Tag Archive: Schoenberg

Schoenberg's "Gehendes Selbst-Portrait" / "Going Self-Portrait," 1911. All images courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre, Vienna*

In a prior piece on Alban Berg (1885-1935) I pointed to a 1910 painting of the composer.  (You can click here to view it.)  The painter was Berg’s composition teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.  The idea there was that the portrait leaves us with a faint trace of life in pre-war Vienna – a period which, as Stefan Zweig idealized it in The World of Yesterday, was for the citizens of that city an “age of security.”

In later letters, Schoenberg would also recall the period as a time of peace and pause, before that age of war and unrest when twentieth century European history seesawed into darkness.  With a view to the composer’s creative life, the pre-war years find Schoenberg undertaking his earliest experiments with atonal composition – listen to the Six Little Piano Pieces of 1911, for instance – and in this respect mark his first soundings into the uncharted depths of the future.  But they were also the years in which he experimented most concentratedly with painting.

Enter Schoenberg the painter.

"Blue Self-Portrait" (February 1910)

From 1908-1912 Schoenberg produced paintings and sketches of distinctive style.  While he was hesitant to consider himself part of an established school of any kind, his work is generally recognized to orbit the Expressionist movement.  For a short time, Schoenberg even belonged to Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) group, a circle of friends who held that the ultimate aim of art was to seize and give expression to the spiritual dimensions of experience.

In a telling 1911 letter to Kandinsky, Schoenberg expresses his belief in the unconscious character of artistic perception:

"Hass" / "Hate" (October 1910)

“. . . I am sure that our work has much in common – and indeed in the most important respects: In what you call the ‘unlogical’ and I call the ‘elimination of the conscious will in art’. . . .  Every formal procedure which aspires to traditional effects is not completely free from conscious motivation.  But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself!  Express oneself directly!  Not one’s taste, or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill.  Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive. . . . But whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognizing his own instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches.  One does not need to be a pioneer to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously – and thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to recognize, and to express what one has recognized!!!  This is my belief.”**

In this way, many of Schoenberg’s paintings aim less to represent the world in its outward semblance than to capture things as they “really” are on the subjective plane: the world refracted through the lens of the inner eye.

"Denken" / "Thinking" (October 1910)

Consider “Thinking,” the painting immediately above.  It’s just one expression of thinking in its most immediate or unconscious sense: the subjective experience of thinking in a manner that’s unmediated by the concepts that ordinarily order, the lines that frequently frame conscious thought.  It’s a glimpse of the mind’s eye, the artist’s experience freed from the terms of traditional perspective.

"Blauer Blick" / "Blue Gaze" (1910)

If the perspective in Schoenberg’s paintings feels askew, it’s because artistic expression in the expressionistic mode isn’t meant to capture the world as it outwardly appears to us through our sensory faculties.   This orientation, like art itself, is ultimately born of the unconscious.  Freed from both the mind-forged manacles of conscious thought and the shackles of sensory perception, the objects of the external world fade.

Schoenberg’s Gazes

What is experience without the tether of the senses?  Schoenberg’s mesmerizing set of visions and gazes gives us some feeling for his conception of it.  Nature abandoned, the artist inwardly encounters gazes rather than faces:

"Blick" / "Gaze" (May 1910)

“I painted gazes . . . .  That is something that only I could have done, for it is in my nature and is fully opposed to the nature of an actual painter.  I have never seen faces, but rather, where I have seen into others’ eyes, only their gazes.  From this is also happens that I can recreate the gaze of a man.  A painter, however, captures with a glance the entire human being – I only his soul.”***

According to Schoenberg’s view of artistic experience, at least, these gazes subsist on a plane of perception where everything is illuminated by the light of the unconscious.  They are visions – let’s call them innervisions – beyond the pale of the senses.  It isn’t important whether Schoenberg’s conception of artistic perception is wholly accurate; more crucial is the recognition that experience (both conscious and unconscious) is rich and layered, that there are many different ways of perceiving it – and that art is one very real part of it.

What’s ultimately important is Schoenberg’s belief that the vision of the creative artist isn’t veiled by custom.  Instead, one task of his imaginative work is to pierce the fabric of convention – a life of humdrum habit – and to tune in to a key of experience to which we customarily grow deaf.  In “listening to himself,” the artist’s aim is to probe the innermost reaches of the self and to translate that which he inwardly hears into a form that we, the onlookers, can outwardly witness.

Schoenberg’s paintings stand as glimpses into the creative depths of one of the twentieth century’s great composers: innervisions of a man who strove for art that was decidedly more than meets the eye.

"Christus" / "Christ" (October 1910)


References and notes:

  • All images appear courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre in Vienna.  You can visit them here for a “complete printed overview of Schönberg’s pictoral works.”
  • **  In a letter of January 24, 1911, A Schoenberg Reader, edited by Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 90-91.
  • ***  My translation.  The original German reads:

“Ich habe Blicke gemalt […] Das ist etwas, was nur ich getan haben konnte, denn es ist aus meiner Natur heraus und ist der Natur eines wirklichen Malers vollkommen entgegengesetzt.  Ich habe niemals Gesichter gesehen, sondern, da ich den Menshen ins Auge gesehen habe, nur ihre Blicke.  Daher kommt es auch, dass ich den Blick eines Menschen nachmachen kann.  Ein Maler aber erfasst mit einem Blick den ganzen Menschen – ich nur seine Seele.”

(Cited in Elmar Budde, “‘Ut musica pictura – ut pictura musica’: Musik und Bild. Ein Rückblick nach vorn zu Arnold Schönberg,” in Der Maler Arnold Schönberg: Bericht zum Symposium, 11-13 September 2003.  Published 2004 by Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien, Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg.)

Arnold Schoenberg: Brilliant Corners

Arnold Schoenberg, 1935 (photograph by John Gutmann)

I’ve known people who gravitate to Schoenberg’s music in the way that one might to a burning building.  In my own apartment, Schoenberg (1874-1951) is pretty much the stuff of contraband, alongside Albert Ayler, Steely Dan and a host of others in whose music I take great pleasure but am forced to enjoy either on headphones or on the sneak.  My wife wants to assassinate the sax player on “Deacon Blues.”  My two Ayler albums have mysteriously vanished.  And if they could rig sound systems such that they would explode with the playback of a twelve-tone composition, my guess is that I’d be the unwilling owner of at least two.  It can take effort and patience to orient oneself in Schoenberg’s angled world.  But why should that keep us from listening?

What does it mean to orient oneself in listening?

Listen here to Glenn Gould in a performance of one of Schoenberg’s earliest experiments with so-called “atonal” composition, op.11.  It was Gould who once speculated that a child raised on a remote mountainside, and exposed to nothing but music without tonal centre, would still manage to find some kind of beauty in it.  There would be no equivalent measure by which to perceive what we, by force of habit, have come to call “dissonance.”  There would be no default point of vantage from which to consider that particular aspect of the world disorienting or unnatural.  The youngster would still, like us, be a creature of nature and of convention – just differently positioned, the music differently slanted.  If disorientation is everywhere our default condition, if we are born into the world without a fixed point of reference, then it becomes a matter of pure circumstance as to the formal means by which we come to arrange it.  Who has turned us around like this?

There’s a certain freedom in Gould’s line of thinking.  Music can challenge, and orienting oneself in listening can be a healthy fight for perspective.  Music, once impenetrable, can illuminate.

In an undated notebook entry from his last years, Schoenberg takes up the conventional association of music and the beautiful:

“My subject: beauty and logic in music, shall deal with the mutual relation between beauty and logic in music.  Its main purpose shall be to dethrone beauty as much as possible as a serious factor in the creation of music.

It shall be assumed that it is neither the aim of a composer to produce beauty nor is a feeling of beauty a producing ‘agent’ in his imagination.  It might and often does occur that, in spite of an occupation with a different direction, the complete work produces a feeling of beauty in a listener.”*

You could say that, for Schoenberg, the musical idea is everywhere greater than the mere notion of truth or beauty.  Conceptions of truth and beauty – and with them, musical styles, tastes – change.  Invention does not.  So long as we’re around, the musical idea, the human urge to shape sound in space, will subsist absolutely.

My own gateway to Schoenberg’s music was his only piano concerto.  You can listen here to one of the great living pianists, Mitsuko Uchida, reflect on her experience with the concerto, which she says “involves an enormous amount of brainwork . . . .  You must be stubborn to want to learn it.” While talking about music may not always be like dancing about architecture, nothing can replace listening: So here is the concerto in full.

Listening, like learning, can require a good deal of what Uchida calls “devotion.”  My own experience has been that the character of a work will reveal itself naturally, but generally with repeated listening.  A first listen is very much like attempting to view a mural at arm’s distance.  Every successive listen is a step back, and eventually, some kind of whole comes into view.

Orienting myself in this way, I’ve come to find that where Schoenberg’s world is loaded with sharp angles, it is also full of brilliant corners.


* Quote taken from A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life, edited by Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984),  p. 326.  Sourced from archival material at the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna (T67.02, Notebook III).

Two Choice Recordings

  • Schoenberg: Piano Works – Glenn Gould (2CD reissue on Sony, 1995)
  • Piano Concerto etc. – Mitsuko Uchida (with Pierre Boulez & the Cleveland SO; on Philips, 2001)

Alban Berg published his first and only piano sonata (Opus 1)  in 1910.  He was twenty-five years of age and finishing up a lengthy period of study with Arnold Schoenberg.

I often think of Berg’s sonata as one good entry point to the thick terrain of 20th century classical music.  It rethinks the sonata as traditionally conceived, over the course of a single movement.  If there’s a steady feeling that the centre might not hold, the music never slips out of orbit.

Debussy once suggested that, after Beethoven, the sonata was no longer a valid form of composition.  Whether he meant it absolutely or rhetorically is a matter of some question; but I take his point.  In Berg’s sonata we find still another considered position.  For it stands at a threshold, at the threshold of atonality.  While it may not represent a “schooled” breaking with the music of the past, you never get the sense that its young composer is anything but open to the possible shape of music to come.  In the liner notes to his Carnegie Hall Concert (Teldec Classics, 2002) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard calls it an “odd” work that “suggests a reflection on what the sonata has been and might become.”

You can watch Canadian pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin perform Berg’s sonata live here.

It was Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who painted a well-known portrait of the young composer.  It dates from 1910, the same year as the publication of the piano sonata.  Here, as above, it would appear that Berg was fond of leaning his chin on his clenched right hand.

Schoenberg's portrait of Alban Berg (1910).

In the bigger picture, Schoenberg’s portrait of Berg stands as a snapshot of pre-World War I Vienna – a lost world that Berg’s friend, author Stefan Zweig, thoughtfully described as “the age of security.”  It is, as the title of Zweig’s great autobiography has it, The World of Yesterday.

I sometimes think about the young Berg in that time and place, at the threshold of tomorrow, before the monumental mess of 20th century European history.  For it’s in that historical context that his piano sonata – like Schoenberg’s painting of the same year – provides us with an important portrait of the artist as a young man.


A special note on Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010):

I’ve only recently discovered Yvonne Loriod’s sizzling version of the Berg sonata.  Loriod, most often remembered as interpreter and wife of Olivier Messiaen, died in May of last year.  It’s in memory of her that I link to her special interpretation of Berg’s Opus 1 here.

Recommended Recordings of the Berg Sonata:

  • Glenn Gould – Berg, Krenek, Berg, Debussy & Ravel (Columbia, 1958; Sony, 1995).
  • Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: 12 Etudes – Berg: Sonata. Op. 1 (DG, 1994).
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Schoenberg: Piano Concerto – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1, etc. (Philips, 2001).
  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard – At Carnegie Hall – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1 – Beethoven: Appassionata, etc. (Teldec Classics, 2002).