Arnold Schoenberg, Germany’s Leading Futurist Composer, Gives Ideas

Arnold Schoenberg, Germany’s leading futurist composer, whose music is being played this year for the first time by the Chicago Symphony orchestra, is not, as one might suspect, a large, fierce man, with wild hair and a perpetual sneer for the classics. He is, instead, a small, half-bald, nervous man, with evident dynamic force and with that comeliest of all adornments, modesty. He talks restlessly, keenly eyeing his interrogator, and invariably there is in his face a childlike expression of candor and simplicity. Occasionally he stops, with his arms over the back of his chair and one knee resting on his desk. There is no polish in the pose, nor in his conversation, no more than in his bearing. He is a man who evidently inhabits a different world, a thinker and a believer, who has left conventions behind and is tirelessly following out the logical conclusion of his own thoughts.
Schoenberg’s study is rather barely furnished. Most obvious in it are a dozen or so futurist pictures, the only mural decorations. There are two large bookcases bearing such classics as Schiller and Heine in full, and many shelves devoted to musical works, with contents running from Bach to Strauss and including even Mendelssohn. There is a piano and on the desk when I called lay sheets of manuscripts notes, small and neatly written.
Schoenberg was particularly interested to know that his works were to be played in America, which he had not heard until I told him. He asked for a copy of the criticisms when they arrived in Berlin and wondered whether they would be favorable. “Probably not,” he said, and smiled. It does not distress him to be excoriated by critics; the precedents are too excellent.
There is a theory which one hears frequently in Berlin drawing rooms that Schoenberg had been a painter and had applied the inspiration of painting to music, writing for musical color instead of melody, and I asked him if this was true.
“I used to paint,” he said, “but that was years ago. I didn’t do much with it. Maybe I shall take it up again. But painting and my music have nothing in common. My music is the result of purely musical theory and must be judged from purely musical results.”
“How would you express your theory if it could be done briefly and for a layman?” I asked.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “Part of it stands in my textbook on harmony. It is, of course, based on a belief that dissonance can be as beautiful as consonance. Strauss uses discord merely to express the ugly, but there is no reason for finding dissonance ugly except that we are accustomed to believing it so. Two discordant notes are merely a little closer together than two consonant notes. I believe that the human ear can be trained to dissonance and find it beautiful, and then the vocabulary of music will be doubled, won’t it?”
“You are one of the few men living today who believe in a real future of music. What would you say it is?”
“Genius.” The answer certainly is comprehensive. “I tell my pupils,” he went on, “that the future of music lies not in the form, but in the individual. I tell them that it is possible – though personally I don’t believe it probable – that he might write music in the style of Bach.”
“And what do you think of your contemporaries?”
“I admire Strauss very much, and I admire Pfitzner especially.” (Pfitzner is a composer of operas, only one of which has been produced. He is now director of the Strassburg conservatory, and many musicians consider him the equal, if not the superior of Strauss.) “I have also the greatest respect for the classics. Without Bach, Beethoven and Wagner we would not have advanced at all. Our music originally began with the simple church cant. These men have brought it to its present elevation.”
“And Debussy?”
“His work pleases me extraordinarily. One is bound to recognize that he is a great master. I heard his “Pelleas and Melisande” some years ago and was tremendously impressed by it. Strangely enough in 1902, the year the opera was produced, I wrote an orchestra suite with the same name and thought then of writing an opera on Maeterlinck’s play, and it was not until several years after that I read that a new French composer had done it first.
I called his attention to the fact that his admiration for his contemporaries was unique.
“I hope I shall always be able to enjoy their works,” he said simply. “Musicians are jealous because of the greater success of some other man. It may be that I shall become that way in ten years. I can’t promise, but I shall try not to. I admit I don’t like Reger. I can’t understand him. But I don’t doubt he is a thorough artist.”
In literature Schoenberg is an ardent admirer of the grim Strindberg, and has read all of the forty-eight volumes of that man’s work. His “Damascus” he believes to be the finest contemporary literary work. Maeterlinck is also a favorite and he spoke appreciatively of Hauptmann.
Schoenberg refused to scoff at the futurist musicians of Italy, whose recent “noise symphonies” have attracted the universal ridicule of the press. “I can’t say that I understand them, but it is because I haven’t heard them. You can be sure the newspaper accounts are exaggerated. Perhaps some genius will be able to use the noise instruments. but futurist art awakens a great deal of sympathy in me. I quite understand what they are doing – yes, even the cubists.”
Schoenberg is planning now to write a stage work to Balzac’s “Seraphita.” “I don’t call it an opera. I could hardly write an opera. But it will be music, singing and speaking in a combination which makes possible the pure enjoyment of all without the obstacles of convention.” He is also about to furnish a collection of about fifty songs. He has written mostly, however, for the orchestra. Piano music, he says, is limited by the stretch of ten fingers. “In the orchestra there are no fingers. One can do what he wants.”
In Germany, where Schoenberg has lived for several years since coming from his native country of Austria, the composer has awakened great interest. He is a close friend of Richard Strauss, who has directed some of his compositions, and he has been warmly defended by no less an artist than Ferruccio Busoni. Schoenberg evenings were given last year in Berlin with limited success, as the audience naturally was attracted by curiosity. To the ear accustomed to conventional music his compositions are merely a putting together of sounds and noises. It seems at first very haphazard and insane. But students of the composer maintain that there is a fundamental theory behind his work as behind the ordinary music, and that it is really beautiful when once one can leave his prejudices behind. Schoenberg admits that he did not come upon his present medium of expression by chance. “I found myself more and more dissatisfied with the limitations when I first began to compose, and I gradually developed into the present style. It is the work of years of thought and study.”
He lives in the lovely suburb of Suedend, a delightful little group of homes on the border of a small lake. The city gardener has thoughtfully planted the street corners with violets, which look out cheerily through the fallen golden leaves. The whole environment is one of rare charm, and who knows whether the music it is inspiring will not one day be thought as beautiful?

The Chicago Daily News (November 1, 1913)