Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

Blood on the score

How love, adultery and suicide changed Arnold Schoenberg – and the history of music – for ever

Alban Berg died on Christmas Eve, 1935, at the age of 50, and left behind two posthumous works; an elegiac, masterly Violin Concerto and a gigantic opera, Lulu. Inspection of the manuscripts showed that the concerto was finished in all respects; the opera very close to completion. The third act, however, was not entirely orchestrated, and some passages needed filling in.

Frau Berg, distraught, turned immediately to Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, to ask him to complete the opera. He accepted immediately, as he might have been expected to; the opera was dedicated to him and, with the Violin Concerto, constituted the most magnificent vindication of a set of compositional principles he had evolved, the “12-tone theory”, upon which Lulu was composed. Once he examined the score, however, he withdrew, and declined to have anything to do with it. Lulu was performed as a two-act torso, and was not completed until after Helene Berg’s death, or performed until 1979.

Schoenberg did not tell Helene what his objections were, but, in a letter to his friend, Erwin Stein explained at some length. He did not have time; he was out of sympathy with the style of the work; and, most of all, as a newly devout Jew, he objected to some elements of anti- Semitism in the work. The expression ” Saujud ” (dirty Jew) is used, as well as the instruction “mauschelnd”, or “screeching”, which in German has ambiguously anti-Semitic overtones. In the atmosphere of the 1930s, Schoenberg, he explained, could have nothing to do with such a work.

There the matter has rested; Berg scholars have taken Schoenberg’s word for his reasons. It seems odd, though, that Schoenberg would have refused the task based on the fact that the work contains a highly unattractive portrait of an anti-Semite, who is the only person to use the distasteful expression ” Saujud “. But his refusal was firm, and instant; he would not even consider entering into negotiations, or extracting the price (which Helene Berg would surely have considered paying) of removing an offensive line. What was it in Lulu that Schoenberg shrank away from with such dislike?

At the point of Berg’s death, Schoenberg had seen only fragments of the great work – the allegorical prologue and the orchestral sections, which Berg had extracted for a suite from the opera. There is something, however, in the opera that may have struck horribly close to home, something traumatic that he could not have mentioned to his closest friends – a moment from his own life that depicted, with appalling frankness, the terrible sources of Schoenberg’s own inspiration.

In the second scene of the opera, Lulu is newly married to a painter. The painter is suddenly mysteriously successful. In the course of the scene they are visited by Lulu’s permanent protector, Dr Schön. He explains to the painter that not only have their sexual relations continued after she married, but he has ensured the painter’s success for Lulu’s sake. The painter, distraught, runs into the next room and cuts his throat; upon which Lulu marries Dr Schon.

It is difficult to imagine Schoenberg reading this without going cold, and then, perhaps, turning to the last scene, a scene he would be expected to complete, where the painter mysteriously returns to life and gets his revenge by killing Lulu’s last lover. For Schoenberg, this would not have been a neutral scenario. It would have taken him back to a terrible sequence of events in his own life, nearly 30 years before.

In 1908, Schoenberg was not, as yet, the great innovator he would become. An acute observer of the musical scene would have known his name for a series of startling, new, extreme works had been issuing, to the alarm and derision of the Viennese public. In the light of his subsequent work, they don’t seem too radical, but they were certainly enough to frighten the Viennese horses; in works like the D minor string quartet, or the First Chamber Symphony, dissonances pile up within a huge and muscular counterpoint. He interested the cognoscenti, and if his work had finished in 1907 he would seem like a minor, interesting figure to us now. His gigantic contribution to music was still to come, and it would arise out of the most extraordinary circumstances.

In the summer of 1908, Schoenberg’s life turned upside down. At this point, he was as apt to think of himself as a painter as a composer, and was a prolific, individual but rather unpolished artist. Aware that his paintings could do with some technical improvement, he resolved to take lessons from a professional. Mathilde, his wife, decided to come too. There was a brilliant young painter, a familiar face from the Vienna cafés, called Richard Gerstl. He was close to the Schoenbergs – one of his major works is a portrait of the whole family.

Gerstl is one of the great might-have-beens of Viennese art. The small body of work he left behind shows the beginnings of a remarkable painter. Fluent, edgy to the point of hysteria, he is unmistakably a painter from the Vienna of Freud and Egon Schiele. A painter of great traditional skill and inventiveness, his works have a constant singing overtone of sexual fury. Vienna thought him very much the coming man.

What was he like? It is difficult to say now, but his paintings give a sense of dashing confidence and nervous energy. In any case, the relationship between the young painter and his two pupils – angry, defensive, ugly Schoenberg and his wife – developed and deepened. Mathilde was much more than a quiet wife. For a start, she was the glamorous sister of Alexander von Zemlinsky, the famous composer, and had spent her life among the most rarefied circles of intellectual Viennese society. By the summer of 1908 she and Gerstl were having an affair and, when Schoenberg discovered it, she left him and moved in with the painter.

A dull, everyday story, perhaps; a composer’s wife has an affair, in much the same way that an accountant’s wife may. But the story can’t be understood in all its terrible implications without understanding what Schoenberg was doing, all that nightmare summer. He was changing the course of Western music.

In March of 1907, the year before, Schoenberg had begun work on his second string quartet. Work was proceeding slowly, laboriously, and by the summer of 1908 it was still unfinished. Something broke in him that summer, with Mathilde’s departure, and he began to write the last movement.

It is not often that a single movement of a piece of music changes the entire art, but that is what the last movement of Schoenberg’s second string quartet did, and, writing it, he knew what he was doing. For centuries, western music had existed within the great cathedral of tonality, the system of major and minor keys. The last movement of the quartet is a setting of the words “I feel air from other planets,” and in it Schoenberg flung open the doors and wrote the first piece of atonal music – music governed by no feeling of key, but pure, free, chromatic invention.

No western musician since Schoenberg has been unaffected by his great step. In the summer of 1908, the liberation was palpable. He went to Mathilde, and somehow – perhaps for the sake of the children – he persuaded her to return. She gave way, and left Gerstl. Probably Schoenberg considered the painter as an irresponsible philanderer, but Mathilde’s departure destroyed him. In November, Gerstl killed himself at the age of 30.

His last self-portrait, done in despair, is one of the most terrifying works of 20th-century art. He is laughing, hysterically, mouth flung open; the texture of the paint is furious, stabbing, barely in control. It is almost impossible to look at; almost impossible not to imagine Gerstl, doing this, the last thing he could, and ending his life.

We don’t know what Schoenberg felt about Gerstl’s suicide. The story was over. But there is an appalling testament to the tragic events of 1908 – and it can be found in the New Grove Dictionary of Music. It is the list of Schoenberg’s compositions. The song cycle, The Book of the Hanging Gardens, completed February 1909; the Three Piano Pieces, February 1909; the Five Orchestral Pieces, May-August 1909; the opera Erwartung, August-September 1909.

It is an awesome list, one of the great creative bursts of western music, and it did not dry up until just before the first world war. At the end of 1908, Schoenberg experienced a gigantic liberation; a year later, he had created a body of masterpieces whose implications still resound, still arouse passionate feelings of love and loathing. Gerstl was dead, defeated; and Schoenberg had risen to greatness.

The implications are almost too dreadful to contemplate. Where did that flood of inspiration come from, the confidence to shatter all the certainties of music at one stroke? Schoenberg triumphed; he had destroyed Gerstl and his art was fed by Gerstl’s destruction. Whether Gerstl needed to die, I do not know. Something was slowly breaking in Schoenberg’s music before the catastrophe of 1908, and surely he would have found his way to the same place in the end. But Gerstl’s death did spark something off, a terrible, demonic fury, and the white heat of inspiration that burns in the Five Orchestral Pieces, in Erwartung – an opera written in 17 days – is fuelled by an almost murderous triumph. The energy has a dreadful source, and it fulfils, always, its own demands. For one moment, the unforgiving demands of the creative spirit stood revealed; how it rolls forward, like a juggernaut, demanding men to fall beneath its wheels, and be crushed.

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