MUSIC : His Master's Voice: The Berg-Schoenberg Letters

Rarely, if ever, have the psyches of two such important composers been so relentlessly exposed, both singly and in relation to each other, as in "The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence--Selected Letters" (Norton: $35).

The relationship of pupil Alban Berg and already famous teacher Arnold Schoenberg, in all its devious complexity, has at last been thoroughly explored with the publication of 800 letters, impeccably annotated and edited by Juliane Brand, Christopher Hailey and Donald Harris. This first publication of the correspondence is in ably translated English, mainly, the editors state, because of "the intense interest of American scholars in the period and in the composers."

The correspondence is of immense historical importance, partly as a reflection of the turbulence that consistently greeted the activities of Schoenberg and his circle, but even more so as a psychological study of the relationship between the effusive Berg and the comparatively reticent Schoenberg. Rarely has the turgid cultural life of early 20th-Century Vienna been depicted in such telling detail.

The collection begins with a letter from Berg to Schoenberg dated June 16, 1911. Berg had been a pupil of Schoenberg from 1904 to 1911. There probably had been earlier correspondence between the pair, but Schoenberg did not save the letters. Berg was 26 at the time and had completed seven years of study with Schoenberg. Schoenberg was 37 and had composed some of his most challenging early works, only a few of which had been performed. But his reputation as a major iconoclast was already established throughout Europe. Berg addresses the master as "My dear esteemed Herr Schoenberg" and often indulges in even more extravagant salutations. Berg's style from the beginning was prolix, absurdly servile and awkward as an instrument for the communication of every-day common sense.

Schoenberg shortly became impatient with Berg's tortuous verbiage. He finally directed him: "When you write to me, always underline the main points, particularly if I am to answer. It's hard for me to write to you, since to do so I have to read your letter 3-4 times and your handwriting is too illegible for that. . . . And something else: Be more concise. You always write so many excuses, particularly parenthetical asides, 'developments,' extensions and stylizations that it takes a long time to figure out what you are driving at. I think one should work on oneself in such matters."

In the main, Schoenberg followed his own precepts. His communications were brief, pointed and articulate. Once he wrote "Dear Berg, I am sorry to tell you that you are wrong, although you used almost two pages trying to prove you were right." He often casually dropped wise epigrams, such as "the modern-minded cling to the abstruse and enjoy it only if it remains unclear to them," and "the people seem to despise me as much as if they knew my music."

Now and then he does not hesitate to scold Berg: "I am extremely annoyed for I realize how irresponsibly you treated the matter. . . . Now I know I cannot depend upon you." Or, in a faintly paranoid manner, he can write: "What's the matter with you? Why haven't I heard from you? Have you lost all interest in me?"

Berg became Schoenberg's jack of all trades, his whipping boy, his personal representative, his obedient servant, his factotum. He performed every kind of chore. When a neighbor in Schoenberg's apartment building in Vienna alleged that the 9-year-old daughter of Schoenberg was corrupting the neighbor's 5- and 7-year-old sons, Berg patched that up. When Schoenberg moved to Berlin, in search of greener pastures, Berg arranged for a mover and saw to the packing of household goods.

He worked zealously to get wealthy music patrons to establish a stipend for Schoenberg. "I think it would suffice," Schoenberg wrote, "that I have worries--and that in order to earn money I have to do work that is beneath me and that is the cause for my having for two years now found no time to compose."

Berg corrected proofs of Schoenberg's "Harmonielehre," checked the parts of the massive "Gurrelieder," made a piano transcription of the work that the composer did not like, and devised a highly technical analysis of the work, only to have Schoenberg demand that he cut it by 15 to 30 pages.

Berg gladly performed all these tasks for the honor and the privilege. In thanks, Schoenberg offered grudging praise and gratitude. Almost always, Schoenberg's attitude was that of a domineering master commanding an obsequious servant and pupil.

Not much purely musical matter went into the correspondence. Schoenberg obviously did not always take Berg fully into his confidence. He did not even inform him of the existence of such an important work as "Pierrot Lunaire" until preparations for the premiere were in progress. He asked Berg's advice on the choice of vocal soloists and conductors, but never extended him authority to exercise his judgment.

If Schoenberg criticized or admonished him, Berg was invariably apologetic and submissive. He venerated Schoenberg as a divinity, and now and then his attitude was close to that of a lover for the beloved, though actually there could have been no suspicion of impropriety.

One such letter follows: "Actually I have nothing to tell you my dear Herr Schoenberg, but my desire to talk to you, my feeling of loneliness (I can't call it anything else) which has been growing since you left--is so overpowering that I take refuge in letter writing, not having quite the courage for the other alternative I have been considering these past few days--namely to telephone you, dear Herr Schoenberg. For what would you think if in response to your obvious question 'What's up?' I had nothing to say--or merely: 'I just wanted to hear your voice Herr Schoenberg, to ask how you all are, what you are doing and about everything relating to you!' "

Strange neurotic overtones crop up constantly. Early in the correspondence, Schoenberg writes: "One thing, though, I fear being overrated. Try not to do it. It weighs upon me a little. And perhaps it is the fear of being overrated that makes me so suspicious. Perhaps because I continually fear the inevitable moment when people will actually begin to underrate me, perhaps that's why I detect a hint of defection on the slightest negligence. That is certainly unjust. But I can't help it."

Schoenberg did to some extent encourage Berg in his composing, though with a certain reserve he probably felt appropriate between teacher and pupil. He never freely admitted the importance of Berg's talent until after "Wozzeck" had achieved considerable and widespread public acceptance. The relationship between master and pupil was never too elastic on the master's part.

With publication, the voluminous correspondence between the two men becomes a matter of history. Its easy availability will not fail to affect future judgments and reactions. But the revelations of fact and incident almost become minor compared to the vivid psychological picture. One might suspect a bit of insincerity on the part of both parties on occasion, but seldom have the opposing natures of adoring pupil and dominating master been more clearly exposed. The collection as a whole forms a unique document.

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