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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 4

Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet

by 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 It has been superseded by the abstract.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 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 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 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. 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 is."

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 remarried.


(c) La Scena Musicale