The Day Music Went Mad; New Evidence Pinpoints the Start of Classical Music's Greatest Revolution to the Moment Composer Arnold Schoenberg Discovered His Wife's Infidelity

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Day Music Went Mad; New Evidence Pinpoints the Start of Classical Music's Greatest Revolution to the Moment Composer Arnold Schoenberg Discovered His Wife's Infidelity


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

OF ALL the turning points in the history of music, one is instantly audible to the innocent ear. Shortly after the soprano starts singing in the third movement of Arnold Schoenberg's second string quartet, the music takes leave of its key of F-sharp minor and veers off into an atonal abyss. In that instant, the harmonic laws that governed European music for 500 years are declared null and void. The rule that C, E and G can go sweetly together in a row but not B, C and D has been shattered. Beauty is no longer a musician's highest aspiration.

It has been superseded by the abstract.

When the quartet was first played in Vienna, four days before Christmas in 1908, it provoked a riot. Outraged citizens protested and several arrests were made. The music, amid some gorgeous passages, maintains its capacity to shock. I have seen 21st century listeners leap, as if struck, at its sounds of calculated discordance. The quartet was a milestone in the evolution of music - that much is undisputed.

But what pushed its abrasive composer to challenge and overturn the natural order remains a matter of contention, an unresolved historical chord.

A semi-educated intellectual with messianic self-delusions, Schoenberg had been drifting steadily for some years towards the cliff-edge of tonality. He had stopped at the brink in the sextet Transfigured Night, which one critic likened to the music of Tristan and Isolde played with the ink still wet and smeared down the page. By the time he finished the Chamber Symphony in 1907 Schoenberg, in his midthirties, was ready to lead the musical tribe into a purifying wilderness of dissonance.

But something held him back. More bourgeois than bohemian, he was married to Mathilde, sister of his best friend Alexander von Zemlinsky. With a family to feed and no regular income, he began to take art lessons from the upstairs neighbour, a gifted painter called Richard Gerstl, with a view to making ends meet by selling his paintings, mostly self-portraits.

Then the unimaginable occurred. The longsuffering, somewhat dowdy, Mathilde began an affair with Gerstl and eloped with him in July 1908, leaving Schoenberg while he was writing the second string quartet. Friends interceded, persuading her to return to Schoenberg and their two small children after a few days. Four months later Gerstl committed suicide, disembowelling himself with a butcher's knife. Schoenberg left no account of these traumas. I once suggested, in a book about the role of personal conflict in music, that Mathilde's adultery was the direct cause of Schoenberg's breach with tonality. The proposition was assailed by a brigade of musicologists for want of conclusive documentary evidence.

The fact that Schoenberg had dated the manuscript of the third movement during the days of Mathilde's absence, or that he musically quoted in it the line "alles ist hin" - "all is lost" from the street song Ach du lieber Augustin - did not sway dusty crows in their collegiate gowns that personal crisis had, in this instance, precipitated musical revolution. It is, I discovered, never easy to persuade academics of the blindingly obvious.

But, now the proof has arrived - and it comes in the form of one of the most revealing documents ever to be left by a major composer. …

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