Arnold Schoenberg, Composer, 1874 –1951

Drawing by Emil Orlik

Drawing by Emil Orlik From “Neue 95 Köpfe von Orlik” 1926

Arnold Schoenberg is recognized as one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and he appears again and again as a correspondent and topic of discussion in the papers of prominent musicians in the LBI archives.

Though he became famous in the early part of the twentieth century for tonal works in the vein of Brahms and Wagner, Schoenberg’s legacy is primarily based on his development of the twelve-tone serial technique, which he expounded upon in his unfinished oratorio “Die Jakobsleiter,” a signed copy of which is in the LBI archives.

The challenges Schoenberg faced with regard to the reception of his atonal music are evident in from a signed affidavit in the papers of the Frankfurt lawyer and composer Max Kowalski.  Schoenberg states that the rehearsals allotted by the Frankfurt Opera for the world premiere of his opera “Von Heute auf Morgen” were inadequate given the difficulty of the music.  The premiere, one of only two performances of the opera in Schoenberg’s lifetime, was conducted by William Steinberg, who would also go on to play a major role in American classical music as the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Schoenberg also wrote to Kowalski in 1933 from France, where he had fled after being dismissed from his post at the Prussian Academy of the Arts because of his Jewish heritage. He discussed his work on the uncharacteristically light-hearted Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B flat and expressed uncertainty about the future, writing “[I don’t know if] I will remain in Paris or even Europe […].”

In fact, Schoenberg would settle in Los Angeles the following year, where he taught at UCLA and maintained contact with a growing community of German émigrés, including Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann.  Another letter in the LBI archives, this time a lengthy circular to friends and supporters, describes his difficulty balancing earning a living and composing music in Los Angeles and his strained relations with other prominent German-Jewish émigré musicians such as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter.

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