When I was working on the April entry for this series—Jelena's, about the friendship between Kandinsky and Schoenberg—I had thoughts about "the bonds that tie us," and also came across some wonderful images that didn't get used. So I am taking this excuse to share them.
It struck me that, on a personal level, Kandinsky and Schoenberg had a lot in common that could form the basis for friendship. First, there was a
certain fluidity in their identities that they might have recognized in one another. In Kandinsky's case, his father's family was from the Mongolian Tungus tribe, which had
moved to the Konda River from which the name Kandinsky derives. His mother was a Muscovite; Kandinsky spent his childhood between Moscow and Odessa, and went on as an adult to
be always between cultures: he was seen as a Russian alien expat while living in Germany, then as "Asiatic" when returning to Russia during WWI, and then as a Russian refugee in
France after fleeing the Nazis in 1933. As for Schoenberg, he was born Jewish in Vienna, converted to Lutheranism in 1898 at 23, and returned to Judaism when emigrating to the
U.S. as a refugee from the Nazis in 1933.
This fluidity also extended to their artistic interests, which moved freely between disciplines. Kandinsky had had art and musicianship in his
life from an early age and began to paint seriously at 30; Schoenberg the musician also started to paint when he was 33. Both wrote stage plays, and designed sets for them. All
in all, on many levels both of them lived—chose to live and were forced to live—as outsiders: multinational, multicultural, multidisciplinary.
Both Kandinsky and Schoenberg played the cello when they were young:
Kandinsky playing the cello, with a friend on the piano,
c. 1886. Photo collection Centre Pompidou
Schoenberg on cello with the Fritz Kreisler on first violin,
a little before 1900. Louis Savant (horn), Karl Redlich (flute [flageolet]),
Eduard Gärtner (the other violinist).
It is also striking that Kandinsky the painter had such a life in music, and Schoenberg the composer also had a life in painting.
Linoleum cut by Gabriele Münter:
Kandinsky on the Harmonium, 1907
Painting by Arnold Schoenberg: Vision, c. 1911
It is also always surprising that Kandinsky and Schoenberg both got
interested in the theatre in 1908/9, without even knowing each other (they started corresponding in 1911). There is much to say about the stage pieces
they each wrote, which effectively kickstarted, or served with a handful of others as prototypes for, the anti-Naturalism, German Expressionist theatre
movement. But now, in this Postscript, I'd like just to point out that they were both the first ones to make the stage lighting itself a kind of character
in a play—an unusual idea to have had separately, much less at the same time. For comparison:
Here is a stage direction for the lighting in Scene 2 of Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound (1909). It begins with a receding blue mist, a bright green hill,
a "brilliant white light," and alternating notes, a, b, b, a flat:
The background violet, fairly bright… [T]he background suddenly turns
a dirty brown. The hill becomes dirty green. And right in the middle of the hill forms an indefinite black patch, which appears now distinct,
now blurred. At each change in definition, the brilliant white light turns progressively grayer. On the left side of the hill, a big yellow flower
suddenly becomes visible.
Schoenberg's set for The Lucky Hand, featuring the lighting instruments.
Photo from Arnold Schönberg Center, Austria.
Here is a stage direction for Scene 3 of Schoenberg's The Lucky Hand (1909/10). It begins when the stage has gotten darker as the sounds of wind
and music have gradually gotten louder:
Conjoined with this wind-crescendo is a light-crescendo. It begins with
dull red light (from above) that turns to brown and then a dirty green. Next it changes to a dark blue-gray, followed by violet. This grows, in
turn, into an intense dark red which becomes ever brighter and more glaring until, after reaching a blood red, it is mixed more and more with
orange and then bright yellow; finally a glaring yellow light alone remains…
Their similar ideas and natural affinities were a bond between them, even
when they were separated by war or thousands of miles. Even a direct assault on their friendship could only alienate them for a time. Last month's
piece described the finally-failed attempt in the 1920s by Alma, the gossip-mongering widow of the composer, Gustav Mahler, to drive a wedge
between them. Schoenberg had been a great follower of her first husband's, and Kandinsky was working with her second husband, Walter Gropius,
founder of the Bauhaus. Under Alma's influence—her accusation that Kandinsky was anti-Semitic—Schoenberg had written a furious letter to
Kandinsky. One of my favorite parts of Kandinsky's shocked, clear-eyed and loving reply is right at the beginning: "I do not know who, and why,
someone was interested in upsetting and perhaps definitively destroying our (as I certainly thought) enduring, purely human relationship… Whom
would that benefit?"
A few years later, they ran into each other on vacation and then met to get some sun with their wives.
Something mysterious had brought them into an enduring, purely human relationship.
* * *
Note: The quotations from the stage lighting directions are taken from
Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures, and Documents,
ed. Jelena Hahl-Koch; trans. John C. Crawford (London: Faber and Fabre, 1984). 96, 119.