Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Vienna in the 19th century may have been the centre of a large empire, but it was not so cosmopolitan as to grant all its inhabitants equal rights. Since the seventeenth century the city’s Jewish population had been confined to the suburb of Leopoldstadt. It was here that Samuel Schönberg, a shoemaker from what is now Hungary, lived when he came to Vienna in 1852. By this time Jews enjoyed more freedom of movement following reforms implemented by the Emperor Joseph II in the late eighteenth century, and the accession of Franz Josef in 1848 accelerated the change. In 1867 Jews were finally granted full citizenship rights. One of the results of this was that over the next 40 years Vienna, which had long had a reputation as a staid and conservative city, became a centre of radical artistic and political activity. Few Viennese artists would prove as radical as Samuel’s son Arnold, who came into the world a full citizen of Austria-Hungary in 1874.
Arnold Schoenberg (as he would eventually spell his name when he moved to America in the 1930s) was his parents’ eldest surviving child. Music was part of his life from an early age, largely through the influence of his mother. Although she taught piano, the family did not own one themselves and so Schoenberg never mastered the instrument. Instead he learned the violin from nine years old, and later took up the cello (initially playing on a homemade instrument before he was able to acquire a proper one).
Schoenberg’s formal education was cut short at 15, when his father died suddenly. As the eldest son, Schoenberg became the main breadwinner for the family and so had to leave school and take a job at a bank. His appetite for learning was only intensified by this, and he continued to explore for himself, studying whatever scores he could lay his hands on, and gaining practical experience in “Polyhimnia”, a local amateur music society. It was here that he met the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky was only three years older than him, but had all the formal education that Schoenberg lacked. He took lessons with him, and so Zemlinsky became the only formal composition teacher that Schoenberg ever had.
Up until this point Schoenberg’s hero had been Brahms, but Zemlinsky introduced him to the work of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and these soon made their effect felt in his music. His first major work, Verklärte Nacht [Transfigured Night] reflects these influences; its harmony is the rich, dense kind favoured by Wagner and Strauss, but it also betrays Schoenberg’s love of Brahms in its intricate textures, which rely less on block chords than on the interweaving of many lines.
In keeping with the fashion of the time, Verklärte Nacht is a tone-poem that takes as its model a poem of the same name by the modernist poet Richard Dehmel. Where the piece is decidedly out of kilter is that rather than a lush orchestral piece, Schoenberg chose to cast the work as a string sextet. It was only in 1917 that he rearranged it for string orchestra, with a few minor revisions made in 1943; the piece is now probably best known in this guise.
Dehmel’s poem portrays a man and a woman walking in the woods at night. The woman confesses that she is pregnant by another man; filled with longing for motherhood, she sinned with a stranger and now, having met her companion, is filled with regret and despair. The man consoles her. The Universe shines brightly, he says; their love will transform the child as it has transformed him, and it will be born as his own. The night is transfigured, and they walk on through the moonlight.
These ideas of the transforming powers of love and faith held an acutely personal resonance for Schoenberg as he wrote the sextet over three weeks in 1899. He had just fallen in love with Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, who would become his first wife. That year he also converted to the Lutheran church. Converting to Christianity was common amongst Austrian Jews at this time, partly out of an enthusiasm for integrating with the culture of the empire which had now granted them full citizenship, but also for political reasons: Mahler famously became a Roman Catholic in order to be eligible for the role of director at the Vienna Court Opera House. Schoenberg’s conversion seems to have been sincerely meant, although he would come to regret it. Apart from the fact that Protestantism gave little advantage in a Roman Catholic country, the most prominent members of the faith at this time were increasingly vociferous anti-Semites. Schoenberg would therefore never find the sense of belonging he sought in the church. When the rise of the Nazis forced him into exile in the 1930s he returned to his Jewish faith.
Verklärte Nacht is nowadays known as the Schoenberg piece that even people who don’t like Schoenberg can get along with. At the time of its first performance, however, it caused considerable consternation. This was partly down to the subject matter: Dehmel’s poetry, and the aesthetic that underlay it was offensively liberal and explicit in its portrayal of sexualtiy, especially to a conservative culture such as still largely held sway in Vienna. Beyond this, Schoenberg’s complex textures and advanced harmonies were met with a combination of incomprehension and disgust, a reaction he would have to get used to as his career took a course along rockier roads. As he observed in 1937, “As long as an audience is inclined not to like a piece of music, it does not matter whether there happen to be, besides some more or less rough parts, also smooth or even sweet ones. And so the first performance of my Verklärte Nacht ended in a riot and in actual fights. And not only did some persons in the audience utter their opinions with their fists, but critics also used their fists instead of their pens.”