THE WORLD AROUND
The stories about Arnold Schönberg
in this chapter have come down to me first and foremost from my mother
who was the composers oldest child and for many years the person
closest to him. Other stories were told to me by my uncle Görgi,
Schönbergs beloved son, my father Felix
Greissle, the Maestros son-in-law, and my second-cousin
Zemlinsky, daughter of my great-uncle Alexander von Zemlinsky,
who was Schönbergs best friend and teacher as far back
as the 1890s.
These stories will, I hope,
help to shed light on my grandfather as an everyday person rather
than as a genius and brilliant composer. Schönbergs complex
nature, his aspirations and fears, and his love for and rejection
of tradition are almost proverbialhe
is often referred to as a "conservative revolutionary." But
behind it all, as we shall see, was a human being like the rest of
us, with as many faults
as virtues, indeed an individualist, even an egotist, who always
managed to have the last word in an argument and immediately took
a situation whenever and wherever he appeared on the scene. At
the same time, he was also kind and gentle, often to the point of
I Paint a Hand
in Mödling is situated in a quiet residential section with many
lush, well-kept gardens and immaculate sidewalks; their inlaid yellow
bricks hardly show a trace of wear, even though they date from the
turn of the last century, when Austria was still a huge empire stretching
across a goodly part of Europe. With its cone-shaped dome and tall,
narrow windows, the house looks like a small French chateau and indeed
reminds one of Chambord and Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley. On the
inside, though, it looks pretty much like any other middle-class residence
from the last decades of the Habsburg dynasty.
A wrought-iron fence with
thick hedges separates the house and a garden to the rear from the
street. In this garden are two ancient cherry trees that bear large,
juicy, pinkish-yellow fruit in July. There are also apple trees and
plum trees, and a sprawling lawn.
In 1974, when Arnold Schönberg
would have been a hundred years old, the house was on the point of
being sold to a developer, who wanted to demolish it, bulldoze the
garden, and put up a modern residential complex in their place, a
fate that had already befallen many a venerable building during the
sixties and seventies. And thus another bit of old Mödlingindeed,
of old Austria!would have vanished.
Walter Szmolian and Elisabeth Lafite, head of the International Schönberg
Society, came to the rescue, prevailing upon the Mödling civic
authorities to declare the house a landmark because Schönberg
had lived and worked there during perhaps the most important period
of his career (1918 to 1925). In this house, they pointed out, the
Maestro had composed major works like Erwartung, Die glückliche
Hand, and the Wind Quintet (which, I might add, he had dedicated
to me, his first-born grandchild). Further, not only had he taught
and performed there with his best-known pupils but it was also there
that he had invented the Twelve Tone System for musical composition,
as well as announced it to the world and vigorously defended it. Added
to that, all of the furniture in Schönberg's study, with the
exception of the piano, had been built by the Maestro himselftables,
chairs, his writing stand, and bookcases. Even the ashtrays were his
handiwork! Once these items were reassembled from Los Angeles and
other sources, the place would make an ideal museum and visiting place
for tourists, which indeed it is today.
house has come to have a special significance for me because Schönberg
lived there with his first familymy familynamely,
my grandmother Mathilde (née von Zemlinsky) and their two
mother and my uncle. Also, in this house my mother
met and married my father, and finally, as I have already
said, I was
born there, in a small room on the second floor.
My mother told me that in
those days the house was watched over by a large German shepherd named
who was inseparable from the family and traveled everywhere with them.
It seems that there was something very special about this Wulli. The
story goes that he would bite people, but only stupid onesthe
intelligent ones he left alone!
me describe an event that took place in this house at Bernhardgasse
in Mödling in 1922, the year
before my birth. Many people visited Schönberg during those
years, men and women who were to become famous the world over.
One especially frequent guest was Anton von Webern, who lived
only a few steps away in the Neusiedlerstrasse. Other composers
members of the Kreis (circle) also visited from time to
time, namely, Alban Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Ernst Krenek,
Rudolf Kolisch, Hanns Eisler, Max Deutsch, Erwin Ratz, and Josef
Polnauer. On one occasion, the house was the setting for a meeting
with Matthias Hauer, who had also invented an unconventional system
for musical composition. Also joining the Kreis from time
to time were other members of Viennas intelligentsia, like
Alma Mahler, writers Karl Kraus and Franz Werfel, architect Adolf
Loos, and photographer Lisette Model—all of them bent on
mingling with and learning from one another, as has been traditional
Austrian artists through the centuries.
The gatherings were always
lively and animated with everyone eating, drinking, but especially
talking and, frequently, quarreling, sometimes late into the night.
They all had concrete, well-defined opinions about everything imaginable,
especially about the arts. Whatever the subjectwhether music,
literature, art, medicine, architecture, politics, religion, philosophy,
or technologyit was of world-shaking importance, both for the
speaker and the listener. Those intellectual giants, especially the
men, did not speak quietly and on an even keel as folks normally do,
but rather forcefully, with enormous conviction, as if their pronouncements
were irrefutableuntil the other fellow raised his objection.
At the same time, they expressed their thoughts with unusual clarity
and quick-wittedness, ever on the ready with a bon mot or clever
turn of thought at the right moment.
A loud voice was the rule
of the day, and on the occasion of a difference of opinion, a shouting
match was not unheard of. But simple hotheadedness would not do: one
had to set forth ones arguments in a logical manner. If anyone
dared to utter something that was unproven or assumed, he was immediately
put in his place, briefly and succinctly with such exclamations as
"Wrong!" "Nonsense!" or "You're way behind the times!" Also forbidden
was small talk of any kind, which would have been censured in no uncertain
termsas would the trite and the commonplace.
My father was esteemed throughout
his life as a musicologist and conductor in Austria and later in America
as general editor of G. Schirmer and E. Marks, major music publishers.
If he had a fault, it was a tendency to be hard-nosed and somewhat
opinionated on occasion. It happens that he was also a skillful, conscientious
artist, having studied painting and drawing as a youngster before
World War I and having produced a fair number of traditional-looking
still lifes, landscapes, and portraits by the time of this story.
While he was rather adept in the use of colors and quite articulate
when it came to discussing the art of painting theoreticallyas
well someone should who had been trained in the best Viennese traditionhe
was far from happy about recent trends in European painting. Yes,
strange as it might seem, while Felix enthusiastically endorsed Schönberg's
Twelve Tone System for composing music, he felt ill at ease with such
contemporaneous movements in the fine arts as Expressionism, Jugendstil,
One day, the painter Oskar
Kokoschka joined the Kreis. Then in his mid-thirties,
he had studied at the Vienna Academy of Arts in the first decade of
the century, come under the influence of Art Nouveau, especially Gustav
Klimt, and then, like most other super-talents, proceeded
to chart his own course. It wasnt long before he came to the
attention of Adolf
Loos, who felt that he had discovered a true genius. Befriending
Kokoschka, Loos made the introductions to Schönberg and the others.
Kokoschka is best known today
for his somewhat unrealistic-looking portraits. His aim was not to
present viewers with a likeness of his subjectsany everyday
photographer could do thatbut to portray the inner man, his
essence, his psychological gestalt, his soul. Hence, a persons
eyes didn't have to be parallel to each other; a nose could look like
a dog's, and the ears could be very large or absent altogether. Kokoschkas
mode of painting was at that time just as unpopular with the general
public as Schönberg's "new music."
One day, my father encountered
Kokoschka at Bernhardgasse no. 6 in Mödling. Naturally, the two
of them began to discuss painting. My father, who as I said was a
good amateur painter of a traditional bent and had almost as extensive
a background in art as in music, wanted to know just what the purpose
was of the new-fangled tendencies that Kokoschka represented, what
this new school of painting Kokoschka was associated with was trying
to accomplish. To come right to the point, what was Kokoschka hoping
to convey with his drawings and paintings
of humans that were so untrue to life?
As always, when he got fired
up, Felix switched to the Viennese dialect. "Look, Herr Kokoschka,"
he said, "let me explain what happens when I paint somebody's
portrait. Let me tell you how I work."
Kokoschka looked at him expectantly,
probably trying to anticipate what was about to issue forth from this
musician who also painted.
see, Herr Kokoschka"and here Felix emphatically thumped his
chest with a finger "Wann ich eine Hand mal,
schauts aus wie a Hand!" (When I paint a
hand, it looks like a hand!).
In the spring of 1906, a young
artist named Richard
Gerstl approached Schönberg because he wanted to paint
his portrait. This fellow, an intelligent, handsome chap, had already
asked Mahler and been turned downprobably because Mahler was
too busy, but possibly also because he had fears for Alma. Schönberg
agreed to be painted and willingly extended a hand of friendship to
the young man.
Possibly he saw in Gerstl
a mirror image of himself in music. The young man had initially followed
the school of the Secessionists but had soon broken with it, to the
point of refusing to allow a painting of his to be exhibited in one
of their group shows because it would have appeared side by side with
several by Klimt,
whose work he had grown to detest. By the time of his meeting with
Schönberg, Gerstl had developed new, impressionist techniques
involving a luxurious use of color and a special interest in Fleckenmalerei
(pointillism). Being highly argumentative, often to the point of outright
aggression, he had no friends in the world of art and was very much
alone, in fact was shunned by other artists.
Schönberg and his family
were at that time residing in an apartment at Liechtensteinstrasse
70 in Viennas Ninth District. Gerstls studio,
in which he lived, was only a short distance away at Liechtensteinstrasse
portrait of Schönberg, which has
become particularly important for providing a personalized glimpse
of him at that time of life, was only a beginning. He went on to paint
the family, and he did so over and over again. There were portraits
some of these with my
mother, who was then four or five years old, and one of
whole Schönberg family.
During this period of intense
activity, Gerstl and Schönberg engaged in lengthy discussions
on a variety of subjects, especially music and painting. Gerstl began
frequenting the Schönberg household as if he were a member of
the family, and soon the two men were walking, talking, and eating
together almost on a daily basis. Schönberg became intrigued
by the idea of painting, especially as Gerstl represented it, and
soon wanted to become a painter himself. And what Schönberg wanted
to do, he always did. Learning quickly from the young man, he became
convinced that if he applied himself, he, the great musician, would
most certainly become an equally outstanding artist with brush and
paint on canvas.
It wasnt long before
Gerstl began meeting Schönbergs friends and followers and
painting some of their portraits.
The importance of Gerstls acceptance into the Kreis can
hardly be exaggerated. It gave him a new lease on life; at last he,
the loner, felt respected, accepted, and even appreciated by some
of the great minds of the day.
Unfortunately, the friendship
between Schönberg and Gerstl was to come to a tragic end. In
the summer of 1907my
mother was five years old at the timeSchönberg
decided to return to the eastern shore of Lake Traunsee in the Salzkammergut,
where he and the family and friends had vacationed in 1905, and invited
Gerstl to come along. The Schönbergs stayed at the Engelgut at
Traunstein no. 22 and Gerstl at a nearby millers house, the
Feramühle, at no. 18. A narrow path, about a quarter mile in
length, connected the two houses.
In July 1908, the entourage
returned to the same area, and this time Schönberg and family
stayed at the Haus Maria Ziegler (no. 24), while Gerstl lodged
no. 22 (where the Schönbergs had stayed the year before). Among
those in the party that year were Anton
von Webern and Schönbergs pupils Heinrich
Jalowetz and Viktor
Krüger, who were quartered at other nearby places
along the shore.
Gerstl, it should be noted,
paid his own way on both of these trips. While he had practically
no income from his paintings, his father, who was well-to-do, had
been helping out and thus making it possible for Gerstl to pursue
his art full time. In the summer of 1907, however, it is possible
that he paid for his room by painting a portrait of the miller.
Sometime in the early part
of that year and perhaps as late as that summer, Gerstl and Mathilde
had begun having an affair. It is important to realize that Gerstl
was in his early twenties and thus in the full bloom of manhood; Schönberg,
by comparison, while highly intelligent, was not particularly attractive,
being somewhat plump and short and prematurely bald. Added to this,
Mathilde had just turned thirty, a dangerous age for a woman. Her
marriage to Schönberg had not been very happy. He made all the
decisions; she silently acquiesced. He was constantly occupied with
something; underneath she must have been full of indignation at his
having so little time for her and resentful about the lack of romantic
content in her life. Still, the rapprochement with Gerstl could not
have happened easily, as she was a quiet, unobtrusive woman who much
preferred to be left alone and he, because of his introverted, combative
ways, was not exactly a womans man. The two of them must each
have recognized these traits in the other and so felt encouraged to
fill the others void. The result: the wrong romance under the
Some people believe that Schönberg
had surmised what was going on, and theres a rumor that on that
one day in August 1908 at the Traunsee, he actually walked in on them.
It has also been bruited about that he once told Gerstl that he was
aware that something was afoot, and then with perfect composure added,
"Zwei solche wie wir sollten sich nicht wegen einer Frau entzweien"
(Two men like us shouldnt let anything like a woman come between
us). Certainly, Schönberg must at least have had his suspicions,
because at one time little Trudi reported to him that she had observed
Gerstl kissing her mama ("Dieser Herr küsst die Mama").
Be that as it may, after their affair was discovered, Mathilde and
Gerstl picked up and left for Gmunden, then Vienna, together.
Arnold realized that Mathilde
was gone when he found both children alone in their beds. Trudi woke,
felt that something was wrong, and began to cry. "Dont
worry," he tried to reassure her, "shell be back soon."
But little Trudi looked at him and said, as if to correct her father,
"Nein, Papa, die Mama kommt nicht mehr!" (No, Papa, Mommy is
never coming back).
Schönberg took the train
back to Vienna with Webern and the children. He was in terrible shape
because of the breach of faith, and it is said that for a time he
considered suicide. Some days later, Webern went as peacemaker to
Gerstls studio and there found the two of them together. He
persuaded Mathilde to return to Schönberg for the childrens
sake; Schönberg generously agreed to take her back after she
asked him to forgive her and gave her word that she would never return
to Gerstl. From that day forward, Gerstls name was seldom even
mentioned in the family. I remember that when my parents occasionally
referred to "der Gerstl," it was always with an air of secrecy,
a subject that was quickly passed over.
The person who turned out
to be the biggest loser in the triangle was Gerstl himself. Not only
had he lost Mathilde but, far worse, Schönberg never forgave
him for betraying his friendship, and he was immediately excluded
from the Kreis. Once again he was all alone, shunned, despised,
and excluded from the contact with his fellow artists that had been
so important to him.
Nor did Gerstl apparently
understand fully the gravity of his transgressionat least
not at once. One day there was a private concert and gathering
from the Schönberg Kreis, to which Gerstl did not receive
an invitation. A day or two before the event Gerstl encountered
former friend in the street. When he asked him why he wasnt
invited, the friend replied simply, "Forget it, Richard!" and
On November 5, 1908, the day
after the concert, Gerstl was found dead in his studio. There was
a rope around his neck, and a rusty kitchen knife protruded from his
chest. He had destroyed most of the paintings he kept there as well
as numerous letters and notes, leaving little for future biographers
to refer to.
There is an interesting epilogue
to this story, which shows the psychological impact on Schönberg of
betrayal. Even though he loved the Traunsee, Schönberg
did not return there for many years after that fateful summer of
1908, and when he and Mathilde finally did, in 1921, he avoided
shore and stayed at the Villa Roner (today the Villa Spaun) in Traunkirchen
on the lakes western shore. It was there in Traunkirchen,
in September 1923, that Schönberg was photographed with his
first grandchild, the newborn Bubi Arnold, who is now in his eighties
and the Number Thirteen
In some parts of the world,
like Italy and Spain, thirteen is a lucky number; in Latin America,
many young girls as well as older women and men go so far as to wear
a gold or platinum "13" on a necklace, rings, or other pieces of jewelry.
However, in English- and German-speaking countries, the number thirteen
is generally regarded as unlucky. In America, for instance, many buildings
do not have a thirteenth floor; elevators go straight from the twelfth
to the fourteenth. Along many highways, there is no Exit 13, and 13
as a house number is rarely to be seen.
Members of the Schönberg
family have always taken this superstition and many others very seriously,
often allowing their daily lives to be governed by such taboos. For
instance, my mother, an otherwise an intelligent, enlightened woman,
simply remained at home on the thirteenth day of the month, and doing
anything of any consequence on Friday the 13th was to be avoided at
all costs. Her rule for lighting cigarettes was only two to a match,
never three. A broken mirror inevitably brought with it seven years
of bad luck. A black cat crossing ones path in the street or
even in the hall constituted a valid reason for turning around and
going straight home again. The same held true for a black horse, whereas
if the horse encountered were white, it was a good omen and provided
an incentive for undertaking a special venture that one would ordinarily
not have attempted.
Felix, my father, on the other
hand, was the soul of rational thinking and totally opposed to superstitions
of any kind. He was always nagging at my mother to listen to reason
and seeking to prove to her that there was nothing to the "signs"
and "portents." But all of his efforts were to no avail
and elicited only consternation and complaints from Trudi.
One day, he decided to go
a little further to prove his point. In our apartment in Mödling
was a small room for a servant, which in the lean years of the Thirties
stood empty except for its use occasionally by an overnight guest.
This room was sparsely furnished, with only a bed, a desk, a small
chest, and a chair. Its whitewashed walls were bare, without even
a single picture; there was but one small window. One day Papa went
to this room with his paint box, some old rags, and a ladder and spent
the whole day there; no one was allowed to enter. Inside we heard
him rumbling around, moving the ladder to and fro, and muttering to
himself the way creative artists do. Now and then when he left the
room, to have lunch for example, he carefully locked the door behind
him, only to shut himself in again on his return.
In the evening, Papa came
out, double-locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and went to
the bathroom to wash his hands. At dinner my brother and I tried to
find out what he was up to in the little room, but he answered simply
that he was working on a painting without giving any indication as
to what, and why. Early the next morning, he locked himself in again
and remained busy with his mysterious task all day long.
Finally, after working the
better part of that day, Papa was finished with the job and ready
to let us in on the secret. After carefully washing his brushes and
himself in the bathroom, he led us children and Mama to the door,
ceremoniously unlocked it, and swinging it wide with a flourish, bid
us go in.
At first the room looked the
way it always had, with its few sticks of furniture standing exactly
where they had been. Bed, chest, desk, nothing seemed to have changed.
But then suddenly something made us turn toward the wall opposite
the window. My brother and I stared, shaken to the marrow of our bones.
Mama gasped and let out a little shriek.
What greeted our eyes was
a larger-than-life male figure stretching from the floor to the ceiling.
The thing had a tail; a long, red tongue protruded from his mouth;
and two little horns peeked up from either side of his head, like
a goat's. Also, while its right foot was that of a human, its left
was a horse's hoof. In short, it was clear to see that this thing
staring down at us was the Devil. For two days my father had labored
long and hard on this work with his brush, and verily, it was a true
Theres a proverb in
German: "Man soll den Teufel nicht an die Wand malen" (Dont
paint the devil on the wall), meaning "don't tempt fate, leave well
enough alone." So, naturally, my mother was very upset. It was
a terrible thing for Felix to do, even if hed wanted to prove
a point. Finally, though, she felt ashamed. An intelligent, enlightened
woman like herself shouldn't take matters like this so seriously,
she thought. And so she decided to laugh it off and not let such a
trivial matter bother herthat is, until a few weeks later, when
it suddenly occurred to her that the apartment needed a paint job.
Yes, the whole place got a fresh coat of paint, and in the process,
the portrait of the Evil One was completely covered over with himmelblau
My mother came by her superstitious
nature via Schönberg, her father, who especially lived in absolute
terror of the number thirteen. The reason for this very likely stems
from a seemingly trivial occurrence in his youth. One day, so the
story has come down to me, he was on his way to an office in Vienna.
To get there, he had to cover a considerable distance on foot. As
he was walking along on a side street, an old woman appeared around
a corner and came directly toward him. Suddenly, she stopped dead
in her tracks, blocking his path, so that he, too, had to come to
a halt. The woman was positively ancient, and ugly besides, with only
a few teeth in her mouth and her face heavily wrinkled. Added to that,
she was dressed in rags.
Coming up close to Schönberg,
she grabbed him by the sleeve, dug her fingers into his arm, and looked
deeply into his eyes. "You'll have a hard life, young man," she
said in a crackling voice. "The number thirteen means bad luck
for you. Beware, especially, of June 13th and July 13th." Whereupon,
without another word or asking for money, she released his arm and
went on her way.
A fear of the number thirteen
haunted Schönberg for the rest of his life. Needless to say,
he avoided the thirteenth day of the month like the plague; he would
never buy the thirteenth ticket to a concert or the theater or sit
in the thirteenth row. Whenever he had to prepare a list and there
were more than twelve items on it, he replaced the number 13 with
12a. In that way, the sequence was not disturbed and the portentous
number was avoided.
And then, most important,
in composing music, he always seemed to get bogged down on page 13.
On one occasion, to get around this, he began notating a score with
page 3, but wouldnt you know it, when he reached page 15, he
was fresh out of ideas. So he wrote, to his brother-in-law Alexander
von Zemlinsky, in a letter of 1917. And, Schönberg added, in
the future he would compose very rapidly through page 15 so as to
gather sufficient momentum to speed past the disastrous influence
of the thirteenth page.
When it came to the title
of his opera Moses und Aron, Schönberg was well aware,
of course, that the name of Moses brother is written with a
double A, and that was how he spelled it in the title originally.
But then he counted the letters and, lo, there were thirteen of themMOSES
UND AARONwhich could not be; something had to be done. He considered
using another title but finally decided to remove one of the A's from
"Aaron," which would change only the spelling, not the pronunciation,
and result in a title of twelve letters, a favorable omen.
As a footnote to this story,
during his last year, when Schönberg was aware that he had only
a little time left, he frequently used the spelling "Aaron"
when answering letters regarding the opera on his little typewriter.
Only in 1996 did I learn from his pupil and assistant Richard Hoffmann
that he was dictating his correspondence to Hoffmann, who in typing
rendered the name with its conventional spelling.
Everyone in the Kreis was
only too well aware of the Maestro's phobias. And so, in 1923, when
he proclaimed his revolutionary new system for composing music, one
of his "apostles," who was not quite convinced that it was
such a good idea (and who shall go nameless), privately joked that
it was probably going to be thirteen tones, but the Maestro made it
into twelve because of his superstition.
Schönberg, it should
be noted, was born on September 13th, 1874. Richard Hoffmann told
me that on his deathbed,
the Maestro was aware of the date and tried to make it through to
the next day, but to no avail. He passed away a few minutes before
midnight on July 13, 1951, a Friday no lessjust as that old
crone hed encountered on a deserted Vienna side-street seemed
to predict all those years ago.
Sells His Pictures
One day in 1937, I came home
from school at the Mödling Gymnasium very upset. I had suddenly
realized that through my own fault I had fallen way behind everyone
else in my class in all of my subjects. For literature, I was supposed
to learn half of Schillers "Lied von der Glocke" by
heart but knew only a few of its hundreds of lines. For Latin, I had
to do a very difficult translation and hadnt even begun. In
the readings for Natural History, Chemistry, and Geography, I was
behind by two or three chapters. In Math, I was in a total fog. There
was homework pending as well for Physics, English, History, and Geometry,
and even for my favorite subject, Shorthand, I had an enormous assignment
to get through. The load was staggering, and I had no idea how I was
ever going to finish that much work.
mother noticed how troubled I was, and
looking at my assignment book, agreed that I had a problem. Then she
told me how her papa, Schönberg, did things and advised that
I follow his example: "He simply begins on something and doesnt
stop until its done. If one does that and works constantly,
without letup, theres nothing one cannot accomplish."
I followed my mothers
suggestion. I began one task and kept at it until it was done, and
then went on to the next, and the next, and the next, without taking
time out for anything, just to eat and sleepand at night I slept
like a log. After a week, mirabilis mirabile, everything was done.
I was even able to recite the first six stanzas of the Schiller without
What I had done for one week
my grandfather Arnold Schönberg practiced all his life long.
When not composing, he was writing letters or doing handcrafts or
teaching or drawing up an outline for some new project. His efforts
were interrupted only by activities that were necessary to sustain
life, such as his meals, walking from one place to another, and sleep.
Even during vacations, he was always at work on something. The word
leisure simply did not exist in his vocabulary.
Besides composing, he was
a master of handcrafts; he built, stained, and finished attractive,
sturdy furnituretables, chairs, bookcasessome of which
are still in use today. He bound
his own books, tastefully and durably, in linen, leather,
or cardboard. He crafted decks of playing
cards, designing the figures for each and painting them
in highly original color combinations. He invented new board games,
among them a chess
set for four players with a board consisting of one hundred
fields instead of the traditional sixty-four. For this, he devised
new chessmen with novel ways of moving, and carved and painted the
In the days before World War
II, people were still writing with steel penpoints fitted into wooden
holders. The pen point had to be dipped into an inkwell every few
strokes, and the ink in the well had to be at a certain level. If
it was too low, the writer would have to dip his pen in very frequently
and the letters would look scratchy or possibly become illegible.
If the ink was too high, the pen would pick up too much of it and
the result could be stains and blots. My grandfather invented an inkwell
in which the ink would always be at the right level, without having
to be refilled constantly. If the ballpoint pen hadnt appeared
on the scene in the early Forties, his inkwell might well have swept
Another invention of his was
a writing device for making five parallel lines at the same time so
that he could create instant musical notepaper. It consisted of a
penholder with five pencils attached to it, and all one had to do
was drag it in a single motion across the page, using a ruler as a
One of my grandfathers
earliest pieces of craftsmanship was a cello dating from 1895, which
he put together with strings from an old Austrian zither that he dismantled
because he did not have enough money to buy a regular cello. He brought
this home-made instrument with him to the Viennese music society Polyhymnia,
but while immediately recognizing the talent of the maker, the conductor
just as quickly saw the flaws in the instrument and went with my grandfather
to buy a regular, though second-hand, cello. The conductor, by the
way, was none other than Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose sister, Mathilde,
my grandfather was to marry a few years later.
After the turn of the century,
Schönberg began to paint. As I said earlier, he started in 1906,
with guidance from Richard Gerstl, who was his only teacher. After
the friendship with Gerstl ended, he continued on his own, turning
out literally hundreds of paintings and drawings within a few years.
This doesnt mean that he abandoned composing or teaching or
writing about music, or that he conducted less or fought less vehemently
to get his works performed. He simply wanted to paint as well, and
incredibly he somehow found the time to do so; I would almost say
that he "invented" the time to paint.
Among his works were portraits
of family members, friends, and admirers, as well as caricatures,
set designs, and still lifes. But above all, as we have seen, there
were self-portraits, so many that he probably holds the all-time record
for the number of them that he executed. There is no doubt that he
was a talented painter, especially when it came to color, but a Rembrandt
he was not, nor even a Kokoschka. Lets face it, today his pictures
are of interest primarily because they were painted by him, the controversial
composer whom many believe to have been among the musical greats.
It so happens that during
the period when he was painting, he was in serious financial difficulties.
He had to provide for his
children, Trudi and Görgi, who were then only eight
and four, and of course for his wife Mathilde. Very little cash was
coming in from his students, to many of whom he gave lessons for free
because they could not pay for them. Certainly, he received next to
nothing for his musical compositions.
The situation worsened from
day to day with debts beginning to pile up, until finally one day
in 1910, he realized that some drastic measures had to be taken and
sounded out various friends. Someone suggested that he should try
selling his paintings, and with the help of some admirers, he managed
to put together a one-man show in the Heller Galleries, one of Viennas
leading exhibitors. It was made clear to one and all that this was
a move born of utter desperationSchönberg needed money
desperately not only to support his family but also to continue his
work. Out of consideration, Hugo
Heller, owner of the gallery, had agreed to accept a commission
of only 20 percent.
The Exhibition, which opened
in October, included quite a few self-portraits;
portraits of Mathilde
and the children, Mahler,
Berg, and Erwartung librettist Marie
Critic; and so on, about fifty paintings in all. The
event was enlivened by the performance of several of Schönbergs
Amazingly, most of the paintings
were sold almost at once, and the proceeds turned out to be enough
to keep the proverbial wolf from the door for quite some time to come;
in fact, the sum exceeded Schönbergs wildest expectations.
Who had purchased them was anybodys guess, but it really didnt
A year or so later, Schönberg
received a letter from his friend Anton von Webern. There were some
special circumstances connected with the sale of the paintings that
Webern was aware of and wanted to unburden himself of at this time.
Webern had initially promised that he wouldnt tell a soul about
it and had kept his word until now. However, the person concerned
had recently died, and now Webern was free to speak; indeed, he felt
obliged to do so. And what was the secret? All of the paintings had
been purchased by a single individual, none other than Gustav
I should add here as a postscript
that, as already alluded to in the previous chapter, my brother
Schönbergs second grandson, seems to have inherited the
Maestros penchant for the canvas as well as his love for making
things with his hands, such as constructing furniture, building a
staircase, or laying a new floor. As a young painter, studying in
Mexico, Hermann did some splendid representations of native Indians
and a large number of still lifes, and he also delved into cubism
and surrealism. His greatest strength, however, was his woodcuts
book illustrations, an example of which can be found among the links
to Chapter One.
Zemlinsky, and Mahler
One lovely summer day in the
late 1890s, two
young men were taking a walk through one of Viennas
better districts. The older of the two was shorter and had a thin,
pale face with a high forehead but almost no chin at all. What was
not lacking in either size or prominence was the fellows long,
pointed nose. His head was crowned with a mop of bushy black hair.
Indeed, his only attractive feature would have been his large eyes,
that is, if they hadnt peered out from between his reddish,
slightly swollen eyelids with just a trace of lashes. The young man
was Alexander von Zemlinsky.
His companion was taller and
chubbier, and although barely twenty, he already had a shiny bald
head. Even so, his features were more pleasing to the eye than were
young Zemlinskys, and while he, too, was no great beauty, he
certainly was better looking. This was Arnold Schönberg.
Engaged in an animated conversation,
the two young men were speaking in loud voices almost as if they were
in the midst of a quarrel. They waved their arms wildly about, rolled
their eyes, and shook with excitement. From time to time, one of them
would stop and turn to face the other in order to lay particular emphasis
on what he was expounding. However, nothing extraordinary was going
on; that was simply the way the two of them always carried on when
discussing their favorite and, in fact, only topic, music. Nor did
the conversation lag for a single moment; they each had a lot to say.
Schönberg was an ardent
"Brahmsian" at the time, while Zemlinsky leaned toward Wagner.
But of course Schönberg still had a lot to learn, especially
where composition was concerned, and for him, Zemlinsky was not only
a friend but also his teacher, albeit serving without pay. As mentioned
earlier, both were in the Polyhymnia music society, Schönberg
as cellist, Zemlinsky as conductor. Yes, there was much to talk about....
Suddenly Schönberg stood
stock still in the middle of the sidewalk and hissed to Zemlinsky:
"Sh-sh-sh! Be quiet!" They were in front of a three-story
building from whose upper windows the sounds of a piano were coming.
The two young men stood there transfixed, listening to a sad, lilting
melody. After a few minutes, the street door opened and a woman
out. Schönberg asked her who was playing that lovely music. "Oh,
thats Herr Mahler," she replied. "He wrote it himself."
The next moment the piano
was silent. The two young men stepped timidly into the vestibule and,
with hearts pounding, went up the stairs and knocked on the composers
door. An elderly woman opened and bid them come in. In hushed voices,
they inquired if perhaps the Maestro might spare them a few minutes.
Whereupon she called into the next room, "Gustl, two gentlemen
are here who would like to speak with you!" But alas, Mahler
had to leave at once for an appointment and with a brief nod, hurried
past the humble petitioners....
The first meeting between
Mahler and Schönberg occurred a few years later, in 1899, at
the final rehearsal for the premiere of the Verklärte Nacht sextet. Sometime before this, Zemlinsky had met Mahler
Rosé, leader of the Rosé Quartet, an ensemble
dedicated to performing works by new composers. When Rosé agreed
to perform the Verklärte Nacht, Zemlinsky invited Mahler
to that last rehearsal. Schönberg was then an ardent admirer
of Johannes Brahms, whose musical style was a far cry from Mahlers;
still, he was very much aware of Mahlers particular genius.
Mahler, on the other hand, did not have a high regard for Schönbergs
music then. Only with time did their understanding grow, culminating
after some years in the most enthusiastic mutual admiration.
acquaintance with Mahler was to bring about a sad turn of events.
In the late 1890s, Zemlinsky had a student who was not only a talented
musician but also an exceptionally attractive young lady whose name
Schindler. Little by little, while teaching her, he
fell madly in love and finally proposed to her. If the truth be
Schindler was not nearly as excited about him as he about her; still,
for a time she did not reject his proposal. Somehow Alma then
to meet Mahler, and from that moment on, poor Zemlinsky never had
a chance. Alma felt herself immediately and overwhelmingly attracted
to Mahler; the two became inseparable and were married in 1902.
No question about it, Alma
really was most unkind to Zemlinsky, who after all had been her teacher.
When she decided to get rid of him, she began bad-mouthing him to
her friends; all too often she referred to him as "dieser
hässliche, kinnlose, ungewaschene Gnom" (that ugly,
chinless, unwashed gnome), and it got back to the poor man. Those
unkind words of Almas accompanied him all of his life. Everywhere
he went, people called him an ugly dwarf behind his back. Even his
dear friend and brother-in-law Schönberg, when irritated with
him for some reason, referred to him as the Gartenzwerg (twerp).
As a child, I heard similar references to Uncle Alex from the mouth
of my mother, who normally was not given to using offensive language
like that about people.
Zemlinsky never recovered
from Almas rejection and the insults, and behaved like a beaten
man for the rest of his life. Again and again in his operas and lieder,
ugly dwarves are paired with beautiful princesses, and there is much
deception and unhappiness in love. I believe that Zemlinskys
frequent recourse to these themes reflects, at least in part, the
wounds that the evil tongue of Alma Mahler had inflicted. As if that
were not bad enough, Zemlinsky did not meet with any success as a
composer in his lifetime, and in fact, it is only now, sixty years
after his death, that the musical achievements of my great-uncle Alex
are finally being recognized.
Theres a little story
that goes back to the days of Zemlinskys deepest despair. It
originated with Olga
Novakovic, a member of Schönbergs Kreis,
and then made the rounds of Viennas music circles.
One day Olga got on a trolley
in Vienna, took a seat in the rear of the car, and began to read a
book. Suddenly her attention was arrested by someone whistling a tune
several rows in front of her. Since Olga was a musician, she listened
to the whistler with curiosity, and gradually the curiosity turned
to interest. The tune was quite lovely and complicated in a pleasing
way—in fact, ingenious; in other words, it didnt sound
like a popular one but clearly belonged to the realm of serious music.
Olga craned her neck to look
for this talented whistler. It was a man, and somehow from behind,
his head looked familiar. So she got up and approached him, and now
standing beside him, she recognized Zemlinsky, who left off with his
"Grüss Gott, Herr
Alex," she greeted him. "My, but youre in a happy
mood today. And what is that lovely melody youre whistling?"
"Oh, thats an aria
from one of my operas," Zemlinsky answered. "No one performs
my music anymore, soIch pfeif sie auf dem letzten Loch,
sozusagen (Im whistling it with my last gasp, so to speak).
But of course, if you liked it," he added, "then I really
didnt whistle it in vain."
In 1903, after Schönberg
moved from Berlin to the small apartment at Liechtenstein Strasse
70 in Alsergrund, Viennas Ninth Bezirk, he began having
a lot of trouble with bells. The district was a residential area,
and so there were many churches, and bells were to be heard sounding
from one belfry or another every quarter houras indeed is
still the case today.
For most people, bells are
a calming sound that conveys a sense of familiarity, of home, but
for Schönberg, though he had nothing against churches and was
a God-fearing man, they were a nuisance, constantly drowning out the
new music he heard in his head and was trying to write down. One day
he began complaining about this problem at a musical gathering, and
Mahler, who happened to be present, couldnt resist making a
sarcastic remark: "Machen Sie sich nichts draus, Herr Schönberg.
Nehmen Sie die Glocken einfach in Ihre nächste Symphonie!"
(Dont worry, Mr. Schönberg, just bring the bells into your
Some time later, at another
such gathering, Schönberg had a chance to get back at Mahler.
It happens that Mahler spent his summers in the Austrian Salzkammergut,
where he loved to compose. Of course, there were always many birds
in the neighborhood. As is well known, some species of birds like
to chime in when they hear the sound of music, and this Mahler found
rather unnerving. When he complained about it, Schönberg, who
was never at a loss for words, snapped back, "Aber, mein lieber
Mahler, das Zwitschern kann Ihnen doch behilflich sein um Ihre nächste
Symphonie ein bißchen aufzumuntern" (Well, my dear Mahler,
perhaps the twittering will help you liven up your next symphony a
One day in 1910, an article
by the painter Max Oppenheimer appeared in the Viennese press in
which he described how he had worked on his portrait of Arnold
and then he went on to speak of a concert he had attended that featured
the Maestros music. First came a short symphony, which the audience
received with profound displeasure. "Aufhören! Gemeinheit!
Ist das Musik? Tauber Esel! Schluß mit den Kakophonien! Schwindel!
Humbug! Aus! Raus!" they yelled. (Stop it! A lot of cheek!
Is this supposed to be music? Deaf ass! No more cacophonies! Fraud!
Finished! Out!) Then came a selection from the Gurrelieder.
When it was finished, everyone began to applaud—gradually at
first, but then it swelled into a regular ovation. Schönberg
stood there, flabbergasted, as if he couldnt believe his ears.
But then, pushing his shoulder forward as he had done that morning
while being painted, as if resisting an onslaught from the world,
he said with an air of resignation, "Hörts, die klatschen.
I glaub es is doch schlecht!" (Well, how do you like
that? Theyre applauding! Perhaps the piece is no good after
for the Viennese concert-going public was not genuine, however. Actually,
he was enormously grateful whenever that public showed even a glimmering
of understanding, for in his eyes it meant that they might in time
grow to like all of his music. The fact that he used the Viennese
dialect in his remark rather than his usual Hochdeutsch (i.e.,
high or standard German) shows his relief and at the same time his
pleasure. I believe Im reading this correctly because my mother,
Trudi, would also break into dialect whenever anything touched her
Usually, though, in those
early days, Viennese audiences pretty much rejected Schönbergs
new music outright and gave a somewhat cool reception to works by
Berg and Webern as well. It is to Mahlers credit that he stood
up for them and other controversial "new" composers again
and again, even though his own idiom was more traditional.
A good case in point is what
happened at the Bösendorfer
Concert Hall one evening when a work of Schönbergs
was performed and the greater part of the audience began whistling,
booing, and shouting invectives. Mahler and some friends nearby countered
by applauding as loudly as they could. Suddenly, Mahler became aware
of a man sitting behind him who was hissing noisily. Turning around,
Mahler shouted at the hisser: "Sie dürfen nicht zischen
wenn ich klatsche!" (How dare you hiss when Im applauding!).
The man was quick to respond: "Beruhigen Sie sich, Herr Mahler,
ich zische auch bei Ihren beschissenen Symphonien!" (Dont
worry, Herr Mahler, I also hiss at your shitty symphonies!)
Mahler, it should be remembered,
was rather on the frail side and not in the best of health, but next
to him sat his friend Josef
Polnauer, who while not a musician at the time, was an
enthusiastic supporter of the "new music" and a giant of
a man. As soon as Polnauer heard what the hisser said, he jumped up,
whirled round, and socked the fellow in the jaw. Stunned for a moment,
the man ran out of the hall but then returned minutes later, brandishing
a knife—which he thrust into Polnauers left cheek! The
result was a huge scar that Polnauer carried—indeed, proudly
carried—to the end of his days.
I remember it vividly—a
deep cleft in his fleshy pink face—from a visit that my father
and I (as a boy) paid him in Vienna in 1935. I also remember his huge,
plump hands; it must have been no pleasure being bashed in the face
with something like that. No wonder applauders liked to sit somewhere
near Josef Polnauer at those early performances of the new music.
But the man was no ruffian.
He simply loved music above all else. In fact, he was so intensely
interested in "new" music and later in composition according
to the Twelve Tone System that Schönberg accepted him as a student
even though he had no prior musical training. And once in the Kreis,
he learned quickly.
Polnauer was an official with
the Austrian Federal Railways. I visited him again in Vienna with
my Uncle Görgi in 1962, on one of my frequent trips back to Austria.
By then he was wearing glasses with heavy lenses, and behind them
his eyes looked like those of a fish peering out from its glass tank.
The scar decorated his fleshy pink cheek, unchanged by the years.
Polnauer was a Jew and, like
so many others, lost his job after the Anschluss. He remained
in Vienna during the war and was able to survive, so he told me, thanks
to his English teacher, who hid him in her home and provided sustenance
for him with the help of Erwin
Ratz, another member of the Kreis, who was a baker
and restauranteur. After the war, Polnauer got his job back with the
Austrian railroad and married the lady who had hidden him, with whom
he lived happily ever after. Following his retirement from the Austrian
Railways, he became a highly respected instructor of music theory,
even though he had no formal training or certificate from a music
No doubt about it, Schönberg
was endowed with what Americans so colorfully refer to as the gift
of gab. He always had the right word ready at the right time for any
situation, especially when it came to criticizing someone and, yes,
often to putting a person down. He was particularly venomous with
respect to composers he didnt approve of, and besides being
well put, his quips were often cruelly unerring.
One of his bêtes noires
was a Viennese composer named Robert Fuchs, functioned during
the early years of the twentieth century. This Fuchs, who is all
but forgotten now, wrote music in a traditional style that was
in Austria at the time of Emperor Franz Joseph. Not only were his
works frequently performed but he was welcome at court and on occasion
was heaped with honors. Fuchs was a professed admirer of Brahms,
for reasons best known to himself, Brahms esteemed him enough as
a composer to recommend him for a position at the Academy, where
then taught composition until 1912. That same period, the first decade
of the century, was, as I have already mentioned, one of the worst
for Schönberg both in terms of the reception of his new works
by the concert-going public and the press, and his financial woes.
While suffering profoundly
from the constant battery of rejection, Schönberg kept it all
to himself and went on writing, performing, and conducting. His true
feelings are perhaps best expressed in the painting entitled The
Critic, the portrait of an utterly heartless, diabolical creature.
However, when a mediocrity like Robert Fuchs, whose works he described
as "Musike" (musical dabblings), was universally
honored and celebrated, Schönberg was beside himself with anger.
On one occasion, when a newly composed symphony by Fuchs received
a standing ovation, Schönberg vented his extreme displeasure
by making up this parody of the Austrian folk song about the foxs
(Fuchs) theft of the goose (Gans) and singing it to
one and all: "Fuchs, die hast du ganz gestohlen; gib sie wieder
her, sonst wird dich der Jäger holen, mit dem Schiessgewehr"
(Fuchs, youve stolen this one in its entirety; now give it back
or the hunter will get you with his gun).
Another bête noire
Stravinsky, whom Schönberg knew but heartily disliked.
As he saw it, Stravinsky was presumptuous and arrogant. Schönberg
particularly made light of his sporting a pigtail in imitation
Bach, which was indeed ridiculous. "Ja wer tommerlt denn da?"
Schönberg would lisp like a little boy. "Lookee here whos
coming! Had the barberman make him a piggy tail just like Papa Bach."
Closer to the heart of the matter, Stravinsky had sold out artistically
by choosing an easy middle road between traditional music and the
new wave—and this earned him the arresting Schönbergian
of Fuchs and Stravinsky were by and large more playful than malicious
and involved an exercise of wit that, in its brilliance, is surely
reminiscent of Mozart. However, there were other occasions like the
following, when he was totally wrong and quite obtuse, to say nothing
of downright arrogant. The scene is the quiet Brentwood suburb of
Los Angeles, and I got the story from one of the pupils of composer
had never needed a car, so he had never learned how to drive. But
once settled in suburban California, he realized that he was now living
in automobile country. If a person didnt have a car here, he
couldnt go shopping, couldnt visit people, and couldnt
get to work. For all practical purposes, he was a prisoner in his
own home. There was almost no one who didnt have some kind
of engine-propelled four-wheeled vehicle no matter how modest it
be. Ergo, he absolutely had to lay his hands on one by hook or by
No sooner said than done.
Schönberg went and bought himself a used
car with a stick shift—the only thing in those days—and
a manual for new drivers. Every morning, for as long as it took to
go through the book, he sat in the drivers seat painstakingly
locating the various essential parts and reviewing the instructions
for using them. One day, after he had covered everything to his satisfaction,
he put the key in the ignition, gave it a flick, and hit the starter—so
far so good. He then devoted a number of sessions to shifting the
gears, which he found a little tricky to coordinate with stepping
on the clutch. But happily he soon realized that it was no more difficult
than fingering the strings and drawing the bow across them on a violin
After some days, he finally
felt ready to go for a trial spin, understandably, at five in the
morning. Around the block he drove and came right back, and everything
was just fine except for one thing: the motor stalled out every time
he turned a corner. Time and again he had to slam on the brakes to
avoid an accident.
At first, Schönberg attributed
this to his ineptitude, but when the same thing continued to happen
on succeeding days, as his expertise increased and confidence grew,
he surmised that the problem lay elsewhere. It seems that the corners
were at right angles, requiring a driver to make a very sharp turn
that involved a very tricky coordination not only of gear shift, clutch,
and gas pedal but also wheel and brake pedal. So, he decided, there
was only one thing to do: he sat down at his typewriter and wrote
the Los Angeles City Council a letter. In it he explained the problem
and requested that they reconstruct the citys streets so as
to make the corners rounder."
Of course, there were times
when Schönberg played it safe—very safe—and for good
reason. There was the time, for instance, at the beginning of the
cold war when the House Committee on Un-American Activites, forerunner
of the infamous witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, began searching
out communist script writers and actors in Hollywood. Schönberg,
who was usually quick to announce that he had no interest in politics,
began declaring to anyone who cared to listen that he was NOT a communist,
had NEVER been one, and had NO interest whatsoever in that evil cause.
At one time he was approached
Eisler, a former member of the Kreis and an exceptionally
talented composer, with whom hed had a disagreement some years
before. Schönberg believed that music should be composed for
its own sake, Eisler that it should have a political message. Eisler
wanted to make it up, but he was a self-confessed communist, so Schönberg
rejected him out of hand. Soon after, Eisler went off to live in communist
East Germany, and as far as I know, a reconciliation between the two
of them never came to pass. I might also mention here that in 1934,
after Schönbergs arrival in Los Angeles, Eisler had recommended
in all earnestness that Schönberg emigrate to the Soviet Union,
which didnt exactly help their faltering friendship and which
Schönberg had considered as being utterly absurd.
of the German conductor Hermann
Scherchen was much of a muchness. In the late Forties,
Scherchen was conducting large-scale works like Moses und Aron
and Die Jakobsleiter as the sole champion in a world that
seemed to have left Schönberg behind. In 1950, Schönberg
wrote him a letter from Los Angeles informing him that he had heard
from various sources that he, Scherchen, was a communist. As he, Schönberg,
was an avowed anti-communist, he wanted to make it clear that he did
not wish to have anything whatsoever to do with anyone who espoused
those vile doctrines. However, not wanting to close the door entirely,
Schönberg urged Scherchen to assure him that the rumors were
untrue. Scherchen, who was obviously a real gentleman, responded that
while hed always sympathized with socialist ideas, he had never
been politically active or belonged to a political party. Schönberg
decided that this was an acceptable reply because it could be inferred
from it that never having belonged to a political party, Scherchen
could not possibly have been a member of the communist party. Happily,
on thinking things over, Schönberg had the good sense to apologize
to Scherchen for this absurd cross-examination.
Yes, no question about it,
Schönberg could be gross. But he also had a modest, unassuming,
and even self-deprecating side that is little known to most people.
For instance, on his enlisting in the Austrian
army at the beginning of World War I, he had to get in
line at the induction center to be registered, just like any other
new soldier. When his turn came, the interviewing officer, who must
have been a music lover, immediately recognized the name: "Arent
you the controversial composer?"
Schönberg replied, "but somebody had to be it!"
"It is a great honor
to be able to serve in the same unit as Arnold Schönberg!"
the officer shot back.
"Not such a great honor
as you think, sir," Schönberg said. "Dont forget,
there are 400 men in the unit. Thats not very much honor for
the individual member."
The unit he was reporting
to belonged to the Royal Imperial Infantry in the province of Lower
Austria, and shortly thereafter Schönberg was to have an encounter
with another music lover, a young officer named Alfred Berlstein.
This Berlstein, who was born in 1892 in an area of Austro-Hungary
that is now part of Ukraine and had studied law at Vienna University,
was a one-year volunteer.
The morning after his arrival,
after being issued his uniform and equipment, Berlstein had his breakfast
and then proceeded to the latrine. As he entered, he nearly tripped
over a soldier washing the floor on his hands and knees. Berlstein
paused by the door to watch as the soldier conscientiously dipped
a brush into a pail and ran it over the floor in thorough circular
motions. The pail was filled with a steaming green solution that had
a strong medicinal smell, so strong that the painstakingly exact scrubber
was coughing and choking over it. His eyes were red and filled with
tears, which he kept wiping with a handkerchief.
The poor fellow was no youngster,
Berlstein saw, certainly already in his forties, and somehow he looked
familiar. Where could he have seen him? The fellow was short and rather
chubby, with a round face and a bald head surrounded by thick patches
of black hair. Suddenly Berlstein froze. Well, Ill be, he thought,
there could be no mistake, he had seen the face often in newspapers
and prospectuses and on leaflets.
"Excuse me, please, but...but
arent you the...the composer Arnold Schönberg?" he
The latrine-cleaner looked
up at him and nodded.
"But how come youre
doing...I mean, who told you to wash...?"
replied, "thats part of being a soldier. I really dont
mind it at all." In fact, he was quite happy to be treated like
a "normal" human being.
The two broke into an animated
conversation about music, and over the next several days became good
friends. Schönberg gave this officer Berlstein a photograph of
himself, signed with a dedication, which is now in the possession
of Berlsteins son, George, who told me this story.
As for Schönbergs
latrine duty, after that first conversation, Berlstein went to Colonel
Holly, the units commanding officer, whom he knew from civilian
life. "For Gods sake," he said, "you cant
allow a brilliant man like that to do such things." Whereupon
Holly said that he would take care of it, which indeed he did. And
so Schönberg was never assigned to clean-up details like that
againthough he never did find out why."
In addition to
having his arrogant and humble sides, Schönberg could also be a genuine
human being, a mensch. A good example is how he bailed out Fuchs,
that same Fuchs whom hed jokingly accused of being a plagiarist:
"Fuchs, die hast du ganz gestohlen; gib sie wieder her."
After World War I was over
and the Austrian monarchy had fallen, Fuchss career as a composer
went quickly downhill. His music was performed less and less, Schönbergs
more and more, and so Schönbergs resentment of him pretty
much petered out. In 1923, when Austria was convulsed by a cruel inflation
and many prominent people became impoverished, some to the point of
starvation, Fuchs, by then over 75 years old, was among them. Learning
of this, Schönberg appealed to and was able to persuade an American
relief organization to give Fuchs a subsidy, explaining to the director,
Amy Winslow, that Fuchs was a significant composer who had been held
in high esteem by Brahms himself.
But that was not all. In that
same year, Schönberg was able to obtain what was called a "gold
loan" in order to help out four other people who were in terrible
straits: Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, Rudolf Braun, and—Josef
Matthias Hauer, his rival in the invention of a new system of composition.
And in the 1930s, when the madman with the mustache made life in Europe
impossible for Jewish, and non-Jewish, intellectuals, Schönberg
spoke, wrote, and agitated wherever he could in order to obtain an
emigration visa for this one, an affidavit for that one, and boat
tickets for another. If he could not personally sign an affidavit
of support for someone, he persuaded American friends and admirers
to do so or else to guarantee the refugees a permanent job. At his
home in Los Angeles, in order to save on expenses, he let the maid
go and took on much of the housework himself, including washing dishes,
cooking, and taking care of the children.
Yes, my grandfather was able
to help a good many brilliant and talented people—about twenty-five
or so, Id say—get out of the witches cauldron that
was Hitlers Third Reich. Unfortunately, he was unable to help
his own son, Georg, nor could he get his sister Ottilie out of Berlin.
But more about that later."
No survey of the many sides
of Schönbergs character would be complete without mention
of his sense of humor. He loved to tell jokes, as did Trudi, my mother,
and my Uncle Görgi, her brother. The best of them, alas, often
had a slightly antisemitic flavor. Heres one that came down
to me from him through either my mother or uncle:
An aristocratic gentleman
is riding along in his coach somewhere in Poland. Suddenly, one of
the wheels comes loose from its axle and rolls into the ditch. The
gentleman and his coachman retrieve the wheel and try to reattach
it to its axle, but it wont stay on. Again and again they try,
but the wheel keeps falling off, and they become desperate.
An old Jew comes walking along
and stops to survey the situation. Then he says, "Excuse me please,"
puts the wheel back on, digs a rusty old nail out of his pocket, and
secures the wheel to the axle with it. The wheel stays on and the
gentleman is delighted.
"How much do I owe you?"
he asks the Jew.
"Forty zloty," the
old one answers.
"Forty zloty?" the
gentleman asks. "How can that be? That nail is worth one zloty,
the old one. "One zloty for the nail. And thoity-nine zloty for
Schönberg adored word
games and puns, and like Mozart, he delighted in doing all sorts of
funny things with words, including turning them around and reading
them backward. He sometimes referred to himself (as I do) as Dlonra
and named his son by his second wife with an anagram, Ronald. Had
he had more sons, he might have named them Roland, Landor, or Dorlan.
One of his grandsons is Randol.
When Schönberg sent a
telegram, which he did quite often in the old days, he would invent
all sorts of abbreviations in order to save on words and, of course,
money. So instead of wiring a message like "Please advise Gertrud,
Susi, Felix, and Ronald," he would write "Advise Gersufero."
Schönberg also loved
creating sentences that could be read in either direction, for example,
"Ein Neger mit Gazelle zagt im Regen nie" (literally, A
negro with gazelle never hesitates in the rain). But his greatest
loves were the Schüttelreime, or spoonerisms. Let me cite
just one example of his more humorous inventions: "Hier stehe
ich und schwöre es bei Warschaus Asche, dass ich mir nie den"
(the completion of which I leave to the readers imagination).
There is, of course, a long
tradition of creating Schüttelreime among Austrian
school children. A common one oft-repeated by my friends and
me and probably
by my grandfather as a child was Paprikaschnitzel, Schnaprikapitzel,
Piprikaschnatzel, Schniprikapatzel, and back to Paprikaschnitzel.
Nowadays, I am constantly regaling my author-wife Nancy Bogen with
such relative banalities in English. For instance: "The
cat is running but the rat is cunning...." "See the
flight, flee the site, sight the flea, flight to sea...." "Take
a shower, shake a tower...." "Lunatic, tuna lick,
tick a loon, lick a tune." I composed this little ditty
on the road: "Youre
driving a little fast. So what if you fiddle last. If you are the
last to fiddle, youll just have to fast a little." And
this fathers admonition: "If youre hot in
the shed, youll get a shot in the head."
In spite of enjoying a reputation
for being way out, my grandfather was really a traditionalist in many
ways. He not only had a profound respect for the musical past but
insisted on passing that respect on to the younger generation, as
this story will show.
It must have been in 1929;
I was six years old at the time and my brother Hermann, four. In the
fall of that year, Schönberg, who was then living in Berlin,
spent several days in Vienna and one morning came to visit us in Mödling—just
a half-hours ride by train from the Südbahnhof. He was
accompanied by Alban Berg, one of his former students.
It was a Sunday, and after
one of my mothers good hearty meals, we all went out for a walk,
heading for Mödlings "Old Town," with its winding
little streets and quaint houses dating back to the Middle Ages that
boast of all sorts of sculptures, coats-of-arms, and paintings. Mödling
was, and still is, a musical town; besides Schönberg and his
Kreis in the house on Bernhardgasse, Schubert
had lived there, and Beethoven
had rented his summer quarters there from 1818 to 1824, the years
of the Hammerklavier and Missa Solemnis.
Our mother led the way with
my brother Hermann and me. I remember that it was quite brisk out,
and we children were all bundled up in woolen caps and winter coats
and went along with our mittened hands stuck deep in our pockets.
At a distance behind us promenaded
Schönberg, my father, Berg, and another of grandpas former
students, Anton von Webern, who also lived in Mödling. It should
be noted that my brother and I had very distinct hot-and-cold feelings
about Webern and Berg. Webern never smiled, so we had nicknamed him
"der Herbst," meaning "Mr. Autumn." Berg,
on the other hand, who was then composing that very grim opera Lulu,
usually had a congenial smile on his face, and he, a huge man, was
best remembered by us two children for his presents of chocolates
and teddy bears.
Let me digress here for a
moment. This is one of two first-hand memories that I have of Schönbergs
face, figure, and voice; the other is earlier, going back to1927,
so let me speak of that one first. The place was a Vienna coffee house,
and the occasion was to welcome Schönberg during one of his visits.
The party consisted of about fifteen people, among them my parents
and myself, Webern and Berg, and several women who were presumably
their wives. Josef Polnauer with the deep scar on his cheek was also
We were in a small, windowless
hall illuminated by dull reddish-yellow light from old-fashioned oil
lamps that were mounted along the wall. There was a long table, and
everyone had sat down at it, six or seven people on each side. The
surface of the table was a dark green felt with some kind of wooden
border perhaps four inches wide. I, little four-year-old Arnold, was
at one end, mounted atop two thick pillows. At the other end sat my
grandfather—I had a direct view of him as he must have of me—Schönberg,
an "old man" in his middle years with a roundish face out
of which gazed a pair of expressive black eyes, and his shiny bald
head bordered by dark hair, an image oft-painted by himself....
me return now to our walk on that chilly autumn day in Mödling
in 1929. Our pace was leisurely. All
four of the musical gentlemen to the rear of Mama and us
boys walked with their hands behind their backs—gloved hands
because of the cold—talking of their favorite topic, which is
all they ever talked about when they were together. On this particular
occasion they were critically dissecting a concert they had recently
attended, and one heard a good deal about adagios, fortissimos, andantes,
and the like.
Webern and Berg both spoke
quietly, in deep, calm tones. My father, who often punctuated his
sentences with the Viennese phrase "Net wahr? Net wahr?"
(Isnt that right?) could also be heard from time to time. But
as usual, grandpa had more to say than anyone else, and whenever
began to hold forth, always loudly and emphatically, or indicated
that he wished to speak with a raised hand, the rest of the company
Grandpa had a very distinctive
voice. It was a very high but at the same time quite masculine tenor,
and usually sounded forced as if he were having trouble getting the
words out and had to make a special effort to do so. Whenever he was
excited about something or nervous, this Sprechstimme, or song-like
speaking voice, became especially pronounced.
Anyway, on the musical conversation
went, with this one saying something and that one saying something
else, and then when the maestro began, with everyone becoming still
and just listening.
Our walk had taken us down
Mödlings picturesque Hauptstrasse (Main Street). Now we
branched off onto Achsenaugasse, one of those crooked, winding streets
that are so characteristic of old European cities. On the right side
of this Achsenaugasse, the Mödling brook bubbles along—the
very brook in which Schuberts trout once swam—flanked
by massive old chestnut trees that perhaps had shaded it in that maestros
Soon, on our left, there was
a pretty house, two stories high, with a lovely front lawn and colorful
flower beds—indeed very lovely, but after all just one of many
such houses with gardens in Mödling. As we children were about
to pass this house, an icy wind came whipping along, causing us to
pull our caps way down and sink deeper into our coats.
Behind us, the musical discussion
had ceased a moment or two before.
Now, all of a sudden, as we
went along, grandpas voice rang out— "Hermann!"—
indeed so loudly and shrilly that everyone stopped dead in their tracks
and turned to face him. While Hermann,
my little brother, was the particular object of his attention,
it seemed as if the warning or reprimand that was about to issue forth
was intended for me as well, in fact for everyone. Schönbergs
eyes flashed, and his face displayed an utter earnestness of purpose
that required unquestioning respect. His index finger pointed imperiously
in the air.
repeated in his same high-pitched voice. "Hermann!" he yelled
yet again, even more stringently. "Nimm deine Mütze ab!
Du gehst am Haus vom Beethoven vorbei!" (Take off your cap, youre
passing by Beethovens house!)
As we have seen, from the time of his
arrival in Los Angeles in 1934 until Americas entry into
World War Two in 1941, Schönberg
was instrumental in helping quite a few people to get from "inside" the
hell that was Nazi Germany to the "outside." But unfortunately, one
of those near and dear to him whom he was unable to bring over was
his sister Ottilie.
Not that he was unwilling, and he certainly
would have found the money, somehow, if she had been willing. But
no, Tante Otti, who
lived in Berlin and was married to an Aryan named Felix Blumauer,
was one of those Jews who kept telling themselves that a regime like
Hitlers couldnt last and that this, too, like all else,
would pass. As for the Nazis threats against the Jews, she
felt that their bark was bigger than their bite. "After all, we are
living in Germany!" she would argue, meaning one of the longtime
oases of civilization.
Ottilie had two daughters: Susanne Kramer
by her first husband; and Inge by husband #2. Both were "Mischlinge," half-Jews,
which was not quite as dangerous in Nazi Germany as being a full
older daughter, Susanne, had been an actress and soubrette
before Hitler came to power in 1933. During the Nazi years, as a
half-Jew, she was no longer able to get engagements although she
was able to continue living in Berlin. After Blumauers death,
her widowed mother Ottilie moved in with Susi and spent the war years
with her as an "Unterseeboot"—a "submarine" as Jews-in-hiding
came to be called.
Inge, Ottis younger daughter, married Werner Hoffmann,
a member of the Nazi party, who obviously had no objections to
her racial background. Werner had joined the Nazis even before
1933, when the party was still illegal in Germany and as such was
recognized in Hitlers Germany as an "alter Kämpfer"—"old
fighter for the cause," a status which in those years brought with
it a good deal of respect. However, Werner was a decent man who
loved his wife dearly and, after witnessing some of the early excesses
committed by the brown regime, the Nazi turned into an anti-Nazi.
Of course, he couldnt leave the Nazi party—in those
days that would have been a very unhealthy step for him to take,
would probably have cost him his life. He did help his wife Inge
and her half-sister Susi, however, as much as he could, by providing
food and money to help sustain Otti as an "Unterseeboot."
In 1941, a decree was issued by the Nazi
regime mandating that all Jews wear a yellow star so as to be easily
they went. Otti, for the sake of her own safety, simply didnt
leave the house anymore. 1942 came and went; then came 1943, and
bombs rained endlessly down on Berlin. One day, near the end of
that terrible year, Werner learned from a friend in the offices
of the SA, Hitlers brownshirt organization, that the name
of Ottilie Blumauer née Schönberg appeared on a list
of Jews still living in Berlin. It is believed that her name got
on the list because someone had reported her to the Gestapo. The
paper at the SA stated that these people were to be picked up in
the next few days, to be "resettled in the East." While most people
had no idea at the time about what was going on in the so-called
General Gouvernement, the former Poland, suspicions were growing
that nothing very wonderful was in store for these "resettled" Jews.
The possibility that Otti was to be forcibly
removed and sent to parts unknown was, of course, deeply alarming
to Susi and Inge,
as their mother was sixty-eight years old then and not in the best
of health. It was, however, quite clear that if the stormtroopers
wanted to take her with them, pleas of age and illness would be
to no avail, and in fact, any protest or resistance would not only
be useless but could also have terrifying consequences—no
one had any illusions about that. So all one could do was hope
that this was a false alarm.
Alas, the next evening the bell rang and
there was an energetic knocking on the door. Susanne came down
and admitted them to the
vestibule: two SA men dressed in the well-known uniforms with swastika
armbands. They were there to pick up the Jewess Ottilie Blumauer
née Schönberg for resettlement, they said.
Susanne somehow found her cool and kept
it; the only thing to do, really, was to try to brazen it out.
And, sometimes, the best
ideas are born out of dire need: "Whats the matter with you
people? Are you crazy?" she yelled at the top of her voice. "You
were here already and took her! Ten days ago! Didnt somebody
write it down in the records? How can you be so inefficient? Shame
on you! I have a good mind to report you!" So convincing was she
in her indignation at their inefficiency that they, aware that
the neighbors were hearing all this, almost hung their heads with
embarrassment. "Sorry, there must be some mistake," one of them
mumbled, and they went away, never to return.
Otti continued to live in Berlin as an Unterseeboot through
the remainder of the war. Susanne, Inge, and Werner shared their
food allowances with her. In 1944, Werner was drafted into the
a civilian Home Guard consisting of older and disabled men that
was created by the Nazis as a last-ditch effort against the Allies,
who were beginning to close in. Somehow Werner survived, and with
the end of the war, he thought that they could now all live a normal
alas, that was not to be. One day, a few days after war's end,
and Inge were stopped in
the street by some Werwölfe. These "werewolves" were fanatical
young Nazis who had belonged to the Hitler Youth or the SS and
who now, after the defeat of Hitler's Germany, wanted to perpetuate
their movement as an underground fighting force. It was known,
of course, that Werner had turned against the Nazis and had hidden
a Jewess during the war.
The "werewolves" called
him a traitor and shot at both of them as they tried to flee.
Werner was mortally
wounded and died right there in the street. Inge was taken to a
hospital. At any other time she might have been saved, but under
the conditions then existing in Berlin, that did not happen. She
lived on for several months, suffering intensely, and finally succumbed
to her injuries. The Nazis had found yet two more victims.
Otti, Arnold Schönbergs sister,
lived on with her daughter Susi, for another twelve years, until
1957. I should add
that Inge Hoffmann, who died a few months after her husband Werner,
had inherited a business he had owned, an antique store. Then,
after Inge died a few months later, the store went to her mother
Otti and Susi, her half-sister. Susi continued to run the business
after the war, dealing in antiques, wrought iron, and ceramics.
After her mothers death, Susi finally got married. She
had met her husband, a man by the name of Remus, through an advertisement
in a newspaper. As things turned out, it was not to be the happiest
of marriages. Susi finally died in 1985, the last surviving member
of the Schönberg family in Berlin.