Schoenberg on Schoenberg

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG
[b. September 13, 1874 in Vienna, Austria
d. July 13, 1951 in Los Angeles, CA, USA]

Five years after emigrating to the United States via Paris in 1933, due to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the Vienna-born composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote in his own English 80 years ago how conscious he was of the unmusical spirit in which his music was often approached:

“Now one word about your intention to analyze these pieces (of mine) as regards to the use of basic set of twelve tones [dodecaphony]. I have to tell you frankly: I could not do this. It would mean that I myself had to work days to find out, how the twelve tones have been used and there are enough places where it will be almost impossible to find the solution. I myself consider this question as unimportant and have always told my pupils the same. I can show you a great number of examples, which explain the idea of this manner of composition, but instead of the merely mechanical application I can inform you about the compositional and aesthetic advantage of it. You will accordingly realize why I call it a ‘method’ and why I consider the term ‘system’ as incorrect. Of course, you will understand the technic [sic] by which this method is applied. I will give you a general aspect of the possibilities of this application and illustrate as much as possible by examples. As I expect you will acknowledge, that these works are principally works of musical imagination and not, as many suppose, mathematical constructions.”

In November 1933 he took a position at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, and in 1934 he moved to California, where he spent the remainder of his life, becoming a citizen of the United States in 1941. He held major teaching positions at the University of Southern California (1935–36) and at the University of California at Los Angeles (1936–44).

Schoenberg’s major American works show ever-increasing mastery and freedom in the handling of the 12-tone method. Some of the outstanding compositions of his American period are the Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934–36); the Fourth String Quartet, Op. 37 (1936); the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942); and the Fantasia for violin with piano accompaniment, Op. 47 (1949). He also wrote a number of works of particular Jewish interest, including Kol Nidre for mixed chorus, speaker, and orchestra, Op. 39 (1938)—the Kol Nidre is a prayer sung in synagogues at the beginning of the service on the eve of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)—and the Prelude to the “Genesis Suite” for orchestra and mixed chorus, Op. 44 (1945).

My first hearing of a Schoenberg work was his Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string orchestra – a romantic and sensual composition – when I was a London University first-year engineering student in 1950. (Here’s Part One, performed by a string sextet, of Transfigured Night.)

Next year, for my 1951 summer vacation, I journeyed to Darmstadt, then in West Germany: It hosts the biennial Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, an international summer school for contemporary classical music founded by Wolfgang Steinecke in 1950.

View of Darmstadt with Frankfurt City Skyline as a Background

It was there, on July 2, 1951, that Hermann Scherchen, the eminent conductor of 20th-century music, conducted the “Dance Around the Gold Calf” from Moses und Aron. The telegram telling of the great success of that performance was one of the last things to bring Schoenberg pleasure before his death 11 days later.

References: My Diary; The Music Lover’s Companion; Wikipedia

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