Monday, August 27, 2018

Schoenberg as Source for Fact and Fiction

A little over two months ago, the University of California Press released a fascinating new volume in their California Studies in 20th-Century Music series. On the surface, The Doctor Faustus Dossier: Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and their Contemporaries, 1930–1951 involves a bitter dispute between the two protagonists named in the title. However, as the rest of the title suggests, that dispute is embedded in a rich account of how, during the period designated in the title, Los Angeles became a cultural sanctuary for many of the most accomplished German artists and intellectuals, who had been driven out of first Germany and then Europe at large with the rise of the Nazis. That role of Los Angeles as a social context had been previously explored by another University of California Press book, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism by Ehrhard Bahr, which came out in August of 2008.

The dispute grew out of the novel Doctor Faustus, which Mann began writing in 1943 and was first published in German in 1947. While Mann’s métier was writing fiction, he could be a stickler for details, or, as Mann liked to call them, “exactitudes.”  When he was writing his Buddenbrooks epic (which he completed in 1901), his acquaintance with medical practices made his accounts of those procedures in the book downright clinical. Doctor Faustus was published with the subtitle The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (the English translation); and Mann was determined that, in writing the novel, he would be as well informed about music and its composition as he had been about medicine.

Based on this context, one can find a useful summary of the grounds for the dispute in a single paragraph on the Wikipedia page for Doctor Faustus:
Theodor Adorno acted as Mann's adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann also read chapters to groups of invited friends (a method also used by Kafka) to test the effect of the text. In preparation for the work, Mann studied musicology and biographies of major composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. He communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. In Chapter XXII Leverkühn develops the twelve-tone technique or row system, which was actually invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg lived near Mann in Los Angeles as the novel was being written. He was very annoyed by this appropriation without his consent, and later editions of the novel included an Author's Note at the end acknowledging that the technique was Schoenberg's invention, and that passages of the book dealing with musical theory are indebted in many details to Schoenberg's Harmonielehre.
In The Doctor Faustus Dossier that summary is fleshed out by a rich collection of documents, primarily letters and diary pages, written primarily by both Schoenberg and Mann but also, when necessary, by other sources. These documents were compiled by the book’s editor E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold) and then augmented by footnotes that are almost always as engaging to read as the source texts themselves. Those source texts are preceded by an Introduction by Adrian Daub entitled California Haunting: Mann, Schoenberg, Faustus that both expands on the above summary and elaborates on the Weimar on the Pacific setting in which the events unfolded.

The source texts are then followed by two previously published essays by Richard Hoffmann (who had worked as Schoenberg’s assistant) and Bernhold Schmid (who cites the Hoffmann article). The book then concludes with six appendices. These include Schoenberg’s “Composition with Twelve Tones,” written in 1941 and his most authoritative personal statement on his twelve-tone approach to composition, and the entirety of the 22nd chapter of Doctor Faustus, cited in the Wikipedia summary. One of the appendices is by Theodor Adorno, an excerpt from the essay “Schoenberg and Progress” that was published in his book Philosophy of New Music. The other three appendices are reflections on Jewish and German culture, one by Schoenberg and two by Mann.

The most important feature of this book, however, is not the dispute itself but the way in which both the source texts and the footnotes deliver a highly absorbing account of “Weimar on the Pacific” life. Some of the tidbits are as surprising as they are informative. Who would have guessed that Mann was a fan of Jack Benny, particularly when the act included his bad violin playing? My favorite is a quote from Schoenberg that was prompted by a conversation about Giacomo Puccini:
Puccini? Isn’t he the one who pre-impersonated Lehár?
Then there are occasional moments when we realize that Mann’s attention to detail is not always as thorough as he would have liked. Thus, in a letter to Bruno Walter, Mann asserts that Hugo Wolf seemed never to have attended a conservatory. Where Mann got this idea is unclear; but, as we know, Wolf not only attended the conservatory in Vienna but also, while there, was a fellow student of Gustav Mahler!

Some might worry that the inclusion of a single chapter from Doctor Faustus, presented without any attempt to establish context, would have been unfair to the author. To some extent that probably depends on what one thinks of the author. Most of the substance of the Doctor Faustus chapter is a dialog between Leverkühn and Serenus Zeitblom, the “friend” serving as narrator. That dialog sounds very much like two graduate students arguing about their respective thesis topics. It is easy for the reader to get bogged down in this hypertrophied intellectualism. Reading it reminded me of how I felt during a similar dialog at the beginning of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice film!

On the other hand, however thick the verbiage may be, it is easy to see how Schoenberg and those around him (due to eye troubles, Schoenberg himself never read Mann’s novel) would have been taken aback by the explicit appropriation of the phrase “emancipation of dissonance.” Had Schoenberg been better known at the time, readers might have recognized the phrase and appreciated its nod to its source. However, Schoenberg never enjoyed that level of popularity; and it is not unreasonable that his concerns about posterity would lie at the heart of the dispute that emerged.

However, this raises another point, which is the role of Adorno in the overall narrative. Mann’s source for the “magic square” description of a twelve-tone row and its transforms can, in all probability, be attributed to Adorno, rather than Schoenberg’s “Composition with Twelve Tones” essay; so it is not out of the question that Mann associated that concept of emancipation with Adorno rather than Schoenberg. This could easily have been a phrase dropped in casual conversation that resonated with Mann’s imagination and then surfaced in how Leverkühn expressed himself. It is almost certain that Mann did not get the idea from reading Adorno, whose multi-page paragraphs leave even the most informed readers questioning what the point is, assuming that there was even a point worth making!

What may be more interesting, however, is how one of Mann’s passages ended up resonating into a future that neither Mann or Schoenberg could have anticipated. Consider what Zeitblom is saying in the following passage:
The way you describe the things, it comes to a sort of composing before composition. The whole disposition and organization of the material would have to be ready when the actual work should begin, and all one asks is: which is the actual work? For this preparation of the material is done by variation, and the creative element in variation, which one might call the actual composition, would be transferred back to the material itself—together with the freedom of the composer.
In many respects the idea behind this passage reflects on an interplay between decision and automatism, the two terms that György Ligeti invoked in his 1960 article for Die Reihe about Pierre Boulez’ “Structure Ia.” Ligeti never mentions Mann in that article, and my guess is that neither Ligeti nor Boulez ever read Doctor Faustus. Nevertheless, I enjoy a bit of amusement with the idea that Mann’s thoughts may have actually come home to roost in the post-Schoenberg era!

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