The Most Famous Thing He Never Said

[Published: Newsletter No. 4, November 2002, Jewish Music Institute:  International Centre for Suppressed Music.]

It seems that when one wants to deflate the image of Arnold Schoenberg and the twelve-tone method of composition he developed, the most common approach is to recite Schoenberg’s most famous statement to his pupil Josef Rufer during the summer of 1921:

I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.  [Ich habe eine Entdeckung gemacht, durch welche die Vorherrschaft der deutschen Musik für den nächsten hundert Jahre gesichert ist.]

The not-so-subtle implication is always that Schoenberg was a fanatical German supremacist, like Hitler, and therefore that his twelve-tone method should be associated with fascism and Nazism and discarded.  Uncritical acceptance of this statement can be found in even the most pro-Schoenberg books and articles.  But closer scrutiny casts serious doubt on the accuracy of Rufer’s recollection.  Schoenberg’s most (in)famous statement may be the most famous thing he never said.

Schoenberg is possibly the world’s most well-documented composer.  His thousands and thousands of pages of writings — books, letters, essays and aphorisms — have been meticulously preserved, catalogued and made accessible by publication and in the Schoenberg archives open without restriction to scholars since 1977.  However, Schoenberg’s most famous statement does not appear in any of these writings.  Its source is the 1959 publication by Schoenberg pupil Josef Rufer, “Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs” (Kassel 1959).  In that book, published eight years after Schoenberg’s death, Rufer stated, apparently for the first time, that during the summer of 1921, in the Austrian town of Traunkirchen, Schoenberg had disclosed to him the discovery of the twelve-tone method.  The quotation recounted by Rufer some thirty-eight years after the fact has become the line most commonly used to discredit Schoenberg and his music.

There is good reason to be skeptical of Rufer’s belated recollection of this event. Rufer conveniently makes himself the first pupil to whom Schoenberg disclosed his new method of composition.  The first work using the twelve-tone method, the prelude of the Piano Suite, op. 25, was begun in Traunkirchen in July 1921.  But as Schoenberg’s biographer H.H. Stuckenschmidt recounts “an enormous number of friends and pupils visited” Schoenberg at Traunkirchen that summer.  Wouldn’t Schoenberg have made this disclosure also to other pupils and colleagues?  Why did Rufer not reveal this event until 1959, after Schoenberg and many of the other pupils (and witnesses) had died?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Schoenberg did disclose his method of composing with twelve tones only to his young pupil Josef Rufer during the summer of 1921.  Would Schoenberg have used the German nationalist language that Rufer ascribes to him?  It should be noted that when Rufer recounted the story it was 1959.  The German-born Rufer had lived through the entire Nazi period in Germany.  The phrase “supremacy of German . . .” was one that Rufer had heard many, many times.  Can we be certain that his belated recollection of Schoenberg’s words was accurate?

The timing of the disclosure to Rufer also makes Schoenberg’s  use and appropriation of nationalist German rhetoric unlikely.  Schoenberg moved to Traunkirchen in July 1921 after an incident in the town of Mattsee, where it was made known to him that the town did not appreciate having Jewish guests.  (Rufer is credited with locating the Villa Josef in Traunkirchen to which the Schoenbergs moved.)  The Mattsee event proved a watershed in Schoenberg’s perception of himself as a Jew.  Less than two years later he would write to Kandinsky that the event led to his rediscovery of his Jewish identity and he warned already then of the dangers of Hitler and anti-Semitism.  If Schoenberg did use the term “German supremacy” when discussing his musical discovery during the summer of 1921, it could only have been with great irony — an irony perhaps lost on his young German pupil Rufer.

A letter from Schoenberg to Alma Mahler dated July 26, 1921 casts much needed light on the subject.  In this short letter, which has not previously been published, Schoenberg makes a statement quite similar to the one Rufer later recalled.  But the context of Schoenberg’s statement makes it clear that Schoenberg harbored no sympathy for the Austrian German nationalists who had recently interrupted his summer in Mattsee.

My dear, most esteemed friend,

I just wanted to give you quickly a sign of life and to thank you for your dear letter.  Quickly: for after I paid my Mattsee compatriots — forever deranged by the madness of the times — a tribute in money (very much money) and what is more: work time (3 weeks!) — I have begun again to work.  Something completely new!  The German aryans who persecuted me in Mattsee will have this new thing (especially this one) to thank for the fact that even they will still be respected abroad for 100 years, because they belong to the very state that has just secured for itself hegemony in the field of music! — How are you?  All is well with us — only we cannot find anyone to do housework.  Long live Democracy : no one wants to work, so we have to do it.  Many heartfelt greetings from my wife, Trudi, Görgi and from me.  Your most devoted Arnold Schoenberg

Liebe hochverehrte Freundin, nur um rasch ein Lebenszeichen zu geben und, dir für deinen so lieben Brief zu danken. Rasch: denn, nach dem ich meinen Mattseer Mitmenschen — Ewig-Zeitgeisteskranken — einen Tribut von Geld (von sehr viel Geld) und was noch mehr ist: in Arbeitszeit (3 Wochen!) gezahlt habe, — habe ich wieder zu arbeiten begonnen. Was ganz Neues! Die Deutscharier, die mich in Mattsee verfolgt haben, werden es diesem Neuen (speciell diesem) [XXX] zu verdanken haben, dass man sogar sie noch 100 Jahre lang im Ausland achtet, weil sie dem Staat angehören, der sich neuerdings die Hegemonie auf dem Gebiet der Musik gesichert hat! — Wie gehts dir.  Bei uns alles wohl — nur können wir niemanden zur häuslichen Arbeit finden. Es lebe die Demokratie:  niemand will arbeiten; also müssen wir es tun.  Viele herzliche Grüsse von meiner Frau, Trudi, Görgi, und von mir.

Dein herzlich ergebener Arnold Schönberg

If Schoenberg did say something to Rufer during the summer of 1921, it was probably similar to what Schoenberg wrote to his friend Alma Mahler.  But the irony in the letter to Alma Mahler is completely lost in the famous line later recounted by Rufer over thirty years later.  And the implication that is often made from the Rufer quote — that Schoenberg was a fanatical German nationalist — is exactly the opposite of what Schoenberg expressed.

Schoenberg recognized that his discovery of the twelve-tone method would have far-reaching implications, and correctly predicted that his innovation would establish his pre-eminence among composers not just in Austria and Germany, but throughout the world.  (The widespread use of the twelve tone method by other composers since 1921 does seem to bear out Schoenberg’s prophecy.)  Schoenberg recognized the supreme irony that the honor that would inure to Austria as a result of his discovery would even benefit those Austrian German nationalists who sought to expel him because of his Jewish background.  The discovery of the twelve-tone method was not proclaimed as a triumph of German nationalism, but rather in spite of such nationalism.

We have from Schoenberg another similar but much more ecumenical statement about the importance of his 12-tone method of composition.  In 1930, Schoenberg wrote to a number of leading figures seeking support for a proclamation in honor of the architect Adolf Loos’ 60th birthday.  After receiving an uncharacteristic rejection from Albert Einstein, Schoenberg wrote to Loos’ wife, Claire on November 17, 1930 as follows:

Dear esteemed madam,

Enclosed is the answer from Einstein and one from Heinrich Mann.  To Einstein I wanted to send the following answer:

“. . . I understand something about the subject; hardly less than the expert from the newspaper, whom everyone would believe.  And I say: Loos has in his field at least the same importance as I do in mine.  And you know perhaps that I pride myself on having shown mankind the way of musical creation for at least the next hundred years.”

[Verehrte gnädige Frau,

anbei die Antwort von Einstein und eine von Heinrich Mann. An Einstein wollte ich folgende Antwort richten:   

“…ich verstehe wirklich etwas von der Sache; kaum weniger als der Fachmann von der Zeitung, dem jeder glauben würde. Und ich sage: Loos hat auf seinem Gebiet mindestens dieselbe Bedeutung wie ich auf dem meinigen. Und Sie wissen vielleicht, dass ich mir einbilde der Menschheit für wenigstens hundert Jahre die Wege musikalischen Schaffens gewiesen zu haben.”]

There is no doubt that Schoenberg believed that he was an heir to the great Austro-German musical tradition — to Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner.  But this does not make him a believer in Nazi-like German supremacy.  In several essays written in 1931, he discusses the concept of “national music” and of improper attempts to ascribe national, political dimensions to artistic phenomena.  In music, as in many fields, certain nations sometimes obtain hegemony over others.  But in Schoenberg’s view, artisitic dominance was not at all related to political dominance.  Schoenberg certainly believed that his discovery of the twelve-tone method would again lead to Austrian and German hegemony in the field of music.  But that did not make him a German nationalist.  As an Austrian, and a Jew, he could hardly have ever had any sympathy for those who longed for a 1,000-year German Reich.  One may quibble with Schoenberg’s naturally partisan view of the historical importance of his own discovery, and of the influence it would have in the future.  But it is not fair to ascribe to Schoenberg the German nationalist tendencies that he so obviously abhorred.  It is a mistake to rely on the line recounted by Rufer in 1959, when we have in Schoenberg’s letters evidence of a more nuanced, ironic and ecumenical point of view.

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