Navigate to News section

Arnold Schoenberg’s Artistic Milieu on Display in Europe

Exhibitions in Paris and Vienna put the Jewish composer and painter’s creative and personal life in perspective

Vladislav Davidzon
April 25, 2017
Arnold Schoenberg, self-portrait, 1910.Wikimedia
Arnold Schoenberg, self-portrait, 1910.Wikimedia

Last autumn, Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, published a lengthy article on the state of contemporary classical music. Beginning with its title, the article interrogated the perennial question haunting classical music for at least half a century: “Just Why Does New Music Need Champions?” After appraising the relatively productive moment of creativity and expansion that the American classical scene currently finds itself in, the article went on to lament the obvious fact that large “swaths of the audience [of classical music] are fixated on the old and wary of the new.”

Seeking the agent responsible for this rupture between serious composition and it’s popular reception, Tommasini somewhat predictably blamed the Jewish Viennese composer and virtuoso innovator Arnold Schoenberg, who called into question harmony and created the twelve-tone technique. The “well-intentioned but problematic venture that Arnold Schoenberg initiated in Vienna now seems a turning point,” Tommasini wrote. “Along with his devoted students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, Schoenberg was the leader of what came to be known as the Second Viennese School. This movement explored new harmonic languages that broke radically from major-minor tonality. In the early 1920’s, Schoenberg pushed beyond atonality to invent the 12-tone technique. Much of this music was received by critics and the public with open hostility.”

This is in many ways the received narrative, and it frames the way in which we have come to think of Schoenberg. He was: a paragon of the lost Fin de siècle of Austrian-German bourgeois; a representative of an endangered species; an inhabitant of a culture teetering on the line between assimilation and annihilation; an austere magician of lush constraints; a thoroughgoing elitist in the mold of the old Vienna who was also the ravenous destroyer of the old order of harmonic tonality.

Certainly, the way we perceive Schoenberg is critically important and we are now in the midst of a periodic revival of interest in his work. The Paris Bastille Opera put on a well-received production of his opera Moses and Aron a season ago. The Italian classical pianist Pina Napolitano, who has been touring London with a revival of the “Gems of the Second Viennese School,” has recently published a lovely defense of the “accessible” Schoenberg in whose music she hears an “invincible combination of intellect and passion, discipline and expressivity.” She ascribes the relative paucity of Schoenberg performances to being the product of prejudice (despite the cultish following by cultivated music lovers).

A major exhibition on Schoenberg’s life in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris recently closed. That exhibition gathered together a great deal of archaic material from every stage of his life but lacked any particularly radical thesis, with several French art critics complaining to me that it did not break any new ground. It focused particularly on the relationship between Schoenberg’s music and his relationship to art—ranging from his youthful dabbling in fauvist-expressionist painting to his collaborations with Kandinsky (who was a dedicated champion of his painting).

The exhibit brought together various paintings from Schoenberg’s artistic milieu (including several sumptuous Schiele portraits). As we mark the centennial of the Russian revolution, which has resulted in a great and unbearable pouring fourth of books, exhibits, and politicized commemorations, another way of marking the hundred years of the modernist project is to return to Egon Schiele’s ochre-hued 1917 portrait of a young Schoenberg in repose. Prominently featured also were the famed blue self-portraits, prematurely bald and with a gaze that likely terrified several generations of music students. Myself gazing at the serially repeating self-portraits that the serious young man had painted, I had to continuously remind myself that Schoenberg was in his early and mid-30s when he painted them. It is easy to have the sensation that he had sprung from the womb a preternaturally shriveled old man.

Though the Paris exhibition is now closed, an unexpected opportunity to learn about a lesser-known and more vivacious side of Schoenberg’s life has now extended itself. The Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna has just announced that it has extended its own exhibition of his personal and family photographs (“Arnold Schoenberg In Focus Photographs 1880-1950,”) through January 2018. It pries open the infamously aloof composer’s reticent exterior to show us his tender romantic side.

The Schoenberg Center is very much a remarkable institution and is very much worth a visit. A private foundation run by the Schoenberg family and financed by the city of Vienna, it houses the world’s largest collection of Schoenberg artifacts and manuscripts (the U.S. Library of Congress also claims impressive holdings) including the housing of his California study, which was perfectly reconstructed in Vienna after all the furniture had been moved after the composer 1951 death in his California exile. The exhibit’s curator Eike Fess explained that the reason that the estate was in such good condition was that Schoenberg was perversely lucky in his misfortune to have been jettisoned from the German academy of arts in 1933. He thus left Germany before the gates had swung shut and it became too late to transport all his effects, manuscripts and papers out.

Though in smaller quantity, much of the most interesting material from the Paris exhibition can still be viewed in Vienna. These include his American naturalization certificate, some of the expressionist self-portraits, and the colorfully painted four-sided War inspired Chess set that the composer had created with his own hands.

Fess explained, “For me personally, this is an important exhibition because it shows Schoenberg from a completely different perspective than the that one would normally see in any other exhibit. We tried to show his private life from a perspective that is normally not as well known and especially with this concentration of material.”

The exhibit is a real gem and commences with a formally arranged 1885 tintype of the family. From there it shows an assortment of remarkable private and family photographs, many of which were shot either by Schoenberg himself, or any of a number of his pupils. This club encompasses some of the greatest composers of the 20th century, many of whom, it turns out, were keen amateur photographers.

Some of Schoenberg’s paintings were reproduced in thumb-sized passport style photographs by his student Alban Berg, so that they could be sent as samples to exhibitions. We are shown an astounding pair of studio portraits from when Schoenberg and his friend the architect Adolf Loos took a rest from a Paris festival dedicated to Schoenberg’s work to visit the studio of Man Ray. There are shots of Charlie Chaplin and Oskar Kokoschka. There is a photograph of the composer walking through the campus of UCLA, perhaps one of the photos taken by his pupil Oscar Levant, ribald pianist and composer of Hollywood film scores (though as far as we know there exists no photographic memento of the relationship with John Cage, Schoenberg’s unlikeliest American pupil).

A remarkable shot taken on April 1, 1934, depicts the trio of Schoenberg, Albert Einstein, and the Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky leaving Carnegie Hall after Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night Op.4 was performed at a concert dedicated to Einstein.

Some of the rarest photos on display were made by his brother Heinrich, an opera singer who was killed by the Nazis and there are two albums which have never been seen before, taken from the families personal archives. One is an album that Schoenberg made for his first wife Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of the conductor and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, after her early death. The second is dedicated to his daughter Nuria, showing intimate photos of her from the time that she was born through her childhood and youth. It concludes with the family arriving in New York after having fled Nazi Germany and Schoenberg’s painstakingly arranged newspaper clippings announcing the composer’s arrival in the new world.

Certainly, the most ravishing photograph in the exhibition is one of Schoenberg standing on a beach with the composer Anton Webern and the pianist Alvin Stein (who would also soon flee to England), likewise taken by Berg. The exhibition offers us timely evidence of lives ruptured by the exiles of pointless violence and exile. It furnishes us with a connective web of relations that connect the disparate musical children and grandchildren of a man who as much as he was a great composer, was perhaps also the greatest teacher of the twentieth century. Some of the best photographs glimmer with the luminous light of a lost world and they are very much worth a trip to Vienna.

Vladislav Davidzon, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, is a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.