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The Nazis on Arnold Schoenberg

December 17, 2011

My previous post gave me a chance to talk about Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, and also to talk about the Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet film of that opera.  But you may notice that in that post, I did not talk about any Jewish aspect of the opera or film.  However, of course, Arnold Schoenberg was Jewish and the opera is on a Jewish theme.  (And the involvement continues with those involved in the film:  Günter Reich was an Israeli baritone who escaped from Germany in 1934; Michel Gielen was of Jewish birth and escaped from Germany in 1938.)

One reason for not mentioning these is that the work seems to me to belong to world culture, not a particular religious culture.  But is that right?  Let me turn to two sources.


First, the filmmaker Straub himself (from an interview with Joel Rogers):

QUESTION: What were [Schoenberg’s] intentions in composing [Moses und Aron]?

STRAUB: I think it’s simple enough. He wanted to provoke and rally the audience. Such a work in 1930 or 1932 was an incredible provocation. At that time of course anti-Semitism was institutionalizing itself. It’s an old Story, that goes from Paris to Vienna, and from Vienna to Germany, a story the Jewish bourgeoisie has always refused to believe. They refuse to believe in an explosion of anti-Semitism and violence. They always felt that they would be able to find shelter, that anti-Semitism would only affect Jews of other classes. Given this attitude, Schoenberg has written a work that is intended as a provocation and rallying force. From the point of view of an artist, it is important to understand that. He wanted to make an equivalent for the Jewish people of what The Passion of Saint Matthew is for Christians. At least that’s my impression.

Before he wrote Moses and Aaron, Schoenberg had attacked anti-Semitism violently. That’s shown by the two letters to Kandinsky in 1923 that we have cited (in Introduction to a Cinemagraphic Accompaniement by Arnold Schoenberg …[a short with the DVD release of the Moses and Aaron]). That was a pretty rare thing. There was no other Jew that attacked like that at that time. To the contrary, the Jews at that time practiced what they called the “politics of the ostrich,” saying to themselves, “Maybe it’s not true, and even if it is true, it won’t touch us. We’re respectable people, and the Christians with when we share every day by a pact of class, are not going to eliminate us. So if the Jews are exterminated, it will only be the poor schmucks who get it.”

And there were many artists at the time who thought that “because we are artists we will be spared.” For example we heard from Michel Gielen, the director of the orchestra for the film, about what happened to his father. His father was a theater director, quite famous and respected. And his mother was Jewish. It was not until 1938 that the family fled Germany, which is very very late. And they left so late because he thought his position as an artist would protect him. He was Herr Professor, and he had friends in high places, even near Goebbels. The crematories came late, in ‘42. The anti-Semitism up until 1938 had only reached to the small merchants and craftsmen and so on. Those were the people they were taking. Not world renowned artistes. And so he thought until the end that he would be spared.

This attitude of, “No, not us, they won’t take us,” was common to the entire class of bourgeois Jews, and it was against this that Schoenberg was an exception. After the first letter to Kandinsky, Kandinsky replied and said, “Well, of course, you’re unique, Schoenberg. You know that. We respect you. You’re not like the other Jews.”

And Schoenberg declares in the second letter that he doesn’t want to be anything other than a Jew. In refusing to be an exception, he was unique. The letters to Kandinsky were not all he did of course. At a time when most Jews were afraid even to defend themselves, Schoenberg openly attacked the bourgeoisie. This was through the ‘20s, and then in 1930 he goes on to write Moses and Aaron. He was very aware of what he was going. It was an immense provocation.

That seems powerful enough, but in the end, Straub-Huillet were famously political, and one might argue that they are exaggerating the Jewish aspect of the film. 


So next, let us turn to the Nazis themselves.  They were hardly neutral on Schoenberg. Here is a (painful) excerpt from a Nazi Dictionary of Music, published in the late thirties, and translated by Monica Weisauer.  (You can find this excerpt in the appendix to this article.)  The tone and content of this article are repulsive, but it is important to read – to remind ourselves just how total the Nazi worldview was.  The Nazis were not simply a despotic political party and agents of genocide – their uncompromising worldview of “Germanity” applied to every aspect of life:

… Schoenberg began his career as composer initially as an epigone of Wagner (string sextet: “Verklärte Nacht” [“Transfigured Night”], “Gurrelieder” [“Songs of Gurra”], etc.) only to depart increasingly in the later course of his development from the traditional principles of all musical forms and creativity and finally—from his piano pieces op. 11 onwards—consciously dispensed with them completely. “Thereby he upsets,” as is stated in the comprehensive publication Die Juden in Deutschland [The Jews in Germany], “the concepts of consonance and dissonance and thus our entire harmonic system, arrived at through a millennium-long development. In place of our occidental harmony, which is derived from the triad, he later, in a harmonic theory, seeks to establish theoretically his pettily contrived system of dissonance.” The so-called “twelve-tone music” invented by Schoenberg is also discussed here.

“This twelve-tone music means in music the same thing as Jewish egalitarianism does in all other spheres of life: the 12 tones of the piano should be, under all circumstances, mutually and fully equal, they all must appear in equal frequency, and none is permitted to assume priority over the others. That represents, however, the total overthrow of the natural order of tones in the tonal principle of our classical music.” With these words Karl Blessinger characterizes in a brief outline Schoenberg’s principle of composition, one which from the Jewish viewpoint was praised as a great revolutionary invention in the area of music.

The biased historical account which was perpetuated by Jewry, especially in the case of Schoenberg, is most clearly shown by drawing a comparison between the edition of the Riemann Music Lexicon, which was published by Riemann himself and the 11th edition (1929) which was edited by the Jew Alfred Einstein. Thus, Schoenberg is characterized by Riemann as “a composer who by the extravagances in the invoice of his newest works provokes protest”; his “harmonics” are called “a peculiar hodgepodge of theoretical backwardness and ultramodern negation of theory.” Further, Riemann in particular denounces Schoenberg’s tendency to negate everything which has existed up until now—the Jewish tactic of long standing, which was always used when it was necessary to destroy the cultural values of the host-nation and to replace them with their own (which they saw as the only valid ones). Riemann concluded his reflections with the ascertainment that “the artistic work which Schoenberg pretends to teach, today, thank God, is still strange to the collective sensibility.”

With Einstein everything is now reversed. Here Schoenberg appears as “the typical representative or rather exponent of the new music.” The Jew Sigmund Pisling similarly wrote that “Schoenberg is by disposition similar to Columbus. He opened a new world of expression for music. Half-repressed melancholy, stammered apprehensions, presentiments which open the eye to the point of bursting, hysterics with which we all live, the multitude of spasms: they become tones.”

Contrary to this, it must be established that Schoenberg’s appointment in Berlin has raised the greatest opposition in non-Jewish circles. In 1925 the renowned musicologist Dr. Alfred Heub [the late publisher of Zeitscrift für Musik (Journal of Music)] wrote that “the position of Arnold Schoenberg as head of one of the three master’s classes for composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin signifies a blow against German music which at this time is unsurpassed as a provocation …The time of Schoenberg’s hysterical spasms and shivers in music is now passed … And now, when German music is just beginning to recover, one dares reward this man’s false doctrines with the highest national honors, to emphasize his supposed greatness, showing that one is concerned with neither the development nor the growth of German music. This means a challenge and, if honestly considered, a trial of strength between Germanity and specifically Jewish spiritual conceptions of music.”

Also, it should be noted, that Schoenberg, after his emigration from Germany, was soon forgotten—a quick, but just sentence of history.

Martin Walsh, who gives this excerpt in his article, concludes, “This excerpt from the Nazi Dictionary demonstrates quite precisely one perspective from which Schoenberg’s work is indeed of revolutionary importance.”   


So does Schoenberg’s Judaism matter? As a listener in 2011, I am not sure. But, it seems it mattered to Straub-Huillet in the 1970s. And it seems it mattered to the Nazis in the 1930-40s.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    October 6, 2014 12:06 am

    Schoenberg of course was not a musician. His so-called music was just a scam. I’m reminded of a famous story about Stockhausen. When English composer Beecham was asked if he had heard any Stockhausen lately, he replied “no, but I stepped in some on my way to work today.” Schoenberg was a typical Jew intellectual without any aesthetic sensibility whatsoever. Yet he wanted for some reason to infect our Western aesthetic culture with his Jewish insanity. I suppose he couldn’t help himself. He was sick. He belonged in a labor camp.

  2. October 8, 2014 8:17 am

    You may want to get your facts straight before making your own anti-Semitic assertions:

    And the celebrated put-down of Karlheinz Stockhausen that was quoted widely this year in the composer’s obituaries: ‘I’ve not heard any Stockhausen, but I think I’ve trodden in some.’ A posthumous invention, says Lucas, probably by the critic Neville Cardus

    http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/080903-NL-Beecham.html

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