Arnold & Mathilde

Arnold and Mathilde Schönberg – a history
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Mathilde and Arnold Schönberg in their apartment in Liechtensteinstraße 68/70, ca. 1907. ASC

They must have made a striking couple; he, like his friends, Mahler and Zemlinsky, short, maybe 5′ 2″, in physical stature, but an intellectual and musical giant; she, a quiet, intelligent woman, who herself was barely 5′. Their marriage lasted almost precisely 22 years, during which, despite, or, perhaps, because of her indiscretions, Schönberg would change the course of music in the 20th century.

Schönberg (right) was born on 13 September 1874 to Jewish parents, Samuel and Pauline (née Nachod), in Vienna’s Second District, the Jewish quarter or Leopoldstadt (see ASC biography), where the family, later increased by a sister, Ottilie (born 1876) and a brother, Heinrich (born 1882), lived in a small flat that was too small to house his mother’s piano. Nonetheless, by the age of eight, Schönberg had already received violin tuition. He was however, no more than an average student at his secondary school, which he was obliged to leave in January 1891, some twelve months after his father’s sudden death on New Year’s Eve 1889 had left the family in distressed circumstances. Acceding to his mother’s demands, he became a reluctant apprentice with Privatbank Werner & Comp, whose bankruptcy he gleefully welcomed in 1895, whereupon he made music his focus. Shortly afterwards, Alexander Zemlinsky, Mathilde’s older brother, who had recently founded the Musikalische Verein Polyhymnia, found Schönberg at one of his rehearsals, “maltreating his instrument” and the two struck up a lifelong, if turbulent, friendship.

Zemlinsky’s importance to Schönberg, an acknowledged autodidact, cannot be overstated, for Schönberg recognised Zemlinsky (left) as his only teacher, and one of just three friends to whom he owed his knowledge. In addition, Zemlinsky played an influential role in Schönberg’s early social and cultural life, and was probably instrumental in the first public performance of a Schönberg work at a Polyhymnia concert on 2 March 1896. By the end of 1898, the 24 year old Schönberg’s String Quartet in D Major, op. 0, had been premiered at Vienna’s Bösendorfer-Saal, he had taken his first student, Vilma von Webenau, and had converted to Protestantism, as did Zemlinsky shortly after. Schönberg had also become part of a wide vibrant social and artistic circle that flourished in Vienna’s coffee and beer houses in the late 1890s, which comprised an impressive roll-call of Vienna’s next creative generation, including Felix Dörmann, Paul Wertheimer, Jacob Wassermann, Adolf Loos, Zemlinsky, the Bodansky brothers, Edmund Eisler, Carl Weigl, and Leo Hirschfeld (Leo Feld) amongst others, and who, in one document, dubbed themselves the “Champagner-Gilde” (see thesis – pp. 33-36 & Appendix B(ii)). However, Schönberg was to lose many of these friends of his twenties once he had met and married Mathilde Zemlinsky, of whom few of his circle approved.

Mathilde (right) was born at Springergasse 6, also in the Second District, on 7 September 1877, the third child of Clara Semo, the daughter of a Constantinople Sephardic Jew and Sarajevo Muslim mother, and Adolf von Zemlinsky, a Catholic who had enthusiastically embraced Sephardic Judaism and would become “Sekretär der türkisch-israelitischen Gemeinde zu Wien”. Her brother Alexander, who was born in 1871 (a sister had died as a baby in 1874), recalled a childhood of poverty and hunger, a result, perhaps, of her father’s unfulfilled ambition to be the “artist of the family.” Thus, it was the mother who brought up her children with clear-cut ideals, a well-defined code of moral and social behaviour, and a characteristically Sephardic pride, bordering on arrogance. Since her brother had received a thorough education, it is reasonable to expect that Mathilde also had a good basic schooling, and it is hardly surprising that, with her mother’s influences, a multi-cultural upbringing, and a potpourri of Austro-Hungarian Catholicism, Bosnian Muslim and Byzantine Sephardic antecedence, Mathilde appears to have been endowed with an independent streak.

Whilst Mathilde’s first encounter with Schönberg may have been in 1898 when he was part of the all-male “Champagner-Gilde”, what is certain is that she and her brother spent summer 1899 in the mountain resort of Payerbach in Lower Austria with him. Here, a romance between Arnold and Mathilde flourished, possibly encouraged by Zemlinsky to save Mathilde from her threat to kill herself after she had been previously deserted by an unidentified fiancé. Arnold and a pregnant Mathilde were wed at a civil wedding in Pressburg on 7 October 1901, and, after Mathilde also converted a few days later, a religious ceremony took place at Vienna’s Evangelische Kirche, Dorotheergasse, on 18th of that month.

By now, many of Schönberg’s then circle had distanced themselves from the couple, and they moved to Berlin where their daughter Gertrude (Trudi) was born 8 January 1902. Their early days of marriage were, however, plagued by Schönberg’s inability to earn income as a musician or composer, a state of affairs that would effectively blight his life until the end. Relying on grants and probably charity, too, the young family moved back to Vienna in summer 1903, when they took up residence in Liechtensteinstraße 68/70 in the upcoming ninth district, next door Zemlinsky, and in same house as Schönberg’s sister, Ottilie and her family.

The next years saw Schönberg, despite the open support of Mahler, face the opprobrium and disapproval of critics and the public alike as his radical works received their Viennese premieres. By 1904, he was forced to seek income from other sources, and became a teacher and, indeed, father figure to a group of students that included Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Heinrich Jalowetz, Karl Horwitz and Erwin Stein, amongst others, a group who, together with Schönberg, would eventually come to be known as the Second Viennese School. Much of his teaching occurred in the Schönbergs’ small apartment, as did Schönberg’s regular musical soirees at which Mathilde apparently provided schnitzel and sauerkraut to her husband’s adoring pupils.

It was against this background that, in spring 1906, Schönberg was introduced to Richard Gerstl (left), a man nine years younger than him (see their story). Attracted by the possibility of earning income as an artist himself, Schönberg soon invited Gerstl into his home to teach both himself and Mathilde to paint. Gerstl’s two portraits, Arnold Schönberg and Mathilde and Gertrud, soon followed, the latter depicting Mathilde six months pregnant with their son Georg (Görgi), who was born, after a difficult pregnancy, on 22 September 1906. As the months passed, Gerstl became part of Schönberg’s close circle, establishing friendships with several of the older man’s students. Mathilde, meanwhile, found herself excluded from Schönberg’s wider social circle and may even have felt that her husband had lost interest in her or was not paying her sufficient attention. Moreover, marriage appears to have brought an inevitable loss of independence, and she later bemoaned that she was always living her life for other people, for the home and for the children, and had the idea that she wasn’t free.

At the same time, Gerstl had become so established within Schönberg’s circle that not only did he and Schönberg share a studio in Liechtensteinstraße 68/70 from February 1908, he was invited in both 1907 and 1908 to join Schönberg for his long summer family vacations in Gmunden (right), a spa on the Traunsee, a glacier lake set amongst the alpine beauty of the Salzkammergut, just south of Salzburg. It was during the second of these that Schönberg completed the final three movements of his Second String Quartet, a work in whose fourth movement, Entrueckung, he became the first to make the leap to atonality. However, despite its chronological juxtaposition to his shock at discovering the Gerstl/Mathilde affair, this, contrary to popular conjecture, is not the work in which Schönberg first represented his feelings regarding Mathilde’s liaison with Gerstl, nor did her unfaithful actions have any influence on her husband’s historic musical advance to atonality. Indeed, it was only some three weeks after he had finished the composition that the denouement took place and Mathilde’s infidelity with Gerstl was exposed.

After Arnold had rejected her exhortations, Mathilde fled that night with Gerstl, first staying overnight at a guesthouse in the main town of Gmunden and then travelling to Vienna the next day where the two made their was to the northern suburb of Nußdorf. Here they they spent three nights in a pension before Mathilde returned to Arnold on 30 August 1908. This though was not the end of the affair, for Mathilde continued to visit Gerstl at his new studio at Liechtensteinstraße 20, a premises that he had rented from mid-October and which, for Mathilde, was just a short walk away. Here, he may have painted a nude of her (left), which, if the work is indeed Mathilde, bears comparison to her son-in-law, Felix Greissle’s description: “[Mathilde] was not a beautiful woman, but was very attractive in her behaviour, she had a very good figure, she was flirtatious.” Equally, Schönberg’s great friend, Marya Freund, found Mathilde to be “a remarkable little woman, blonde, with blue eyes, very cultivated who had great beauty and graciousness.” Certainly, she appears to have looked after her physical appearance, ostensibly to satisfy her husband, to whom she claimed her weight was 58 Kg (128lb).

In any case, within perhaps three weeks, Mathilde was persuaded by Webern to leave Gerstl once more at almost the same time that her lover, now persona non grata amongst Schönberg’s circle, had been pointedly excluded from an afternoon concert dedicated to the works of Schönberg’s students on 4 November 1908. The pain was evidently too much for Gerstl, and without apparent previous indications, he killed himself there and then in front of his studio mirror. The effect on Mathilde was shattering and within days of Gerstl’s death, she had confessed to Richard’s brother, Alois (see right), “Believe me, Richard has chosen the easiest way for both of us. To have to live, in such circumstances, is very hard.” Thereafter, it is claimed that, accompanied by Arnold, she visited Gerstl’s grave each year.

The impact of events was no less consequential on Schönberg, and he pointedly dedicated the first performance of his seminal and partly atonal Second String Quartet to her, replacing his original dedication with the simple, and probably sardonic, “Meiner Frau” (left (Library of Congress)). Thereafter he soon began to represent the affair in his both his musical and his dramatic pieces, notably in his monodrama Erwartung (1909), written less than 12 months of Gerstl’s death and his musical drama, Die glückliche Hand, which he began in 1910.

Whilst ostensibly the couple appear to have repaired their marriage, plainly their relationship had been changed irrevocably. This, though, should not detract from Mathilde’s importance to her husband, who depended on her support and advice in many matters for the duration of their marriage and seems, for example, to have been happy for her to read the letters that he received. Consequently, she appears to have asserted a firm hand within the marriage, especially in such matters as Schönberg’s financial fecklessness, his proneness to solitary drinking, and his domestic responsibilities, although Krüger claims that it was Schönberg who often undertook the household chores. Conversely, others point out that Schönberg was misogynous and difficult to live with, including Marya Freund again, who wrote that, “Mathilde tolerated with indulgence and patience Schönberg’s trying originality in everyday life, and his authoritarian character made me understand the patience necessary for her, the wife, the mistress of the house, the mother of 2 children, to have in order to endure the misery.” The recollections of the Schönbergs’ maid during the First World War, Josepha (Seffi) Wally, appear to endorse this, for she complained of the “negative, aggressive atmosphere in the Schönberg house, very turbulent with permanent quarrels” claiming that, “Schönberg tyrannised the family.”

For Schönberg, who, despite such comments, appears to have been a kind and wise man and father, Mathilde was, according to his own words, clear and simple in her advice, able to resolve complicated problems with a few words and keep peace and calm even in the most difficult of situations. Conversely, Ottilie later turned on Mathilde, describing her as a spinsterish, silent and brooding woman who resented her husband’s pleasures and success. Above all, Ottilie, who was probably Mathilde’s closest ally, claimed that, other than her children, Mathilde’s main concern were her cooking and any potential extra-marital liaison.

This may very well be the case, for whilst there is currently no evidence of other amours, correspondence between Helene and Alban Berg at the time documents events from 1920, when Mathilde, then 42, pursued one of Schönberg’s students, Hugo Breuer, who was 20 years her junior, presumably with a view to having an affair with the young man. Although it cannot be confirmed that this was indeed the final outcome, such a desire for extra-marital relationships, whether in connection with Gerstl, Breuer or any other unknown person, should perhaps be seen in the context of Mathilde’s apparent nervous disposition, Greissle claiming, for example that she was always in depression and should have gone into analysis, a course, incidentally, that would have attracted Schönberg’s strongest disapproval.

What is clear is that Mathilde’s well-being, probably not helped by the diet of the war and post-war years, appears to have been poor, and, whether on account of depression, anaemia or malnutrition, she seems to have become increasingly introverted. Thus it was that the Schönbergs were again on the Traunsee when Mathilde’s final condition was diagnosed in September 1923. Her rapid deterioration distressed visitors and family alike. She spent her last month, with Schönberg, at the Sanatorium Auerspergstraße, where he cared for her throughout and stayed with her to the end, when, on 18 October, she died from adrenal cancer. Despite his outpourings of love, Schönberg’s avowed intention to write a “Requiem” composed in Mathilde’s name was never realised and just ten months after her emotional and painful death, he married Gertrud Kolisch, 23 years his junior. Theirs appears to have been a far happier and harmonious marriage that lasted until Schönberg’s death in 1951 and produced three offspring. It is said, though, that Mathilde’s name was rarely, if ever, mentioned again.

Mathilde’s death came at the end of perhaps Schönberg’s most influential phases, for it was only recently that he had announced his twelve-tone system and premiered its first work, a musical revolution that some have suggested had its unlikely roots in the impact of Mathilde’s infidelity. There can, though, be little doubt that the train of events from summer 1908 had a deep effect on Schönberg’s works from the years that followed and may have changed the direction of music throughout the 20th century. However, Schönberg was not alone in representing Mathilde and her behaviour. For example both Berg, perhaps in his opera, Wozzeck, but certainly in his Chamber Concerto (1925), and Zemlinsky, in several works, including his Second and Third String Quartets (1918/1924) and his opera, Eine florentinische Tragödie (1916), use musical allusions and secret programmes to confront their feelings regarding Mathilde, a demure, even insignificant woman, whose impact on the art and music of the 20th century transpires to have been wildly out of proportion to her public persona.

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