‘The second half of this century will spoil by overestimation all the good of me that the first half, by underestimation, has left intact,’ Arnold Schoenberg prophesied in 1949, 16 years after his move to America. He was a man, he felt, whose time had never quite arrived. Before the First World War he had struggled for recognition; afterwards, in the age of Brecht and Weill, he was seen as a relic from the heyday of German expressionism. The overestimation, when it came, came in the wrong place: though his reputation grew in Europe after the Second World War thanks to Boulez’s proselytising, he found himself in exile, forced to teach to support his family and struggling to prove himself to the tough American crowd. Part of the problem, in Bojan Bujic’s diagnosis, was the perception of Schoenberg as a certain kind of ‘difficult’ composer (overly formal, lacking in warmth), which scared listeners off, or provoked accusations of elitism. (Schoenberg is difficult, Bujic argues, but not in the way people think he is.) But it also seems, if Bujic is right, that the lack of understanding that has dogged Schoenberg’s career and afterlife is due, at least in part, to his character. Logician and mystic, split between two religions, contemptuous of the left but despised by the right, Schoenberg was so set on being singular that it was impossible for him to make himself at home in the world.
LRB 20 October 2011 | PDF Download