Arnold Schoenberg, pianos, Blüthner, and the Holocaust


I visited the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna last fall. It was my last stop after a day of going to Vienna’s Steinway, Bosendorfer, and Blüthner dealers. I know I’ve mentioned this already on social media–but does social media remember as does the web? I think not.

Rules that govern social media seem looser and more fluid than regulations of the web. We can’t search and index social media as we can with the web. My use of the word we probably should exclude at least a few government agencies across several countries. But that’s a different story, just as the ongoing refugee crisis is another story.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg is, of course, the twelve-tone row guy from Austria. He was the leader more or less of the Second Viennese School of composers. Among other things, he wrote a book about tonal harmony–The Theory of Harmony. “Among other things” for Arnold Schoenberg includes, as was the case for many Jews: he left Europe in the 1930s and emigrated elsewhere, in his case to America.

The Theory of Harmony

About his Theory of Harmony book, no one I know uses it as a source from which to teach harmony–well, except me. When I taught music theory in university classrooms, Schoenberg’s book was always my background source. These days I teach I harmony on Skype to–maybe I should say I facilitate discussion with–a small enthusiastic group of Theory of Harmony readers.

I’ve always liked and admired it as a very practical way to learn about harmony and music. My allegiance to it began in an undergraduate theory course I took at the New England Conservatory of music with Robert DeDomenica, a composer. He was fascinated and enthralled with Schoenberg’s approach to harmony. So in the background of his course and teaching, of course, was Arnold Schoenberg, always.

Later, while working on my doctorate in music composition at the Hartt School of Music, I went through the Theory of Harmony page by page and exercise by exercise with James Sellars, one of my composition teachers. Much more should probably be said about James but that’s for a future post and The Theory of Harmony is a book I know well. In any case, my first copy, with notes from my read-through with James has long since, collapsed, obliterated, and disintegrated. I have a new second copy but I wish I had those notes from my first copy.

These days Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony isn’t used much if at all as a primary theory text. For one thing, it’s considered by many to be outmoded and too reliant on (his) opinion. In particular, because it’s a book about Schoenberg’s aesthetics. It’s a philosophy text as much as it is a harmony book.

But philosophy text or not, it is one of the last, if not the last, grand views of the great, mighty, and weighty tonal system that preceded the so-called “New Music” which led to atonality and more. Well, in that realm of “one of the last,, if not the last, grand views” of the tonal system, it has a definite competitor in the form of Heinrich Schenker whose so-called Schenkerian analysis eventually acquired traction as THE theoretical approach to tonal music in the western art music tradition.

But the story doesn’t end there because there’s yet another another entirely different explanation of harmony and music theory from Ernst Levy about which I’ve posted previously. Steve Coleman commented on that post–his interesting thoughts about Levy are there as well. It’s entirely reasonable to wonder, with all of these different competing views of theory that exist, maybe the THE WAY to learn about music theory is to know more about how it comes and derives from the practitioners of any particular time.

For example, in a 16th century counterpoint text by Zarlino, he, Zarlino, talks about and recommends “the rule of the shortest way” as an important principle in writing music. Well he, Zarlino, doesn’t call “the rule of the shortest way” by that name. Nonetheles, the principle is there–he describes it– and it’s there in Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony where it’s called by exactly that name–”the law of the shortest way.

Franck Amsallem, a fabulous jazz pianist from France who I know from our student days at the Manhattan School of Music …. Is it ok to mention Franck and I were co-competitors in the First Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano competition? Marcus Roberts was the first prize winner, Joey DeFrancesco placed fourth and Harry Connick was the “intermission” pianist while judges, including Sir Roland Hanna, Barry, Harris, Roger Kelloway, and Hank Jones deliberated and selected MR as first-prize winner.

Anyway on Facebook Franck said he studied the Theory of Harmony and found it to be “very flexible” and “a great philosophical read.” I’m with him completely. And as far as I know, Barry Harris also read and studied the Theory of Harmony. His system of theory in jazz reflects or at least it coincides with concepts in The Theory of Harmony, in particular, the “cousin” relationship among b9 chords a minor third apart.

Schoenberg concluded the Theory of Harmony with utopian flair:

Tone colour melodies! How acute the senses that would be able to perceive them! How high the development of spirit that could find pleasure in such subtle things!

In such a domain, who dares ask for theory!

Blüther in Vienna == no. 1!

If you’re in Vienna and interested in playing really good pianos, I mean REALLY well-tuned and -prepped pianos then visit the Blüthner shop. Any piano dealer that keeps its pianos prepped and ready to go is well worth visiting. And best as I can tell, Blüthner in Vienna maintains that standard as its standard operating procedure. I’ve heard from others that that’s how things are at Vienna Blüthner.

Having said that, I mean, really, in such a domain who dares ask for theory! Not to mention at Vienna Steinway the person who greeted me said 300 or so people a day wanted to play the pianos there. He couldn’t afford to keep them tuned! Bosendorfer was a little more to the point. They simply asked if I wanted to rent a piano by the hour. In fairness, they warmed up once I began to play one their instruments.

Two special pianos and a manager

At Blüthner Vienna I played on a 9′ grand that totally captured my attention. My experience and opinion was that was time completely well spent and worth every moment. Tone colour and feel were exactly to my taste. Tone colour melodies are possible on that piano.

I’ve since been in touch with the Vienna store manager a few times. I refer to that piano, with some humour, as my piano. Although to be fair, I have a magnificent piano, a Steingraeber Phoenix 205. And I’m in no position to acquire another piano. But even if I was there’s the small significant problem of where a large 9′ piano would go in the space where the 205 sits. But that’s not a problem that needs a solution.

However, let it be said, the Blüthner manager of whom I’m speaking is wonderfully knowledgable about pianos, extremely genial, and and an accomplished pianist himself. Which is to say there are several reasons to visit Blüthner in Vienna and not “just” for their stock of pianos alone.

Actually, there’s another instrument in the same shop that Joey Calderazzo, who’s a Blüthner artist, has called out (here I totally paraphrase) as among the most magical pianos he’s ever played. Since JC traverses known and unknown sound worlds across continents with a plethora of pianos, he KNOWS the instruments that he likes.


Moving forward from last fall to today and to a completely different topic, I’m volunteering on a project with the Leicester City of Sanctuary, several projects actually, to help Leicester’s asylum seekers. As we all know, the current refugee crisis is among the major issues of our time.

My opinion is whatever any of us does to help and assist is a step forward. Because our political leaders with very few exceptions by and large are doing nothing except they’re making a horrific situation worse. Well, that’s my opinion.

And, yes, it would be very reasonable to ask what that all has to do with Arnold Schoenberg and Blüthner’s pianos.

Six degrees or less of separation

As I wrote many of the previous paragraphs I was on the lookout: Are there connections, any small degree of separation, between Arnold Schoenberg and Blüthner? One might think or surmise there may have been because many composers and pianists preferred the sound of a Blüthner piano over those of all other manufacturers.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Schoenberg, who had an opinion about almost everything, commented somewhere about Blüthner and their pianos. [OPINIONATED NOTE TO PIANISTS: There’s more out there in the world of fabulous pianos than Steinway alone. Although Steinway does indeed offer fabulous top-tier instruments. To see that en masse, visit Steinway Hall in London].

And I was also thinking, well, how do those paragraphs about asylum seekers connect to this post?

But research on the Internet doesn’t always go as expected. And not everything is on a linear path. So, for example, I didn’t know:

when Hitler was already in power in Berlin. Rudolf Blüthner-Haessler, a grandson by adoption of the company’s founder and now the company head, had defied the dictator in his own inimitable way. “Knowing that many Jews fleeing Nazi-ruled Germany owned Blüthner Grands, he offered to have their instruments properly packaged in zinc casings and transported to port at his company’s expense …”

(from The Atlantic Times)

Social good

In other words, Blüthner was a company with a predilection for social good long before that term, as now used, was even a term. With a little more research–and, let it be said, things on the Internet do wait patiently to be found–I came across another extraordinary story in a 2010 feature about the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust:

It [the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust] will … showcase a Blüthner piano that belonged to Alfred Sendrey, a Jewish conductor born in Budapest who achieved renown worldwide in the early 20th century. He led the Radio Berlin Orchestra and the Radio Leipzig Orchestra when the Nazis came to power.

When Sendrey left Germany, the 6-foot-4-inch-long grand piano stayed behind. “He thought he’d never see his Blüthner again,” said Helga Kasimoff, who owns and operates the Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Co. on North Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles, the oldest purveyor of the German pianos in the United States. But before the war, Kasimoff said, “Blüthner contacted all their Jewish customers and said that if they wanted to leave [Germany], [the Blüthner family] could be helpful picking [their piano] up, putting it in a crate and shipping it to a new address.”

After spending the war years in Paris and New York, Sendrey arrived in Los Angeles. Shortly after his arrival, Kasimoff said, “He got notice from San Pedro that his Blüthner had arrived.” The Blüthner family itself paid to transport the instrument from Europe.

When Blüthner met Schoenberg

And the director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust?. E. Randol Schoenberg–Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson.

Fortuitous coincidence? Would I have connected those dots had I not visited Blüthner in Vienna, had a magnificent time there, and afterwards walked to the Arnold Schoenberg Centre to see its collection of his original manuscripts, notes, and more–his magic squares, and recordings and videos of performances of his compositions? Of course that’s an unanswerable question.

But learning that Blüthner supported asylum seekers in difficult times and Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson connects to that story: that’s a story. It suggests, literally, that anyone, any business, any corporation, any organisation, much less any government, can make a difference.