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Schoenberg’s 150th Birthday

Today, one tends to associate Arnold Schoenberg with scandal. This refers to the famous “Waddling Concert” in the Great Hall of the Musikverein on 31 March 1913. But this was by no means the only uproar and not his only appearance at the Musikverein. Archive director Johannes Prominczel provides some glimpses on the way to scandal.

© Collections of the Society of Music Friends in Vienna

He was blessed with many talents, this Arnold Schoenberg. He wrote libretti and texts for numerous choirs. In addition to his writings on music theory, he also dealt with political questions and wrote the drama “The Biblical Way”. He developed the music typewriter, invented the chess variant “coalition chess”, designed playing cards and pieces of furniture. His pictorial oeuvre contains not only 50 self-portraits, but also scribbles and doodles that he had made during an unentertaining Senate meeting in 1929, which are now kept in the collections of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Furthermore, we have almost 70 letters from the composer and some smaller music autographs, mostly album sheets. A manageable stock that does not even begin to reflect what happened in Vienna in the first decades of the 20th century – also housed in the Musikverein Wien.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874. After his father’s death in 1891, he was compelled to drop out of school and began working in a bank, a job he did most reluctantly. When the financial institution went bankrupt, he decided to become a composer, much to the chagrin of his family. From that time on, Schoenberg kept his head above water with the direction of various workers’ choirs. His participation in the Polyhymnia, a dilettante orchestra, proved groundbreaking. The director was Alexander Zemlinsky, who had just graduated from the conservatory of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and was to influence Schoenberg strongly in the following years. Early compositions such as his D major String Quartet or songs written around 1900 are committed to a late Romantic musical language. This is also evident in the string sextet “Verklärte Nacht”, which premiered in the Kleiner Musikvereinssaal in March 1902. The work, a programmatic illustration of the poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, was received only ambivalently. The critics praised the “efficient work” and the “beautiful sound” (Deutsches Volksblatt) but also spoke of the impossibility of unravelling the events described by the composer, especially since the text was not available to the audience. In addition, it was prophesied that it would “cause pain for the conservatives” (Ostdeutsche Rundschau). “Notwithstanding, Schoenberg is talented. He proved this four years ago because he left the best impression with a normal quartet” (Neues Wiener Tagblatt).

This concert series will conclude in the 2024/25 season with the “Gurre-Liedern” premiered at the Musikverein: on September 13, 2024, the day on which Arnold Schoenberg would have celebrated his 150th birthday.

From 1901 to 1903, Schoenberg, now married to Zemlinsky’s sister, worked in Berlin, as Musical Director for the cabaret and received a lectureship at the Stern Conservatory through the intercession of Richard Strauss. Schoenberg’s next premiere followed in 1905 at the Musikverein: as part of the second concert of the Wiener Konzertverein, the composer conducted a performance of his symphonic poem “Pelleas und Melisande”. Ludwig Karpath put it in a nutshell in the “Neues Wiener Tagblatt”: “I do not believe whether it is arithmetically possible to pile more discords on top of each other than in this composition by Schoenberg.” Without doubting Schoenberg’s talent, the reviewer was astonished by the audience’s emphatic applause. His pious wish that the composer “find his way home to healthy music-making” was not to be fulfilled. Schoenberg had long since become the Spiritus Rector of modern music. Divisions in the audience began to emerge. Students and companions praised him as the Messiah, but opponents condemned what they perceived as an aberration and accused him of musical anarchism. And the critics did not spare the superlatives here and there. On the occasion of the world premiere of the Chamber Symphony op. 9 – again in the Musikverein – Schoenberg was described as “the most modern of all moderns” and the Chamber Symphony as the “most greyish thing we have ever heard in our lives”. While the audience left the hall “en masse”, the composer was celebrated by the “stormers and pushers” (Reichspost). As early as 1898, Schoenberg had noted after a concert in the Bösendorfersaal: “And from then on, the scandal did not stop.”

In 1911, the successful premiere of the choir “Friede auf Erden” at the Musikverein followed. The “Neue Wiener Tagblatt” praised the artistically crafted choir, the great theme and – as a small side-swipe to Schoenberg’s atonal developments – the tonality. In 1913, the “Gurre-Lieder” premiered at the Musikverein and received a positive response. Julius Korngold devoted an unusually long review to work, which had already been composed in 1900/01, in the “Neue freie Presse”. He contrasted the composer, as one could get to know him in the meantime, with the “Schoenberg of older confession” – one who “does not shy away from euphony”. One might think that the development of the audience could not keep pace with that of Arnold Schoenberg. Only a few weeks later, the dispute between old and new finally escalated in the “Waddling Concert”. In addition to his chamber symphony and a work by Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg performed compositions by his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg. There was no longer a performance of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder”. The dispute between supporters and opponents culminated in insults, shouting, and fighting. Schoenberg broke off and shouted into the audience. It is not a significant moment in the concert industry’s history, yet a fight for musical truth conducted with impressive passion and idealism.

Text by Johannes Prominczel.