the vicinity of Paschaendale in the months immediately following, and the problems of post-bellum readjustment prevented my closer acquaintance with the music. In 1920 came out a volume of readable and often acute characterizations by Paul Rosenfeld – Musical Portraits – where I read that “Schoenberg is the great troubling presence of modern music. His vast, sallow skull lowers over it like a sort of North Cape. For with him, with the famous cruel five orchestral and nine piano pieces, we seem to be entering the Arctic zone of musical art.... One finds the experimental and methodical at every turn.... Behind them one seems invariably to perceive some one sitting before a sheet of music paper and tampering with the art of music; seeking to discover what would result were he to accept as harmonic basis not the major triad but the major ninth, to set two contradictory rhythms clashing, or to sharpen everything and maintain a geometric hardness of line... . They smell of the synagogue as much as they do of the laboratory. Beside the Doctor of Music there stands the Talmudic Jew, the man all intellect and no feeling, who subtilizes over musical art as though it were the Law.”
That decided me. I must know something first-hand of Arnold Schoenberg; and I went much further than most critics, for I actually studied some of his scores, carefully listened to recorded performances of the music, and even strained my anemic German enough to read his Harmonielehre. Knowing fully from the frequent pronouncements of my betters that I was a creature of no intellect and all feeling, assured by centuries of family records that I was not a Talmudic Jew, and being equally sure that I was not and never could be a Doctor of Music, I was astonished to find that Schoenberg’s music produced in me a distinct pleasure, a warmth and awareness, a quickening of my musical faculties. At first I suspected myself and afterward, with better cause, suspected the protagonists of the Schoenberg legend.
Later on I was thrown into the company of Schoenberg. I have known long enough that personal association has a tendency to promote favorable bias; also that there are no men of genius but only works of genius. The best of any artist is in his work; there we receive the quintessence of his excellence, the cream of his thought. The man himself is usually disappointing. I forget what wit once remarked that meeting a celebrity was like one’s first love; one felt afterward like asking, is that all? So when meeting and talking with Schoenberg I was strictly on the defensive ; and it required long months to persuade myself that to study and understand the incubus that legend has made of Schoenberg, it was also necessary to know the man.
It is a natural temptation for critics to engage in speculations more calculated to display their learning or virtuosity than to give a clear, dispassionate and accurate idea of their subject. Consequently, most critical writing, specially about music, proves sterile and misleading. Critics, to my mind, should be missionaries and prophets whose function is to discover and share with humanity the delightful secret that is music. Good missionaries are rare; good dissectionists are a drug on the market. To the devil then, I say, with pseudo-profundities and legends; or, if your taste is for real profundities, to Erwin Stein, to Paul Bekker, to Dr. Egon Wellesz, to Dr. Paul Stefan, to D. I. Bach with you. I shall remain, as I was a day or so ago, with Arnold Schoenberg, chatting quietly by his fireside after the baby, against all her cajoling objections (she looks like a Cherokee rose), has been put to bed.
Let us take, one by one, the usual decisions concerning Schoenberg’s music, beginning with the most widespread and popular: That there is “no beauty, no emotion, no warmth, in it.” I believe that if it were possible to pluck from their seats in a concert hall various specimens of the sub-species music-lover and mention to them the name Arnold Schoenberg, they would nine times out of ten utter that representative squeak, adding “besides, I don’t like it.”
Now it is quite impossible to argue with a man about what he likes or what he doesn’t like. Some people are excessively fond of parsnips and I detest them. I can perhaps be convinced that parsnips may be good for the digestion or the complexion; nevertheless
I shall still loathe them. Neither is it possible, without writing a treatise on esthetic, to undertake definition of such terms. as emotion and beauty. If the anti-Schoenbergian says that to him the music is cold, he must continue to shiver; if his emotional nature is unsatisfied, he must remain unslaked. I cannot argue his feelings away. His feelings are his own and only he can answer for them, or for their absence. But when he says that the music has not warmth, emotion or beauty, he is uttering the same kind of nonsense I should be if I denied the nutritive value or the palatability of parsnips – to other people. Furthermore, I have tasted parsnips; the chief objectors that I personally know against Schoenberg, have heard little if any of his music.
There is also the puzzling question as to where feeling ends and intellect begins. I do piously wish there were a definite, an unquestionable frontier between the two; that each refrained from infiltrating into the other’s territory; that we could all say “now I am all feeling” and then, a moment afterward “now I am all intellect.” But alas, the complexity of our natures, as well as the complexity of music, does not allow of such psychic black-and-white. There are, in all music, moments of supreme ecstasy when the faculty of thought seems suspended and we live in a celestial eternity; in Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Franck and Schoenberg. But if we examine for an instant the body of the thought, we see that intellect, ingenuity and craftsmanship are inseparable and essential elements of the total effect. When a person, however, has succeeded in pigeonholing his reactions, it is beyond hope to consider music from a scientific or at least logical point of view.
I said some things to this effect to Schoenberg recently. He listened to me with an attentive smile, a patient smile. His dark and lively eyes, his mobile features, his well-modelled head tipped to one side – this is the “vast, sallow skull” of Rosenfeld – he said:
“Yes,” sighing, “I am unfortunately considered according to the legends of biographers. This is an absurdity, but I suppose an unavoidable absurdity. I am still waiting to be judged according to my music. My work should be judged as it enters the ears and heads of listeners, not as it is described to the eyes of readers.”
RODRIGUEZ: That is reasonable enough. I have been singing the same song. But you remember the struggle we had with your concerts recently. There seems to be an official apathy, or perhaps opposition, to the proper rehearsal, presentation and exploitation of the music. Consequently, when it is performed, even in extremely modest doses, few people know about it, and fewer still attend. The proportion of those who listen is still smaller.
SCHOENBERG: I have wished this was not true. But I am convinced of it. However, opposition is nothing new to one who wishes to say something new or something old in a new way. The history of music is a collected record of such oppositions. Here in Los Angeles, however, the antagonism has been very mild and below the surface. At first, particularly when my first string quartet appeared, there were actual fist fights in the audience.
RODRIGUEZ: If we could only have had a riot ourselves, a nice little riot, a modest bit of a brawl! We could have filled the house later on without trouble and the publicity would be automatic!
SCHOENBERG: Now about this matter of emotion, of inspiration – eh?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yes.
SCHOENBERG: It might astonish some critics that I am somewhat the creature of inspiration. I compose and paint instinctively. When I am not in the mood, I cannot even write a good example in harmony for my pupils. There are times when I write with the greatest fluency and ease. My third string quartet was composed in six weeks. They say I am a mathematician! Mathematics goes much slower.
RODRIGUEZ: We have at least one consolation. I describe it thus: Concepts of beauty are conventions that change with the times. What is to us familiar and most acceptable in Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy was in their day hateful to their contemporaries. I wonder what Mozart would have thought of Chopin’s modulations!
SCHOENBERG: Mozart would have considered them fantastic, awkward, crude and artificial, naturally. But time is a great conqueror. He will bring understanding to my works; indeed, he already has. No one is shocked nowadays by my Verklärte Nacht. Even last week, when my last string quartet was played by the Kolisch ensemble, it was heard with some enthusiasm, and a respect that to me brought the sudden and astonishing thought : “Heavens, am I being popularly accepted at last?”
RODRIGUEZ: Of course, as far as understanding in time is concerned –
SCHOENBERG: Even Mozart is hard to understand sometimes, if one really listens. I have often been puzzled when hearing some Mozart work for the first time.
The conversation veered toward the matter of the twelve-tone scale. I had known that Schoenberg had for a long time been considering a companion work to his Harmonielehre: Composition mit zwölf tönen. I had also read Stein’s exposition of the twelve-tone system in his Neue Formprinzipien (Von Neuer Musik; Cologne, 1925). And, to save my life I could notice nothing in the so-called system that was anything more than an extension and increase of the material available to the composer. I had communicated my notion to Joseph Achron, also timidly advancing the opinion that to understand Schoenberg one should really first understand the sixteenth-century contrapuntists. I was not certain of my ground; I had not disputed with the doctors long enough to realize that my weakness was my strength. The incident was curious, for Achron had some time before said the same things, unknown to me.
SCHOENBERG: That is correct. Stein, of course, speaks only of technical methods, which are always overrated.
RODRIGUEZ: Let me expose myself further. I believe that the twelve-tone scale was predicted and sometimes unconsciously used by men like Chopin. I have even felt that Beethoven foreshadowed atonality.
SCHOENBERG: You must be thinking of the sonata Les Adieux and the Eroica.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, have you the score?
We went to the piano and I turned to the first movement of the Eroica, where the violins shiver on the A-flat and B-flat of the dominant seventh chord while the first horn enters with the principal subject in the tonic.
SCHOENBERG: This, in my opinion, is a mistake. It was meant to be in B-flat.
He played the passage, transposing the horn-theme into the dominant of E-flat. I had in mind an objection, that since the Eroica was performed many times during Beethoven’s life and since he had every opportunity of correcting the passage, he had not done so, thus confirming his intention. But there were other things at hand to talk about. A curious incident!
RODRIGUEZ: You tell me you are a creature of inspiration. Give me some idea of the process you follow.
SCHOENBERG: I see the work as a whole first. Then I compose the details. In working out, I always lose something. This cannot be avoided. There is always some loss when we materialize. But there is a compensating gain in vitality. We all have technical difficulties which arise, not from inability to handle the material, but from some inherent quality in the idea. And it is this idea, this first thought, that must dictate the structure and the texture of the work.
RODRIGUEZ: This brings us somewhat close to biology and theology. You bring to my mind the first words of St. John’s gospel “In the beginning was the Word.”
SCHOENBERG: Of course. What else? What else can I do than to express the original Word, which to me is a human thought, a human idea or a human aspiration? Only that I am always doing it better. More clearly, more distinctly, with better language. In other words, my technique adapts itself better to my ideas. But what is this about biology?
RODRIGUEZ: Merely this: that functions preceded organs, or better still, that the necessity of a function created the form and nature of the organ. I am evolutionist enough to believe that running was first a necessity before legs came into being; not that we first had a liver and then were we given a circulatory system to give the liver a job.
SCHOENBERG: This makes me think of my new violin concerto. I believe that in it I have created the necessity for a new kind of violinist.
RODRIGUEZ: I have heard something about this. A virtuoso recently told me that the concerto is unplayable until violinists can grow a new fourth finger especially adapted to play on the same string at the same stop as three other fingers.
SCHOENBERG: (laughing like a pleased child): Yes, yes. That will be fine. The concerto is extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands. I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.
RODRIGUEZ: Hanslick once advised pianists to have a surgeon at hand when they practised the Chopin studies.
SCHOENBERG: Marvelous! We spoke of a recent concert during which a fine virtuoso chose for his local debut the Mendelssohn concerto. I deplored the choice, subscribing to the vogue of considering Mendelssohn banal, and more important, wishing that new players gave some opportunity to new works.
SCHOENBERG: You are wrong, my dear. Mendelssohn is a very great master. Brahms said he was the last great master. The trouble is that they always play him too sentimentally. (He imitated the exaggerated manner so common with young ladies of delivering the first theme). Some musicians are underrated; Mahler, for instance. I consider him very great. He also will have his day.
Later on, Otto Klemperer independently said the same thing. He had been deeply touched by the concerto’s performance, which he conducted. Come to think about it, in my secret self I also like it. There are memories. But nevertheless new music must have a hearing.
RODRIGUEZ: One thing puzzled me about this matter of systems. I have never been able to detect the fundamental difference between counterpoint and harmony. When I write harmony, I lead the voices contrapuntally; when I write counterpoint I unconsciously keep in mind the harmonic intimations.
SCHOENBERG: You are not the only one. The difference is much deeper. I might put it this way: Harmony, as a study, is, an extract of musical facts arranged in a theoretical way for pedagogic purposes. Counterpoint is also a teaching method, but one that should prepare for contrapuntal composition. Counterpoint is a way of composing. So when a pupil masters it, he has composed – not learned theory.
RODRIGUEZ: (sighing). One of my greatest regrets is that I composed long before I knew the difference .between an interval and a chord. Now I am painfully wrestling with matters that should by this time have been second-nature to me.
SCHOENBERG: Who hasn’t? Achron composed important works before he studied, a string quartet, a sonata, and so forth. I have also done the same thing. To my mind, creative and analytical work should go hand in hand, simultaneously.
RODRIGUEZ: Is it possible, dear master, that you are reversing the most hateful of all proverbs, most hateful because most false: “Look before you leap?”
SCHOENBERG: We learn best by doing, if that is what you mean. Theory becomes more significant, more applicable and more understandable when we discover its principles after having struggled with the problem.
RODRIGUEZ: Very well, then; I can think of a number of jumps that should be taken.
SCHOENBERG: So? (With gentle malice).
RODRIGUEZ: Hmn. Now here’s something that has irritated me a little. Some one, I forget who, at least he is a musician of some note, told me that it was not possible to have form without tonality. And, after reading your Harmonielehre it seemed to me that you had refuted the statement before it was made.
SCHOENBERG: Yes, I think so. And I have also written something about it for Armitage’s book. So do not let us repeat.
At this moment, I do not know what Schoenberg has written for Armitage’s book. But I have some ideas that may not duplicate the master’s clarification and I present them thus:
In all music, not only Schoenberg’s, no structural system can be said to contain in it the germ or the body of form. Techniques are formed by principles, just as organs are formed by functions. Any study of Schoenberg’s scores will demonstrate this, for Schoenberg’s technique is notably an outgrowth of his musical thought and is molded, altered and developed by the pressure of the idea, just as the skull accommodates itself to the shape of the brain.
Now, to consider this technique as an element that cooperates toward the establishment of form is one thing; to consider it as the sine qua non of form is stuff and nonsense. The question is not new. The world is full of works that are merely specimens of a technique that was first painfully evolved and perfected to meet a certain specific requirement of expression. The easiest thing in the world is to mimic technical methods. Any young writer can produce passages in the manner of Carlyle, Proust, Sterne or Cabell, to name the most obviously mannerea; students of painting can without great trouble put an canvas a torso that would pass, except to the knowing eye, for fragments of Velazquez or Titian; it is child’s play for a musician to write pieces so closely resembling Schumann, Debussy or Franck that only complete knowledge of these masters’ repertoire would detect the fraud. In other words, the technical medium, in this case tonality, grew out of a feeling for expression – best called musical thought – that evolved its own body as it was needed. Any one can ape technique; to create form is quite another thing.
There are always a number of musicians dedicated to the fallacy that if one only knows enough harmony, counterpoint or other constructional methods, one cannot fail to erect musical edifices of solid, permanent and logical proportions. They feel that harmony is the first step, very much as if architects restricted their training to growing oak trees and baking bricks.
The reader who is equipped to understand the difficult problems that arise from a serious discussion of tonality – did you ever try to define tonality? – will find much information in the work by Stein mentioned above, when he comes to delve into the question of the Schoenbergian system of twelve-notes. I will merely say that to me, this system only amounts to an increase in the available notes of the conventional major or minor modes, with, of course, the consequent elaborations of the resultant harmonies. With the diatonic scales we have also basic patterns, like the Schoenbergian grundgestalt; themes, in other words, of changed or only modified shapes which are inverted or reversed. In both systems the patterns or themes may be handled freely, except that Schoenberg, dispensing with tonality, is not fettered to the Procrustean bed of dominant and subdominant relationships and the rest of the orthodox harmonic statutes.
Now back to Schoenberg’s fireside.
SCHOENBERG: I am somewhat sad that people talk so much of atonality, of twelve-tone systems, of technical methods when it comes to my music. All music, all human work, has a skeleton, a circulatory and nervous system. I wish that my music should be considered as an honest and intelligent person who comes to us saying something he feels deeply and which is of significance to all of us.
RODRIGUEZ: And who, to many of us, is a beautiful and disturbing person; beautiful because disturbing, disturbing because beautiful.
And this is precisely why I venture to predict Schoenberg’s music will make its way in the world, against fear, against opposition, against misunderstanding. It is based on eternal principles, it has no patience with the quick, easy and superficial victory, it bears the stamp of a great heart and a great mind. It has to be heard often, studied closely, seen with clear eyes and heard with quickened ears. Then we detect in its voice the moving and radiant timbre of truth. And that is all, my dear friends, that makes a work of art a divinely necessary thing in this enchanting world of ours.
Schoenberg. Edited by Merle Armitage. New York 1937, p. 135-156