Arnold Schoenberg, part II, 2022
This Week in Classical Music: September 19, 2022. Schoenberg, Part II, 1905 to WWI. We ended our first entry about Arnold Schoenberg around 1905. It a the time of great flourishing of the Austro-Jewish culture – think of Gustav Mahler, Zemlinsky and Erich Korngold, the writers Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Franz Kafka, the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and numerous other scientists, artists and intellectuals – but parallel to that, also a time of rising antisemitism: Karl Luger, for example, was the mayor of Vienna, a famous antisemite and the founder of the Christian Social Party, often viewed as a proto-Nazi organization. Schoenberg would not be able to avoid it.
Schoenberg was struggling financially, as his teaching classes were bringing in very little money. Mahler, a staunch supporter, lent him some money, and his student, Alban Berg, collected funds on Schoenberg’s behalf. All along, his music was developing in more dissonant ways, away from tonality, and, not surprisingly, with every premiere ending in a scandal. Mahler, by the way, who believed in his talent, confessed that he didn’t understand much of Schoenberg’s music. In 1907 Mahler lost his position as the music director of the Hofoper (Vienna Imperial Opera) and that indirectly affected Schoenberg, as the influence of his supporter had waned. Here’s one of the important pieces written by Schoenberg during that period, his String Quartet no. 2 (1908). It’s performed by the young musicians of the Steans Institute. The quartet was dedicated to his wife, Mathilde, who at that time was having an affair with their friend and neighbor, artist Richard Gerstl (later that year Gerstl committed suicide; you can read more about this sordid story here). During that time Schoenberg became very interested in painting and Gerstl gave him several lessons; Schoenberg also befriended Oscar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky. Schoenberg’s paintings were even displayed at exhibitions held by Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group founded by Kandinsky. Schoenberg’s infatuation with painting didn’t last long, even though he painted, occasionally, in his later years.
One of the largest compositions that Schoenberg wrote during that period was the one-act opera Erwartung (Expectation), Op. 17. Even though it was completed in 1909, it wasn’t premiered till 1924. In 1910 Schonberg was hired as a lecturer at the Akademie für Musik, Vienna’s largest conservatory. He hoped for a professorship, but instead was hounded out by the end of the first year by antisemitic colleagues and politicians (the Akademie was then an imperial institution and important positions were discussed in the parliament). Disappointed, Schoenberg decided to move to Berlin, which he did in the autumn of 1911.
In Berlin he returned to teaching at the Stern Conservatory, a place where he had worked eight years earlier during his first sojourn to Berlin. Many conservative music critics disapproved of his latest pieces, but, rather surprisingly, Schoenberg proved to be interesting for the public, probably due to his international notoriety; also, his earlier, Romantic music was accessible, and his new music was curious. In 1912 he composed and later that year presented Pierrot lunaire, a setting of 21 poems scored for the voice (usually soprano), flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (you can listen to it here, it’s performed by Lucy Shelton and Da Capo Chamber Players). Even though it was atonal, Pierrot was unexpectedly successful, and performed in eleven cities in Austria and Germany. His music even enjoyed some, rather limited, success in Vienna. In the meantime, Schoenberg came up with a new way to earn some money: even though he was never trained as a conductor, he took several lessons from Zemlinsky and went on a European tour with his own music. That was in 1914 and WWI was just days away.