The common explanation for Schoenberg’s abrupt atonal turn is another of music’s great fairytales
The core myths of classical music are resistant to the light of reason. No matter what evidence you bring to the contrary, people will still want to believe that Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations to send a rich man off to sleep, that the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are his landlady banging at the door with a rent demand and that Tchaikovsky died of drinking a glass of water in a non-cholera season. “So what?” they’ll say, cheerfully reiterating the discredited legend.
Take the painful case of Arnold Schoenberg. It is widely assumed that the great revolutionary’s historic leap into atonality in the finale of his second string quartet was prompted by discovering his wife’s affair with the man upstairs. Both the trigger and the circumstantial evidence are highly persuasive.
No composer, in half a millennium of Western music, had ever stepped off the octave cliff with no home key to hold on to and haul him back to tonal base. It must have taken something extraordinary to push Schoenberg, and the coincidence of Mathilde’s elopement in July 1908 with the painter Richard Gerstl just as the quartet reached its tipping point was enough to convince friends at the time and scholars a century later that sexual jealousy was indeed the trigger for the birth of musical modernism.
The notion that sex is the prime motive for human conduct is not exclusive to tabloid journalists. There are countless cases of composers — Wagner in Tristan, Janáček in the string quartets, Berg in Lulu — when erotic preoccupation or frustration inspired a major work of music. Schoenberg had already indulged a decadent sensual obsession in Verklärte Nacht, the sextet that made his name in 1902. In the second string quartet, with a sung verse by the morbid, celibate homosexual poet Stefan George and a melodic quote of “Alles ist hin” (all is lost) from the folksong Ach, du lieber Augustin, he appears to be suggesting he has nothing to lose by breaking up the furniture of classical music.
The premiere of the quartet, four days before Christmas 1908, provoked one of those much-loved Viennese scandals with the press reporting that “elegant women uttered cries of pain, raising hands to their delicate ears and elderly gentlemen wept tears of anguish at the dissonances”. Few recognised that this was a pivotal moment in musical evolution, a glimpse of the future. And Schoenberg himself was still struggling to repair the breach in his marriage. Vienna, being the world capital of gossip, lost no time in connecting the two ruptures, and that link has hardened into popular myth.
Now — and you read it here first — a historian has blown the whole story to bits. Raymond Coffer, in a doctoral thesis at the University of London and a website he has just built, demonstrates that the atonal leap cannot have been triggered by adultery. Letters between the married couple show that the quartet was completed three weeks before Schoenberg caught Mathilde in the act of betrayal and she ran off with her lover.
Tension had been brewing for a while. Schoenberg, unable to meet the bills and with two children to feed, had taken a lodger in 1906. Richard Gerstl, just 22, was a painter who lacked much faith in himself and his work. Embraced by the Schoenberg circle, he blossomed, making portraits of both Arnold and Mathilde, the latter on one occasion apparently in the nude. Gerstl became so much part of the Schoenberg family that they took him along to share their lakeside summer holiday in Gmunden in June 1908.
Schoenberg went to Vienna on business and in his absence, Gerstl and Mathilde may have grown closer. Suspecting nothing, Schoenberg returned to the lake and finished the finale of the quartet between July 25 and 27, dating the manuscript 27/7. That same week Gerstl was expelled by the Vienna Academy of Arts and began acting strangely.
On August 26, a full month later, Schoenberg stumbled across his wife and her lover in a clinch, in Gerstl’s farmhouse by some accounts. Outrage ensued. Mathilde, unable to calm Arnold down, left the children and ran off with Gerstl. They spent a night in a Gmunden hotel before finding a boarding house on the outskirts of Vienna.
Four days later, Schoenberg tracked them down and, in deep contrition, persuaded Mathilde to come home. She continued to visit her lover in the following months but, shut out by the Schoenberg circle, he fell to pieces. On November 4, after burning his letters, Richard Gerstl committed a particularly violent suicide, hanging and stabbing himself to death in front of a full-length mirror.
Coffer’s abundant documentation appears incontrovertible, exploding any possible causative link between Schoenberg’s atonality and his marital crisis and leaving everyone who has written about the subject with a blush on their cheeks. Wikipedia is wildly wrong, claiming that Mathilde left Schoenberg “for several months”. I, too, am named in footnotes for having made the false link in my (excusably, I hope) naive first book, Discord, published 30 years ago. Dr Coffer has corrected us all.
Other things in the saga now start to make sense in light of his findings. Mathilde, sister of the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (Alma Mahler called him “the ugliest man in Vienna”), was never an Alma-type femme fatale. Moved by Gerstl’s deteriorating state of mind, she may have been as much mother to him as lover, unable to tear herself away from a sick child. Schoenberg, by all accounts a headstrong husband, modified his conduct after the reunion. He remained with Mathilde until her death in 1923.
The moral of this story is that life is not neat. Things don’t fall into simple equations: love equals harmony, break-up equals discordance. Schoenberg must have learned that principle from his mentor, Gustav Mahler, who was suffering marital torments of his own. Music is a more sophisticated tool than a mere mirror to domestic life. It did not take an act of adultery to turn Arnold Schoenberg atonal.
Repeat that line before and after concerts, it still won’t make any difference. No matter how solid the evidence, how strong the argument, most people will carry on believing that music went atonal because of a sexual misdemeanour. They want to believe that because, like other myths, it’s so much easier to hear a fairy tale than to face up to life — and music — in all its complexities. Schoenberg knew that. Now, so do we.
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