Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Diaries of a musical theorist

‘D-minor Quartet of Schoenberg, by [the] Rosé [Quartet]. A single, long-drawn-out atrocity! If there were such a thing as criminals in the realm of art, one would have to count this composer among their ranks, as one born such or perhaps merely turned criminal.’ This strident judgement of the Austrian atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg can be found in the diaries of another Austrian composer, Heinrich Schenker. Though not remembered for his compositions, Schenker, born 150 years ago today, is considered one of the 20th century’s leading theorists and analysts of tonal musical.

Schenker was born in Wiśniowczyk, Austrian Galicia (present-day Ukraine) on 19 June 1868 into a Jewish doctor ’s family. He attended German school in Lemberg (now Lviv), studying piano from an early age. He enrolled in the Law Faculty of the University of Vienna in 1884, and studied concurrently at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. He received his Doctor of Law in 1890, decided to remain in Vienna, and chose to devote himself entirely to music, giving piano lessons, working as a music critic, as well as accompanying others on stage, conducting and publishing small-scale compositions.

But Schenker also began to analyse and theorise about music, and it is for this that he is best remembered. For Universal Edition, newly founded in Vienna in 1901, he edited keyboard works by C. P. E. Bach (1903) and later J. S. Bach ’s Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue (1910). These editions, it is said, marked the beginning of a life-long involvement with composers autograph manuscripts, copies, and early printed sources, the contents of which he sought to transmit without editorial intervention, save for footnoted commentary. His most important theory, expounded in Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (The Masterpiece in Music), was, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, that great musical compositions grow from a single idea and that their contrasting themes represent only a different aspect of this one basic thought . His work greatly influenced other 20th-century theoreticians.

Around 1903, Schenker met Jeanette Kornfeld (born Schiff), the wife of a friend, and over several years a relationship developed between the two. By 1910, she had left her husband to be with Schenker and to help him with his work. It was not until 1919, though, that she was able to divorce her husband, and marry Schenker. By then, Schenker had been diagnosed with diabetes, a condition which would affect his day-to-day life, and ultimately cause his death in 1935.

Schenker Documents Online has this assessment of his legacy: ‘Already in January 1930, the rise of the National Socialists in Germany had cast its shadow on Schenker ’s life, putting beyond reach a prospective official appointment in Berlin. Soon after his death, his students, his living legacy, most of whom were Jewish, were scattered: many emigrated to the USA and elsewhere, others remained and were deported (as was his own wife) to the camps. The Schenker Institute established in Vienna a few months after his death was closed down in 1938, as had been a similar institute in Hamburg in 1934. Copies of his publications at UE were confiscated by the Gestapo, and he himself was characterized grotesquely [. . .] The dissemination of his ideas was to come not from Europe but from the USA, through his students [. . .]. The influence of Schenker ’s theories blossomed there in the 1950s and 1960s, and gradually extended back to Europe and to other parts of the world during the later 20th century. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Schenker kept a diary for most of his life, as well as engaging in regular correspondence with a large number of friends and colleagues. Most of this literary material remained unpublished through the 20th century, and it was only with the Schenker Documents Online project, starting in 2003, that much of it became freely available to the public. The project counted on over 20 contributing scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a dozen research faculty and staff (consultants, programmers, and web designers, most affiliated with the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London), and considerable financial support from British and Austrian funders, including the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Austrian Science Fund. 

Today, the interactive digital archive includes Schenker ’s diaries, from 1896 to 1935, lesson books, and a large volume of two-way correspondence, all presented both in transcription and in parallel English translation. A review in the Journal of the American Musicological Society sums up its value: ‘[The] diverse contents record economic hardships, significant political events, quarrels with publishers, intense musical debates, student successes, simple pleasures (a cigar after lunch, an evening radio broadcast), and even dreams (some amusing, others poignant). Public and private, life and work - all are commingled. As in Schenker’s late theory, insight emerges only through the interrelationship of many coexisting levels. ’

The following extracts have all been taken from Schenker Documents Online.

5 February 1907
‘D-minor Quartet of Schoenberg, by [the] Rosé [Quartet]. A single, long-drawn-out atrocity! If there were such a thing as criminals in the realm of art, one would have to count this composer among their ranks, as one born such or perhaps merely turned criminal. Without feeling for key, motive, measure, on its own terms just utterly threadbare, without a trace of technique, and nevertheless at the same time constantly the hugest non-existent, the total sham . . . ’

16 February 1907
‘Exceptionally, at Privy Counselor Redlich’s place, played with companions’ quartet. Unbearable atmosphere; good looks made for bad playing. ’

2 May 1907
‘In the morning, a walk in the Botanic Garden.

Egypt at the Panorama. Reading: ”On Cultivated Plants” by Prof. Giesenhagen (Teubner) has a lovely, profound and liberating effect! ’

14 May 1907
‘My electoral “duty ” fulfilled for the first time, compelled to cast my vote for a socialist. ’

22 May 1907
‘Very gloomy fog, right down to the ground.

Open letter to Mahler signed in a deliberate frame of mind; situation not without humor. ’

2 December 1912
‘My mother found completely at ease, despite having suffered my vehemence. (She had, yet again, inferior evidence of anguish from Mozio).

A joint visit to the Urania suggested by Floriz initially declined. ’

25 September 1913
‘A day of madness: just when I am supposed to go see Mama, the piano tuner appears, Mr. Wolfram gets in my way, the Court Library must be visited as well as the historical exhibition. In the Court Library there are only very few Beethoven autographs to be found, and there I also learn from officials that the Artaria collection went to the Berlin library because the consent to purchase it, in accordance with typical Austrian behavior, arrived believe it or not four hours too late!!! In the historical exhibition, we see quite wonderful pieces of the Rainer papyrus collection, valuable individual documents of Xenophon, and so on.

In the afternoon, at Hertzka ’s. A run-of-the-mill idiot! He again speaks loudly only of his sacrifices and only quietly of my accommodation - speaks loudly about the [costs of] advertising [my work] but is happy to ignore my counter-reckoning - inquires about Weisse as if he wished to publish his work, but immediately curtails his devotion by pretending to await a later opus - inquires again about my works, would like to have some of them, would gladly like to see the Little Library; and since I constantly let him feel that he is, however, too miserly for such business, he replies by saying that he would be prepared, as proof of his not being miserly, to put down 50 Kronen for any well-intended gesture!! And national treasures find their way into hands such as these! I kept him in the dark with regard to Peters, and he is, for the time being, also satisfied with that!! ’

30 November 1913.
‘Express letter from Floriz, in which he expresses his delight that the matter has once again been put right. He already sees the matter as finished, from a simple inclination towards comfort and laxity; he wants to see it as finished so that he - even if prematurely - can proceed towards enjoyment and avoid any effort that might possibly be required if order is to be achieved! In one sense the letter was, however, gratifying, since a small distancing from the sister could be detected, which carried a lot of weight. I hasten to reply to his letter immediately, and finally explain to him that I was almost at the point of resenting him for identifying with his sister even when she perpetrates a serious wrong against someone else! I hope that Floriz will now keep his word and think that his sister ought to behave in a more civilized way!!

Excursion to Hetzendorf; an exceedingly violent gale rages through the downright springlike, sunlit world; a gale that almost has the power to force our imagination out into space, from where we could perceive the whirling of the earth upon its axis. We felt as if we were experiencing the gale not beneath our feet on firm ground but beyond the atmosphere, as observers of the mighty celestial orbit. The sun drew out sap, just as in the springtime; many bushes succumbed to the lure of its rays and sprouted buds, which sparkled joyfully in the sunlight, without realizing how near they were to freezing to death.

The competency of a man. I ask the conductor on the streetcar, who is only temporarily covering our line, whether he is knowledgeable about the distant lines? He replies: Yes, we are obliged to know the entire network, otherwise our job would indeed be very easy. The tone in which he spoke these words would, even from the mouth of a Moltke or a Napoleon, have made a poor impression!

Typically Viennese: a steam laundry adheres to neither its collection nor its delivery times, and does not even respond to an urgent postcard! ’

5 February 1925
‘At Dr. Baumgarten’s: I show him the last statement of account; he writes a letter to UE threatening legal action. We give Mozio 120 dollars. I cannot refrain from mentioning that I could have made Tonwille myself for 32 million, to my own benefit and to the benefit of the world - he plays deaf! Lie-Liechen cannot refrain from reminding him about Frieda - he plays deaf! He offers to intervene with the Philharmonischer Verlag - through Elbemühl; I take his boasting word right out of his mouth, saying: I dismissed this publishing house. Lie-Liechen writes the fair copy of the Largo. ’

22 April 1933
‘The installment from Mozio. Day of Music-Making at the Palais Kinsky. Bamberger incomparable in Mozart ’s Divertimento; in making this judgment, I encounter opposition from people [in the audience]: “Really?” ’

16 February 1934
‘From Sophie (letter): concerning her husband’s health. From UE, account: 82.04 shillings; 47 copies of Brahms, and one volume - Theory of Harmony!! - Via a telephone call to Deutsch, Mrs. van Hoboken gets in touch! Lie-Liechen invites her for afternoon snack tomorrow. I play two movements from suites by Handel to the members of my seminar. After teatime, at Fritz ’s. From Oppel (postcard): he provides the [relevant] issue of Die Zukunft. ’

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