I've been reading two recent books about the Master of North Rockingham Avenue: Sabine Feisst's Schoenberg's New World (Oxford University Press) and Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner's The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg. Feisst's book, an exceedingly thorough study of Schoenberg's American years, has been long in the making and is worth the wait. It should efface prevailing conceptions of the later Schoenberg as "a controversial figure displaced in a culturally alien environment, disadvantaged, neglected, and disillusioned," to quote from the opening chapter. In place of that idea, which Schoenberg himself helped to fix in his more pessimistic moments, Feisst portrays a composer energetically if ambivalently engaged in his adopted homeland — Schoenberg died an American and left behind an American family — and determined to create a many-sided legacy. If he was an outsider to the end, it should be remembered that he was always an outsider, always an alien. Neither a "European" nor an "American" perspective can accommodate him fully: he pushed against the grain of whatever culture he inhabited. He had his intellectual formulas but was constitutionally incapable of lazy or simplistic thinking. The same cannot be said of many of his self-appointed followers, who imprisoned his work in sanctimonious ideology. To quote Schoenberg's scarily prophetic aphorism of 1909: “The second half of this century will spoil by overestimation, all the good of me that the first half, by underestimation, has left intact.”
I thought I knew this territory fairly well from my researches for The Rest Is Noise, but Schoenberg's New World held many revelations for me — although I'm happy to see that in broad outline my own portrait of the American Schoenberg is not dissimilar. Some nuggets that jumped out: 1) Schoenberg generally did better financially from teaching in America than he did in Berlin, and even in retirement he was in no way impoverished; 2) following the hysteria over Gerhart and Hanns Eisler, in 1947, the FBI searched Schoenberg's home, becoming momentarily suspicious when they found volumes of Adolf Bernhard Marx; 3) American performances of Schoenberg were considerably more frequent than is generally believed, even before the composer arrived on these shores (between 1915 and 1933 there were at least thirty performances in Los Angeles alone; the pianist James Sykes played the Suite Op. 25 in thirty recitals between 1937 and 1951). There are many excellent anecdotes demonstrating that while Schoenberg was a severe teacher he was not a dogmatic one, and often refused to discuss the twelve-tone method even when students begged him to. Yet his imperious attitude toward performers often proved self-defeating, especially in an American culture of superficial politesse. Feisst notes that when Dimitri Mitropoulos indulged in a modest bit of choral theatrics in a performance of A Survivor from Warsaw Schoenberg reprimanded the conductor for betraying "higher taste." Mitropoulos replied: "Please, I beseech you, be more tolerant, especially when you write letters of complaint," going on to say that while he remained a devoted admirer others would be turned off. Schoenberg was duly chastened: "You are right, in my age I should not be anymore as temperamental as I was — very much to my disadvantage – during my whole life." Although Feisst plainly has affection for her subject, she does not omit less flattering material — for example, Schoenberg's bizarre fantasy of becoming the savior of the Jewish people, broadcasting messages from a ship that was to have been supplied by President Truman.
One item I'd like to quote in its entirety, since I had never seen the full text. It is a letter that Schoenberg wrote on behalf of Henry Cowell when Cowell was convicted of sexual contact with a seventeen-year-old boy. Some colleagues cut Cowell off when the arrest was made; Charles Ives, notoriously, stopped writing to him for a time, although recent researches by Leta Miller and Rob Collins suggest that Ives's attitude was not as censorious as Harmony Ives, his wife, wished others to believe. ("I didn't know what to write or say or what to think or do," Ives himself wrote to Cowell.) Schoenberg was more generous — and sudden bursts of generosity were by no means uncommon in him:
Henry Cowell is probably the most outstanding American musician. Not only is he a composer of greatest originality, but what he has done for the musical culture of America can not be expressed in a few words, because it is history. It is his merit that through him American musicians became interested in those modern movements in music which are predominant in the old country. I have known Henry Cowell for more than ten years and I know that he is the most distinguished, noble minded, idealistic character; he is absolutely without selfishness; he is good natured and full of regard for others. Thus one will understand how distressed I was when I learned he was arrested and convicted; and one will conceive that I did not believe at first that this could be true. I could not believe that a character like that described before could be capable of such violations. But when I realized it was true, I understood what the great interpreter of the human soul and passions, William Shakespeare, said: 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' May I add that it would be the most regrettable loss for the musical culture of America if a man like Henry Cowell had to suffer longer for a temptation which seems to have been even stronger than such an extraordinary character.
You can see the facsimile in the Schoenberg online archive. A handwritten draft reveals that Schoenberg was uncertain at first whether to attribute the quotation to Shakespeare or Schiller. "There are more things in heaven and earth" — so it is also with Schoenberg himself, whose music exceeds the bounds of any philosophy that has been devised to celebrate, explain, or attack it. Feisst's book shows how much there is left to be learned about this astonishing figure in modern cultural history, whose true, full biography has yet to be written.
I'll address the Cambridge Companion in a future post.