Magazine article Midstream

Arnold Schoenberg and His Judaism

Magazine article Midstream

Arnold Schoenberg and His Judaism

Article excerpt

Jews with much justification can claim to be pioneers in many intellectual and scientific pursuits. Ehrlich led new research in chemotherapy, Freud in psychoanalysis, Einstein in physics, and Marx in political science, and Nobel prizes have been won by Jews far in excess of their numbers. And then there was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) who introduced a new form of music. The twelve-tone system of music may not be every music-lover's idea of pleasant sound, but it was a revolutionary form of musical expression that has not been rejected by musicians.

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). …

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