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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Reading historical music documents in context: health or antisemitism?

One of the common mistakes of music students is to read letters, articles and other musical documents by composers, performers and musicologists, completely out of context. In order to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of what one reads, the reader must attempt to gain access to the context/s of the document. One can start doing so by asking to whom was the document written. The next second question could be: what was the writer seeking to achieve? Only these two questions may help avoiding many misunderstandings. To answer these questions, one often needs to do further reading of other documents. Further questions could help building a wider context: at what period was this document written? Are any of the key terms in the document being treated in a special way with regards to their history or the writer’s history? A practical example could help to understand what I mean when I say that a historical music document must be read in context.

On 13 February 1932 Arnold Schoenberg wrote Leo Kestenberg, who was music advisor in the Prussian Ministry of Education and the Arts, that he cannot return from Barcelona to teach in Berlin due to health problems. On 13 May 1932 he wrote another letter adding that his wife just gave birth to a baby girl. Yet on the 24 May 1932 he wrote to Dr. Joseph Asch that he is in Barcelona ‘for reasons of health, and on these grounds, but also because of political conditions, am very reluctant to go back to Germany at this juncture.’ Later at this letter he writes: ‘Will you see if you can get some rich Jews to provide for me so that I don’t have to go back to Berlin among the swastika-swaggerers and pogromists?’ (Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), pp. 163-164)). The question is how should one relate to Schoenberg’s request not to return to Berlin? What was the real reason: health problems, the rise of National Socialism, both, or perhaps none of these reasons?
 
If one reads only the three letters written about one cannot really answer this question. It might be argued that he did not write to Kestenberg the whole truth since the latter was part of the establishment and would never accept such a reason as an excuse for not returning to Berlin. On the other hand, it might be claimed that Schoenberg did have serious health problems and that he was using the political situation in order to try to receive money from rich Jews in America (he received a negative answer). One could claim that no one really knew the real meaning of National Socialism at that time, and that the composer was simply seeking piece and quite for composing and living in a place that was good for his health. How can one determine what is the truth?
 
In order to do so, one must read further and try to understand the context. On 23 September 1932 Schoenberg wrote to Alban Berg: ‘Of course I know perfectly well where I belong. I’ve had it hammered into me so loudly and so long that only be being deaf … could I have failed to understand it. And it’s a long time now since it wrung any regrets from me. Today I’m proud to call myself a Jew; but I know the difficulties of really being one.’ (Ibid., p. 167). In other words, Schoenberg’s fear from the National Socialists was a real one.
 
I have seen a scholar writing about Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and claiming that the composer would prefer that it would be sung in German. Schoenberg’s letters show that this is not the case. If you are starting your way as a scholar, it is important to remember that extensive, yet focused readings are important in order to interpret historical musical documents. When you read such a document, try to examine all possibilities of interpretation. See whether any further reading is necessary and do not hesitate to invest time in it. If you will do so, you will find out very quickly that your work is gaining authority and recognition.  

 

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