Arnold Schoenberg and his Judaism.
Schoenberg may not be the most important composer of the 20th century--he was certainly the most controversial--but his original mind marked him as one who influenced the music of his time in a very special manner. The atonal form of classical music developed by him, includes the twelve-tone system, which abolishes the key signatures that form the basis of Western music. All the twelve notes within an octave (seen as seven white and five black keys on the piano) are taken to be of equal importance, unlike tonal forms. As a consequence, a different style of musical sound is produced. He once said that he had discovered "something which will assure German music for the next hundred years," but it was not long before this music was banned in Nazi Germany. Schoenberg also supported the concept of sprechgesang or 'speech-song," a type of singing that is close to speech, and many of his compositions use this technique.
Born a Jew, he twice changed his religion, first to Christianity and then back to his Judaic roots, but even while living as a Christian, he was always interested in Jewish matters. His compositions include many elements, and quite a few can be termed 'Jewish' works. Two of them, Kol Nidrei and Moses und Aron, are recognized as great works. Schoenberg's revolutionary attitude to musical composition inevitably resulted in much acrimonious invective directed against him, especially by antisemites, and one of his works in particular, the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, composed in 1912, attracted much abuse. The Nazi-sponsored Lexicon of Jews in Music accused him of using Jewish methods to destroy European cultural values. The British composer Arnold Bax, whose mistress was the eminent pianist Harriet Cohen, attacked atonalism as coming from the brains of a few decadent Central European Jews.
Nicolas Slominsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective has more entries on Schoenberg than on anyone else apart from Wagner. One critic commented that the music of Schoeneberg's Five OrchestraIPieces resembled the wailings of a tortured soul, and to a writer in the Chicago InterOcean, it was "a bestial racket." The New York Musical Courier believed Schoenberg to be "either crazy as a loon" or "a clever trickster" determined to cause a sensation at any cost. The great German composer Richard Strauss once said that only a psychiatrist could help Schoenberg who would have done better in shoveling snow instead of scribbling on music paper.
Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna to a shopkeeper father and a mother who came from a family of chazzanim. She was devastated when he became a Lutheran Protestant at the age of twenty-four. Many Austrian Jewish professionals such as Gustav Mahler converted to Christianity in order to advance their careers, but most became Catholics. He apparently regarded Lutherism as a kind of Reform Judaism, but Schoenberg's widow, Gertrud, has said that he converted for 'cultural' reasons. He always carried the Lutheran Bible with him that he studied with an ardent Protestant friend in order to assess the meaning of Jewish life within Christian society. He appears not to have dismissed his Jewish roots since he then also started to become interested in using Jewish themes in his music. He incorporated Jewish subjects in his compositional work long before his return to Judaism in 1933. His letters show a deep interest in Jewish religious and political topics that led in 1915 to his starting work on an oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder).
Die Jakobsleiter was his first composition based on the Bible. He had hoped that the eminent German poet Richard Dehmel, who had provided him with texts for a number of songs would also provide him with a suitable text for this work, but Dehmel declined, and Schoenberg wrote the text himself. The oratorio opens with a crowd of skeptics, cynics, immoralists, and journalists on a ladder pointing to the heaven they are striving to reach. Archangel Gabriel shows them the roles they had to play and insists they seek union in prayer. A reliance on prayer comes out in much of Schoenberg's music evidenced clearly by his Psalms that were written near his life's end.
The music of Die Jakobsleiter foreshadowed his twelve-tone music and was left incomplete because the development of his new musical system attracted his full attention. He did make a number of efforts to finish the score but did not do so. If it had been completed, it would have been a work lasting at least two hours and would have required a 250-piece orchestra. The first part of the oratorio was completed by one of his pupils, but its first public performance had to wait until 1961. At the same time as composing Die Jakobsleiter, he wrote the words of Totentanz der Prinzipien (Dance-of-Death of the Principles) that told of his personal religious ideas, but they were never set to music.
Things changed for him in 1922. At a holiday resort near Salzburg, he was asked to produce proof of baptism, otherwise he would have to leave. He refused and left and wrote to a friend that he now understood that he was not a German or even a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being, but that he was a Jew. He told this friend that he had a vision that antisemitism would lead to violence, although he believed that Jews would survive as they always had done. And then in 1923, there was another antisemitic experience when, succeeding Busoni as composition teacher in Berlin, storms of protest greeted the appointment of a Christian composer of Jewish origin.
Soon after his experience at the holiday resort, he began work on a musical drama that illustrated his growing Jewish thinking. Der Biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) introduced the concept of a Jewish state although not one in the land of Israel but somewhere in Africa. He envisioned the drama to be an up-to-date treatment of the story of how Jews became a people. Although he did not officially return to Judaism until 1933, he always looked upon this work as the key event in his doing so. The drama examines the possibility of the creation of a home for Jews, and he endeavoured to show that a Jewish state not dissimilar to that of Biblical times was possible even though situated far from the Holy Land. Max Arens, the play's hero, is both Moses and Aaron, but like Moses he failed to achieve his goal before he passed away. The task was left to his successor Guido who was meant to be his Joshua. Schoenberg claimed that he was unaware of Theodor Herzl and his Zionism when he wrote this play, and there is no evidence that they had ever met. Consequently, it is surprising that he used this theme in this drama. He never wrote the music for Der Biblische Weg, but its ideas were developed later in his operatic masterpiece Moses und Aron.
In a simple ceremony attended by only a few people, Schoenberg formally returned to Judaism in a synagogue in Paris soon after Hitler assumed power in Germany. He claimed that his return had in fact been taken long before the Paris ceremony and that a work for unaccompanied choir that presaged Moses und Aron called Du sollst nicht, du musst (Thou shalt not [make for thyself an image] ...) he composed in 1925 was its motivation. He said that in the future, he planned to work for the Jewish national cause and would cease writing music. He did have plans for supporting German Jews with a campaign to get them to emigrate from that country, but these were elaborate ones that were clearly impossible to achieve at that time.
Schoenberg did consider writing a third oratorio which became Der Biblische Weg. But at an earlier date in 1928, he began his longest, perhaps his most important and certainly his most ambitious work, the opera Moses und Aron that was never completed. He wrote the libretto quite quickly. He began writing the music in 1930, and the second Act was completed in 1932. In this opera, he examined what he perceived as the instrument of monotheistic belief with its deep thread of intellectuality. He used his new musical system to make it unique. Central to the opera is the conflict between the two brothers--Moses the man with absolute faith in his God and Aaron who viewed the Golden Calf as representing a meaningful image of worship. The third act was rewritten a number of times, but he found problems in what he saw as contradictions in the Biblical text. His original intention had been to write a cantata called "The Burning Bush" but he changed it into an opera. The Burning Bush scene became the opera's starting point. Moses using normal speech and Aaron, a tenor voice, meet in the Wilderness, and the Golden Calf scene is in the Second Act. It begins with Aaron and the Israelites awaiting Moses who has ascended Mount Sinai. As the Israelites wonder what has happened to Moses and to his God, they quarrel among themselves, and this leads to a violent and turbulent scene with barbaric sounds. An orgy of drunkenness and delirious sexual misbehaviour is depicted brilliantly with magnificent musical coloring that ceases suddenly as Moses descends from Mount Sinai. A scene consisting of a long dialogue between Moses and Aaron and finalizing with the destruction of the two tablets of law ends the Act. Schoenberg never scored the final Act in which he actually abandoned the Biblical story and had Aaron chained and dragged by soldiers as Moses thunders against his brother. He rejected the soldiers' wish to kill Aaron and ordered his brother's release, only to see Aaron fall down dead. Schoenberg did once comment that he began the work as a reaction to Hitler's rise to power in Germany but saw no need to finish it after the Nazi collapse. Plans for the opera to receive a performance in Florence were not realized, and its first performance consisted merely of the dance of the Golden Calf. This truncated performance took place in Darmstadt just before Schoenberg died. The first complete performance took place in concert form in Hamburg in 1954. The first staged performance was in Zurich three years later in front of packed houses, but its five performances needed huge resources. One critic was moved to say that the opera would "smash the Zurich regime just as Moses had the two tablets." Schoenberg once told a friend that the opera was part of a five-year plan to finish it as well as another work called D/e Jakobsleiter, and some years later he said he had conceived the music of Act 3 and would write it within the next few months. But this never happened.
In 1933 he crossed the Atlantic to live in New York and then moved to Los Angeles a year later. Two other major works of Jewish content composed in the U.S. are Kol Nidrei and Modern Psalms. Kol Nidrei was completed in 1938 for a Los Angeles Reform Temple. He must have had some interest in the Kol Nidrei prayer before he composed this work because his fourth string quartet written two years earlier contained what appeared to be the traditional melody in the quartet's third movement. Before writing Kol Nidrei however, Schoenberg studied the role of the Yom Kippur prayers, and at this time, he also wrote some essays entitled "Studies on Kol Nidrei." In Kol Nidrei, an introductory piece that explains his understanding of the rabbinical scholarship that lay beneath this prayer is recited before the chorus begins to sing the traditional melody, and it is narrated by a speaker (a rabbi) in English.
Another work of Jewish content is De Profundis written in 1950 and is his last completed work. It is a setting of Psalm 130 ("Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord") for a six-part unaccompanied chorus and was written for the Anthology of Jewish Music compiled by Chemjo Vinaver. It was dedicated to the State of Israel using the Hebrew words spoken in the Sephardic pronunciation dominant in Israel. As a consequence of composing this work, he began to study the psalms in detail and planned a series of compositions to be entitled "Modern Psalms" although this title was later changed to "Psalms, Prayers and Other Conversations with and about God." The series originally contained ten such items that with typical chutzpah he entitled Psalms 151-160. An additional six but unnumbered pieces were later added. The last of these was written just ten days before he died. Only the first so-called psalm was set to music and then only partly. It was scored for speaker, four-part chorus and orchestra. These psalms deal with the Ten Commandments, the meaning of prayer, and what Jews have to do to be seen as the Chosen People. Jesus' character was also examined and the conclusion was that ancient Jewry had made a mistake in ignoring his importance.
Schoenberg was one of the contributors to the Genesis Suite. Nathaniel Shilkret, a Hollywood orchestral conductor, conceived the idea of a Biblical work in which seven leading composers, all of whom except Igor Stravinsky were Jewish, would contribute one portion. Schoenberg's Prelude is scored for orchestra and voiceless chorus and is intended to show creation coming out of chaos through a chorus.
What of Schoenberg's attitude to Zionism? He became a supporter of Jabotinsky's Revisionist Party after that Party rejoined the Zionist Organization in 1925. In fact, he had shown some support for Jabotinsky even earlier. He questioned whether the Zionists could rely on foreign support to protect Yishuv Jews in their struggle against their Arab foes. He did hope to attend the 1933 Zionist Congress in Prague as well as the World Jewish Congress in Geneva but he then changed his mind because he disagreed with the view of Jewish leaders on the way to react to Hitler's rise to power in Germany. At one point, he considered making aliyah to Israel, but he never visited Eretz Yisrael although he was inspired to write a poem that began "Israel exists again" the first three lines of which were set to music. He wrote a work for unaccompanied chorus entitled Three Times a Thousand Years based on a poem that was written by the poet Dagobert Runes entitled Gottes Wiederkehr ("God's return") clearly inspired by the foundation of the State. Despite once complaining that Jews, especially Israelis, were uninterested in his music, he was elected President of the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in 1951. He did consider this to be an honor and said he hoped he could teach there, but this never occurred.
Schoenberg's final orchestral composition, is the cantata, A Survivor in Warsaw, completed in 1947 as a memorial to the Warsaw ghetto. A short work of seven and a half minutes in length, it is scored for speaker, male chorus, and orchestra. The words here were again in Hebrew. The climax of the spoken dialogue, that is accompanied by music, is the recitation of the Shema that is a passionate and powerful expression of sound. It was the composer's manner of indicating the strength and faith of the Holocaust survivors. Not all critics admired it; Olin Downes in The New York Times considered it to be empty music with "bogey" sounds in the orchestra, but this work is an important example of Schoenberg's oevre being full of emotion.
It is curious that some of his so-called Jewish compositions were not completed. This may be became he was always searching for the truth as he saw it and rarely succeeded in doing so. Another reason may have been that his belief that Jews had never shown interest in his music deterred him from completing his Jewish works. He once complained that Jews looked at him from a racial and not an artistic point of view and that they give him "a lower rating than they give their Aryan idols." Nevertheless, he did attempt to get the Guggenheim Foundation to provide him with financial support so that he could finish Moses und Aron and Die Jakobsleiter. He told the Foundation that his life would be fulfilled "only fragmentally" if he could not complete them, but he was unsuccessful in his plea to the Foundation.
After settling in Los Angeles, he did make some efforts to compose for the screen, and MGM did, in fact, invite him to write the score for the film of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. But his request for a fee of $50,000 and an assurance that there would be no alterations to the score he planned to write were turned down.
Schoenberg was a brilliant polymath. He was a painter of talent, a writer, and an inventor. He wrote many articles on Jewish subjects other than music, and he developed a music typewriter and an instrument for performing eye operations with a magnet as well as a special ticket for use on public transport. He also devised a system for controlling traffic flow and a new chess game that had one hundred squares and two more pieces than standard. He was a tennis player of some rank, and he once said he would have liked to have been a top player had music not interfered.
This giant of avant-garde classical music who suffered repudiation by critics and audiences for his difficult atonal twelve-tone theory of composition, who escaped the antisemitism of Nazi Germany and Austria, and who abandoned Judaism for many years, ended up returning to Judaism and writing important musical works of Jewish content and culture that are more accessible and that are his final legacy.
Clearly, Schoenberg was a man with religious and other views that were often contradictory, but as he got older, he did become closer to Judaism and developed deep Jewish values. Three months before his death, he wrote to a friend in Jerusalem: "I am of the opinion that we should try to revive our ancient religion again. It seems to me that the time of dull belief in science has finally passed--for me it was over more than forty years ago." But on his death, sadly, his non-Jewish second wife (his first had died) was presumably responsible for the decision to cremate his body. He was not buffed in the traditional Jewish manner although, later on the centenary of his birth, these ashes were re-interred in Vienna in a plot not far from those of the great traditional musical masters---Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert--where De Profundis was sung by a choir in Hebrew.
CECIL BLOOM who lives in Leeds, England, was until he retired some years ago Technical Director of a major multi-national pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical corporation. He now spends time freelance writing principally on Jewish subjects. His work has been published in Great Britain, the U.S.A., Israel, South Africa, and Australia. He wrote six monographs for the Fitzroy Dearborn publication "Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century." He has written frequently for Midstream, His last article on the composer Felix Mendelssohn appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Midstream.