Portrait of a cuckold: Arnod Schoenberg, painted by his wife's lover, Richard Gerstl
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.