Driven to Express Himself

Share via
Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Reminiscing about life with father, two sons of Arnold Schoenberg recently had a few lively things to say about growing up with a famous composer. At an early event in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current season-long Schoenberg investigation, they recalled a family drive in the summer of 1948 on Highway 1 past Santa Claus Lane.

In the back seat, the kids--Ronald and Lawrence and their sister, Nuria--clamored to stop. Schoenberg did, and at a juice bar there, playing over the radio, was his early tone poem, “Transfigured Night.” That, said Lawrence, was the highlight of the old man’s summer. In fact, air time so delighted the composer that he gave Lawrence a dime for every Schoenberg piece the boy found in the weekly radio listings.

The notion that Schoenberg liked to be liked by a mass audience will no doubt surprise his detractors. No one can deny the extraordinary impact Schoenberg had on the music of the 20th century. He was the dominant force in attempting to subdue the power that tonality had exerted on Western music for 300 years.


He liberated dissonance and then went on to create a new form of organizing the pitches of the scale--the 12-tone system--that ultimately inspired the ultra-complex, mathematically inclined avant-garde music that came after World War II. For that, Schoenberg has been personally blamed for modern music losing its audience in the 20th century.

Yet those who are drawn to Schoenberg’s music don’t just admire it, they really love it. The list of Schoenberg’s champions includes many of the greatest musicians of the century, from Wilhelm Furtwngler to Simon Rattle and James Levine, from Glenn Gould to Alfred Brendel and the Juilliard String Quartet. Leopold Stokowski wrote in 1937 that Schoenberg stands alone: “In the evolution of occidental music there never has been a musician of similar character and gifts.” Earlier this month, Esa-Pekka Salonen told a Los Angeles Philharmonic audience that he sings Schoenberg in the shower.

Despite all the great musicians devoted to Schoenberg and for all the influence he exerted on the development of music in the 20th century, there seemed little doubt that by the end of it, popular taste had rejected him outright. When the critical votes were taken for the 20th century’s greatest composer, Schoenberg was an also-ran, in the company of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. The century’s more savvy innovator, Stravinsky, was triumphant.

By 2000, the Stravinsky literature was massive and brilliant, but we are still stuck with only one inadequate and out-of-date major Schoenberg biography. Stravinsky won Grammys (three for a Michael Tilson Thomas-San Francisco Symphony set); Schoenberg didn’t even get nominated. Large-scale Stravinsky festivals popped up seemingly spontaneously coast to coast.

As further proof of Schoenberg’s rejection, both USC and UCLA, where Schoenberg taught after immigrating to America, betrayed him. USC sent its archive of his papers packing, and UCLA sold the naming rights to Schoenberg Hall to a pop music executive.

But Schoenberg’s downward spiral may be short-lived. A wave of protests forced UCLA to restore Schoenberg’s name to its music hall. With lavish government support, USC’s former Schoenberg Institute now thrives in Vienna as it never did in Los Angeles. And possibly in reaction to Stravinsky saturation, the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death in 1951 has inspired new attention to his work. The Berlin Festival in September included a large-scale survey; the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony and Chicago Symphony have all paid recent attention to Schoenberg. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Schoenberg Prism” (see sidebar) has been designed to include the participation of various performing groups and institutions around town and to host several symposiums.


Indeed, Schoenberg’s time may finally have come. His music has an enormous amount to say to us. When it takes on extramusical themes, they are the big ones--love, madness, murder, good and evil, God, our ties with the past and quest for the modern. When it doesn’t deal with such themes, it is abstract music pure as Bach and as emotionally expressive as any ever written.

Schoenberg himself is an equally big subject. He was an exceptional musical pedagogue whose legacy lives on in famous students--from Alban Berg and Anton Webern in Vienna to John Cage and David Raksin in Los Angeles. He held them all to his own enormously high standards, and those standards have become a model for artistic commitment and moral integrity. Susan McClary, the noted musicologist, has called him “one of the most heroic figures in Western art at any time.”

And he is gaining a new audience as well. McClary finds that among her students, the idealistic fans at the radical edges of pop music are most readily drawn to his uncompromising music and revolutionary spirit as soon as they are exposed to it. Perhaps these unprejudiced listeners are responding to the way Schoenberg’s art reflected his highly charged times. He was a composer of and for crises.

Born in 1874, Schoenberg was among the generation that kick-started the modern age in Vienna. It was the most intellectually tumultuous city in the world at the turn of the century, and Schoenberg was intoxicated with the atmosphere.

In 1899, he saturated his gorgeous string sextet, “Tranfigured Night,” with the thickest harmonies ever, in order to express his cathartic hope for a new century. The music pictures a man and a woman in haunted moonlit woods overcoming unfaithfulness. In accepting her illegitimate child, he turns the night radiant.

For the cultural hierarchy, however, Schoenberg’s liberation of dissonance was illegitimate and unacceptable. He saw his work in the years leading up to World War I as a logical extension of what had come before, as he synthesized the opposing impulses of Brahms (who had held on to the past by overstuffing classic forms with plush harmonies and rhythms) and Wagner (who had pushed on to the future with freer music meant to reveal psychic states). Critics became his enemy; audiences reacted with catcalls.


At the riotous premiere of his First Chamber Symphony in 1906, Mahler, who was seated in the audience, stood to defend the composer and quiet the protesting crowd.

Three years later, Schoenberg relinquished form altogether. In the monodrama “Erwartung,” for soprano and orchestra, he captures the morbid erotic nightmare of a woman who murders her lover, and there is no longer any expectation of radiance. In “Pierrot Lunaire,” from 1913, a clown cavorts in a dangerous, eerie twilight that might have been dreamed up by David Lynch.

The weirdness of Schoenberg’s music--with its sensuous, boldly colored sonorities, its teeming wealth of contrapuntal detail and its abhorrence of repetition, thus making every moment sound new--was a reflection of the weirdness all around him. The ground upon which Vienna stood was no longer solid. Science celebrated uncertainty. Freud upset the confidence in the conscious. Kokoschka and other artists painted the world awry. Schoenberg, avidly seeking expression in every way he could, became an accomplished Expressionist painter as well as a composer; he wrote articles and polemics.

His personal life was also subject to the uneasy age. In 1908, his wife, Mathilde Zemlinsky (sister of the composer and his mentor, Alexander von Zemlinsky) left Schoenberg and their two children (a daughter, Gertrude, who died in 1947, and son, Georg, who died in 1974) to live with painter Richard Gerstl. After a few months, she was persuaded to return for the sake of the children; Gerstl committed suicide. Mathilde remained with Schoenberg until her death in 1923.

World War I changed the world and Schoenberg with it. Like so many artists who returned to pure classical form in their need to establish some sense of order in the chaotic postwar years, Schoenberg too wanted a way to tame the wildness of his music. But, unlike Stravinsky and the other Neoclassicists, Schoenberg did not turn his back on progress. Instead of returning to tonality, to what he felt was the tedium of repetition, he invented the 12-tone “row.”

For Schoenberg, it was a private system, a device that allowed him to order pitches without reference to traditional harmony but still give his music an inner unity. For the listener, understanding the details of row procedures is no more important to the enjoyment of Schoenberg than understanding the details of chromatic harmony is to the enjoyment of a Chopin Etude.


With the notes no longer attached to a tonal center, Schoenberg could compose within the old sonata and dance forms and still create music that sounded unpredictable, that expressed the real complexity of experience.

For all the expressivity it allowed, the row was also an indication that Schoenberg was a practical man, an extraordinary inventor. He was always making things. He bound his own scores; he designed peculiar decks of playing cards, sculpted surreal chess sets and invented new games for his children to play. His sons say that he could not drive under a freeway overpass without wanting to design a better one.

With the 12-tone system, Schoenberg found he could cope with both his musical and spiritual crises. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, he rebelled at first against belief, then, attracted to Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, he converted to Christianity in 1898. But by 1930, with the rise of anti-Semitism in Berlin, where he had moved in 1925, he began his opera “Moses and Aron.”

Arguably his greatest work, “Moses and Aron” is a deep confrontation between rationality and irrationality. The entire opera is built upon a single 12-tone row--as if it were the symbol for God, never manifest but ever present and able to take any shape or form. At the opening of the opera, with Moses confronting the burning bush, half that row forms a six-note chord sung by chorus members stationed in the pit, creating a shimmering effect of wondrous beauty. Moses, intellectual and mystic, is so overwhelmed by his vision of God that he can only stammer throughout the opera. Sweet-tongued Aron conveys signs and wonders in flowing song as Moses’ mouthpiece, but only by indulging in the debased material world that Moses despises.

Schoenberg fought this same battle to balance his need for logic and structure with his impulse toward unfettered inspiration. But if the 12-tone system held demons in check, they found other ways out. One curious one, which demonstrates how silly it is to think of Schoenberg as a purely mathematical composer, was his triskaidekaphobia, his fear of the number 13. He was born on the 13th day of September and thought it of fateful significance. He removed an A from the biblical name Aaron to prevent the title of his opera from having 13 letters. He once refused to rent a house because its street address was 13. He feared turning 76, because the numbers added up to 13. (His fears turned out to be well-founded; he died at 76, on July 13, 1951, shortly before midnight. It was a Friday.)

Grappling with spiritual issues in “Moses and Aron” began the process of reconciling Schoenberg with Judaism, and the Nazis finished it. In 1933, after losing a teaching post in Berlin because of anti-Semitism, Schoenberg fled. He reconverted in Paris on his way to the United States and settled in Los Angeles in 1934 with his second wife, Gertrude Kolisch, and their 2-year-old daughter, Nuria (who would marry Italian composer Luigi Nono and move to Venice). Ronald, a retired judge, and Lawrence, a retired math teacher, were both born in Los Angeles, where they have remained.


Southern California couldn’t have been more foreign to Schoenberg, but as he put it in a talk shortly after arriving in L.A., he was “driven to paradise.” Although he never became a public figure here (as the gadabout Stravinsky did, when he lived in L.A. from 1940 to 1969), Schoenberg became an Angeleno. He put down roots.

He continued to compose major 12-tone works (concertos for piano and violin; Variations for Orchestra, the Fourth String Quartet and the String Trio). He also responded to his surroundings by writing some pieces in a more accessible, somewhat tonal style (“Ode to Napoleon,” Suite in G major for Strings, Variations for Band). He taught not only budding composers at USC and UCLA , but musical novices as well. He was a close friend to George Gershwin; he enjoyed the company of Charlie Chaplin and Artie Shaw. He was an avid tennis fan.

In 1938, film composer Alfred Newman invited Schoenberg to present an Oscar for best score to Charles Previn (Andre’s cousin) for his music to “One Hundred Men and a Girl.” Schoenberg accepted gladly. Although he was ill and unable to appear, his idealistic speech was read at the Academy Awards ceremony:

“By use of music as a means of stimulation, the movie industry has already succeeded in making the people music-conscious. Step by step it will educate them also to ideas and ways of expression which they cannot appreciate today.

“Because of this effect, in time to come, every outstanding man in this field will deserve the title of pioneer of culture.”

If that hasn’t exactly come to pass, Schoenberg proved to have an incalculable effect on film music. Young composers who have had major careers in film were among his most devoted students, notably Raksin (“Laura”) and Leonard Rosenman (“East of Eden”). Besides Cage, his Los Angeles pupils included composers Lou Harrison and Leon Kirchner, and pianists Oscar Levant and Leonard Stein.


It wasn’t, of course, all paradise for Schoenberg in his handsome Brentwood house on North Rockingham Avenue, across the street from Shirley Temple. A large community of emigre artists knew of Schoenberg’s significance, including a colleague from Berlin, Otto Klemperer, who was the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1933 to 1939. Still, Schoenberg’s music was less played in Los Angeles or the United States than it had been in Austria and Germany, and when it was, it attracted far less attention. He was barely a blip on the cultural landscape; he was frustrated by dealing with ill-prepared college students; he never had enough money. His application to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant to add a third act to “Moses and Aron” was turned down.

But Schoenberg planted seeds. For a quarter-century after his death, his 12-tone method--even though he considered it a private business between himself and his muse and refused to teach it to his students--became codified at American university music departments, which proved to be both a positive and negative influence.

Generations of American composers were inspired to follow Schoenberg’s path, but the impulse for Minimalist, Postmodern and Neo-Romantic music was a direct rebellion against this 12-tone orthodoxy.

Perhaps what we needed was a cooling-off period. Throughout history, music has vacillated between periods of greater or lesser complexity. Our own anxious times cannot be addressed with easy or glib responses. Schoenberg now provides the model of an artist who felt it was always important to have something to say and to find the language in which to say it.

But while Schoenberg’s music is never easy, it was always written to be approachable, to let its emotions speak for themselves.

In a radio interview in Boston during the intermission of a live concert in which “Transfigured Night” was performed, Schoenberg--as pleased as ever to have his music broadcast to the masses--answered a question about how he wrote music. He made it seem that he could have been a pop songwriter, working in the studio. Once he had an idea of the form, he explained, he would, by and by, hear themes and sonorities and only then pick up his pen.


“Sometimes with sketches, and sometimes I write the music directly,” he continued. “And then, there the music is.” *