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A Legendary Encounter

Who was Arnold Schoenberg?

In his new and indispensable book, “A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life” (Yale University Press), musicologist Joseph Auner reminds us that Schoenberg has been viewed as a revolutionary modernist, an evolutionary traditionalist, a “reactionary Romantic,” a solitary prophet, the founder of a school that has held composition in its clutches for a century, an “irrational expressionist,” and a “cerebral sonic” mathematician who recast “modern music in the image of science.”

And these myriad, contradictory and incomplete categorizations deal only with Schoenberg the composer and music theorist. Can this autodidact father of atonality and of the 12-tone method of composition be regarded historically as a Viennese? A Berliner? An American? To what extent was music only a means of expression for someone who saw himself as making a larger philosophical argument about the meaning of life, of mind and of self? A man who came into contact and conflict with some of the great artists and thinkers of his times, from his extraordinary students Alban Berg and Anton Webern to Wassily Kandinsky, Thomas Mann and Igor Stravinsky? How seriously must we take his brief outpouring of work (roughly 1907 to 1911) as a painter and visual artist?

And what of his religious and ethnic identity? Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism in that Catholic city in 1898 and after years of shuttling between Vienna and Berlin, and following the rise of Nazism, returned to the Jewish faith in a synagogue ceremony in his Parisian exile in 1933 with Marc Chagall and Albert Einstein’s son-in-law as formal witnesses. Arriving in the United States the following year, he changed the spelling of his name from Schönberg to Schoenberg and turned increasingly — even obsessively — to Jewish themes in his composition and his writing. He changed his nationality, too, becoming an American citizen in 1941 and dying at his home in Los Angeles in 1951, at 76, shortly after having been named honorary president of the Israeli Academy of Music.

All of these biographical and other elements come to the fore in the exhibition “Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider,” on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through February 12, 2004, and a provocative and beautifully illustrated catalogue of the same name edited by Princeton University art historian Esther da Costa Meyer and the Jewish Museum’s Fred Wasserman. In addition to bringing many important works to the United States for the first time — 60 paintings, including major works by Kandinsky and a number of paintings by Schoenberg, as well as rare documents, letters, photographs and musical manuscripts — this superb exhibition demands to be seen because of the questions that it raises about the idea of artistic influence across disciplines, its reminder of a unique period in human creativity and its willingness to ask hard questions about the limits of human understanding across real and imagined borders of national boundaries and prejudices.

The exhibition grows out of a legendary encounter between Schoenberg and the Russian-born painter Kandinsky (1866-1944) that began when Kandinsky and several of his fellow members of an artists’ circle that preceded the Blue Rider group of Gaugin-inspired abstractionists attended a concert of Schoenberg’s music on January 2, 1911, in Munich. So moved was Kandinsky — who was at just that moment looking to free visual art from formal strictures similar to those that Schoenberg was rebelling against in music — that he made two sketches of the concert that night (now in the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris) and used them to create one of his undisputed masterpieces, the oil painting “Impression III (Concert),” a linchpin of the world’s principal collection of works of the Blue Rider group at the Lenbachhaus in Munich seen in the United States for the first time in the Jewish Museum exhibit.

As importantly, two weeks later Kandinsky poured out his soul in a letter to Schoenberg. No novelist could have created the exchange of passions, fraternal affection and ultimately tragic misunderstanding — and, at least on Kandinsky’s side, longing and regret — that characterized the correspondence and brief friendship between these two men. Kandinsky saw Schoenberg as providing a parallel key in music to his own efforts in art. Schoenberg saw an opportunity in the increasingly prominent Kandinsky and his circle to exhibit his own searching visual self-portraits and “gazes” or “vision” pieces (on loan here in the main from the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, which held an exhibition in 2000 that inspired the exhibit at the Jewish Museum). Their correspondence and exchange of books, photographs, cards and sketches continued, sometimes daily, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Schoenberg returned to Vienna and joined the Austrian army. Kandinsky withdrew into Russia, where he remained until 1921, returning to Berlin then briefly before joining Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus in Weimar.

By then something had gone terribly wrong, and neither the scholars writing in the Jewish Museum catalogue nor Auner in his “Reader” can fully document exactly what it was. But it would appear that Schoenberg had heard through Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma — a woman who herself had very complex views about Jews, to say the least — that there were antisemitic tendencies being expressed at the Bauhaus, even by Kandinsky. When Kandinsky attempted to revive his friendship with Schoenberg — even, in April 1923, inviting Schoenberg to take over the music academy in Weimar — Schoenberg answered with not one but two blistering letters not only outlining his deep anger and concern that such a refined figure could have given himself over to anti-Jewish thoughts and expressions, but, in essence, summarizing and even prophesying an entire torrent of the European antisemitism — including “acts of violence” — that would erupt a decade hence.

Catching himself several times, Schoenberg stepped back from his tirade, proposing that perhaps there was not one Kandinsky but two: “I wanted to answer your letter because I wanted to show you that for me, even in his new guise, Kandinsky is still there; and that I have not lost the respect for him that I once had. And if you would take it on yourself to convey greetings from me to my former friend Kandinsky, I should very much wish to charge you with some of my very warmest, but I should not be able to help adding this message: ‘We have not seen each other for a long time and who knows whether we shall ever see each other again; if it should, however, turn out that we do meet again, it would be sad if we had to be blind to each other…’”

Thirteen years later, in July 1936, Kandinsky tried one last time to revive contact. Writing from his own safety in suburban Paris to Schoenberg in his California exile, Kandinsky recalled, “All our contemporaries from that time sigh deeply when they remember that vanished epoch [of the 1910s] and say, ‘That was a beautiful time.’… How wonderfully life pulsated then, what quick spiritual triumphs we expected.”

It would be a fool’s errand to try to make the case that Schoenberg the painter could rival or even approach Kandinsky in artistic ability or influence. But it would be similarly foolish to complain, as at least one prominent critic has, that the disparity of quality in the works on view diminishes this show in any regard. Kandinsky surely long ago earned his place in art history as both a painter and a guiding spirit of a well-loved movement, if one ultimately of secondary and even passing importance. Schoenberg’s place in history — as proven by the repertoire of any major orchestral or chamber group, the chronicles of European artistic development and the continuing tragedy and aftermath of the destruction of European Jewry — remains contentious, unnerving, vigorous, nagging and alive. As Allen Shawn’s accessible and heartfelt 2002 study “Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey” makes clear, Schoenberg never ceases to be reactionary and progressive, egomaniacal and a tragic solitary figure. We need not accept even a single one of his answers to recognize that in his questions — musical, philosophical, historical, cultural and psychological — he is ever our contemporary.

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