Arnold Schönberg

While never a practising Jew, Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) Jewish heritage had a significant impact on both his personal life and musical compositions.  In his compositional essays, he frequently described music as an expression of God or the infinite, and the act of creation as a divine one.  As the introduction to his 1935 article, Composing with Twelve Tones, makes explicit:

To understand the very nature of creation one must acknowledge that there was no light before the Lord said: ‘Let there be Light’.  And since there was not yet light, the Lord’s omniscience embraced a vision of it which only His omnipotence could call forth … A creator has a vision of something which has not existed before this vision.  And a creator has the power to bring his vision to life, the power to realise it.

In other essays, Schoenberg often characterised himself as a musical 'chosen one' who would continue the legacy of the German masters – Mahler, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach – whom he considered 'divinely inspired' predecessors:

There is only one content, which all great men wish to express: the longing of mankind for its future form, for an immortal soul, for dissolution into the universe – the longing of this soul for its God … And this longing is transmitted with its full intensity from the predecessor to the successor, and the successor continues not only the content but also the intensity, adding proportionally to his heritage.  This heritage carries responsibility, but it is imposed only upon one who can assume this responsibility.

Schoenberg’s revolutionary musical technique of dodecaphony (using an ordered series of all twelve chromatic tones as the basis for a musical work) was his signature creation, and he often boasted that its modernist structure would secure 'the hegemony of German music' into the next century.

Such nationalistic assertions would assume a sadly ironic tone in the inter-war period, during which anti-Semitic reactions to Schoenberg and his music became more prevalent and ultimately forced the composer’s emigration to America in 1933.  In 1921, he experienced his first instance of overt discrimination when a Mattsee hotel requested that his family leave the hotel, which had a 'no Jews allowed' policy.  Six years later, he expressed his frustration to the painter Wassily Kandinsky that he had 'learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me: […] that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being […] but I am a Jew.'  Such discrimination reached a head on 7 April 1933, when the National Socialists enacted the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service) which banned Jews from holding university positions.  Soon thereafter, Schoenberg, then a professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste (Berlin), emigrated to America, where he later accepted a position at the University of California Los Angeles.  In a 1933 letter to his student, Anton Webern, Schoenberg relayed how these anti-Semitic actions had influenced his own self-identification as a Jew:

I have long since resolved to be a Jew. […] I have also returned officially to the Jewish religious community. […] It is my intention to take an active part in endeavours of this kind.  I regard that as more important than my art, and am determined [...] to do nothing [in] the future but work for the Jewish national cause.

In the years that followed, Schoenberg actively pursued Jewish issues and topics in both his essays and musical compositions.  In 1938 he published his most Zionistic essay, 'The Four-Point Programme for Jewry', which called for the creation of an independent Jewish state, and also composed a setting of the Kol Nidre.  In the 1940s, despite his failing health, he continued to address specifically Jewish themes in three works: Die Jakobsleiter (1922; revisions unfinished); Moses und Aron (unfinished); and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).


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________ “Surviving the American Musical Marketplace: The Financial Motivations Behind the American Premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw.”  Paper given at the Society for American Music Annual Conference, 2 March 2003.