Schoenberg arrived in Boston in early November 1934 to teach at the Malkin Conservatory (299 Beacon Street, only a few blocks from Emmanuel Church.) His decision to leave Europe, with political developments there already having cost him his job, was painful, but ameliorated by the offer to teach at a small, high level conservatory in Boston, (with a branch also in New York) that the cellist Joseph Malkin was assembling; the faculty already included Egon Petri and Nicholas Slonimsky. Two admirers of Schoenberg, George Gershwin and Leopold Stowkowski, contributed to a scholarship to study with him, to be decided by a national competition. The winner, Lois Lautner, was eventually a disappointment to Schoenberg, but others seem to have benefitted from encounters during that winter, including Bostonians Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero, and Irving Fine.
Indeed the American period had begun in a glittering fashion, with the shipside reception in New York, excited newspaper articles, a public lecture in English at the New School (for which Schoenberg had crammed on board ship). Difficulties soon arose. First and eventually foremost was the effect of the climate on Schoenberg’s asthma. Also dispiriting, the revelation of the modest facilities for the Malkin Conservatory (Schoenberg was somehow under the impression they would have a large orchestra), the teaching conditions (Schoenberg required total silence), the preparation level of the students (a problem throughout Schoenberg’s American career). All of these, especially the health issue, led to his decision at the end of that first year to move to Los Angeles, in 1935.
The only compositional yield from the Boston year was the group of canons we are presenting on this program. Schoenberg, like Mozart and Bach, had a life-long habit of occasional canon writing, often to texts of his own devising, for birthdays, retirements, and marriages.
At his own request Schoenberg was represented on Boston Symphony programs during ’34-35 by pieces from his early, tonal period, since he felt the public was not ready to deal with the evolution of musical materials in his mature pieces. For our program we take a different approach, choosing an unfinished piece, Ein Stelldichein (1905), from the crucial transitional period of the First Chamber Symphony, when the fundamental structures of tonality are being extended (and eventually renovated). Then we focus on Schoenberg as he sounded just before his move to Boston, in the Berlin songs, probably the most austere manner of his career. Finally, the major chamber piece of his looser, more “confessional” late style, the Trio. This piece is undergirded by a narrative which Schoenberg referred to often in conversation but never published. In 1946 Schoenberg died, but on the wrong day, since his persistent number superstition insisted that he would die on a Friday the 13th. Doctors brought him back to life with a needle direct into the heart. He immediately began the Trio, with its very usual climax-first formal shape. It begins with the death struggle, which subsides into fragmentary shards of itself, then gradually seems to glide in memory back to early days in Vienna. Midway through there is a startling three-note pizzicato violin chord, which Schoenberg once pointed out to Leonard Stein as the “Life-Needle.”
Of course Schoenberg did die on a Friday: 13th August 1951 at 11:45 p.m.
The two Haydn pieces come from the heart of his mature chamber music enterprise. Haydn’s prominence, his indispensability in the string quartet medium, is long established. The trios are also essential Haydn. More unpredictable, varied, and speculative than his other music, many of them coming after all of the symphonies and quartets, they reveal Haydn unbounded, often literally making it up as he goes along, music for a few friends in a small room, everyone ready to travel.