How Arnold Schoenberg Became Lonely: Imagination versus Reality


Portrait of Arnold Schoenburg, Egon Schiele, 1917

by Sabine Feisst

Arnold Schoenberg, the famous Viennese-born composer and pioneer of musical modernism, was one of the many refugees from Nazi tyranny who settled in the United States in the 1930s and never again set foot on European soil. Yet despite his eighteen fruitful years (1933-1951) in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, he has been widely portrayed — and widely pitied — as an isolated and lonely European prophet of modern music, stranded in the cultural wilderness of the United States, where his ideas could never fall on fertile ground and his genius was wasted.

This image of Schoenberg as a lonesome artist grew out of his own feelings and rhetoric, nourished by his experiences as a German Jew long before he settled in America. Having grown up in Vienna’s Jewish district Leopoldstadt, Schoenberg struggled with Jewish pariahism and a sense of belongingness, a phenomenon that the Jewish emancipation and assimilation had failed to eliminate. Schoenberg adjusted to the lifestyles of his non-Jewish surroundings, converting to Protestantism and mastering the compositional techniques of Austro-German classical music; yet he remained an outsider in the field of music, believing that through extraordinary achievements, he could gain the acceptance of a cultural elite from which he also stood out.

Building on the musical canon from Bach to Wagner, Schoenberg felt he had been chosen to counter widespread musical conservatism by developing a new type of modernist musical logic and truth. That commitment led him to novel and highly idiosyncratic compositions, marked by complexity and dissonance. These works failed to attract mass appeal, and the notoriety that attended their reception soon made him a controversial figure in the musical world. Schoenberg, however, longed for audience appreciation and acceptance, and was left feeling misunderstood, unwanted and lonely. In 1933 he grumbled: “Nationalistic musicians regard me as international, but abroad my music is regarded as too German. National Socialists regard me as a cultural Bolshevik, but the communists reject me as bourgeois. Anti-Semites personify me as a Jew, my direction as Jewish, but almost no Jews have followed my direction.” In a 1937 speech that he titled “How One Becomes Lonely,” he stated: “I had to fight for every new work; I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by criticism … I stood alone against a world of enemies. Alone, with one exception: that small group of faithful friends, my pupils.”

In his struggle for recognition, broad public acceptance and the survival of his art, Schoenberg also identified himself with the role of a martyr. Recalling the biblical figure of Jacob, who endured pain and injury in his struggle to be blessed by an angel, Schoenberg often characterized himself as a physically suffering artist. The impression of him as a martyr emerges perhaps most dramatically in his 1947 address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters — often called the “Boiling Water Speech” for its description of his artistic situation: “Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim or to get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best I could. I did not know what saved me; why I was not drowned or cooked alive … I have perhaps only one merit; I never gave up.”

Schoenberg saw music history as a progressive process in which he was a major though underrated player. Blind to his many successes, he relentlessly worried about his legacy and hoped for a posthumous recognition. Toward the end of his life, he still felt that he “faced the opposition of the whole world” and expected “to become recognized only after his death.” But he feared that “the second half of this century will spoil by overestimation, all the good of me that the first half, by underestimation left intact.”

Schoenberg’s elaboration on his loneliness influenced many of his commentators, especially those who have discussed his American years. Both Schoenberg’s champions and critics claimed that he was particularly lonely in the United States. His European disciples portrayed him as an elitist and “non-conformist,” an outsider detached and alienated from the commercially driven and hedonistic American cultural environment. His critics accused him of being a snob with a forbidding hermetic aura, unwilling to adjust to his new surroundings. It was widely assumed that Schoenberg was “not in the least Americanized.” It was also believed that Schoenberg’s American career was a disappointment that negatively affected not only his creativity but his teaching activities and personal welfare too.

These views fail to appreciate that Schoenberg’s assessment of his situation was often not based in reality. Far from being isolated or alone, he in fact never failed to attract supporters in Europe and America, and scored substantial successes on both continents. Schoenberg’s penchant for the rhetoric of loneliness expressed something deeper than pessimism; it worked along with his unfailing ethical idealism to fuel his fighting spirit, which was the engine of his productivity, creativity, and teaching activities in both Europe and America.

Schoenberg Smiling

Schoenberg’s adjustment to his new surroundings in the United States was smoother and more gracious than that of many other fellow émigrés in those years. After attaining U.S. citizenship in 1941, he viewed himself as a proud American. In 1933 he anglicized the spelling of his last name, replaced the old cursive German Sütterlin script with modern handwriting, and immediately used English in his speeches, interviews and lectures, even though his proficiency was at first rudimentary. But Schoenberg soon became fluent in English and made it his principal means of communication, despite his inability to perfect it and hide his Austrian accent. He adopted American lifestyles and enjoyed American foods and clothing as well as Hollywood films and such radio and TV shows as Professor Quiz, Information Please!, The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. Most important, he made many new friends while tending to his young family — two of his three children from his second marriage were born in America — and maintaining old acquaintanceships.

An avid and tireless communicator, Schoenberg corresponded and socialized with his relatives, European friends and students, European immigrants and with Americans, among them many composers, performers, conductors, and students. He mingled with them at many Sunday afternoon salons, birthday parties, picnics and other social events. In Los Angeles Schoenberg became acquainted with such actors, playwrights, directors and producers as Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Clifford Odets, Orson Welles and Irving Thalberg. He also befriended composers, arrangers, songwriters, and lyricists including Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Herbert Stothart. He loved to play ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin, on whose private tennis court in Beverly Hills he spent much time. Gershwin supported Schoenberg, donating money to a Schoenberg scholarship fund and subsidizing the premier recording of his four string quartets; by the same token, Schoenberg backed Gershwin’s music, attending his concerts and praising his talent in speeches and writings.

1937 silent film shot by George Gerswhin, featuring Arnold and Gerturd Schoenberg, violinist Rudolf Kolisch, Doris Vidor, and Gershwin himself on Gershwin’s tennis court, followed by Gershwin’s famous painting of Schoenberg (Soundtrack: the opening of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet and Schoenberg’s Gershwin eulogy.

Charlie Chaplin, Gertrud and Arnold Schoenberg, David Raskin. Photograph by Max Munn Autrey

Although Gershwin was inclined to take lessons with Schoenberg, he never did. Other Hollywood musicians, however, did seize the opportunity to become Schoenberg’s pupils, among them Hugo Friedhofer, Serge Hovey, Oscar Levant, Alfred Newman, Ralph Rainger, David Raksin, and Nathaniel Shilkret. Through their lessons, they generously supplemented Schoenberg’s income while he was as a professor at the University of Southern California (1935–36) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1936–1944); they also proved to be among his most helpful friends. Rainger helped Schoenberg pay for the shipment of his furniture from Europe and provided affidavits. Levant assisted him in becoming a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Newman instigated the first recording of Schoenberg’s four string quartets, and musicians from the Fox studio participated in the premiere of his Kol nidre in 1938. Schoenberg was also invited to score several films, but these projects never materialized. He did, however, provide the Oscar speech for the Best Film Score in 1938.

Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg was also friends with numerous American composers in the field of classical music. Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Nicolas Slonimsky, Virgil Thomson, Adolph Weiss, and others championed his music as concert organizers, performers, teachers and critics. He was also sought after as a teacher and had many talented American students who devotedly absorbed his teachings and disseminated his music and ideas during his lifetime and after his death. A partial list includes such figures as John Cage, Lou Harrison, Earl Kim, Leon Kirchner, Dika Newlin, Leonard Rosenman, Leonard Stein and Gerald Strang.

Schoenberg teaching a seminar at his home. Photograph by Richard Fish

Contrary to the myth that his music was seldom played, Schoenberg received hundreds of performances in the United States, even during the economically dire periods of the Great Depression and World War II. Although symphony orchestras focused on his more conservative music, such as his arrangements of Bach and Brahms, many of his progressive chamber works and all of his American compositions, including his twelve-tone violin and piano concertos, were performed in his new homeland during his lifetime. These performances owed much to Schoenberg’s networking skills and his contacts with such conductors as Otto Klemperer, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Frederick Stock and Leopold Stokowski and such performers as Richard Buhlig, Louis Krasner, Edward Steuermann, and the Kolisch, Pro Arte and Juilliard Quartets. Schoenberg, however, was often unaware of his music’s numerous performances because of the vastness of the American contemporary-music scene, with its many inconspicuous venues and lack of publicity.

Interested in other disciplines, including the visual arts, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, and Jewish politics, Schoenberg communicated with important figures in these fields as well: Fred Dolbin, Albert Einstein, Vern Knudsen, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, Rudolph Schindler, Rabbi Stephen Weiss, and Franz Werfel. He received attention in the American press and was honored with commissions, music festivals and awards from various American and international institutions including the Mailamm Society (The America-Palestine Institute of Musical Sciences, 1939), the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1947), the American League of Authors and Composers from Austria (1947), and the Israeli Academy of Music, Jerusalem (1951).

Home movie by Serge Hovey featuring Schoenberg, Ira Gershwin, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell and Richard Buhlig and Schoenberg’s children Nuria and Ronald at a beach party in Malibu.

Schoenberg preferred to regard the glass as being half empty, and he never stopped seeing himself as a lonely and unrecognized artist. Many of his commentators have amplified this rhetoric, especially with respect to his American years. Yet the substantial hurdles Schoenberg had to surmount notwithstanding, this view needs to be taken with caution. Surrounded and supported by family, relatives, friends, students and other admirers, Schoenberg was able to compose, conduct, hear and discuss some of his finest works at a time when European Jews were murdered and their contributions to European culture were banned or annihilated. Schoenberg was also able to propagate his music and ideas successfully, and they grew into one of the strongest influences on American and European music in the second half of the twentieth century.

All photographs courtesy of the author, with permission from the Arnold Schoenberg Center.

About the Author:

Sabine Feisst is Associate Professor of Music History and Literature at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on Arnold Schoenberg, exile studies, experimental music, film music and eco-criticism. She is the author of Der Begriff ‘Improvisation’ in der neuen Musik (The Idea of Improvisation in New Music, Studio Verlag, 1997) and Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years (Oxford University Press, 2011) and numerous essays on twentieth- and twenty-first-century music.