Twenty years of the Arnold Schönberg Center and an exhibit on Jung-Wien, Vienna’s fin-de-siècle creative wave

“New music is never beautiful on first acquaintance.” For many, this remark by Arnold Schoenberg, made in a radio interview in 1931, might seem the understatement of the century. Especially if they have made any acquaintance with the music of Schoenberg himself, the “inventor” of 12-tone composing. His artistic contributions have certainly taken their proper place in history, but despite Schoenberg’s importance and fame, his music is still, nearly a century and a half after his birth, difficult.

To experience it as fascinating or moving, one must have an open ear and mind, as well as, perhaps, an accepting disposition. Indeed, it is a reasonable and important question: Confronted with a recondite piece of new music, how can you relate? One answer is knowledge and repeated listening. That is what the Arnold Schönberg Center is striving to make possible.

The composer’s entire archival legacy is held at the Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Vienna this year: in 1998, the collection was moved here from Los Angeles and the University of Southern California (USC), where it was previously housed. The Center hosts marvelous, intimate concerts, annual exhibitions and scholarly research of the highest level.

The huge collection is one of the most comprehensive archives of a single composer in existence: 9,000 pages of musical and 6,000 of text manuscripts, 3,500 historical photos and personal documents, diaries, concert programs; also Schoenberg’s entire library, including music, books and recordings, as well as a replica of Schoenberg’s study in Los Angeles. It is so monumental that the Arnold Schoenberg estate was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2011.

In the ears of the composer who has been called the “emancipator of dissonance,” his music was not atonal. “It is about beauty, getting down to the root of it,” he wrote in a 1911 letter to a friend, a document recently acquired by the Center. His technique rather broadened the tonal spectrum, setting aside the obsolete notion of consonance and dissonance. He freed the 12 pitches from atonal center, from chord progressions and their sense of tension release and finality. Any hierarchy was discarded, creating a music in which the pacific interval of a third – the call of a cuckoo or a classic doorbell – sounds not much different than otherwise jarring and dramatic seconds and sevenths.

HARBINGER OF THE MODERN

Born in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg became part of the city’s fin-de-siècle tidal wave of creativity, a modernist revolution that included not only art and music, but architecture, psychoanalysis, physics, medicine and economic theory. It was an environment “supersaturated with electricity,” as Viennese writer and contemporary Richard Specht described it. An exhibition on this period titled “Arnold Schönberg & Jung-Wien” can currently be seen at the Center.

Schoenberg was teaching in Berlin in 1933 when the newly elected German government undertook a purge of “Jewish elements” from institutes of higher learning. By 1934, Schoenberg had anglicized the spelling of his name (from Schönberg) and emigrated with his family to Los Angeles. There he again became a professor, first at USC and then at UCLA. He never returned to Europe, dying in L.A. in 1951.

Schoenberg was described as ruthlessly honest, doggedly persistent and irascibly proud. But he was also optimistic: “The thirst for knowledge of an idealistic youth, which is drawn more to the mysterious than to the commonplace,” he said, would lead to his music being appreciated. The Schönberg Center in Vienna carries on this optimism in its efforts to keep his music a living tradition, support scholarly rigor, and ensure that Schoenberg’s work continues to be heard, understood and welcomed into the world-wide repertory of masterpieces. Even if his music is not your favorite, the Center is well worth a visit.

Arnold Schönberg Center: 3., Schwarzenbergplatz 6, (entrance Zaunergasse 1-3) , Mon-Fri 10:00-17:00 & Sun Jun 24, Exhibition “Arnold Schönberg und Jung-Wien” through Jun 29; Concerts: Jun 5, 8, 12, 18; 19:30.