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Let the words of Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human, precede the conversation with Arnold Schönberg:

Music is not so significant per se for us inwardly, not so deeply stirring that it could be deemed a direct language of emotion – its ancient connection with poetry has laid so much symbolism in its rhythmic motion, its power and weakness of tone that now we wrongly imagine that it speaks directly from the heart and comes from the heart. No music is profound and significant per se, and it does not speak of the will, of the res per se. The intellect could only wrongly imagine such a thing at a time which had prepared the entire scope of inner life for musical symbolism. It was the intellect which emplaced this significance in the sound; just as the relation between line and volume lent significance to architecture – a significance which is, however, fully foreign per se to mechanical laws.

Arnold Schönberg was the first musical creator to transform poems by Stephan George into the basis for his imagination. The poet’s aversion to music seems odd in this connection; one recalls an anecdote about George which circulated in literary circles; when one of his disciples was moved while reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, George said, “Dilapidated bourgeoisie and music, that’s not for me.” He had absolutely no understanding of them. (It is said that George did not get beyond reading the first third of Buddenbrooks).

When told of George’s comment, Schönberg said, “I do not understand any connection like the one suggested there. Music is the purest, clearest and most abstract art, and I do not know what it’s supposed to have to do with ‘the bourgeoisie.’ Music must not be confused with making music when it is performed now and then. A musical artwork is pure form – one merely needs to understand how to listen to it.

“Everything in music is based on measure and number. Perhaps music is the most ascetic of the arts – at any rate, it has nothing to do with the concept of ‘bourgeoisie.’ I do not understand that people who are so great in one area can be shut off from other areas.”

This was reminiscent of Goethe, who thought extraordinarily highly of Zelter, while he really did not know how to go about appreciating Beethoven and Schubert. (Perhaps Goethe’s conception of music – a sonic background for listeners’ moods – was similar to George’s view of music as a typical bourgeois air and artistic exercise).

Intrigued by the music interviews in the French magazine Comoedia, in which Vincent d’Indy stated of Schönberg that “He is a madman (C’est un fou),” while Honegger mentioned “crab canon” and “contrary motion” in his endeavor to demonstrate the enormous, targeted artistry of Schönberg’s compositions (he also said succinctly, “Whether we like it or not, Schönberg will remain one of the greats in the history of music”), I asked Schönberg about the significance of artistry in the overall structure of a composition.

“These sonic things are the remedies which serve to make something appealing. They are the veneer, the dressing, which are entirely insignificant per se, and one uses them in such places when they seem appropriate. But fundamentally, a composition is something entirely different.”

The conversation was frequently interrupted; long silences adduced new considerations of the spoken words. It occurred to me to ask about what always interests laymen.

“How does one actually write a composition?”

Schönberg replied typically. “Something has to occur to you.”

But I insisted on another answer, trying not to let the question go. This man, somewhat disjointed in his manner, spoke in ragged sentences, which I remember approximately as amounting to “As I said, a musical work is based on measure and number. The concept is foremost, in the first predominant idea, in the initial vision.

“With large works, too, it is not the details, it is the entirety which makes up the initial concept. Like a figure that one sees from a distance, at first indistinctly yet as a whole, becoming less distinct as a totality as one approaches, while the separate details become clearer and yet still in the context of the whole. If the basic concept is correct, there is no harm in it if the work on particularities leads one into detail; everything will remain in proportion to the totality.”

Schönberg had said that a musical artwork exists independently of interpretation per se. He himself produced a series of compositions up to thirteen years old which have yet to be performed anywhere to this day. (Remember that he, now 50 years old, was not granted recognition as one of the world’s greatest masters until he had written his Opus 30).

“When a musical work is written down, then it exits just like a poem, complete, or a picture, whether or not anyone reads it or looks at it. The act of creation and the artistic work of performance make an artwork what it is and what it signifies. Thus it is everlasting. Of course it might be something different if you become familiar with a piece of music by reading the score or listening to it. But basically, that does not matter.”

These statements provoked questions as to the nature of vision in its measure and number (that spatial-temporal and intellectual concept which compels a composer when creating his music).

“The image is not purely acoustical, it is certainly not intellectual, nor is it spatial. I believe that the fundamental tension relationships between pitches are based on purely mental procedures. I could never express the things I say in music in words or in other conceptual expressions. These things are so abstract that they can only expressed through the medium of music; I can only say over and over again that music’s profoundest sense seems to me not some emotion or sound, but how I have just said it – the correct proportion of measure and number in one uniquely given vision.”

I had this conversation with Schönberg in a semi-furnished room of the villa in the Berlin suburb, where he was still in the process of settling in. When I rang at the garden gate, I saw him with a hammer and a ladder, working away at some windows not yet hung with curtains; while we were talking someone came by to pick up replacements for some blown fuses. I recalled that a woman, an artist and a friend of Schönberg’s, once told me that his obsession with precision, correctness and order was so great that he had to hammer in every single nail himself, that he hung every picture on the walls himself, that if he needed a car, he would go and pick it up himself, since only then could he be certain that it was the right one for what he needed. This unconditionality in responsible work, which extends to the finest nuances of his personal life, also accounts for the unconditional, uncompromising nature of his music – it asks no audience whether the music is appealing.

A conscientious worker has only one thing in mind; that the result be correct, that the vision will become reality in the ultimate sense – and if his work has taken valid shape in musical notation, it is completed, no matter if an audience acknowledges it, whether yearning for a scandal or truly wishing to try to accept the music.

Last year, Paris also felt it incumbent upon itself to present a Schönberg Festival; the high point was an unsurpassable performance of Pierrot lunaire under the composer himself. Gurrelieder was rehearsed in London (for reportedly 2,000 pounds) and Schönberg also conducted that work twice. His music has been given in many German provincial towns, including Erwartung in Wiesbaden and Pierrot lunaire in Freiburg; concerts of his chamber music have taken place in various other towns, and now Breslau has done itself the great honor of bringing out the first German performance of Die glückliche Hand.

Only Berlin, that great metropolis with its multifarious theatres and concert associations, has generously deigned all winter long to ignore all but completely the undisputedly most important figure to emerge in modern German music yet – but a work of art that is complete per se, a piece of music complete in its score, will carry through, existing irrespective of whether it is heard or not (whether it is played by those whose job it is to do so) – and it will have its effect.

Schallkiste (April 1928)