Mathilde’s Letters


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Despite his enduring financial difficulties and lack of income, Schönberg appears to have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that he provided his family with their annual summer holidays. As was traditional with the Viennese, this would often stretch from June to September and involve moving one’s chattels to a holiday home away from the summer heat of Vienna. In 1907 and 1908, Schönberg rented a farmhouse in the beautiful Salzkammergut spa town of Gmunden, which lies south of Salzburgon the the deepest glacier lake in Austria, the Traunsee. Here Schönberg and his group rented a number of farmhouses beneath the 1691m high Traunstein on the eastern bank of the lake, some 4.5 kilometres from the centre of the town. On both occasions, Schönberg escorted his family to their summer home, before leaving them to return to work. In 1907, this amounted to just three days whilst he attended a concert of op. 7, his First String Quartet in Dresden. In 1908, however, he went back to Vienna, probably to raise funds for the holiday, and only returned to Gmunden 18 days later. It was a separation that saw Mathilde write every day, sometimes twice, and whilst Schönberg’s apparently daily replies no longer exist, Mathilde’s letters alone offer a unique means of assessing the state of the Schönbergs’ marriage at the time.

Mathilde’s letters, though, are full of perils to the translator, not least since their chronology and subject matter can prove to be deceptive and Mathilde’s untidy Kurrent script, Viennese vernacular and sloppy grammar often tricky to transcribe. An immediate example is found in Mathilde’s “pet name” for Schönberg, whom she regularly addressed as “Herzerl,” but which the eminent musicologist, Prof Bryan Simms, reads incorrectly as “Hagerl”, a diminutive unknown in the German language, and the Schönberg scholar, Dr Marion Lamberth, gives as the equally unlikely, “Gagerl”**. Indeed, Simms placed such great weight on his version that he even incorporated the error in the title of his published paper, “‘My Dear Hagerl’: Self-Representation in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2″*, an article that endeavours to interpret Mathilde’s letters from summer 1908, but comes to conclusions with which this thesis finds deeply flawed.

Both these misreadings of “Herzerl” emphasise the pitfalls lurking in Mathilde’s letters. In particular they illustrate how misconstruing ostensibly trivial or banal details of domestic life enshrined therein can give a misleading, posiibly false impression of the state of Mathilde’s relationship both with her husband and, indeed, with Gerstl, too. Even quoting her words out of context can be deceptive, which is why her texts have been made available in full and in chronological order within this resource. It should also be noted that, for the purposes of the translations published here, Mathilde’s “Herzerl” is given variously, depending on her mood at the time, as “sweetheart”, “dearest heart”, “darling” etc.

Unsurprisingly, her tone changed after her infidelity was uncovered, but this did not prevent her writing notes and letters to her husband, both from Gmunden, where she stayed overnight with Gerstl after the two fled together, and Nußdorf, where they spent the following three nights. Consequently, Mathilde’s correspondence from 1907/1908, plus one letter from Schönberg to Alois Gerstl, written shortly after Richard Gerstl’s death, can be classified into four natural sections (click on a heading or an individual letter to open in a separate window):

Mathilde’s to Schönberg, Gmunden, Summer 1907

1.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 28 June 1907
2.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 29 June 1907

Mathilde’s to Schönberg, Gmunden, June 1908

1.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 9 June 1908
2.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 10 June 1908
3.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 11 June 1908
4.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 12 June 1908/1
5.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 12 June 1908/2
6.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 13 June 1908
7.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 14 June 1908
8.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 15 June 1908
9.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 16 June 1908/1
10. Mathilde to Schönberg – 16 June 1908/2
11. Mathilde to Schönberg – 17 June 1908
12. Mathilde to Schönberg – 18 June 1908
13. Mathilde to Schönberg – 19 June 1908
14. Mathilde to Schönberg – 20 June 1908
15. Mathilde to Schönberg – 21 June 1908
16. Mathilde to Schönberg – 22 June 1908
17. Mathilde to Schönberg – 23 June 1908
18. Mathilde to Schönberg – 24 June 1908
19. Mathilde to Schönberg – 25 June 1908

Mathilde’s letters to Schönberg after the denouement

1.   Mathilde to Schönberg – [27] August 1908/1
2.   Mathilde to Schönberg – [27] August 1908/2
3.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 27/28 August 1908
4.   Mathilde to Schönberg – 28/29 August 1908

Three letters to Alois Gerstl, written after Gerstl’s suicide.

1.   Mathilde to Alois Gerstl – 6/7 November 1908
2.   Mathilde to Alois – 8/9 November 1908
3.   Schönberg to Alois – ca. 7-9 November 1908

Please note: Mathilde’s letters are reproduced here without correction of punctuation and other apparent errors and idiosyncrasies in her grammar and writing style. Also, it should be noted that, whilst either are possible, these transcriptions prefer the view that, rather than a double “s”, Mathilde customarily used an “ß” (Etzett), although, in either case her meaning, of course, remains the same. Finally, whilst each letter is linked to its individual webpage at the Arnold Schönberg Center, some of the ASC’s historic datings appear to be erroneous, so, for the purpose of reference, these have all been corrected within this website.

I must express my thanks to Ernest (Bus) Graumann, Frankie Hellerman, Dr. Marietta Bearman, Prof. Charmian Brinson, Marion Griffiths and Mag. Therese Muxeneder, amongst others, for their indispensable contributions to the transcription, translation and correction of these letters.

*Simms, Bryan R.: “‘My Dear Hagerl’: Self-Representation in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2″ in 19th Century Music, Volume XXVI, number 3, Spring 2003, pp. 258-277.
**Lamberth, Marion: Interaktion von Leben und Werk bei Schönberg, Analysiert anhand seiner Ehekrise des Jahres 1908, Bern, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 208.

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Click for one of the four periods of correspondence:
June 1907 ♦ ♦ June 1908 ♦ ♦ August 1908 ♦ ♦ November 1908

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