I have to think it possible that the Italian public did not know what to make of my music. But the image of a concert where there was hissing—in twenty-five years I have seen it so often that I may be believed—was always as follows: in the front third of the hall, roughly, there was little applause and little hissing; most people sat unconcerned, many stood looking around in amazement or amusement toward the parts of the hall farther back where things were livelier. There the applauders were in the majority—there were fewer unconcerned, and a few hissers. But the most noise, both applause and hisses, always came from the standing space at the back and from the galleries. It was there that the people instructed or influenced by the expert judges went into battle against those who were impressed.
And yet I never had the impression that the number of people hissing was particularly great. It never sounded full, like a chord of solid applause entering with precision, but more like an ad hoc group of ill-assorted soloists, the extent of whose ensemble was limited to the fact that their noises told one the direction they were approaching from.
That was how I saw the public and in no other way except when, as today with my older works, they applauded. But besides a number of very pleasant letters I receive now and then, I also know the public from another side. Perhaps I may end by relating a few pleasing little experiences. When just drafted to a reserve company during the war, I, the conscript who had had many a bad time, once found myself treated with striking mildness by a newly arrived sergeant. When he addressed me after we had drilled, I hoped I was going to be praised for my progress in all things military. There followed a blow to my soldierly keenness; surprisingly, the tribute was to my music. The sergeant, a tailor’s assistant in civil life, had recognized me, knew my career and many of my works, and so gave me still more pleasure than by praising my drill (even though I was not a little proud of that!). There were two other such meetings in Vienna: once when I had missed a train and had to spend the night in a hotel, and again when a taxi was taking me to a hotel. I was recognized the first time by the night porter, the other time by the taxi driver, from the name on the label of my luggage. Both assured me enthusiastically that they had heard Gurrelieder. Another time in a hotel in Amsterdam, a hired man addressed me, saying that he was a long-standing admirer of my art; he had sung in the choir in Gurrelieder when I conducted them in Leipzig. But the prettiest story last: a short while back, again in a hotel, the elevator attendant asked me whether it was I who had written Pierrot. He said that he had first heard it when it debuted before the war (about 1912!) and that the sound was still in his head; especially the piece about red stones – “Red princely rubies.” And he had heard back then that the musicians had no idea what to do with the piece, and today [he said] something like that is so easy to understand!
It occurred to me: that I didn’t have to give up my faith in the half-wits, in the expert judges; that I could continue thinking that they had no clue about anything whatsoever.
But whether the public really dislikes me as much as the expert judges always say, and whether my music really scares the public so much, seems rather doubtful to me at times.
Source of English translation: Arnold Schönberg, “My Public” (1930), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. © 1994 Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press, pp. 584-86. Reprinted with permission of the University of California Press. Final lines of the text translated by GHDI staff.
Source of original German text: Arnold Schönberg, “Mein Publikum,” Der Querschnitt 10, vol. 4 (April 1930), pp. 222-24.