Famed composer Arnold Schoenberg’s return to Judaism

As early as 1922, Schoenberg returned to Jewish themes in his work.

NURIA SCHOENBERG, daughter of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, stands in front of her father’s working room set up in the “Arnold Schoenberg Centre” in Vienna (photo credit: REUTERS)
NURIA SCHOENBERG, daughter of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, stands in front of her father’s working room set up in the “Arnold Schoenberg Centre” in Vienna
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Arnold Schoenberg revolutionized music. More than a century ago, his atonal works scandalized German cultural protocol. According to Frederic V. Grunfeld in his Prophets Without Honor: Freud, Kafka, Einstein and Their World (1979), “Schoenberg’s music had precipitated a memorable series of Viennese concert-hall scandals. In 1905, at the premiere of his tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, the audience was ‘seized by a kind of madness’ and made a rush for the doors in the middle of the piece.
“The same wild scene was repeated at the first performance of his First String Quartet two years later, when one particularly waggish listener led the way out through the emergency exit. In 1908 there was a riot at the premiere of the Second String Quartet, with its mysterious, free-floating last movement in which a soprano goes soaring off into a cantilena that seems to defy the musical laws of gravity.”
Beyond the ruckus over Schoenberg’s music, there was the composer’s internal struggle with his Jewish identity. Schoenberg’s widowed mother did not raise a voice in protest when, in Vienna, in 1898, the 24-year-old composer converted to Protestantism. Howard M. Sachar in his study Dreamland: Europeans and Jews in the Aftermath of the Great War (2002) states that the conversion was “apparently a careerist one and unrelated to ‘spiritual’ influences one way or another.”
No doubt, composer of genius Gustav Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Roman Catholicism inspired Schoenberg, his young admirer. Mahler’s conversion was simply practical – Mahler embraced Christianity to ensure his rise to fame as director of the Vienna State Opera. These two composers were following in the footsteps of celebrated poet Heinrich Heine – a century earlier the great German-Jewish lyric poet claimed he converted to Lutheranism as “the entrance ticket to Western Civilization.” There was little faith in Christian dogma involved here.
Nevertheless, terrible events shook Schoenberg’s conscience. While the revolutionary composer served as professor at the Berlin Academy of Arts from 1925 to 1933 – it took months to assume the post because of antisemitic protests – the Nazi takeover ended that phase of his career.
Yet, Schoenberg was already demonstrating that he was, in Sachar’s words, “resuming his affiliation with Jewish people.” As early as 1922, Schoenberg returned to Jewish themes in his work. He composed in that year The Biblical Road, a forerunner of his celebrated opera Moses und Aron. “In these works,” writes Sachar, “Schoenberg outlined his vision of a Jewish nation independent again, building the Promised Land anew. From the 1920s on, he never ceased to devote his most urgent thought, and many of his compositions to Jewish themes.”
Grunfeld discusses the libel that atonality, like Einstein’s relativity, were mocked as not representing true German science and culture and should therefore be banned. In Schoenberg’s case, one wonders what role Nazi hatred of Jews played in his reawakening to Jewish identity, Jewish culture and Jewish sources. Perhaps his ties to his Jewish identity preceded Nazism.
Schoenberg fled Germany with his wife and year-old daughter for Paris when Hitler came to power. He formally adopted the Jewish faith in Paris with Marc Chagall as his witness. He left France for America soon afterward and settled in California, home to a thriving colony of exiled Jewish composers from Europe, many of who would play a pivotal role in the motion picture industry and musical scores for the films. But Schoenberg rejected Hollywood and devoted much of his creative energy and genius to Jewish themes. Let us investigate the two most well-known Jewish-themed compositions, the opera Moses und Aron and his score from A Survivor from Warsaw.
Frederic Grunfeld states that the uncompleted Moses und Aron is “one of the most complex and demanding operas in the modern repertoire.” Schoenberg had only completed two acts of the opera before fleeing Germany and never completed this masterwork. The opera thematically and musically contrasts Moses and Aaron, the Revelation versus the Golden Calf. Schoenberg reveals his depth as not only a composer but a thinker. His goal, in the destruction of the Golden Calf, was to symbolize the powerlessness of attempting to contain the eternal and boundless in a finite and limiting image. The attempt of Moses to convey this idea to Aaron – it was an exercise in frustration – stands at the core of the unfinished work. Despite being incomplete, the two completed acts can stand independently. Schoenberg’s musical foray into theology is daring and reveals how important being a Jew was to him. Indeed, his conversion was an aberration in his life.
In the last years of his life, after serving as a professor of music at UCLA for many years and cultivating a friendship with George Gershwin, Schoenberg finally confronted the horrors of the Holocaust. A Survivor from Warsaw tells of the German mass murder of the Jews. Grunfeld writes that Schoenberg wrote the text in English and presented “a brief, flickering vision, like the sudden opening of doors to an inferno.” The atonal music did justice to the subject in a way that could not have been done otherwise. A Survivor from Warsaw, writes Grunfeld, is “the only great musical work of art to come out of the crucible of Jewish experience in the Holocaust.”
No – Arnold Schoenberg was not a ba’al teshuvah who put on tefillin six mornings a week nor did he study Talmud every day. Neither did Einstein, Kafka, Scholem and Freud. It would be a pity if we were not to include these great Jews in the category of returnees to their identity and their culture and history.
They were brave, confronting their Jewish consciousness in an environment of hostility and horror. They could easily, with the pressures of antisemitism, conversion and assimilation, have abandoned their Jewish roots, certainly in exile in America, yet they chose not. Schoenberg’s return was an act of courage and his music stands as a monument to modern Jewish creativity. The time has come to acknowledge that “teshuvah” – return – can take many forms and be meaningful across the religious, national, cultural and historical spectrum.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.