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Schoenberg’s worship of German culture was apparent in his boast, upon inventing his twelve-tone serial system, that he had “discovered something which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” But a decade later, as he began to confront the first glimmerings of Nazi nationalism, he wrote, “Nationalistic musicians regard me as international, but abroad my music is regarded as too German. National Socialists regard me as a cultural Bolshevik, but the communists reject me as bourgeois. Anti-Semites personify me as a Jew, my direction as Jewish, but almost no Jews have followed my direction.”
Schoenberg had grown up with very little knowledge of Jewish tradition, though from youth he had been a student of the Bible — Luther’s German version. Around the time Mahler converted to Roman Catholicism (a requirement to be director of the Vienna Opera), Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism (which would be of no such professional help in Catholic Vienna). The more he encountered anti-Semitism, however, the more he came to embrace his Jewish heritage.
One of Schoenberg’s biggest fans at the beginning of his career was the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who hailed the composer as his artistic soulmate and even included Schoenberg’s paintings in his famed Blaue Reiter group shows.
One critic had described the “Pierrot” premiere as “only a series of points, dots, dashes or phrases that sob and scream, despair, explode, exalt and blaspheme.” With the exception of the “blasphemy,” this could easily describe Kandinsky’s paintings, too. A decade later, though, when Mahler’s widow, Alma, alerted Schoenberg to how anti-Semitic Kandinsky was, Schoenberg broke off their friendship.
George Gershwin was a fan of “Pierrot.” He attended both its American and French premieres and even painted a portrait of Schoenberg. Later, when Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles in 1933 to escape Austria, Gershwin became his weekly tennis partner. (When Gershwin died suddenly, four years later, it was Schoenberg who delivered the moving eulogy for him on national radio.)
In 1938, Rabbi Jakob Sonderling, of the Reform Fairfax Temple in L.A., commissioned Schoenberg to compose his “Kol Nidre” for that year’s Yom Kippur service. The composer seized the opportunity to make a statement about his Jewish identity and the prayer itself, a kabbalistic melodrama of the unity of God’s identity and defense against apostasy and forced conversion. True to form, Schoenberg researched the history and all versions of the prayer, and created his own version. (The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will perform this rarely heard work at Carnegie Hall on October 25.)
Only a month before Kristallnacht, and the same month his “Kol Nidre” was performed, Schoenberg wrote his “Four-Point Program for Jewry,” a passionate attempt at a political program for world Jewry: “Is there room in the world for almost 7,000,000 [Jewish refugees]? Are they condemned to doom? Will they become extinct? Famished? Butchered?” But this essay raised more questions than it could solve. Most troubling, the essay advocates political methods not dissimilar to those Hitler used to achieve power — although in the service of far more admirable goals, including the establishment of a Jewish state. The copy sent to Thomas Mann evoked such alarm over the political methods it advocated, it inspired him to write “Doctor Faustus,” about a composer, obviously modeled on Schoenberg, who not only sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve musical mastery but also represents the evils of German culture and deliberately infects himself with syphilis, to boot. “You have to know I never had syphilis!” Schoenberg was once overheard screaming at a woman in an L.A. supermarket.
In 1947, after the horrors of the Shoah were exposed to the entire world, Schoenberg used many of his “Pierrot” musical innovations to create what is probably the most powerful piece anyone has composed on the subject of the Holocaust, “A Survivor from Warsaw,” which ends with the chorus of Jews struggling to recall the Shema Yisrael prayer at the doors of the gas chambers.
True to Schoenberg’s contradictory spirit, at the end of his life, when the State of Israel was established, he proposed himself not only as the director to create a new music conservatory in Jerusalem but also, seemed to imagine himself as a modern Moses, a composer-priest creating a new religion in sound. This Jew was a moon-drunk Pierrot, indeed.
Raphael Mostel is a composer, writer and lecturer in New York City.