Scott M Williamson
"Our soul should be this eye."
Updated: May 17
2024 marks the 150th birthday of "the enigma of modern music." Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) was a composer who expressed surprise when people liked his music. 2023 is the centennial of his game-changing theory and practice of "Composition with Twelve Tones." Similar to pointillism's "dot" method, in which colors are mixed with the eye, 12-tone music impresses with its method and its unexpected results. Which doesn't mean audiences are usually pleased with said results. Schoenberg's works are engaging and exquisitely crafted. His music is also known for its expressionist passion and benefits from repeated hearings. An accomplished painter, he was one of the 20th c.'s most important artists in any medium. But that didn't keep people from hating him and his works.
The painting above is included in the beautiful Facsimile edition of his op. 19 "Six Little Piano Pieces." (See image and link below). The postcard immediately below was sent as Schönberg was literally running away from his usual summer escape in Mattsee, near Salzburg. The "German Aryan" town was in the process of establishing "a summer resort free of Jews" (Reichspost, 6 July 1921).
Vienna's Arnold Schönberg Center's current exhibition states that the composer's "conversion to Protestantism... as well as his uncompromising identification with the German cultural sphere did not matter: he was attacked openly on the street and harassed... and found himself forced to flee." The musical quotation on the reverse is from his Mahler-inspired expressionist cantata, Gurrelieder.
"It is so calm inside me / so strangely calm," is introduced by the musical quotation in the card. Schönberg (like Beethoven before and Boulez after) used various methods to sketch music and generate "renewal through gradual expansion" of one's thematic material.
Such handmade devices as the pitch-wheel, like a painter's color-wheel, show the composer's intellectual imagination working to help generate new work. "Inspiration does not visit the indolent," Tchaikovsky is said to have said.
In 1932, Schönberg wrote, the biggest step forward was not the one to 12 tones; rather, it was the invention of innumerable ways to create themes and all other material from a basic shape.
Below is a sketch from his most renowned late work, and the one most frequently performed, A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46. It is a searing musical drama compressed into 7 minutes. It recreates a Konzentration Lager scenario. A speaker is both Narrator and the Nazi camp commandant; the chorus enters at the work's climactic moment singing the Hebrew Sh'ma (Hear, O Israel...). It is their only utterance, and it is the first time we here the 12-tone "theme" in its complete, original form.
Mirror image and inversions are key to understanding Schönberg and his so-called "Second Viennese School," comprised of his most renowned students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Their love of numbers and proportions recall the Medieval period and the birth of polyphonic music in Europe.
(Music theory friends: the 4 augmented chords on the top staff, R, contain all 12 tones and are primary generative materials. Which did not exempt sections like the bottom R from dramatic editing!)
Just as the "small books" and "pocket calendar" sketches have yet to be given their scholarly due, so has the creative role played by Schönberg's second wife, Gertrude been underappreciated. She collaborated with her husband, as in the sketch of plans for the beautifully haunting Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, op. 34. Such "custom-made musical arrangements of emotional states seem to have inspired Schönberg," the exhibition catalogue states. They seem to have also inspired Gertrude, though no mention of her contribution is included. Which begs the question, whose hand corresponds to which contents in this fascinating sketch?
"The significance of these small [sketch] books is, to date, as little understood as is the purpose of the two red-colored dice made... if one writes out the  pitches found on the sides of the dice, two six-tone series result, each of which is a whole-tone scale that can be combined with the other to form a twelve-tone row." (Eike Fess, Curator of the A.S. Center's current exhibition, Composition with Twelve Tones: Schönberg's Reorganization of Music, 2023).
The slide-rule device below Morpheus facilitates the use of a tone-row matrix (=all 48 permutations of the 12-tone row).
"Come on, Neo! Stop trying to compose and compose!"
The last movement from his op. 19 piano collection is a "Tombeau," a musical elegy from one composer to another, whose lineage includes Debussy's (and Ravel's) for Haydn, Debussy's for Rameau, Josquin's for Ockeghem, and Verdi's for Rossini. Like the painting at the top, this work was executed soon after Gustav Mahler's death in 1911. Here's a link to a recording.
Like a number of Austro-German Jewish exiles, Schönberg settled in LA. One of his most immediately engaging works from his years in the US is his Piano Concerto, op. 42. Below is a sketch of its lilting opening. He modeled the four movements of the work after different states of being experienced in war-time.
In a letter to Mahler which contains this post's title, Schönberg wrote of modern art and its obligation to reveal something deeper within. Like Kafka's famous "axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart," the composer called for a "penetrating" vision to see beyond surface-level sensory experience. "Our soul should be this eye."