Commentary Magazine


Schoenberg

To the Editor:

As a result of Samuel Lipman’s article [“Schoenberg's Survival,” November 1976], I wasted exactly 27 minutes and 33 seconds listening to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the musical piece which Mr. Lipman tells us established that composer. Mr. Lipman describes the music as possessing an “unforced melodic beauty,” which is his cryptic awareness that little melody is to be found here. I came away from this experience of quiet cacophony with the following realizations.

An understanding of why there has “never existed any sizable audience for Schoenberg’s major mature works.” . . .

A recognition that the “intellectual class of musicians and [the] musical class of intellectuals” who, according to Mr. Lipman, favor Schoenberg are musically decadent, having lost touch with music as something heard and felt. Lost in thought, our intellectuals are in love with their ideas of music rather than with music itself.

A painful reminder of the needs of some persons to feel themselves part of an elect of taste and discernment and to see one of their own hailed as the leader, a hunger so desperate that there is a willingness to accept a degraded, ersatz substitute as authentic. The article panders to this mentality.

Additional evidence that our cultural leaders in the intellectual journals are failing to protect society againt such aberrations, having themselves lost the way by confusing a very fallible unidimensional intellectual context with the total sum of reality.

That the leaders of a community which once led the world in establishing universal human values now unwittingly lead it into a morass of subjectivism and vacuousness is a tragedy of colossal proportions.

David Basch
West Hartford, Connecticut

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Samuel Lipman writes:

I am sorry that David Basch does not find the melodic beauty I do in Verklärte Nacht. But it is not clear to me how, from the evidence of this first major composition written when Schoenberg was twenty-five, he can understand why there is no audience for Schoenberg’s later and radically different work. The rest of his letter uses strong words indeed—decadent, painful, desperate, degraded, panders, aberrations, morass, tragedy, and colossal—to describe a matter of some complexity and even delicacy: why Schoenberg’s conception of musical beauty, held with a sincerity hardly open to question, is not shared by the audience he attempted to reach. We all fancy ourselves watchdogs of the intellectual and social polity, but little can be accomplished in the way of protection by anathematizing those with whom one disagrees and even (if, as seems likely, Mr. Basch thinks my article was favorable to Schoenberg’s music) badly misunderstands.

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I have been informed through private correspondence that I was in error in stating that Schoenberg “had been a Catholic as a child.” I based this statement on two sources: the 1957 second edition of H. H. Stuckenschmidt’s Schoenberg (translated into English in 1959) and Willi Reich’s 1968 Schoenberg: A Critical Biography (translated into English in 1971). But unknown to me Stuckenschmidt had stated in a 1966 letter that he had made this statement about Schoenberg’s one-time Catholicism on the basis of false information supplied by the composer’s sister. And in another letter which has also been kindly placed at my disposal, Schoenberg’s now dead widow wrote, also in 1966, that Schoenberg never had been a Catholic, though she was a Catholic and his three children (I assume of this, his second marriage) had been raised as Catholics. Of course, the fact that Schoenberg’s immediate family for the last twenty-seven years of his life (his most fervently Jewish and Zionist period) were Catholics would seem to strengthen my later point that “He was, for all his ultimate commitment to Jewishness, badly torn between Judaism and Christianity.”

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