Scoop has an Ethical Paywall
Work smarter with a Pro licence Learn More

Art & Entertainment | Book Reviews | Education | Entertainment Video | Health | Lifestyle | Sport | Sport Video | Search


In Bed With Schoenberg

“If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”

- Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian-American composer and teacher, widely considered one of the most influential in the twentieth-century. As a leader of the Second Viennese School, he was initially associated with the Expressionist movement in German poetry and art. He was also a painter of considerable ability, whose works were considered good enough to exhibit alongside those of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky as fellow members of the Der Blaue Reiter group. Targeted by the Nazis, who labeled his works “degenerate” and prohibited their publication, he emigrated to the US in 1933, where he soon established himself as part of the intellectual Mitteleuropa refugee community in Los Angeles and became an American citizen in 1941.

Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia and feared he would die during a year that was a multiple of thirteen, a mysterious obsession that began in 1908 with the composition of the thirteenth song of his song cycle Das Buch Der Hängenden Gärten. He dreaded his sixty-fifth birthday in 1939 so much that a friend asked the composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar to prepare his horoscope. Rudhyar told Schoenberg that the year was dangerous, but not fatal. In 1950, however, on the eve of his seventy-sixth birthday, another astrologer warned him that the year was a critical one (7+6 = 13).

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

This stunned and depressed the composer, who had never considered the possibility of adding together the digits of his age. On Friday, July 13, 1951, he stayed in bed all day, sick, anxious, and depressed. In a letter dated August 4, his wife Gertrud explained what happened next - "About a quarter to twelve I looked at the clock and said to myself: another quarter of an hour and then the worst is over. Then the doctor called me. Arnold's throat rattled twice, his heart gave a powerful beat and that was the end.”Playwright and newspaper columnist Dave Armstrong has focused on this critical moment to explore the composer’s controversial legacy, beautifully accompanied by a string quartet lead by his brother Donald, who also happens to be associate concertmaster of the NZSO.

Schoenberg certainly never shied away from critical wrangling. When Ernst Krenek criticized a unnamed brand of contemporary music (presumably Schoenberg and his disciples) as "the self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes,” he replied that Krenek "wishes for only whores as listeners.” Similarly, after the publication of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which depicted a syphilitic composer of twelve-tone compositions, Schoenberg initiated a testy exchange of letters with the author, who lived just around the corner from him in Santa Monica.

Allen Shawn has noted that Schoenberg’s work is usually defended rather than listened to, while Richard Taruskin asserted that he committed what he terms a "poietic fallacy,” the conviction that what matters most in a work of art is the making of it and that the listener's pleasure should not be the composer's primary objective. Taruskin also criticised evaluating his value as a composer only in terms of his influence on other artists, the overrating of technical innovation, and the restriction of criticism to structure and craft.

Despite such reservations, Schoenberg's approach to bth harmony and development continued to shape much of twentieth-century musical thought. Many composers from at least three generations have consciously extended his thinking, while others passionately reacted against it. He was known early in his career for extending the traditionally opposed German Romantic styles of Brahms and Wagner. Although he rejected the term, he later came to personify innovations in atonality after 1920 when he developed the twelve-tone technique, an influential compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. He also coined the term ‘developing variation’ and was the first modern composer to embrace ways of developing motifs without resorting to the dominance of a centralized melodic idea.

Schoenberg was a highly influential teacher of composition whose students included Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, John Cage, Robert Gerhard, Oscar Levant, and many others. His often polemical views of music history and aesthetics were crucial to many significant musicologists, critics, and musicans, including Theodor Adorno, Charles Rosen, Carl Dahlhaus, Artur Schnabel, and Glenn Gould. Many of his practices, such as the formalization of compositional method and openly inviting audiences to think analytically, were echoed in later avant-garde developments.

Schoenberg's significant compositions extend over a period of more than fifty years. Traditionally they are divided into three periods, even thoughthe idea that his twelve-tone period "represents a stylistically unified body of works is simply not supported by the musical evidence,” according to Ethan Haimo’s Schoenberg's Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method. Many important musical characteristics, especially those related to motivic development, transcend such artificial boundaries completely.

The first of these periods, 1894-1907, has been identified as the legacy of the high-Romantic composers of the late nineteenth-century, as well as with Expressionist movements in art and poetry. The second, 1908-22, was typified by the abandonment of key centers, a move often described (though not by Schoenberg) as “free atonality.” The third, from 1923 onward, began with his invention of dodecaphonic or twelve-tone compositional method. Schoenberg's best-known students followed him faithfully through each of these intellectual and aesthetic transitions with considerable experimentation and variety of approach.

In the early 1920s, Schoeneberg worked on developing a means of order that would make his musical texture both simpler and clearer. This resulted in the "method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another,” in which the twelve pitches of the octave (unrealized compositionally) are regarded as equal, and no one note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. Schoenberg announced it characteristically during a walk with his friend Josef Rufer, when he said, "I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” He regarded it as the equivalent in music of Einstein’s discoveries in physics.

As Dave Armstrong commented in a recent Dominion Post interview, the play is “really about people who are not understood in their own time. If you look at a picture of Vienna in 1900 - everyone sipping coffee, eating croissants - his music didn’t fit. But if you put it against a picture of the First or Second World War devastation, [it] fits perfectly. Schoenberg hated public taste - the popular stuff - but he really wanted to be recognised by that same public. He craved public acceptance, but at the same time despised them for not understanding his genius.”

This over-inflated egotism is plainly evident throughout ‘In Bed With Schoenberg,’ now playing qt at Wellington’s Circa Theatre. The stage design is extremely simple - nothing more than a rumpled bed with walls of large, bulbous metallic panels that Max Rashbrooke has suggested are “distorted by the passions that constantly break through the composer’s own composure.” Circa regular Gavin Rutherford gives a finely nuanced performance (especially considering he replaced Andrew Laing at short notice), but his extended monologue lacks any real conflict or dramatic tension. The play is essentially little more than a series of interrupted incidents and pleasant musical interludes. As Rashbrooke astutely observed, “while the focus on Schoenberg’s ego is clearly valid (and entertaining), the viewer is left wanting to know more about the rest of his life.”

© Scoop Media

Culture Headlines | Health Headlines | Education Headlines



  • Wellington
  • Christchurch
  • Auckland

Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.