Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartetby Norman Lebrecht
/ December 6, 2003
The day music went mad. 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superseded by the abstract.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
mid-30s, was ready to lead the musical tribe into a purifying wilderness of
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
Then the unimaginable occurred. The long-suffering,
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
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.
In A Schoenberg Reader, published by Yale University Press, Professor
Joseph Auner of New York State University produces the draft of a will that the
composer wrote during, or directly after, Mathilde's elopement. It begins with
the intimation that he is about to kill himself: "With my energy gone and my
vitality at an end, it is very likely that I shall soon follow the path, find
the resolution, that at long last might be the highest culmination of all human
actions." Later on, he confirms: "I have cried, behaved like someone in despair
... had thoughts of suicide and almost carried them out, have plunged from one
madness to another--in a word, I am totally broken."
Mathilde's infidelity--he never refers to her by
name--is a mortal blow. "I deny the fact that my wife betrayed me," he declares.
"She did not betray me, for my imagination had already pictured everything that
she has done. My capacity for premonition had always seen through her lies and
expected her crimes long before she herself had thought to commit them ... The
fact that she betrayed me is thus of no importance to me."
He assumes a position of intellectual impartiality,
dissembling the episode to the point where logic overcomes emotion. "She lied--I
believed her ... Wrong! She did not lie to me. For my wife does not lie. The
soul of my wife is so at one with my soul that I know everything about her.
Therefore she did not lie; but she was not my wife. That's how it
There is more of this, several paragraphs more.
"This thing therefore did not happen to me," he concludes. "It was the man she
took me for that my wife lied to and betrayed. He was her creation; she could do
what she wanted with him."
I don't believe there has ever been a more
dispassionate rationalisation of emotional pain. Neither Pinter in
Betrayal nor Greene in The End of the Affair approach the creative
detachment that Schoenberg achieves in this long concealed document, a
detachment which strikingly mirrors the process he was introducing to music: the
embrace of atonal, intellectual abstraction over fickle, physically seductive
melody. The abolition of pleasure was a small price to pay for the restoration
of sanity and, more importantly, for the victory of mind over the messiness of
bodily attraction. Like everything else that he attempted, Schoenberg ascribed
moral superiority to his new method of composition. It was a step towards the
betterment of mankind.
Later, a dozen years later, Schoenberg renounced
atonality and invented a new harmonic system, the 12-note row, which has
governed all progressive trends in western music ever since. Reunited with
Mathilde, he dedicated the Second String Quartet, without comment or
apparent irony, "To My Wife." Mathilde lived on with him in apparent domestic
harmony until her death in October 1923, aged 46. Schoenberg had promised her a
memorial. He wrote the words of a requiem, but no music. For some weeks, she
appeared to him in visions. Ten months later he met a girl of 26 and quickly