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MUSIC : His Master's Voice: The Berg-Schoenberg Letters

January 31, 1988|ALBERT GOLDBERG

Rarely, if ever, have the psyches of two such important composers been so relentlessly exposed, both singly and in relation to each other, as in "The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence--Selected Letters" (Norton: $35).

The relationship of pupil Alban Berg and already famous teacher Arnold Schoenberg, in all its devious complexity, has at last been thoroughly explored with the publication of 800 letters, impeccably annotated and edited by Juliane Brand, Christopher Hailey and Donald Harris. This first publication of the correspondence is in ably translated English, mainly, the editors state, because of "the intense interest of American scholars in the period and in the composers."

The correspondence is of immense historical importance, partly as a reflection of the turbulence that consistently greeted the activities of Schoenberg and his circle, but even more so as a psychological study of the relationship between the effusive Berg and the comparatively reticent Schoenberg. Rarely has the turgid cultural life of early 20th-Century Vienna been depicted in such telling detail.

The collection begins with a letter from Berg to Schoenberg dated June 16, 1911. Berg had been a pupil of Schoenberg from 1904 to 1911. There probably had been earlier correspondence between the pair, but Schoenberg did not save the letters. Berg was 26 at the time and had completed seven years of study with Schoenberg. Schoenberg was 37 and had composed some of his most challenging early works, only a few of which had been performed. But his reputation as a major iconoclast was already established throughout Europe. Berg addresses the master as "My dear esteemed Herr Schoenberg" and often indulges in even more extravagant salutations. Berg's style from the beginning was prolix, absurdly servile and awkward as an instrument for the communication of every-day common sense.

Schoenberg shortly became impatient with Berg's tortuous verbiage. He finally directed him: "When you write to me, always underline the main points, particularly if I am to answer. It's hard for me to write to you, since to do so I have to read your letter 3-4 times and your handwriting is too illegible for that. . . . And something else: Be more concise. You always write so many excuses, particularly parenthetical asides, 'developments,' extensions and stylizations that it takes a long time to figure out what you are driving at. I think one should work on oneself in such matters."

In the main, Schoenberg followed his own precepts. His communications were brief, pointed and articulate. Once he wrote "Dear Berg, I am sorry to tell you that you are wrong, although you used almost two pages trying to prove you were right." He often casually dropped wise epigrams, such as "the modern-minded cling to the abstruse and enjoy it only if it remains unclear to them," and "the people seem to despise me as much as if they knew my music."

Now and then he does not hesitate to scold Berg: "I am extremely annoyed for I realize how irresponsibly you treated the matter. . . . Now I know I cannot depend upon you." Or, in a faintly paranoid manner, he can write: "What's the matter with you? Why haven't I heard from you? Have you lost all interest in me?"

Berg became Schoenberg's jack of all trades, his whipping boy, his personal representative, his obedient servant, his factotum. He performed every kind of chore. When a neighbor in Schoenberg's apartment building in Vienna alleged that the 9-year-old daughter of Schoenberg was corrupting the neighbor's 5- and 7-year-old sons, Berg patched that up. When Schoenberg moved to Berlin, in search of greener pastures, Berg arranged for a mover and saw to the packing of household goods.

He worked zealously to get wealthy music patrons to establish a stipend for Schoenberg. "I think it would suffice," Schoenberg wrote, "that I have worries--and that in order to earn money I have to do work that is beneath me and that is the cause for my having for two years now found no time to compose."

Berg corrected proofs of Schoenberg's "Harmonielehre," checked the parts of the massive "Gurrelieder," made a piano transcription of the work that the composer did not like, and devised a highly technical analysis of the work, only to have Schoenberg demand that he cut it by 15 to 30 pages.

Berg gladly performed all these tasks for the honor and the privilege. In thanks, Schoenberg offered grudging praise and gratitude. Almost always, Schoenberg's attitude was that of a domineering master commanding an obsequious servant and pupil.

Not much purely musical matter went into the correspondence. Schoenberg obviously did not always take Berg fully into his confidence. He did not even inform him of the existence of such an important work as "Pierrot Lunaire" until preparations for the premiere were in progress. He asked Berg's advice on the choice of vocal soloists and conductors, but never extended him authority to exercise his judgment.

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