To ‘e’, or not to ‘e’…?

schbgcolourI wasn’t planning to put out two Schoenberg-related postings one after the other; but a Facebook friend of mine read the one that appeared yesterday, and immediately sent me a message saying two things. First of all, he mentioned that he really liked the little piece of music I’d attached to it (so let me post it again — in a different performance); secondly, he pointed out that I’d managed to spell the composer’s name two different ways in the course of the article. Which is sort of true, when you look at it: the composer is ‘Schoenberg’ at the beginning and the end — and ‘Schönberg’ a couple of times in the middle…

As it happens, my Facebook pal is a follower of pop music rather than ‘classical’, and isn’t at all familiar with the details of Schoenberg’s life — or even Schönberg’s, for that matter. So I thought I’d use today’s posting to tell him (and everyone else who’s in the same position as him) a little about the spelling of that name — especially since I do actually have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about something connected with the issue.

First, let’s nip over to my bookshelves and find the String Quartet No. 3 (1927) — of whose score I actually have two copies. One of them I bought in York, more than 30 years ago…


… and the other I bought in Vienna in 2013…

schoenberg third umlaut

As you can see, they both hail from the same publisher — but they have the composer’s surname spelled in what you might call the same different ways.

Now, this is a subject in which I’m not any kind of expert; but it does appear that the issue is one in which geography and chronology are mixed up with history — and also, as we’ll see, with what looks to me like denial of history. (Someone please post a correction if I get anything wrong in what follows!)

As far as I know, in the beginning — i.e. starting in 1874 and for more than half a century thereafter — there was Schönberg. Yes, when Schoenberg lived in Austria and Germany, he was Schönberg — and seemed happy enough to be so: ‘Arnold Schönberg’ is the name that appeared on the published scores; ‘Arnold Schönberg’ was the name people used when they wrote to him (I’m looking at a random letter sent to him in 1910 or 1911); ‘Arnold Schönberg’ was the name on the rubber stamps he’d use to head his own correspondence in a time-saving manner; and ‘Arnold Schönberg’ was how he’d sign his letters — even when he’d written them in that Gothic script which, even after all these years, still looks to me like mad squiggles. (Just for the record: there were occasions, back then, when he’d even write in a mixture of Gothic and Roman script for the apparent purpose of emphasis, God help us — or, at any rate, me).

What turned Schönberg into Schoenberg was, basically, Hitler. In 1933 Schönberg fled Berlin with his wife Gertrud and baby daughter Nuria, and went first to France and then to the US — where his arrival made the papers (as did his Umlaut: see the text accompanying the Associated Press photo below).

I don’t know the exact timeline for the orthographic change that then occurred; but it’s definitely the case that a letter sent from 5860 Canyon Cove, Holywood [sic!] and dated 5 March 1935 is written in Roman handwriting throughout and shows the composer spelling his name ‘Schoenberg’. It’s been suggested to me that his dropping the Umlaut must have had to do with the absence of the ‘ ¨ ‘ key from American typewriters of the time; but (i) I’ve never been able to verify this, and (ii) to my mind, the change actually smacks very much of the man’s seemingly boundless intellectual and emotional energy: having arrived in America, he rapidly made himself as American as he could — even developing (late in life: he was almost 60!) an idiosyncratic but very clear species of English in which to speak and write. (We should remember that there were German-speaking artist emigres in California at that time who stuck with German and, therefore, were stuck with each other: not so Schönberg, I mean Schoenberg.)

Now, the composer’s ‘American’ works naturally bore his name’s new spelling — but, in the rest of the world, some people followed the change, and other people didn’t. Here’s a nice clipping from The Times of 28 May 1938: they’d carried on with ‘Schönberg’ (and were still doing so, at least some of the time, for fully ten years after he died: see ‘Last Of The Tributes To Schonberg’ [sic] of 7 Sept. 1961):


To judge from a quick ‘Genome’ search, it was not until 1946 that the BBC adopted the new spelling — and even then, it seems, they still sometimes used the old one. What’s more, from a British perspective, one’s choice of spelling could be something that functioned as a proud badge of allegiance — or as a potent tool of opposition. While a supportive publication like the vigorous and combative Music Survey (1947-52) embraced the modern and Americanised ‘Schoenberg’, any hostile critic  or editor who was addressing a UK readership after the start of WW2 knew perfectly well that writing ‘Schönberg’ would not only provide a jolting reminder of how damned foreign the man was, but would also conjure up manipulatively unnerving associations with German names like Göring, Dönitz and Röhm.

If you want a specific example of a post-war British critic sticking anachronistically to ‘Schönberg’ in an outpouring of quite extraordinary nastiness, see the review (by one ‘C. G-F.’) of the works played in London on 8 November 1949 (in honour of the composer’s 75th birthday) that was printed on pp. 167-8 of the December 1949 issue of Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review. (And, if you want to see a journalistic knife-fight during whose course the critic was ripped to shreds by Hans Keller, Donald Mitchell and three members of the Editorial Board of Music Survey, read the letters pages of the magazine’s issues of March to July 1950…)

As far as Austria and Germany are concerned, I have the feeling that Schoenberg’s replacement of ‘ ¨ ‘ with ‘e’ never really caught on. When Josef Rufer published his Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs in 1959, he used the Umlaut; when the joint Austrian and German complete edition of the composer’s music began to appear in the 1960s, it too elected to call him ‘Schönberg’; and whenever it was that the publishers of the Third Quartet ordered the reprinting which produced the copy I bought the other year, they paid no heed at all to what happened to the composer’s name when he became an American.

Which brings me to that bee I admitted to having in my bonnet — and to the only reason why it was that two different spellings appeared in yesterday’s posting. You see, while there isn’t a single criticism I can imagine myself making about the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna and the Schönberg-Haus in Mödling — seriously, there isn’t (and trust me: if even I can’t think of something to complain about, then they really must be doing things right!) — I would actually be quite a bit happier if they’d called them the ‘Arnold Schoenberg Center’ and the ‘Schoenberg-Haus’ instead. For the reality is that the only reason Schoenberg was able to die an American in 1951 is that in 1933 he didn’t make the mistake of trying to remain an Austrian. Reminding people of the shatteringly tragic significance of that fact might seem like a big job for a single vowel to do; but to me it seems that an orthographic erasing of history is not an acceptable alternative.


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One thought on “To ‘e’, or not to ‘e’…?

  1. In German, in the absence of an ö in a typeface or on a keyboard, oe has always been acceptable in Roman type, likewise for ä (ae) and ü (ue). Indeed, the double character was the original form for these letters when German was first written in a Latin script. None of these two character strings will be confused in German as there are no redundancies with dipthongs and the usage is also current and common with, for example, bank transfer forms or SMS messages in systems without the composite characters. (German crossword puzzles, btw, always use OE, AE or UE!) German personal naming law is rather strict except for this and there is no compulsion to accept one style or the other in personal names. But the strong preference in modern school writing usage is to use the ö, ä, and ü. I would not read any additional meaning into Schönberg’s adoption of the two character style other than that of expedience in a new world where typewriters and typeface sets with the composite characters were rare or non-existent. And given the tortured history of the German Fraktur-Latin conflict (which was won, under the 3rd Reich by Latin, not German letters!) I would not make any political assumptions here. Moreover, in adopting the new orthography, he did not adopt an English pronunciation, despite the generations of UCLA and USC undergrads who would make their way to SHOW -EN – BIRG Hall.


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