He is one of the most controversial personalities in the Viennese music world. Some consider him to be the first serious musician of any importance, whereas other dismiss him gruffly, occasionally even with mockery and scorn. A recent performance of a piece of his chamber music, for instance, played by the Rosé Quartet in the Konzertsaal, provoked a scandal of rare proportions.
This is not the place to be critical about the work itself, pro or con; that is best left in more qualified hands. But perhaps a look at the composer’s peculiar and intriguing personality will help to understand his artistic nature and manner.
In a certain sense, Schönberg has always been a loner, set fqar apart from the well-worn path. He has always been a seeker, on the trail of new values. I recall many conversations I had with him – a long while ago – about 17 years back, perhaps, when we were both members of a small circle of ambitious young friends making their first artistic endeavors; Leo Fall and Edmund Eysler were among them. Both devoted themselves to the muse of light entertainment and were very successful in every way. But Schönberg, already tending to be a brooder even then, was digging ever deeper into the seriousness of art – the path of which is of course not strewn with roses – and today, abysses of artistic perspectives separate the erstwhile friends of their youth.
I visited Schönberg at his home in Liechtensteinstraße.
Pleasant rooms, with a plain, tastefully decorated simplicity. A few pictures adorning the Walls divulge that the artist also wields a paintbrush – and indeed with an odd talent in a broad impressionistic manner with canvases that make a strong effect. A small head, an interesting attempt at selfportrait, was striking in the artful way Schönberg managed to capture the strange, wild, and at times darting glance of his eyes. In a corner is a characteristically rendered bust of Schönberg by the masterful hand of Josef [Scheu]. Above his desk hang two pictures with warm dedications by Gustav Mahler; a portrait of Zemlinsky looks out from the side of the central pillar. That is the plain, unassuming decoration of his rooms, of his world; small, but comprehended with deep feeling. His manner is plain and unpretentious, but full of vigor and energy with every artistic remark. While speaking he paces hack and forth nervously through the room. His round, beardless face, despite its strangely still, nearly pastoral expression, reacts first. A slight frown, a flaring of the eyes, betrays the activity of his thoughts.
I ask about the decisive factors in his artistic development, and Schönberg says:
“The most meaningful factor is no doubt the inner necessity of one’s own development. One does not develop intentionally and consciously. The musical environment doubtlessly exerts certain influences. First I became a Wagnerian – then the subsequent development came rather quickly. Today all artistic evolutions take place in very rapid succession. I could analyze my development very precisely, though not theoretically, but retrospectively. It is an interesting observation that the thing that had initiated a development mostly brings about its opposite; that as soon as one has digested it, it is also the first thing that we find repellent, so that development always means a reaction against the thing that caused it.... And I believe, if I contemplate my own development, that I can in effect describe the development of the last ten or twelve years of music – much in me coincides with Reger, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, and others.”
I speak about Wagner’s influence on the development of modern music, and Schönberg answers:
“Wagner – most importantly, insofar as the modern development is considered – bequeathed to us three things: first, rich harmony; second, the short motive with its possibility of adapting the Phrase [Satz] as quickly and often as required to the smallest details of the mood; and third, at the same time, the art of building large-scale structures and the prospect of developing this art still further. – All these seem to have developed in succession, and then to have led to their opposites. The first thing that began to ferment seems to have been the harmony of expression. With that, the short motives next led to a symbolization of technique. A consequence of the mostly sequential continuations was the loss of formal refinement. The first reaction to that was an overgrowth of the form and the striving for long melodies, as for example with Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben.”
Do you regard melody, in the sense in which it is usually understood, as a thing of the past?
“One could find the answer by looking at my recent works. They are still melodic throughout. Only I believe that melody has taken another form. Moreover, I believe that there is a lack of clarity about the concept of melody. Normally melody is understood to be what someone can whistle back to you. But what a musician and what a nonmusician can whistle hack are already two very different things. In general, melody seems to he understood as the most concise formation of a musical idea with a lyrical character, arranged to be as clear as possible. But along with this simplicity that makes a melody captivating, however, comes the other side of the coin: primitiveness. It follows that our simplicity is different from that of our predecessors, that it is more complex, but also that even this complexity will in turn he regarded one day as primitive.”
Do you believe that the masses show an understanding for this form of development?
“It is not surprising that a time does not understand or appreciate the immediately preceding stage of development, since it is the, reaction to it. So it was certainly no accident that ten years ago the Wagnerians began to discover Mozart and Beethoven – though they did not really discover them, but rather they lost Wagner. I feel that with such a development a similar occurrence takes place as happens in medicine with heredity. But in the other direction. In going hack the reaction usually skips over the closest link in the chain of development.”
Do you believe that the public would be capable of following this development?
“After all, I think that the broad masses will always adhere to certain musical forms. I believe that the level of the average education must he raised substantially, or art will again become, as it was before, a concern of a select group of the most cultivated people of the time. But I hope, to be sincere, for the opposite.”
My question now goes to whether the public’s taste influences the artist, and Schönberg replies:
“No! Never the real artist, for he is never in the position to create anything other than what he is urged to by his nature and development. Unfortunately, here and there some believe themselves able to adapt to the public, but the betrayal is definitely avenged later. For those who do not bear within themselves in some way the nature of the public will not succeed in pleasing it entirely. One soon notices the falsehood, so the betrayal is mostly pointless anyway.”
We come to speak of the stance of the artist toward the public, and I ask Schönberg whether success or failure enhances his self-esteem or deepens his doubt; he answers with an ironic laugh:
“The public and critics nowadays have so taken leave of their artistic senses that they can in no way serve as a measure. Today one can’t even gain self-confidence through a failure. The public and the critics don’t recognize their own taste veiled in an artistic form so that they occasionally themselves bring about the failure of a work that should have actually appealed to them. They don’t recognize their own intellectual progeny any more.”
Schönberg speaks about the Viennese critics in particular with sharp disapproval, from which one can sense the extent of his bitterness, but also his deep inner isolation. And with it he also fights passionately for his goal. But the honest courage with which he expresses his convictions is also somewhat sympathetic. To my question, Do you believe that in our time an artist is capable of prevailing against the opinion of the critics and the public? he replies:
“I will only be able to judge that at the end of my days.”
This proud reply closed our conversation – the hour was advanced. A pupil was waiting and duty called. I took my leave of the artist heartily, thinking that he belonged to the few who have condemned themselves to voluntary loneliness due to the earnestness and unshakeability of their artistic calling.
Neues Wiener Journal (January 10, 1909)
Thursday, May 23rd
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