Magazine article The American Organist

An Afternoon with Arnold Schoenberg and His Variations on a Recitative, Opus 40

Magazine article The American Organist

An Afternoon with Arnold Schoenberg and His Variations on a Recitative, Opus 40

Article excerpt

Arnold Schoenberg's Opus 40, Variations on a Recitative, was written in 1940. Carl Weinrich's edition of the piece came out seven years later in the Contemporary Organ Series published by the H.W. Gray Company. It was thus a relatively new, unheard work during my undergraduate years in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in California. At that time, Leslie Pratt Spelman was chairman of the organ department. He was my organ teacher, and Paul Pisk, eminent musicologist and composer, was my teacher in composition and other theory subjects. Dr. Pisk had been a student of Schoenberg's in Vienna and was part of the migration of Viennese intellectuals who arrived here at the end of World War II.

My bachelor's honors had been on Schoenberg's works, and freed of the burden of undergraduate studies, I was looking forward to playing the Variations. Opus 40 had had some notable performances already: Carl Weinrich's, of course, Marilyn Mason had also played the work, as had Lawrence Petrain at the University of California at Los Angeles on (surprisingly) a Hammond organ.

Mr. Schoenberg had a reputation for being most hospitable to performers who came to see him, and with that in mind, Dr. Spelman wrote him asking if he might see us. In a short time we had our answer. It was to be the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1950. We were especially lucky to be there on the afternoon when the University of Southern California was having its big football game with the UCLA. The scuttlebutt around Los Angeles at the time was that Schoenberg, who first taught at USC after coming to this country, had reached retirement age, had asked for a retirement pension, and was refused. He then began teaching at UCLA. His bitterness towards USC was being played out in the football game that afternoon; at approximately 20 minute intervals, his daughter, about 16 or 17 at the time, would come in briefly, interrupt with the football score, and depart. UCLA was knocking the socks off USC, which had him literally dancing about the room with glee. I had the distinct impression he was not interested in the game as a game, just the scores and the final outcome.

There were three of us who went to visit Schoenberg: Dr. Spelman, Gerhard Krapf, the composer, then a student fresh from Germany after the war, and myself. Gerhard went along just in case we needed someone who spoke German fluently. We didn't, but it was good to have him there. We arrived about two in the afternoon to be met by the master himself, who seemed to me to be a most charismatic presence, with very penetrating, piercing eyes. I was sure he read not only what was at the front of my mind, but at the back as well.

The living room was furnished with nice but rather heavy furniture-not a Southern California style at all. There was a tea table, which we sat around, a grand piano, and what appeared to be a harmonium, though I couldn't get close enough to be sure. (It occurs to me now that his comments in his letter to Carl Weinrich are almost more suitable for a harmonium than a pipe organ-"I am not very fond of unnecessary doublings in octaves ... I would like such doubling avoided if clearness and transparency can be achieved.") After some preliminary conversations, Mr. Schoenberg sent his assistant, whose name was Kaufmann, I believe, to fetch his bound score containing also the sheet of motifs for development, both of which are now printed and generally available. These things being done, we proceeded to go through the composition from beginning to end.

The works of Schoenberg had been my honor's topic at the University of Redlands School of Music the previous year. I had done a thorough analysis of Opus 40 with Dr. Pisk, so I was ready to make the most of the insights that might be provided by its composer. Fortunately so, since periodically when we would get to the next variation, Schoenberg would half-mutter, "Now what did I do here?" At least I could jump in with an answer. …

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