Schoenberg's New World. The American Years.

Sabine Feisst.

Oxford University Press.

ISBN 978-0-19-537238-0


Schoenberg's New World. The American Years

People talk glibly of the 12-tone system:
“Take all 12 notes, shake them well, and then list ’em.”
But Arnold Schoenberg, the originator,
Called it a method; the system came later...

Thus begins Nicolas Slonimsky’s poem about Schoenberg. Slonimsky became a naturalised American. He and Schoenberg formed a lifelong friendship.

Schoenberg settled in the USA in 1933. Franz Waxman came to Hollywood in the same year. Waxman played tennis with Schoenberg, and studied with him. Shirley Temple and Cole Porter lived on the same street as Schoenberg. The composer also mingled with Harpo Marx, Orson Wells, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Schoenberg encountered Charlie Chaplin, Artie Shaw, Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann. The latter was working on his novel Doctor Faustus, about a fictional modernist German composer. Not surprisingly, Schoenberg and Mann never became close friends. Accounts of Schoenberg’s less-than-smooth interactions with the German-born musicologist Theodor Adorno are revealing; the two men avoided each other.

In Los Angeles, Schoenberg removed the umlaut to anglicise his surname. He rapidly became fluent in English (though still speaking with an accent), and was soon in demand as a composition teacher. Contrary to legend, pupils such as Oscar Levant, Ralph Rainger and David Raksin remained as students with Schoenberg for a lengthy period. Schoenberg advised his students to write music without a piano, to hear a musical idea in their minds, and write it down as quickly as possible. John Cage, Lou Harrison and other students went on to international recognition.

Author Sabine Feisst is Associate Professor of Music History and Literature at Arizona State University. Her excellent book is doubly useful, not only serving as a reference text for Schoenberg’s compositions, but also giving a fresh account of Schoenberg during the period from 1933 to the composer’s death in 1951.

The 12-tone melody, not bound to any key,
Strode in wide intervals, magnificently free.
Then, by a deft maneuver of tergiversation,
It rolled off in reverse, in true reciprocation.

John Robert Brown

An edited version of this review was first published in Classical Music Magazine, 4th June 2011. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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