Weekend reading: Schoenberg didn’t mind when the house was half-empty

A wonderful reminiscence of Arnold Schoenberg in Boston by concertmaster Richard Burgin has been sent our way.

Read. Ruminate. (h/t: Professor Robert Eshbach).

Arnold Schoenberg conducting



It is well known of course that Schoenberg had to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power. In fact, he was lucky to have been able to escape. And everybody I knew in the musical world in the United States felt an obligation to invite him to conduct their orchestra, as did Koussevitzky. That was the least they felt they could do because they themselves did not do anything to perform his work, or very little, except for “Transfigured Night.” Koussevitzky was aware that Schoenberg was a personality, that he had done something important in music. Perhaps we did not quite understand what his innovation was but we felt instinctively that something had happened. So Schoenberg was invited to come and conduct the BSO. I was somewhat familiar with Schoenberg though at that time I will admit he was an enigma. Still, I felt that he was also something that only happens once in a lifetime.

I myself had already conducted his Pierrot Lunaire.[3] That was in 1928 in Boston. There was an organization of rather snobbish members of the Boston elite who supported private performances of interesting, worthwhile new works and chamber music. And I talked them into sponsoring a concert for Pierrot Lunaire. I also convinced them it was a piece that was not suitable for playing in a room and it would also be nice to give a wider audience of listeners a chance to hear it. They agreed, and supported the concert financially. We rehearsed that every day for three weeks. But that was several years before Schoenberg came to conduct the BSO.

When Schoenberg came, from the very first rehearsal, there was something about his personality, at least to me, that put one in awe of him. I looked upon him as if he were a person who had come from another world. And when he conducted, he conducted not like a professional conductor but like a composer conducts his own work. Every remark he made was so to the point and nothing was unnecessary, no stories, no affectations, nothing but purely technical remarks about the music. However, his selection of works for his program was a disappointment to me—they were: an arrangement of a Bach piece for organ,Verklärte Nacht, and Opus 5, Pelleas und Melisande. Still the old type of music but when he did that, his remarks were very interesting. I had no opportunity to speak to him during the rehearsals, I just watched him, took in everything he said. Everything went pretty well, we had our regular four rehearsals and then came the concert.

That first of his concerts took place in Cambridge, in Sanders Theater. We were already warming up when I was told Schoenberg would like to speak with me. I thought that he probably wanted to make some last-minute comments for me to tell my colleagues, to remind them of certain things. I took my violin and went downstairs to the conductor’s room. And I started to speak—the conversation was in German—“Is there something you would like me to say?” “No, no,” he cut me off, “It has nothing to do with today’s program at all. I just heard that you did my Pierrot Lunaire some time ago.” “Yes, I did,” I replied. “Well, did you find it a difficult piece to put together?” “Yes,” I said, “as you know, it is a difficult piece. And it was new to us.” “Well, how many rehearsals did you have?” “We had seventeen with the players alone and then we had five more with the singer—we got her from New York.” “Well,” he said, “that is very nice to hear. But I hope you did not perform that in Symphony Hall?” “No, no, we didn’t.” “Where did you perform it?” he asked, and I replied, “In the hall of the New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall.” “And how large a hall is that?” he asked. I said, “It has a capacity of 1200 seats.” “Oh,” he sounded disappointed, “that was much too big a hall.” And then I made a repartee which I consider to be one of the most stupid of the century, so to speak, probably because I was in such awe of him. I said, “Maestro, es war nur halb voll, it was only half full!” Which in fact was the case.

It was the most idiotic thing to say but he was such a wonderful person, he simply ignored my gaffe and fell in with my unintentional witticism, saying, “Thank goodness!” That immediately put me at ease. So I said, “Maestro, why are you so happy that the hall was only half full?” He then became quite serious: “I’ll tell you, and I’m speaking from my own experience. You know, I understand that Boston is considered one of the really musical cities in this country and I have no doubt it is so. But I do doubt that you could find more than 600 people in this city who would enjoy and be interested in listening to a work like Pierrot Lunaire. I say that from my own experience. Therefore, if you had more than that, or if you had a full house, you would have 600 people who would hate this piece. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more terrible than to sit next to a person who hates the piece that you’re interested in. I myself have been present at concerts of my work where people next to me hated my music, and we almost got into a fight!” Which was actually true.

I realized quickly that what he was really trying to say was that Pierrot Lunaire is a chamber piece and is not ideally suited to a large hall. But his attempt to put me at my ease with his wonderful wit and self-irony was so typical of him. Then, I had the courage to say, “You know, Maestro, allow me to tell you that I was a little bit disappointed that you didn’t select for your program a more recent composition than ones you wrote at the time you wrote Verklärte Nacht.” And he said, “Well, I don’t see why I should carry on my shoulders the responsibility of atoning for all the sins conductors have committed by not playing my music. Just because you people don’t play my recent works, why should I be the one to bore my audience with them?” Schoenberg was really a unique person.

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  • Thank you for this. Mr. Burgin told this story to several members of the Florida State U. Orchestra in 1973. I have retold it many times.

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