Forbidden Music: Composers banned by the Third Reich

February 12, 2017 by Stevie Whitmont
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Continuing a series by Stevie Whitmont of music banned by the Nazis…this month features Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg was the towering intellect of 20th century composition. Born into a simple Viennese family, largely uneducated, and fraught with inter-personal and emotional problems, he transcended these issues and introduced the world to astonishing changes in the received structure and sound of classical music: The emergence of Atonality and Serialism (12-tone composition) were due to Schoenberg. He was the “father” of the so-called Second Viennese School of composition, heralded by his students Webern, Berg and Eisler. And he thought of himself as “the Chosen One”, designated to further the evolution of a great German musical tradition. Without doubt, he succeeded as composer, academic, pedagogue, music theorist, writer and artist.

Over a lengthy career, his works evolved through several periods: Romantic (1894-1907), Atonal (1908-1922) and Serialism (1923 onward). From his earliest period, Verklärte Nacht (1899) was the first programmatic chamber work ever written, based on Richard Dehmel’s mystical poem. Schoenberg’s thematic motifs describe the story: A woman’s confession of pregnancy to a new lover, resolved by the lover’s acceptance of the unborn child, and the child’s “transfiguration” through the mechanism of their love. Verklärte Nacht (English translation Transfigured Night) was transcending in its own right, successfully combining opposed compositional techniques from the Brahms vs. Wagner schools of thought.                     

Schoenberg struggled with his religious heritage. It infused his politics, his music and his life’s journey. He converted to Lutheranism in 1898, partly in self-defense against rising anti-Semitism. Thirty-five years later (1933) in a Paris synagogue, he formally re-committed to Judaism; political events in Germany had forced the conclusion that his Jewish heritage was “inescapable”. Soon after, he left for America, age 49. For the remainder of Schoenberg’s life he survived on moderate income from academic posts, at first in Boston and New York, later on the west coast (University of Southern California, and University of California Los Angeles). He desperately sought recognition and performance for his music; but beyond his circle of students Schoenberg was never again embraced to the extent he thought justified. The Americans had failed to recognize his own historic importance.                         

Jewish themes and topics in Schoenberg’s music surfaced periodically throughout his career: Die Jakobsleiter (1922); Moses und Aron (1932/33); Kol Nidre for Choir and Orchestra (1938); and A survivor from Warsaw (1947). His uncompleted opera titled Moses und Aron reveals Schoenberg’s lifelong phobia of the number 13. When he realized the original title included 13 letters, he changed the spelling from Aaron to Aron.

Here is the final section of Verklärte Nacht (Sehr Ruhig), by the English Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.

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