‘A Sort of Cat-Music’

I just cracked up when I read these newspaper reviews of Schoenberg‘s works between 1913 and 1914 (as quoted in “Early Music Defended against its Devotees: A Theory of Historical Performance in the Twentieth Century” found on pages 297-322 of the Summer 1983 issue of the Musical Quarterly, article by Laurence Dreyfus):

Warning: some very dramatic language and heated emotion displayed below! The expressed feelings of the authors are not shared with, well, me. 🙂

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony – self-torture of a flagellant who whips himself with a cat-o’-nine-tails while cursing himself! When a conglomeration of horns pushes upwards through the strings, it sounds like the words, “You, monster!” A hideous modern sound of the scourge! Schoenberg’s unappeasable nature is made clear: reckless self-mutilation and a reckless admission: “I am like that!” A sort of cat-music, whining, wailing, desperate…Schoenberg is uncontrolled…He bares his breast in a fury of penitence and shows his scars–and the spectacle is shocking. And yet, if people mention Brahms’s chastity, one ought to speak of Schoenberg’s shamelessness. [Ernst Decsey, (Berlin) Signale, Feb. 4, 1914]

Or else:

I fear and dislike the music of Arnold Schoenberg…It is the decomposition of the art, I thought, as I held myself in my seat…What did I hear? At first the sound of delicate china shivering into a thousand luminous fragments. In the welter of tonalities that bruised each other as they passed and repassed, in the preliminary group of enharmonies that almost make the nose bleed and the eyes water, the scalp to freeze, I could not get a central grip on myself. Schoenberg is the cruelest of all composers for he mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim’s flesh. Anon he twists the knife in the fresh wound and you receive another horrible thrill…Every composer has his aura; the aura of Arnold Schoenberg is, for me, the aura of original depravity, of subtle ugliness, of basest egoism, of hatred and contempt, of cruelty, and of the mystic grandiose…If such music making is ever to become accepted, then I long for Death the Releaser. [James Gibbons Huneker, The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1913]

But, lest you should think that poor Schoenberg is nothing but torturous noise:

In any case, to Schoenberg and Reger, Bach was an unflagging source of inspiration…Reger and Schoenberg are also quite similar in terms of the disorientation caused by their music. Of course, both had admirers in their lifetimes, and today, too, there are people who are impressed by their work…Berg—Schoenberg’s student—noted the discomfort caused by Schoenberg and Reger’s works, and gave his opinion in his 1924 article “Warum ist Schoenbergs Musik so schwer verständlich?” (Why is Schoenberg’s Music so Hard to Comprehend?). Berg believed that the main reason for this difficulty is the structural asymmetry of the phrases and periods. [Yulia Kreinin, Arnold Schoenberg and Max Reger: Some Parallels]

And, from the Man himself:


“I owe very, very much to Mozart; and if one studies, for instance, the way in which I write for string quartet, then one cannot deny that I have learned this directly from Mozart. And I am proud of it!”

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