Misunderstood Musical Genius: On Harvey Sachs’s “Schoenberg”

By Judith FinellAugust 29, 2023

Misunderstood Musical Genius: On Harvey Sachs’s “Schoenberg”

Schoenberg: Why He Matters by Harvey Sachs

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874–1951) was a pivotal figure in the development of 20th-century music. Of the thousands of composers who came before and after him, he stood alone both as the embodiment of the high Romanticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries led by Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss, and as a rebel who broke down the gates of traditions that had ruled music composition for three centuries. After he spent his childhood in pre–World War I Vienna in a Jewish ghetto, Nazi antisemitism drove him from Europe, eventually to land in Los Angeles, where he stayed to the end of his life, teaching first at USC and then UCLA.

A generational original, Schoenberg forged an entirely new path and language for musical expression. He called it the 12-tone or dodecaphonic system, built on all 12 pitches in the Western scale, rather than the traditional hierarchical seven. Ironically, his impact even on his most ardent disciples, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, was so provocative that they built on his techniques in divergent directions.

A paradox is operating here: why would such an influential visionary and radical creator as Schoenberg receive minimal attention and performances of his masterworks today?

Harvey Sachs approaches this question in his new book Schoenberg: Why He Matters. The author and co-author of 11 previous books on musical icons, Sachs brings together the musical, historical, and personal psychological factors driving this complex and contradictory artist. In so doing, Sachs restores Schoenberg’s rightful position as the crucial emancipator of traditional musical expression, sonically linking the 19th and early 20th centuries to the modern day. Of particular interest is that, due to world events that forced Schoenberg to leave Berlin and emigrate to the United States, he accomplished his transformational work in Los Angeles, while teaching many of the future experimentalists of the century.

Sachs meets this challenge with elegance. Schoenberg, an artist whose controversial works were often misunderstood by the music establishment of the day as ascetic, as lacking emotional power, warmth, and beauty, is considered here with fresh eyes and ears. From a humanistic and psychological perspective, Sachs clarifies how Schoenberg’s music represents deeply human emotional expression despite what became a dramatic departure from its more traditional musical ancestry. In his foreword to the book, Sachs states his intention to keep the technical details to a bare minimum so that “nonmusicians who are interested in the subject will not find themselves groping their way through a seemingly impenetrable forest.” He has well succeeded.

Sachs dissects Schoenberg’s complex musical works in an accessible way for the lay reader, thereby encouraging an understanding of the thinking and creative process with which Schoenberg wrote. In a way, Sachs exposes us to both the left and right brains of Schoenberg, upturning the misconception of his music as aloof, cold, and emotionally absent. Sachs reaches behind the hard edges that many listeners experience to bring forth the human being who created them. The pathos and Sturm und Drang of the 19th century did not die at Schoenberg’s door.

Throughout, Sachs’s deep analyses of Schoenberg’s major works are not performed in a musical vacuum. Rather, he contextualizes them in the specific sociopolitical environment of their day, including the tumultuous experience of the Jews in Nazi Germany, whereby the state declared Schoenberg’s music degenerate. This environment certainly impacted many of Schoenberg’s creative choices, and prompted his emigration to the United States in 1933. Most books about composers choose one of two paths: either an analytical dissection of the musical works by a music theorist, omitting the environment in which the composer created, or, rather, a focus on the personal and political factors that impacted the composer’s work while omitting the technical aspects of the works themselves. Sachs bridges this divide gracefully, and enables us to understand the humanity of a man whose music is often considered so difficult to hear, absorb, and perform that it has been set aside for more accessible repertoire.

Sachs gives equal weight to the complex interplay of Schoenberg’s wartime surroundings, financial pressures, Jewish heritage, and more personal factors. Schoenberg was born in Vienna before World War I, emigrated to Berlin at the turn of the 20th century, and ultimately resettled in the United States just prior to World War II, in 1933. To date in Western history, this was the most tumultuous time in the modern world, and artists, especially Jewish-born artists, lived in great peril. Sachs personalizes these forces on Schoenberg’s psyche, and, consequently, his musical expression. For example, he discusses the master work Gurrelieder, with its first two parts written before 1901 while Schoenberg lived in Austria, and emulating his mentor Strauss’s densely textured style. The third part, written 10 years later, after a move to Berlin, is sonically different from the previous sections, especially with its much more transparent texture. This contrast between the sections of a single work encapsulates a microcosm of Schoenberg’s evolution, including some aspects informed by his personal life. By using this example, Sachs contextualizes the compositional process and humanizes Schoenberg for the reader.

Sachs also discusses the decision-making and practical pressures that impacted the works Schoenberg produced. An average concertgoer is likely unaware of the factors that drive specific choices by conductors, performers, and concert producers in selecting a particular musical work or composer to feature. Such a decision can have a life-changing impact on a composer’s future success, opportunities, and financial security. The classical music world—like the commercial popular-music industry—exerts real-world pressures on its decision-makers. These include financial, political, and public perception factors that impact their survival in the marketplace. Accordingly, attaining approval by critics, donors, and ticket buyers impacts a composer’s access to public performances. Without this, a composer’s lifeworks lay silent and unknown.

Many composers who wrote thorny music before and after Schoenberg have suffered this fate. In addition, the difficulty level of musical works—and the requirement for a comparably high number of rehearsals and practice sessions to master them—impacts the repertoire choices of performing artists upon which the composer depends for a lifeline to reach the audience. While Schoenberg was not one to compromise or relinquish control, he did adjust the difficulty level and instrumental groupings to address this challenge in his later works.

Sachs brings this reality to the discussion. He describes many of the instrumentation and compositional choices, as well as some of Schoenberg’s innovations designed to address these specific challenges. Indeed, while Schoenberg descended musically from the orchestral enormity of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler, the programming of a massive orchestral work by an unknown young composer would be untenable for budgetary reasons. This concern undoubtedly contributed to the reduction in ensemble size for Schoenberg in some works.

Sachs also illustrates how the skill of a particular performer influenced Schoenberg’s creative choices and the new techniques he developed to address any limitations. An actress in Berlin, Albertine Zehme, commissioned Schoenberg to compose a major work for voice with instrumental accompaniment. Schoenberg accepted, and during the summer of 1912, he composed Pierrot Lunaire based on the poems of Albert Giraud, scored for chamber group and the actress. Schoenberg experimented with the vocal style of speech-song, called “Sprechgesang,” in which he developed the unusual “Sprechstimme” technique of intoned pitch. Sachs deduces that Schoenberg deliberately chose this vocal style because the actress was not a trained singer. This work’s streamlined instrumentation also shows an intentional shift away from the extreme expressionism and scope of Schoenberg’s earlier Erwartung (1909).

At times, Sachs delves into psychological and personality analysis to explore Schoenberg’s inner motivations, such as when Sachs notes that contrarian Schoenberg converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in antisemitic Vienna, even though Catholicism was the dominant religion. Sachs conjectures that this choice may have been due to Schoenberg’s own subconscious need to create his own “stumbling blocks,” which certainly characterized some of his other life choices as Sachs describes them.

Sachs substantiates well that Schoenberg did develop a tonal revolution, building upon—and ultimately leaving behind—the traditional diatonic system that had dominated music for over three centuries. Forged from an earlier musical system by Josef Hauer, Schoenberg’s more sophisticated compositional language eventually opened the floodgates to unprecedented musical experimentation and boundary-breaking. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony in turn inspired the next generation of composers to adopt and adapt his 12-tone system, including luminaries Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Igor Stravinsky, and Milton Babbitt. With the resulting music produced being difficult for mainstream audiences, performers, and reviewers to accept, the cultural backlash drove composers to abandon this in the latter 20th century, exemplified in the minimalism of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley, along with the resurgence of 19th-century forms and tonalities by today’s concert composers.

The final chapter on Schoenberg’s later life in California is in many ways Sachs’s most interesting chapter. Schoenberg was enthralled by the Los Angeles of the 1930s. “You have no idea how beautiful it is here!” he wrote to Webern. “This is Switzerland, the Riviera, the Wienerwald, the Salzkammergut, Spain, and Italy—everything together in one place. There is rarely a day—supposedly also in winter—without sun.” “To many others,” Sachs writes, “he would say that he had been ‘driven into Paradise.’”

Despite Schoenberg’s antisocial tendencies, and blend of arrogance and insecurity, he loved teaching. As an educator, economy of scale and efficiency were characteristically not priorities to Schoenberg, according to his daughter Nuria. Rather, he chose to give individual exams to his pupils, tailoring each to the individual student’s abilities and potential gain. It was surprising to read, given his reputation for musical elitism, that he also taught nonmusician students—including a 20-year old Jackie Robinson at UCLA, whom Schoenberg excused from class for baseball practice. Some of his other students included mavericks Lou Harrison and John Cage (at USC), as well as Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim, both of whom went on to teach at Harvard while waging a years-long aesthetic battle.

Sachs describes how Schoenberg continued to face disappointments and professional rejection in the United States as he had by standing his musical ground in Vienna and Berlin. In Los Angeles, abandonments from longstanding allies including Thomas Mann, who wrote Doctor Faustus (1947), a novel about a phlegmatic composer who had invented the 12-tone system. Biographical gems continue to emerge, including that Schoenberg was a longtime tennis partner of George Gershwin—whose tuneful works could not be more diametrically opposed to Schoenberg’s. Schoenberg also gave private composition lessons to Oscar Levant and successful film composers.

Sachs often inflects humor and human interest into this discussion, which enables the reader to process the descriptions of the complicated musical works and their creator here. Of great interest are the ways that Schoenberg developed solutions to challenges brought about by performers or orchestral personnel limitations, and how these solutions are reflected in the works themselves. For example, in the premiere staging of Pierrot Lunaire, the actress who commissioned it was disturbed by the bald flutist in the ensemble and asked that only the actress herself be visible to the audience. Schoenberg then devised a set of screens to shield the instrumentalists from view of the audience. Sachs enhances the humor here with his aside that Schoenberg, who conducted the performance, was bald himself. Sachs also relates that the complex vocal rhythms of Pierrot were so difficult to master that Eduard Steuermann and his actress-screenwriter sister Salka Viertel were engaged to teach and coach Zehme. Still, it required 25 rehearsals to mount the performance—certainly prohibitively costly by most standards.

Disdain from critics plagued Schoenberg through much of his career, which Sachs illustrates colorfully with a vitriolic review calling the Second String Quartet in 1908 “a pathological case,” “a public nuisance,” and “a worthless assault on [the audience’s] ears,” demanding that the music’s “author [be] brought to trial by the Department of Health.”

The strong aversion to Schoenberg’s technical demands, even from the most virtuosic performers, includes Sachs’s description of Schoenberg’s first major work composed in the United States, the Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934-36). None other than Jascha Heifetz—the leading violinist of his generation, who also taught at USC—is cited as complaining that “in order to play it he would have had to grow a sixth finger on his left hand.”

Sachs seamlessly merges personality and artistic intent in discussing Five Pieces for Orchestra (1912), in which Schoenberg insisted that conductors abandon traditional ensemble blending by stressing the individual instrumental voices, along with strict adherence to the printed dynamic markings, rather than applying their own musical interpretations. Sachs reveals this need for extreme artistic control and uncompromising adherence to the score by observing that the entire dynamic range is itself imperceptibly narrow, “ranging only from pp (very soft) to ppp (very, very soft), with occasional […] crescendo-diminuendo signs.” Schoenberg’s intentions were self-evident: “Don’t fool around with balances that weren’t meant to be calibrated according to traditional norms!”

Sachs again succeeds in clarifying the composer’s true intent, that despite his determination to forge his own difficult path, Schoenberg shared similar goals with his Romantic forebears: “[T]here can be no doubt that music’s emotional content was of primary importance to Schoenberg!” Sachs says he believes that many musicians perceive atonal and other forms of post-tonal music as emotionally monochromatic. Ironically, Schoenberg himself did not like his music to be referred to as atonal.

In summing up Schoenberg’s musical significance as the radical of his day, Sachs quotes Schoenberg’s own stated goals, including “complete liberation from all forms … Away with harmony as cement or bricks of a building. Harmony is expression and nothing else … My music must be brief. Concise! In two notes: not built, but ‘expressed’!!”

To the end of his days, and beyond, Schoenberg has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Sachs admirably goes the distance in restoring Arnold Schoenberg’s singular position in the musical universe.


Judith Finell is a musicologist who studied music as an undergraduate at UCLA, where Schoenberg once taught. She received an MA in musicology at University of California, Berkeley, has testified as an expert witness at many milestone music copyright trials, and is also an adjunct professor at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Judith Finell is a musicologist who studied music as an undergraduate at UCLA, where Schoenberg once taught. She has spent many hours at concerts in Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus, where she now is on faculty as an adjunct professor. She received an MA in musicology at University of California, Berkeley, and has testified as an expert witness at many milestone music copyright trials and proceedings, including for the estates of Marvin Gaye, Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, and Michael Jackson. She co-teaches with attorney Don Franzen the only course in forensic musicology of its kind in the country. She also leads her own firm, Judith Finell MusicServices Inc., and, with her team of expert musicologists, consults in the music, media, and legal fields in New York and Los Angeles. Finell has guest-lectured at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and NYU law schools, as well as before the Copyright Royalty Board of the US Copyright Office, and before international forums on the protection of musical creativity.


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