Through The Looking-Glass
The Schoenberg-Webern Correspondence with Benjamin Levy
Composer-Artist Arnold Schoenberg has popped up and surprised me quite a bit over these past few weeks. When visiting the Lenbachhaus in Munich, I learned that the painter Wassily Kandinsky made Schoenberg a member of "Der Blaue Reiter" and was strongly influenced by his music. I ran into him again when reading about artist Robert Gerstl at the Leopold Museum in Vienna! I was quite surprised to learn that Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, briefly left Schoenberg for Gerstl!
After learning these new facts about the composer, I was really excited to visit the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna last week! I was in for a surprise there too. At the ticket desk, I was asking if Schoenberg taught at USC or UCLA while living in L.A. (it was both) when I hear “Anna?”. I look over and there is Benjamin Levy, my 20-21st Century Music Theory Professor from UCSB, who taught me what I know about tone rows. He had heard me and had come out to say hello. It’s such a small world! He is in Vienna researching the Schoenberg-Webern correspondence for a book which will be published as part of Oxford University Press’s series, Schoenberg in Words. This topic is completely fascinating to me, yet it hasn’t been researched much and he is the first person to translate the (many) letters into English! So until his book comes out, here’s some insight into the Schoenberg-Webern correspondence.
After seeing your pile of documents waiting to be translated and analyzed, I would imagine that there are a lot of letters between Schönberg and Webern. How many letters are there approximately?
The project is pretty extensive, and will end up being a book of selections from the correspondence, translated into English, and with some notes, explaining who some of the people they mention are, what else was going on at the time, and trying to fill in some of the holes in the exchange. Unfortunately, some of the letters did not survive or were lost somewhere along the way; there are many more from Webern to Schoenberg than vice versa, but a lot of that is because letters Webern's possession weren't kept after he died. (Do you know the story of how he died? He was accidentally shot by an American soldier when they were occupying Austria in 1945. He had stepped out to smoke past curfew.) Anyway, even letters missing, there are over 800 that survive, out of which I'll probably aim for around 200 to include in the volume.
How many years did the correspondence last for?
The earliest are from 1906, but the correspondence really starts becoming regular around 1910 and continues until after Schoenberg leaves for America in 1933, trailing off in the later 1930s, although there are still a few from 1940 and 1941.
Is their correspondence based primarily on friendship, music or an equal mixture of both? Are there any particular pieces that they focus on?
They give progress reports on the pieces they are working on--Schoenberg updates Webern on the progress of Moses und Aron, later on the Second Chamber Symphony, which he started in 1906, and then returned to in the 1930s, reconstructing it from earlier sketches. Webern talks about the Orchestral Pieces (op. 6) he wrote after the death of his mother (a long passage from one of these letters is quoted in the biography by Hanns Moldenhauer) They also talk about their conducting careers (how many rehearsals they have for one piece or another--Webern had a more substantial conducting career), and just general friendly stuff--family, health, and so forth. Schoenberg and Webern were on a "Du" (informal you) relationship at least by about 1912, from what I have seen.
How do other composers of their time factor into the conversation?
The correspondence goes through both World Wars, and there are some pretty dramatic moments, when, for example Berg dies, or later, when Schoenberg wants to dedicate his Violin Concerto to Webern, but has heard rumors that Webern, still in Germany/Austria, has Nazi sympathies. (Webern denies this and the piece is, in fact, dedicated to him.) They write letters to other composer, too, like Berg and Zemlinsky, and also (especially Webern) to Heinrich Jalowetz, best known as a conductor; I am looking into some of these as well, especially to help fill in some of the holes left by missing letters here and there. I'm meeting tomorrow with Regina Busch, a German musicologist here who has done a lot of work on other parts of the correspondence, so wish me luck! There's a lot of work to do!
To Learn More About….
Benjamin Levy: www.music.ucsb.edu/people/benjamin-levy
Schönberg and Kandinsky: www.schoenberg.at
Los-Angeles native Anna Heflin is a classical violist who is passionate about contemporary music. Anna holds a Bachelor of Music and a minor in art history from UCSB, where she studied with Helen Callus and graduated with honors. She is currently studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she is pursuing her Masters of Music. At SFCM she is studying with Jodi Levitz while working with MaryClare Brzytwa and David Garner.
Anna has a passion for contemporary music and composes works for herself in addition to premiering works. She enjoys incorporating electronics into her compositions and has experience working with Max/MSP and Ableton Live. This summer she is attending New Music On The Point and interning for HELLO STAGE in Vienna! When she’s not playing music you can find her drinking coffee, doing yoga or exploring.