Universal Edition - Arnold Schönberg – About the Music


Arnold Schönberg

About the Music

Arnold Schönberg was – is – one of the giants in music history. He was well aware of the unique significance of his oeuvre, otherwise he might not have been able to persevere in creating compositions which for many years met with no success, which were indeed received with animosity. He was a prophet initially admired and supported (even financially) by a relatively small group of disciples. Schönberg and his school may have been seen by contemporaries as a kind of religious sect headed by a guru who expected - and received - total dedication from his followers.

Of course, Schönberg’s isolation was not quite as bad as this representation. In 1909, two years after taking over the directorship of Universal Edition, Dr Emil Hertzka invited the composer to entrust his works to the publisher. Schönberg was one of the very first to be approached, simultaneously with Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker. In other words, Emil Hertzka, who was to run UE until his death in 1932, held the 35-year old composer in high esteem.

What works may Hertzka have been familiar with in 1909? He may well have heard the first version of Transfigured Night, Op. 4 (1899) for string sextet, the first two string quartets (O.7, Op. 10), several Lieder cycles (Op. 2, 3, 6, 14), the symphonic poem Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 5 (1903), the Six Lieder for Orchestra, Op. 8 (1905), or the first version of the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1906). In other words, works by an extraordinarily talented young man still committed to late Romanticism (Schönberg wrote Transfigured Night at 25, Pelleas and Melisande at the age of 29).

In 1950, the composer recalled:

“Mahler and Strauss had appeared on the musical scene and their emergence evoked such fascination as to provoke every musician to immediately take a position, for or against them. I was twenty-three at the time, easy to impress, and set about composing symphonic poems in one movement, without interruption, adopting the dimensions set by the example of Mahler and Strauss. One such piece, which I never completed, was Hans im Glück (after Grimm). The high points of that period were Transfigured Night and Pelleas and Melisande“.

Of course, for all its links with the past, the string sextet Transfigured Night had a hard time getting across to audiences at its world premiere in 1902. In fact, the music, performed by the enlarged Rosé Quartet, met with considerable resistance. The second performance which came about thanks to the efforts of the Rosé Quartet, led to the first of numerous scandals in Schönberg’s career.

The Neue Freie Presse published the following review:

“Programme music which has embarked on more than one occasion on a semblance of life and is now once again celebrating a transitory resurrection is apparently attempting to infect chamber music as well. A. Schönberg, composer of a string sextet after Richard Dehmel, has presented us with this old-new affair. The fact that he has this time failed to achieve his goal by far, like others who have endeavoured to make the impossible possible, will have been realised by everyone who followed the course of this peculiar work. ….For all that, next to the deliberately confused and ugly, there is also music that is moving, stirring, music that vanquishes the listener with irresistible force, music that penetrates the heart and the senses. Only a serious and profound personality can find such tones, only an extraordinary talent is able to illuminate such a dark path. The novelty met with a mixed reception. Many people kept still, some hissed, others applauded; some young people in the gallery roared like lions.”

The first version of Transfigured Night appeared with the Birnbach Verlag, the revised version of 1916 was published by UE.

It is a measure of Emil Hertzka’s nose for genuine talent and of his commitment to new tendencies in music that he refused to be discouraged by Schönberg’s lack of success. In the case of Pelleas and Melisande, the audience missed euphony and found the piece too long. The composer himself regretted that he had not kept to his original plan of turning the story into an opera.

The world premiere took place within the framework of the “Verein der schaffenden Tonkünstler” (Association of Creative Musicians) founded by Schönberg. Though it existed for just one season (1904/1905), Gustav Mahler could be persuaded to become its honorary chairman. The Association was credited with the first performance of a range of major new compositions, some of them under Mahler’s baton, such as Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia domestica. Mahler also performed his own Kindertotenlieder and Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Schönberg’s precarious finances were responsible for the fact that the Gurre-Lieder, completed in 1901, could not be orchestrated until eleven years later: he was forced to interrupt work on the composition to earn some money. That is the reason why “the parts instrumented in 1910 and 1911 differ considerably in their style from parts I and II. I had no intention of covering that up. On the contrary: it is obvious that I orchestrated differently from ten years before. In finalising the score I only revised a small number of passages. All the rest (even details which I would gladly have changed) remained as it had been composed. I would not have succeeded in adapting to the style and anyone with some experience can spot the four or five corrected passages anyway. Those corrections caused me far more trouble than the whole composition eleven years earlier.”

The world premiere of the Gurre-Lieder under Franz Schreker turned out to be a triumph. Eberhard Freitag, a biographer of Schönberg’s, wonders “how many the listeners discerned the new, pioneering aspects of the score, next to its Wagnerian idiom.” Some critics wrote the work off as derivative, a piece of “solid German post-Wagnerism”. They were energetically challenged by Adolf Loos: “For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see this composition epitomises the entire life-work of the artist. The crocodiles see a human embryo and say: This is a crocodile. People see the same embryo and say: This is a human being. Of the Gurre-Lieder the crocodiles say: It is Richard Wagner. But human beings feel, right after the first bars, the never-before-heard and say: It is Arnold Schönberg! It has always been like that. The lives of artists have all along been subjected to that misunderstanding. Contemporaries have failed to grasp what was uniquely the artist’s own.”

The correspondence between Schönberg and Emil Hertzka regarding the world premiere of the Gurre-Lieder mirrors the composer’s justified refusal to accept compromises. A Berlin resident since 1911, he took exception to the tenor of a telegram urgently summoning him to Vienna. One expected him to spend money of his own, he wrote, failing to ascertain whether he could afford it. He was particularly offended by the fact that he was supposed to be playing a subordinate role next to the conductor (Franz Schreker), because the latter had apparently not had sufficient time to study the score. It ought to have been Schreker’s duty, wrote Schönberg, to address himself well ahead of time to the score and the hire material, otherwise he would not have discovered mistakes in the parts at so late a date. Schönberg made it clear that he was in no way responsible for the poor quality of the material. He was prepared to forgive Schreker for finding insufficient time to study the score, he was however not ready to accept that Schreker was nevertheless determined to conduct the work himself.

One can easily picture the tense atmosphere that the dispute engendered at the publisher’s premises. The mood was further darkened when Schönberg pointed out that it would be wrong to assume that he attributed too much significance to the performance. There could be no question of anyone threatening him with cancelling the premiere if he refused to come to Vienna. Success was neither here nor there. He did not ascribe all that much importance to the work being played – what did matter to him was a performance worthy of the work. Neither could he accept that merely ten rehearsals had been set aside with the “inferior Tonkünstler-Orchestra” when he himself was guaranteed nine to 11 rehearsals by the Berlin Philharmonic.

The events leading up to the world premiere of the Gurre-Lieder have been described in some detail to provide an idea of the sort of “customer” Arnold Schönberg was for Universal Edition: he knew the value of his music and refused to accept any compromise, even if the first performance of a composition on which he had worked for ten years was at stake.

As pointed out earlier, the premiere turned out to be a great success, but Schönberg did not appear on stage to acknowledge the applause: he could not forgive the negative reception accorded by critics and the public alike to his earlier premieres, such as the String Quartet No 2 in December 1908 or Das Buch der hängenden Gärten in January 1910.

Just over a month later, on 31 March 1913, there came in the Musikverein to the notorious scandal concert where music by Schönberg, Zemlinsky, Berg and Webern provoked unprecedented protest from the audience, so that the concert had to be interrupted before Mahler’s work could have been played. Instead, Schönberg’s supporters and opponents shouted at each other, the furnishings were damaged, and several members of the audience climbed onto the stage to slap Schönberg in the face.

That experience and others like it may have given birth to the idea to set up in 1918 a “Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen” (Association for Private Musical Performances). Its object was “to ensure that artists and art lovers be provided with real and accurate information about modern music.” Representatives of the press were not allowed to attend, and the audience had to refrain from any signs of pleasure or displeasure. The programmes were not made public in advance so that attendance would remain steady.

Altogether, 117 concerts took place with performances of 154 contemporary compositions (including works by Richard Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Max Reger and others). The Association ceased to exist in 1921.

Schönberg got down to composing the 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 in 1909, the year he concluded a contract with Universal Edition. The first two were completed in February, the third one in November. Piano piece No 3 was free from any tonal or motivic references.

Opus 11 was soon to fascinate musicians well beyond Schönberg’s immediate circle, exerting an influence on the European avant-garde. Stravinsky was said to keep a score with him at the time he was composing Sacred du Printemps.

It would be rather a hopeless undertaking to try to cover the rest of Schönberg’s life and work in similar detail within this portrait sketch. Each new composition – Erwartung in 1909, Pierrot lunaire in 1912 – was to acquire extraordinary significance in the history of music, and would thus need to be analysed one by one. All that can be found in the extensive literature on Schönberg, as well as in encyclopaedia entries.

On the occasion of his 50th birthday, the journal Musikblätter des Anbruch published a special edition, with contributions by his pupils and friends, fellow composers such as Schreker, Casella and Malipiero, instrumentalists like Arthur Schnabel and singers like Marya Freund and Marie Gutheil-Schoder. The book also included Alban Berg’s famous essay “Why is Schönberg’s music so difficult to understand?”

Universal Edition included an advertisement in the book, announcing the foundation of the “Arnold Schönberg Library”. “This library, with its basic stock made up of a collection of the major modern works (including operas and the scores of orchestral compositions) from the catalogue of Universal Edition, should have the task of awakening ever livelier interest in modern music…”

Ten years later, another book appeared to mark Schönberg’s 60th birthday, with articles by musicians (including Willem Mengelberg) and writers (Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch and others). Adorno also sent a contribution, Zemlinsky published memories from his youth and Alma Mahler wrote a brief but telling note:

“I was quite young when my teacher Zemlinsky introduced his pupil Schönberg to me with the words: ‘The world will come to speak of him!’ The world has spoken of him a great deal and will continue to do so. Arnold Schönberg has opened up fundamentally new paths for music. His adherents embark on that path readily, his opponents reluctantly – but all of them have learnt from him.”

At the age of 51, Schönberg was appointed the head of a master class for composition at the Berlin Academy of Arts. He moved once again – for the third time – to Berlin and there enjoyed a time without financial worries, a period of growing recognition, with the world premiere of the Variations for Orchestra under Furtwängler in 1928, of the opera Von heute auf morgen at the Frankfurt Opera House in 1930 and other compositions. Those years of Schönberg’s “harvest” and continued compositional work (e.g.: on Moses and Aron) ended in 1933 when he was relieved of his post at the Academy. Now 59 years old, Schönberg saw no other solution but to emigrate to the United States where he was faced with the need to build up a new existence. To begin with, he taught music at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, then, in 1934, moved to Los Angeles where he gave private lessons and lectured at the University of Southern California. As from 1936, until his retirement in 1944, he was Professor at the University of California (UCLA). His last years were once again overshadowed by financial difficulties and the need to give private lessons to make ends meet.

Arnold Schönberg died in Los Angeles on 13 July 1951.


In 1913, Schönberg gave a talk in Prague on Gustav Mahler which afforded him an opportunity to express his unswerving faith in the composer. Perhaps in doing so, he was also speaking of himself and his relationship with his pupils of whom he expected a similarly staunch faith in his own music.

“It is probably best to confine myself to the simple statement: ‘I believe firmly and unswervingly in Gustav Mahler as one of the greatest personalities and artists.’ There are only two ways of convincing someone of an artist. The first and better one: to present his work. The second one which I am being forced to resort to: to transfer my faith in his work on to others.

One is small-minded! We ought to be firmly convinced that our faith transfers itself directly. Our dedication to the object of our reverence ought to be so glowing that all those close to us should come to feel this glowing reverence also, they should be consumed by the same fervour and worship, the same fire which is holy for us as well. The fire should be burning in us so brightly as to render us transparent, so that its light penetrates to the outside and illumines him what has so far groped in the dark. An apostle who does not glow preaches heresy. He whom the halo rejects does not carry in himself the image of the divine.”