The man who ran off with Schoenberg’s wife

There’s a terrific show coming up in New York at the end of the month of the works of Richard Gerstl. He was the artist who taught Schoenberg how to paint, before seducing Mathilde Schoenberg to run away with him.

The exhibition at the Neue Galerie is based on the researches of Raymond Coffer.

You do not want to miss it.

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  • It helps to know that Mathilde was the sister of Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was also admired by Gerstl, and that the latter destroyed much of his work just before committing suicide.

  • Gerstl lived with the Schoenberg’s for a while and during that time he pained, besides a great portrait of Schoenberg, a more expressionistic portrait of the entire family. If you click on the exhibition link above you’ll see that portrait as the single painting on the last line of thumbnails. I was fortunate to see that painting in the flesh once before at a Gerstl exhibit in New York around 1976. The funny thing is that they put this image on a post card (I still have mine) and posted it in the lobby as an advertisement, but whoever set it up there put it upside down!

    The paintings were really interesting and reminded me at the time of Egon Schiele, who also painted a portrait of Schoenberg. However, besides the family portrait, the only thing I still remember from the very chilly Saturday morning a college friend and I went to see the exhibit was that on our way, as we were crossing the street, coming toward us in a very determined fashion was a slightly disheveled, dour looking Glenda Jackson, holding an unbuttoned coat around her in the cold air, looking like she was coming off a very bad night. At the time my friend and I joked that she was rushing out to get some emergency cigarettes..

    As for the end of the Mathilde Schoenberg-Richard Gerstl relationship, it was, I believe, Schoenberg’s friends who went to Mathilde and begged her to come back. It is very hard to get a handle on MS or their relationship, as what very little is written about her in the Schoenberg literature (at least that I’ve seen) does not describe her as a very sympathetic personality. It would be great to know more about her.

    The artistic upshot of the relationship was the composition of Die Gluekliche Hand – a really extraordinary work that’s rarely done – since it’s only 15 minutes long and hard to program. As a kid, listening to the opening gave me a shiver up my spine. More schematic and obvious in its structure than its companion piece, Erwartung, it’s still, I think, a masterpiece of Austrian Expressionism.

    • “It would be great to know more about her.” But we do know something about Mathilde through the eyes (or ears) of Schoenberg himself, it is in the music of Verklärte Nacht, and in Gurrelieder, both pieces overflowing with love and generosity, and the spiky and dense 1st Chamber Symphony which is, I believe, his master piece since it is still tonal, very intense, and spilling over the edges of the classical language in often extatic enthusiasm and on a par with the Eroica in terms of subtle structural complexity. When things began to get wrong, we hear the air of other planets: String Quartet nr II. It seems to me that Mathilde Schoenberg must have been a very patient and generous person to be able to stick it out with such an intense, neurotic and authoritarian artist like Schoenberg. When she died, Schoenberg was devastated, and that was long after the Gerstl event.

  • The concert will feature Pianist Marilyn Nonken, Violinist Rolf Schulte, and Cellist Coleman Itzkoff in a performance of Schoenberg’s 1902 masterpiece Verklärte Nacht, arranged for Piano Trio in 1932 by a student of the composer, Eduard Steuermann.

      • It’s a performance on 7/19. Apparently the concert is exclusive for members of Neue Galerie, but I’ll be sure to update if that changesz

        • Thanks. I haven’t seen Rolf Schulte since our paths crossed around 1974-75. Keep me posted. Again, thanks.

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