What was Modernism?
In the course of a recent article which appeared in these pages, I discussed the extremely problematic nature of Schoenberg’s influence on musical life in the later twentieth century. In particular, I suggested that some of the standard presentations of his career and compositional achievement were, to say the very least, tendentious, and made claims, both about the composer himself and about his work, which were questionable from many points of view. Since my remarks have provoked some criticisms, I thought it might be worthwhile to take up the subject again, especially since it has been suggested that my view of Schoenberg is distorted and sensationalised, and that I wish to denigrate his artistic achievement.
As far as the latter charge is concerned, I can only reply that I share the keen admiration that many musicians have felt not only for Schoenberg’s remarkable creative gifts, but also for the courage and unwavering faith in his own artistic mission which he displayed in the face of persistent hostility and incomprehension. Nonetheless, I am also of the opinion that a thorough critical reappraisal of Schoenberg’s career is long overdue, now that almost a hundred years have passed since the composition of those atonal works which were largely responsible for instigating the stylistic ferment of musical modernism.
For one thing, there can be no doubt that the portrayals of Schoenberg in the standard biographies are quite unsatisfactory: while these contain much useful and interesting information, they present accounts that are more hagiographical than critical. As the English translators of the Berg-Schoenberg correspondence observed dryly in 1987, ‘postwar publication on the so-called Viennese School was a chummy sort of undertaking, more reliant on fond recollection, and on random, self-serving source selection than historical scholarship’, some of it typifying ‘the worst excesses of a-historical hero worship’. Willi Reich and H. H. Stuckenschmidt are both culpable of glossing over or else ignoring a very great deal that might compromise an idealised portrait of their subject. These reservations apply with equal force to other important studies, which are often deeply partisan rather than scholarly. These lacunae in accounts of Schoenberg’s life are not, for the most part, due to any paucity of materials on which a biographer might draw – quite the contrary, in fact. The Schoenberg archives contain a considerable volume of personal papers, including the composer’s notebooks, which are fascinating for the light they shed on his inner life and character and, especially, on his political and social views. Much of this material has never been transcribed and edited for publication, however, let alone translated into English or used as the basis of a comprehensive study of Schoenberg’s later career. The personality that emerges from these documents is a deeply disturbing one, far more complex – and humanly interesting – than the plaster saint of the biographies mentioned above. The context they provide also illuminates much in Schoenberg’s life and work that might otherwise remain obscure or baffling.
Apart from this, there is the rather troubling question of the extraordinary claims made in some of these writings for Schoenberg’s historical position and the supposed implications of his innovations for the practice of other composers. The Schoenberg of these accounts assumes almost mythic proportions – those of a culture hero, a unique man of destiny, who, on account of his profound intuitive and intellectual grasp of the underlying processes operative in musical history, divined with unerring certainty the course it was fated to take and assumed the onerous responsibility of realising the next logical stages in its development. Undeterred, we are told, by the thought of the obloquy which would be heaped on him by his ignorant detractors, he proceeded fearlessly and single-mindedly on his self-appointed path, abandoning tonality and subsequently ‘discovering’ the ‘laws’ of serial composition, for which a universal validity was claimed. In his own mind – and those of his disciples – these innovations had earned him a place in the pantheon of geniuses from the august Austro-German musical tradition that stemmed from Bach.
But this was not all. Many of his admirers also claimed, on supposedly objective historical grounds, that the only viable creative future lay with atonality and serialism, which had superseded other, more traditional modes of expression and rendered them obsolete. Schoenberg’s innovations were held to mark nothing less than the inauguration of a momentous new epoch in musical history and conformity with his practice provided the criterion by which the validity of all new music would henceforth be judged. There can be no doubt that views of this kind engendered, at least for a time, a climate of criticism in which composers who did not compose in an atonal or serial idiom were often dismissed outright or else passed over for notice. And while the most destructive phase of this critical fashion may have passed, we still are burdened with a great deal of intellectual lumber deriving from it, in the form of preconceived notions and unexamined assumptions which continue to shape our thinking about modern music, and which it would probably profit greatly us to discard.
Outmoded and morally tainted
One of the most contentious of these received ideas was given wide currency by Adorno, namely, that the continued employment of tonality was impossible not only because it was historically outmoded, but also because it had become morally tainted. In 1938, Adorno (who had been a student of Berg and was an early partisan of the Second Viennese School) published an attack on one of the most eminent living composers of tonal music entitled Glosse über Sibelius [Gloss on Sibelius], which set the tone for many of the subsequent polemics on this theme. In this strident critique, notable for its aggressive, sneering tone, the philosopher characterises Sibelius as an ignoramus and an incompetent, lacking in the very rudiments of a compositional technique. Finding merit in Sibelius’ music, he tells us, is tantamount to declaring that the great German musical tradition stretching from Bach to Schoenberg is invalid. He goes on to pour scorn on claims that tonality was not exhausted as an expressive resource, and, even more remarkably, declares the popularity of tonal music such as that of the Finnish master to be symptomatic of a disorder in our prevailing general musical consciousness. Later, in one particularly irresponsible passage, he makes explicit the nature of this disorder, insinuating that the phenomenon of Sibelius’ appeal was linked to the allure of ‘blood and soil’ ideologies such as those espoused by the Nazis. For modern composers to write in a tonal idiom, for contemporary audiences to enjoy their work – these phenomena, in his mind, clearly revealed a widespread predisposition to fascism.
When one considers Adorno’s remarks in the context of his other writings on modern music, their implications are quite clear. The music of the Second Viennese School is elevated to an exalted critical status not only on account of what Adorno deems to be its surpassing excellence, not only because it represents the most perfect artistic realisation of progressive tendencies in recent musical history, being the logical culmination of nineteenth-century musical developments, but it is also deemed superior on moral grounds. This view of Schoenberg was widely influential and rapidly established itself as a critical commonplace. The conductor René Leibowitz, the foremost propagandist in France for the cause of twelve-note composition, writes of the composer with an almost religious veneration, expressing the pious hope at the end of his bookSchoenberg et son école (1946), that the younger generation of composers will be saved from error if they meditate on the Truth – the capitalisation is his – embodied in the work produced by the Schoenberg school. The quasi-theological tone of this pronouncement is striking indeed.
These are surely extraordinary assertions and, leaving aside for a moment the question of their tendentiousness, it is important to grasp just how extravagant they are. It is difficult to think of any other composer for whose work comparable claims have been made – let alone any writer or painter. Certainly, one finds it hard to conceive of a literary critic declaring the work of, say, James Joyce or Samuel Beckett to embody moral ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ and deriding contemporary figures who did not grasp the putative moral ‘necessity’ of writing in a similar way. But the commentators I have mentioned suffer from no such inhibitions. Politically, spiritually, ethically, the music of Schoenberg and his disciples is, we are given to understand, on the side of the angels, quite beyond critical reproach. It not only constitutes a bulwark against ideological turpitude (particularly in the form of totalitarianism or fascism), but it also establishes objective aesthetic criteria of universal, timeless validity, against which other art works can be judged and be found wanting.
In the remainder of this article, I hope to demonstrate that arguments made on these premises for the innate superiority of the atonal modernist styles of the Second Viennese School simply cannot be sustained. A careful examination of the facts leads to a very different conclusion: namely, that the ideological matrix from which this music emerged, far from being morally irreproachable, was very murky indeed. Chauvinist doctrines of German and Jewish cultural supremacy, nebulous racialist theories, aggressive militarism, extreme religious fundamentalism, woolly mysticism and irrationalism, an emphatic rejection of democracy, sympathy for fascism, even an open advocacy of government by fascist dictatorship – all of these, as we shall see, are not merely constituents of Schoenberg’s social and political Weltanschauung, but are inextricably bound up with his own self-understanding as an artist, informing and shaping this at a fundamental level. Furthermore, the various claims made for Schoenberg’s artistic and moral superiority over other composers, far from having a basis in truths of a supposedly objective order, can all be demonstrated to originate in a nexus of highly subjective beliefs about German culture which prevailed at the turn of the last century, mostly of a rather dubious nature.
In the first place, Schoenberg’s sense of himself and his mission as an artist were undoubtedly influenced by the Germanic cultural supremacism which grew steadily in intensity after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 and the achievement of German unification. Extreme nationalist sentiment together with various pseudo-scientific doctrines such as racialism and social Darwinism engendered a heady intellectual climate in which it was far from uncommon for people in the German-speaking world to maintain a chauvinistic belief in the superiority of the Germanic race and of its cultural achievements. Many found abundant evidence for this cultural superiority in the achievements of the great Austro-German musical tradition: the Germans, it was held, were self-evidently the foremost practitioners of the art of music and responsible for its present state of perfection – or as Wagner succinctly put the matter, ‘The German has the exclusive right to be called “musician”‘. Anyone who had not enjoyed the good fortune of being born in Austria or Germany could clearly never hope to scale the highest summits of musical achievement.
This attitude was widespread during Schoenberg’s youth and there is abundant evidence that he was of a similar mind. From the very beginning, his compositional ideals derive almost exclusively from the Austro-German canon of abstract instrumental music and he saw very little of any value outside of it. He had scant interest in French or Italian music, let alone English music or any of the various national repertories in other European countries. He relied almost exclusively on examples from German music in his various pedagogical works, having, it seems, a rather low opinion of the technical competence of composers born elsewhere, as witnessed in a remark, quoted by Webern, to the effect that only Germans could write good counterpoint. (Students of Webern, incidentally, also remarked on his attitude of extreme condescension towards the music of other national cultures.) In one xenophobic pronouncement, he piously proclaimed that his music, ‘produced on German soil without foreign influences, is a living example of an art most effectively able to oppose Latin and Slav hopes of hegemony and derived through and through from the traditions of German music’. Schoenberg was not alone in holding views of this kind, of course – Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, amongst others, inclined to similar opinions. They also shared, at least to some extent, Schoenberg’s conviction of being destined to make an exceptional contribution to the Austro-German tradition in which they had been formed as artists.
In Schoenberg’s case, however, this exalted faith in his own significance came to assume truly remarkable proportions. It did not derive merely from a confidently held belief that he had composed music of superior merit. Rather, it was a belief that his innovations of atonality and serialism represented a supreme triumph of the German spirit, marking nothing less than a watershed in musical history and having the widest-ranging implications imaginable for future compositional practice. At no time does he seem to have regarded them in a more modest fashion as modes of utterance, featuring an extreme level of dissonance, which he had felt compelled to adopt out of the exigencies of his own expressive and creative needs. Instead, he habitually presented own artistic development and the importance of his work in a characteristically grandiose fashion.
On orders from The Most High
There is certainly a very uncomfortable ring of what a recent biographer of Webern has described as ‘monumental arrogance and megalomania’ about Schoenberg’s remarks on these subjects. Unleavened by irony or humour, his descriptions of his career exude an oppressive atmosphere of self-importance and leaden Teutonic earnestness. His various endeavours and creative dilemmas are not presented as matters of a purely personal significance: instead, we are presented with the image of a tragic Wagnerian hero stooped under the burden of a weighty destiny, who, as the successor to Bach, Beethoven and the other giants of the German tradition, is compelled to take on task of world-historical importance, enjoined on him by no less a personage than the ‘Supreme Commander’ – that is, God himself. (In one essay, he tells us that, unlike other composers, he composes ‘on orders from The Most High’.) This sacred task consisted in realising the next stages of ‘progress’ in German music, which he claimed had reached an impasse in its development – a fact that he alone amongst his contemporaries had been clear-sighted enough to divine.
His self-appointed labours were appropriately Herculean – cleansing out the clichés and commonplaces of tonal harmony from the Augean stables of contemporary composition, since these, he claimed, had lost the ‘power to convey a thought worthy of expression’. Fortunately, however, he was able to come to the rescue with a new idiom which could replace tonality completely without any loss of expressive range, since ‘every expression and characterisation can be produced with the style of free dissonance’. Nothing else was necessary. The cause of German music had been saved and its future hegemony assured. When he later arrived at a definitive formulation of his new serial method, he declared to Josef Rufer ‘I have made a discovery thanks to which the supremacy of German music is ensured for the next hundred years’ – a remark which, apart from its characteristic grandiosity, reveals his nationalist and chauvinist attitudes all too plainly. Schoenberg was even persuaded that his various innovations were comparable in significance to the discovery of momentously important new scientific laws: in ‘Composition with Twelve Tones’, an essay written in 1941 to explicate his method, he asserts that serial procedure was far more than a technical device and pretentiously claims for it ‘the rank and importance of a scientific theory’.
Not everyone was sufficiently appreciative of the boon he had bestowed, it seems. Schoenberg’s autobiographical essays and letters are full of complaints about the abuse and humiliating treatment he had been forced to endure, the calculated insults to which he had been subjected and the seemingly endless intrigues of which he had been the hapless victim. In his own mind, he had been consistently denied the attention which was his due. In reality, although he experienced some very frustrating circumstances, he had also been exceptionally lucky in the personal and practical support he received, particularly from his closest circle. The devotion of some of his disciples was boundless: Berg and Webern, in particular, made great efforts to assist him financially out of their rather own meagre resources, despite having suffered the frequent lash of Schoenberg’s sarcastic tongue and put up with his boorish behaviour. Many others helped generously too, out of a genuine spirit of admiration and concern for the man. It must also be said that, considering the sheer difficulty of his music, Schoenberg was very fortunate in attracting the attention of many performers, some of them of world class, who were prepared to put in arduous hours of preparation and receive miniscule fees, if anything at all, on occasion. And if he had met with setbacks, he equally enjoyed some remarkable successes, both as a composer and conductor.
But these things seemed to count for very little. Schoenberg’s temperament was a decidedly difficult one: he was unbendingly authoritarian, extremely proud and quite paranoid. Certainly, his life had been hard in some respects – but surely not exceptionally so. While some of his professional experiences had undoubtedly been profoundly unpleasant, distressing even, one would imagine from his accounts that he was the only composer ever to have encountered hostility or endured discouraging circumstances. He speaks of himself as if a malign fate had singled him out for exceptional treatment and seems constitutionally incapable of viewing his misfortunes, real or imaginary, in any reasonable perspective. Instead, he consistently invokes the dubious Romantic cliché of the persecuted genius and dramatises his career an agonising, protracted martyrdom for the cause of Art, as a battle which, like his beloved Mahler, that ‘martyr’ and ‘saint’, he mostly fought alone, ‘against a world of enemies’. The word ‘enemies’, incidentally, occurs with alarming frequency in Schoenberg’s highly charged vocabulary and he appears to have discerned their influence and evil machinations everywhere. The thought that other musicians might be quite within their rights not to find his music to their taste simply does not seem to have occurred to him – or to his close disciples, for that matter. (Epithets such as ‘pigs’, ‘dogs’ and ‘scum’ were used within the circle to describe people who did not treat the Master with appropriate respect or were insufficiently disposed to provide him with the complete and uncritical devotion he demanded.) In spite of everything that he had endured, he persisted in his self-appointed heroic endeavour nonetheless. ‘While composing for me had been a pleasure, now it became a duty. I knew I had to fulfil a task: I had to express what was necessary to be expressed and I knew I had the duty of developing my ideas for the sake of progress in music, whether I liked it or not. […] There might come the promise of a new day of sunlight in music such as I would like to offer to the world.’
Theories of evolution and progress
While one would not wish for a moment to detract from Schoenberg’s very real achievements, it is also difficult not to baulk at this exaggerated and somewhat theatrical self-portrayal. No doubt he believed sincerely in its truthfulness. Nonetheless, one might be forgiven for finding his extreme egotism and his immodest lack of inhibition in proclaiming his historical importance somewhat repellent. (Not even Wagner could have penned so narcissistic a text such as that of a late canon, which Schoenberg obviously intended as a description of himself, and which runs: ‘Centre of gravity of its own solar system circled by shining satellites – so thy life appears to thy admirers’.) More importantly, it must be acknowledged that the doctrinal underpinnings of Schoenberg’s grandiose self-understanding are deeply questionable. As a composer, he was perfectly entitled, naturally, to employ whatever means he felt he required for his own compositional ends and his work undoubtedly attracted inane commentary. But a dense cloud of what one can only describe, in the literal sense of the word, as pretentiousness surrounds the descriptions of his creative activity almost from the beginning. To claim that western music had reached a historical impasse, that tonality was defunct, to claim that there was a historical necessity to supersede it for the sake of German music and in the name of ‘progress’, to claim that serialism should be regarded with the seriousness due to a scientific theory, to envision his own creative struggles as part of the fight for German racial supremacy, and finally to present himself as a chosen instrument of God and History on whom this world-historical task had been enjoined – this is blatant self-mythologisation of a kind that no one should accept at face value.
One of the influences that played a particularly important role in shaping this mythologised self-understanding was again cultural, in the form of various philosophical doctrines of evolution and progress which were prevalent in music, no less than in other areas of intellectual life, at the end of the nineteenth century. The belief was widespread that music had improved as it had become more complex. ‘Advanced’ chromatic harmonies were ‘better’ than more diatonic ones, the vastly enlarged orchestras of the latter part of the century constituted an ‘improvement’ on smaller ones, and so forth. Adherents of the so-called ‘New German School’, which formed around Liszt and Wagner, were staunch advocates of the supposed historical ‘necessity’ for musical ‘progress’ of this kind. One of their principal spokesmen was the eminent historian Karl Franz Brendel, whoseGeschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich [History of Music in Italy, Germany and France] was one of the most important standard histories of its period and went through no less than nine editions from its first publication in 1852 until 1906. This influential work is not only noteworthy for its unabashed assertion of German cultural supremacy, but also for the manner in which Brendel, who had some philosophical training, drew on Hegelian concepts in order to formulate his view of music history. It is inconceivable that Schoenberg could not have been aware of Brendel’s ideas, at least at second hand.
The dominant idea in Brendel’s conception of musical history is that of progress. Following Hegel, he understands history as evolving according to an underlying pattern dictated by Hegel’s ‘World Soul’, which leads mankind to an ever-greater consciousness of freedom. Beethoven, because of his daring innovations, is presented as the foremost musical emancipator of his time and is credited with bringing Germany to the fore as the protagonist of musical evolution. The music of Liszt and Wagner, in Brendel’s view, represented the latest manifestations of this tendency. Germany was now, in Hegelian terminology, a ‘world-historical nation’, that is, the nation fated to realise history’s grand design and provide leadership in European music. This nexus of ideas, with its emphasis on the value of ‘emancipation’ and its concept of progress as the progressive realisation of artistic ‘freedom’, together with its chauvinism, can only have proved deeply attractive to the man who later saw himself as responsible for the next stage in the ‘evolution’ of German music, that of ‘emancipating the dissonance’.
A second key tenet in Brendel’s thought is that the finest artworks in each era bear some mysterious, yet definable, relation to the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age, and thus should be evaluated according to the extent to which they are in accord with the progressive trends of the period. The critic’s task, according to Brendel, was to intuit the tendencies of the time and ensure that these came to a proper artistic realisation, by warning against retrograde steps or departures from the right path. This notion, as we know, has not only proved extremely influential, but has also been responsible for quite an inordinate quantity of thoughtless nonsense proffered under the guise of criticism. The notion that these mysterious historical tendencies can be objectively and infallibly determined is, of course, ludicrous, but nonetheless, these ideas were regarded with the utmost seriousness. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who was closely involved for several years with Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, recollected in his autobiography how topics of this kind dominated discussion in Schoenberg’s circle (which he described rather unflatteringly as ‘a church with rituals’). He recalls one lecturer at a talk posing the question ‘How can we supersede Wagner?’ and other members of the group wondering how it was possible to remain permanently in the vanguard of progress. (Interestingly, this experience provided the seed of Popper’s later brilliant critique of deterministic understandings of history, The Poverty of Historicism.)
One other Hegelian idea – which percolated down via Brendel – undoubtedly played its part in the formation of Schoenberg’s self-understanding as well. This was the idea of the World-Historical Individual, the notion of the great man chosen by History to further her ends at crucial historical junctures. (Hegel regarded Napoleon, for example, in this way.) Schoenberg clearly came to see himself as an individual of this kind, as witnessed by the various remarks I have quoted above. These ideas merged easily with the influential conception of the artist promulgated by Schoenberg’s eminent contemporary, the German poet Stefan George, whose work he knew well. Although George is scarcely read now, his prestige in German-speaking countries was enormous before the Second World War and he was widely regarded during his lifetime as one of the greatest poets ever to write in German. He was an extremely strange and rather unpleasant man. Taking ideas of Nietzsche and the French symbolist poets, he expounded the notion that the artist of genius was a kind of superman, far above the common herd of humanity, whose task was to act as a spiritual leader of mankind. This conviction assumed extreme forms in George’s own case. In 1902, he became infatuated with a thirteen-year-old boy called Maximilian Kronberger, with whom he became very intimate. Kronberger died prematurely from meningitis two years later, leaving George disconsolate. The effect of this personal tragedy on the poet was bizarre: George became persuaded that ‘Maximin’ (as he renamed Kronberger in his poetry) had been a divinity of some kind and he himself had come to partake too of a divine nature since the boy’s death. Equally bizarrely, George attracted a sizable group of adherents who appear to have accepted this view of him also and came to venerate him as a kind of cult leader, whom they addressed as ‘The Master’.
In Schoenberg’s circle, George and his ideas were held in very high esteem. Schoenberg had no less than eleven volumes of George’s writings on his shelves and was deeply sympathetic to his lofty conception of the artist as a kind of priest in the service of a religious cause. At a crucial juncture in his career, when he finally abandoned tonality, Schoenberg set two poems by George in his Second String Quartet. These are taken from a collection entitled The Seventh Ring and deal explicitly with the question of Maximin’s divinity and George’s new-found spiritual and artistic mission. The first poem, ‘Litanei’ [Litany], presents the image of the poet returning to the holy temple, weary from the battle of existence. In the second, ‘Entrückung’ [Ecstatic transport], the poet proclaims his divine mission as the mouthpiece of the god Maximin, declaring ‘I am merely a spark of the holy fire/I am merely a rumble of the holy voice’.
Schoenberg did not go so far as to proclaim himself a divinity, but he clearly came to regard himself as the next best thing – a kind of prophet in the George mould. There are in fact a number of striking parallels in the careers of the two men, not least of which is that they found themselves at the centre of a coterie of admirers over whom they attempted to exert a tyrannical control and from whom they received adulation of a kind that others might surely have found embarrassing or excessive. We find Webern writing to Schoenberg, whom he described in gushing terms as ‘someone infinitely sublime’, to inform him that ‘I believe that the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ could not have felt more deeply for their Lord than we for you’. Numerous expression of devotion in a similar vein can be found in the correspondence between The Master and George’s disciples.
Several texts that Schoenberg set subsequently reveal that he too saw himself as someone set apart and specially chosen. In 1926, he wrote two poems which he set to music as the last two movements of the Four Pieces for Mixed Choir, Op. 27, dealing with the dilemma of the ‘Chosen One’ who is called to accomplish ‘deeds beyond their courage’. Even more remarkable is the unfinished cantata Die Jakobsleiter [Jacob’s Ladder], which was intended as a spiritual self-portrayal. This work, which was never finished, was initially conceived on a vast scale for soloists, multiple choirs and an orchestra of 10 piccolos, 10 flutes, 10 oboes, 18 clarinets, 6 bass clarinets, 10 bassoons, 10 contrabassoons and so forth, with other instrumental forces to match. Schoenberg attached the highest importance to this piece, going so far as to publish the libretto separately long before there was any prospect of the music being completed in the belief that it possessed independent literary merit. It is somewhat unlikely that many will incline to the same opinion of this incoherent, rather turgid farrago of mystical, theosophical and Strindbergian notions, or agree with Webern’s extravagant assessment of what he described as ‘this gospel, this judgement of God’, which contained ‘the solution of everything[,] the peak of human understanding up till now.’
The action of Die Jakobsleiter opens with a series of encounters between the archangel Gabriel and representatives of humanity with differing attitudes to life, who are described variously as ‘malcontents’, ‘doubters’, ‘rejoicers’, ‘the indifferent’ and so on. Gabriel interrogates them and finds all of them spiritually wanting, comparing them unfavourably with another being he calls the Chosen One, who ‘is endowed with true splendour and resembles a far higher being’ and whose guidance they should follow. The Chosen One duly makes his appearance. Various exchanges ensue, during which he complains at having to associate with the vulgar mass of common humanity, which continually reveals its baseness. His distress is assuaged by ‘a God’, who speaks to him in reassuring tones of his exalted destiny as the ‘vanguard of the spirit’. The Chosen One is – unsurprisingly - described as having Schoenberg’s own features and according to Berg’s explicit testimony, was intended to represent Schoenberg himself. It is characteristic of much Schoenberg scholarship that the autobiographical implications of this text are passed over more or less in silence, probably because they are simply too uncomfortable. There could scarcely be stronger evidence of Schoenberg’s megalomania and egocentricity than this work – characteristics that became even more pronounced and disturbing in his later career, as I shall discuss in the next instalment of this article.
1. Julianne Brand, Christopher Hailey, Donald Harris (eds), The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence: Selected Letters, Macmillan, 1987, pp. xx-xxi.
2. In January 1930 Alban Berg published an article about Schoenberg in the Berlin periodical Die Musik, entitled – revealingly – Credo, in which he pointedly adopts exactly the same phraseology used by the famous German musical theorist Hugo Riemann to describe Bach’s historical importance in his Musiklexikon, adapting it to apply to Schoenberg instead.
3. Adorno suggests Sibelius was filled with such a sense of inferiority after his period of study in Germany that he fled back to Finland, unable to bear the critical scrutiny of his teachers. See Theodor W. Adorno, Glosse über Sibelius, inMusikalische Schriften IV, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982, p. 248. Schoenberg’s disciple Réné Leibowitz contributed a pamphlet in a similarly scurrilous vein entitledSibelius: Le plus mauvais compositeur du monde [Sibelius, the worst composer in the world], Liège, 1955, published to coincide with Sibelius’s ninetieth birthday. This essay echoes many of Adorno’s strictures and is clearly indebted to Glosse über Sibelius: although Leibowitz makes no reference to it, certain passages are so close in wording to the Adorno as to border on plagiarism.
4. Adorno, op. cit., p. 251. ‘Wenn Sibelius gut ist, dann sind die Maßstäbe der musikalischen Qualität […] hinfällig, die von Bach bis Schönberg perennieren.’
5. ibid., p. 249.
6. ibid., p. 249. Incidentally, there is no evidence whatsoever that Sibelius was sympathetic to Nazism – an explicit rejection of it can be found in his diaries.
7. In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, for example, Adorno compares the work of contemporary composers unfavourably with the work of Schoenberg, whose creative talent, he asserts, ‘was one with the World Spirit’.
8. See René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music, trans. Dika Newlin, New York, 1985, p. 290.
9. Webern quoted in Bailey, op. cit., pp. 49-50.
10. See, for example, the account of Webern as teacher by Arnold Elston, quoted by Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer in their Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of his Life and Work, London, 1978, pp. 507-8. Webern’s own chauvinism was boundless – in a letter to Schoenberg on 11 August 1914, he expressed his ‘unshakeable faith in the German spirit, which indeed has created, almost exclusively, the culture of mankind…’ (quoted in Moldenhauer, op. cit., p. 209). His patriotic emotions reached fever pitch during both World Wars, as witnessed by, amongst other things, the colourful descriptions of the Allied nations (‘cannibals’, ‘liars and swindlers’, ‘devils’) that are to be found in his correspondence. His intense nationalism ultimately led him to sympathise with Nazism and become an ardent admirer of Hitler, as I shall discuss later.
11. ‘National Music’, in Style and Idea, trans. Leo Black, Faber, 1975, p. 172.
12. Kathryn Bailey, The Life of Webern, Cambridge, 1998, p. 37.
13. That he held this view of himself is perfectly clear from many remarks in his writings, as well as from the compositional ‘genealogies’ he presents in essays such as ‘National Music’ (1931) to provide a historical context for his own work. See also his letter of 22 January 1931 to Webern, offering advice on a series of lectures which Schoenberg suggested should be called ‘The Path to Twelve-Tone Composition’ (quoted in Moldenhauer, op. cit., p. 374).
14. in ‘Composition with Twelve Tones (1)’, Style and Idea, p. 222.
15. ‘Italian National Music’, Style and Idea, p. 175.
16. ‘This dilemma was my concern, and it should have occupied the minds of all my contemporaries also.’ – ‘My Evolution’, Style and Idea, p. 86.
17. ‘Problems of Harmony’, Style and Idea, p. 269.
18. ‘Addendum (1946)’ to ‘Composition with Twelve Tones (1)’, Style and Idea, p. 245.
19. He thought Berg had been misguided in his belief (which he had expressed ‘apologetically’) that it was necessary for some expressive purposes to employ tonal harmony, since he himself had ‘proved’ that this was not so: see the ‘Addendum’ cited above.
20. Translation as given in Willi Reich, Schoenberg: A Critical Biography, trans. Leo Black, London, 1971, p. 130.
21. ‘Composition with Twelve Tones (1)’, Style and Idea, trans. Leo Black, Faber, 1975, p. 220. This talk of ‘scientific laws’ is, of course, utter nonsense, but it was taken seriously in some quarters. Webern was firmly convinced that twelve-note composition operated according to what he described as ‘universally valid’ natural laws and posited linkages between the ‘laws’ of serial procedure and Goethe’s botanical hypothesis of the Urpflanze, the ‘primal plant’ from which Goethe held all forms of plant life to have derived (see Moldenhauer, op. cit., p. 328 and p. 419; also remarks of Webern’s quoted in Reich, op. cit., p. 135). Egon Wellesz prefaces his study of Schoenberg’s music with an aphorism from the latter’s Harmonielehre, ‘The laws of Nature manifested in a man of genius are but the laws of the men of the future’ – a formulation which Schoenberg would undoubtedly have found apt as a description of his own work and as an estimation of his own importance. Willi Reich goes so far as to draw an explicit parallel between Schoenberg’s innovations and the ideational models of modern physics, quoting with evident approval the remarks of one Louis Danz, who held the wider implications of the new musical ‘language’ to be as significant as ‘the change from the Euclidian geometry to the higher mathematics of a Minkowski, an Einstein’ (see Reich, op. cit., p. 134).
22. The correspondence of Berg and Schoenberg frequently makes for distressing reading on account of Schoenberg’s intemperate outbursts, wild accusations and humiliating personal remarks – in 1915 his treatment of Berg almost resulted in a complete rupture of the relationship. His relationship with Webern also underwent several periods of strain.
23. In the posthumous dedication to his Harmonielehre.
24. ‘How One Becomes Lonely’, Style and Idea, p. 41.
25. See, for example, Schoenberg’s letter to Berg of 31 October 1911 or Webern’s letter to Schoenberg of 27 December 1908.
26. ‘How One Becomes Lonely’, Style and Idea, p. 53. Italics mine.
27. Stuckenschmidt, op. cit., p. 504.
28. For an interesting critical discussion of the various doctrines of progress and evolution that came to dominate nineteenth-century musicology, see Warren Dwight Allen, Philosophies of Music History, London, 1962.
29. For an interesting discussion of the influence of Hegelian ideas on Brendel, see Johannes Besser, ‘Die Beziehungen Franz Brendels zur Hegelschen Philosophie’ in Hans Moser and Eberhard Rebling (eds), Robert Schumann, Leipzig, 1956.
30. See Besser, op. cit., p. 86.
31. Karl Popper, Unended Quest, Fontana, 1976, p. 71.
32. See the account in Robert E. Norton, Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle, Ithaca and London, 2002, pp. 326ff.
33. See Stuckenschmidt, op. cit., p. 183.
34. Moldenhauer, op. cit., p. 219
35. ibid., p. 147.
36. Quoted in Stuckenschmidt, op. cit., p. 243.
37. See Reich, op. cit., pp. 98, 100 and 102.
Published on 1 September 2004