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Here is an essential purchase for anyone interested in Schoenberg’s life and music, though inevitably a considerable proportion of the correspondence relates to often irritating business matters such as correction of orchestral parts, rental fees, quality of paper, unpaid royalties, etc. Of course, most readers will chiefly be interested in the composer’s works, his books on music and his discussions with other musicians or composers. Nevertheless, it is important that we should know how much time a creative person has to spend on non-creative problems. On a lighter note, Schoenberg’s passion for tennis is often felt.

As chapter one extends from 1915 to Schoenberg’s exit from Europe in 1933, we may wonder how this relates to his subsequent life in America, but actually his interest in US literature, films and music began much earlier – in the 1890s.

More than 70 American composers feature in this 900-page book. A brief exchange of letters with Varèse already gives a flavour of Schoenberg’s manner – often exacting, sometimes tart, ready to take offence, and very conscious of his own importance – but he was no egotistical monster. Schoenberg was nearly always interested in other composers’ works, while a number of his letters – such as one to Henry Cowell’s wife after her husband had received a prison sentence – show kindness. However, he did bear grudges against those – such as Koussevitzky, CBS, and Lotte Lehmann – who shunned his music or modernist music in general.

Dika Newlin, whose name may be unfamiliar to many, engaged in the most intense correspondence of all, extending to more than 150 letters in 11 years. Her communications, many of them quite lengthy, demonstrate her affection for, and dedication to, Schoenberg and his principles. Any composer (especially one as maligned as Schoenberg) would sign a pact with the devil in return for such intelligence, loyalty and untiring support. Newlin taught at the universities of Syracuse, Drew, North Texas and Virginia Commonwealth. Her own compositions are disregarded now, but she was one of the most promising of the young composers who studied with Schoenberg at UCLA. She played a major role in the introduction of Schoenberg’s compositions and books to students.

Adolph Weiss, Schoenberg’s most important American pupil in the 1920s, is another forgotten name. Their correspondence extends over 50 years. Incidentally, Schoenberg’s command of English was more than adequate, though often spiced with grammatical slips or Germanisms. Most readers will look for letters to more eminent American composers. These are Copland (very few, in a correspondence marred by an unfortunate misunderstanding), Krenek, Bloch, William Schuman, Lou Harrison, David Diamond, Korngold, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Gunther Schuller, Ben Weber, Leon Kirchner and Bernstein. Virgil Thomson deserves a special mention for his beautiful mediation when the dispute arose between Copland and Schoenberg.

Schoenberg specialist Sabine Feisst is in the midst of a nine-volume set entitled Schoenberg in Words. Her selection and translation of this material (more than 80 letters were in German, some in French), with commentary and copious notes, are admirable. The presentation is excellent. If the price (£97) deters some would-be readers, I would advise a recommendation to your local library, while such a resource still exists.

Philip Borg-Wheeler Read the full review on Agora Classica


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