September 13, 2023

Fantasia in D — Dissonance, Difficulty, and Discovery On Schoenberg’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.

—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Harvey Sachs begins and ends Schoenberg: Why He Matters (Liveright 2023) with those words from an August 30, 1923 letter the composer sent to “a new acquaintance.” The statement’s simplicity is reflected in the way Sachs demonstrates why an artist as notoriously difficult as Schoenberg is worth “getting on with.”

The “difficulty” is addressed in Schoenberg’s Wikipedia page under the heading “Twelve-tone and tonal works,” which begins by noting that he once compared his discovery of a new compositional method to Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics. The language from Ethan Haimo’s 1990 book Schoenberg’s Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method, 1914–1928 is nothing if not daunting, difficult, and discouraging (try getting on with “hexachordal inversional combinatoriality” or “isomorphic partitioning”), especially compared to the composer’s own simply, vividly worded “painting without architecture … an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colors, rhythms and moods.” 

A New Mexico Connection

Thanks to Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance (Knopf 2023), another new book that makes stunningly clear why Schoenberg matters, I discovered that some three years and three months after the July 16, 1945 atom bomb test at Los Alamos, Schoenberg’s cantata A Survivor of Warsaw was given a triumphant premiere 100 miles away by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra. With the film Oppenheimer fresh in mind and the biography American Prometheus still on best-seller lists, I’d already been finding points in common between the “father of the A Bomb,” who once said his two great loves were physics and New Mexico, and the self-professed “emancipator of dissonance,” whose New Mexico premiere led to stories in the New York Times headed “Schoenberg in Albuquerque,” playing on the image of “the great atonal pioneer wandering the dusty streets of the American Southwest.” My image of Oppenheimer as the Schoenberg of the Manhattan Project led to thoughts of a fanciful Institute for Advanced Study seminar featuring Oppenheimer, Schoenberg, Einstein, and pianist Glenn Gould, wherein Gould would provide a typically dynamic explanatory demonstration of the 12-tone method using Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Op 25, a tour de force easily and immediately accessible on YouTube.

Five Days

With only five days in which to explore the vast terra incognita of Schoenberg, I had no time to worry about “isomorphic partitioning.” After 20 minutes straining my eyes peering into tiers upon tiers of bargain classical CDs at the Princeton Record Exchange, I came away with the revised string orchestra arrangement of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) (1899) and the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903), based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play and recorded to fabulous acclaim in 1974 by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

On a hot Saturday afternoon, after a walk along the D&R Canal in Kingston, I put the Deutsche Grammophone CD into my new car stereo and sat listening to the last hushed, haunting moments of Verklärte Nacht while the AC cooled things off. Given the predominance of D-words so far in this piece, it’s worth noting that both works are rooted, however tenuously, in the key of D Minor.


For the next 45 minutes, I was in a Schoenberg-driven 23-year-old Honda CRV. Turn left onto Route 27 along the lake, sky gray, steering wheel, engine, and great music in synch, absolutely compatible, no tricks, no unexpected departures like the inverted ninth chord that led to Verklärte Nacht’s rejection by the Vienna Music Society. Music says turn left on Riverside, sky now massively dark with towering white-grey cloud formations, captive driver smiling and amazed. I can’t tell you what the “symphonic poem” was doing or where it was going as I followed Schoenberg through the Riverside neighborhood across Harrison and down Patton Avenue past our first home in Princeton on the far side of almost 50 years.

Rather than trying to express what happened to me and happened again the next night listening to the Bose Wave after cleaning up from dinner, I’m resorting to a pastiche of raves from the liner notes. High Fidelity: “The enormously long line of Pelleas is sustained, the climaxes finely judged, the extraordinary density of texture brilliantly realized … expansive, lush, dramatic, mercurial, utterly enthralling.” From Financial Times: “A remarkable  instrumental, as well as poetical, transformation of sound.” The Penguin Guide to Classical Music: “superb performances which present the emotional element at full power but give unequalled precision and refinement…. The gorgeous tapestry of sound is both rich and full of refinement and detail…. A magical reading and beautifully recorded too.”

And a dream to drive to.


Quoted by Sachs, “toward the end of his life” Schoenberg remembered that the reviews of the first 1905 Vienna performance of Pelleas und Melisande had been “unusually violent,” with one of the critics suggesting “to put me in an asylum and keep music paper out of my reach.” Another critic described the work as “an assassination of sound, a crime against nature.” According to Malcolm MacDonald’s 1976 biography of Schoenberg, the composer’s colleague Richard Strauss, who had advised him to adapt Pelleas und Melisande in the first place, spoke in similarly dismissive terms after witnessing the 1909 debut performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, allegedly telling Alma Mahler “that Schoenberg needed psychiatric care and that he would do better to shovel snow than to continue scribbling notes.”

Five Pieces

Even before Schoenberg was shadowed by atonal infamy, his works, no matter how “enriched by late Romantic Wagnerian/Brahmsian grandeur,” were hissed and hated, as if they already carried the stigma of morally suspect incomprehensibility. You’d think the English would at least behave more civilly. Not so according to the esteemed critic Ernest Newman, who reported from the September 3, 1912 Queen’s Hall debut performance of Five Pieces conducted by Sir Henry Wood: “It is not often an English audience hisses music it does not like, but a good third of the people the other day permitted themselves that luxury after the performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg. Another third of the audience was not hissing because it was laughing, and the remaining third seemed too puzzled either to laugh or to hiss…. May it not be that the new composer sees a logic in tonal relations that to the rest of us seem merely chaos at present, but the coherence of which may be clear enough to us all someday?”

A Royal Albert Panorama

My first online Schoenbergian adventure came courtesy of a YouTube link tucked into Michael Dirda’s Washington Post review of Schoenberg: Why He Matters. Flash a century forward from September 1912 to the BBC Proms September 2019, the Royal Albert Hall and Omer Meir Wellber, a handsome, bearded successor to Sir Henry. For a little over 15 minutes, the screen fills with a sweepingly cinematic concert performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces in which the hall’s vastness and the capacity audience encompassed by it are swirled into and carried off by the movement of the music, the towering auditorium a world in itself with its own starlit sky, like the missing architectural component of the composer’s image of 12-tone composition as “painting … ever-changing, unbroken,” flowing from first to fifth piece with “colors, rhythms and moods.” 

On the wings of the cameras you’re lifted directly above the orchestra, then zoomed close in, so that you can see the string bracelet around the brunette flautist’s wrist, all the while the audience looms in the distance like an immense surrounding silent second orchestra, a vast, vaguely human landscape occasionally illuminated by the lightning-flash wizardry of the score; as the fifth piece ends, touching down with such ease and quiet grace you hardly know it’s over, the Israeli-born conductor smiles and the human landscape stands, coming to life clapping and cheering as a female commentator with a BBC accent remarks on the long-ago hostility of the 1912 audience, the hisses and laughter and tears greeting that performance, and on the difficulty Sir Henry had getting the musicians to play this supremely difficult music, telling them: “Stick to it gentlemen, this is nothing to what you’ll have to play in 25 years.”

The Holocaust Cantata

A turn of the wheel and we go from the BBC orchestra in September 2019 to November 1948 and the Albuquerque Civic Symphony as described in Time’s Echo, an amateur ensemble made up of secretaries, doctors, lawyers, a tailor, a florist, high school and university students, and railroad engineers, with a chorus of 12 amateur singers, some of them cowboys and ranchers from the rural farming community of Estancia. It’s a long way from the Royal Albert Hall to the University of New Mexico’s Carlisle Gymnasium, “a cavernous and poorly lit space” into which some sixteen hundred people stream for the first performance of Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw, described as the “first significant memorial to the Holocaust before the event even had a name.”

The story behind Survivor from Warsaw is recounted at length in Time’s Echo. A vivid picture of the premiere performance appeared in the November 15, 1948 issue of Time magazine: “First the audience was jolted upright by an ugly, brutal blast of brass. Under it, whispers stirred in the orchestra, disjointed motifs fluttered from strings to woodwinds, like secret, anxious conversations. The survivor began his tale, in the tense half-spoken, half-sung style called Sprechstimme. The harmonies grew more cruelly dissonant. The chorus swelled to one terrible crescendo. Then, in less than ten minutes from the first blast, it was all over. While his audience was still thinking it over, Conductor Kurt Frederick played it through again, to give it another chance. This time, the audience seemed to understand it better, and applause thundered in the auditorium.”

Although Schoenberg was at home in Los Angeles and unable to attend, he hailed “the sheer dedication of the performers, their ability to rise beyond themselves, as constituting ‘a significant moment in the history of performances.’” He also saluted the Albuquerque audience for this wonderful attitude toward the work.” As Eichler puts it, he “seemed to think this might be the first sign of a late thaw and that America might finally be coming around to his twelve-tone music.” In other words, “You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.” Schoenberg died less than three years later, on July 13, 1951.