Friday, September 16, 2005

Second Viennese soap opera

With the start of the fall TV season, we once again have a dearth of compelling drama which does not concern people being forced to eat live insects or marry repulsive strangers. Why not borrow from the real-life exploits of one of the hottest, raciest bunches of all time? I am of course referring to the Second Viennese School of composers: acolytes, rivals, friends (and lovers) of the dodecaphonic heartthrob Arnold Schoenberg.

To introduce you to the show, which I'm calling "Twelve Tones of Passion," here is a list of the main characters (also twelve in number, appropriately). I have taken some dramatic liberties with the actual history of the Second Viennese School; most notably, rather than Vienna, Austria, the soap takes place in a small town somewhere in California, Vienna Hills.

Arnold Schoenberg

The brilliant, haunted, and astonishingly handsome genius at the center of it all. Arnold has a troubled, mysterious past, but from the moment he arrives in Vienna Hills, all the most talented composers (and the most beautiful women) flock to him. He invents the Twelve Tone Method and founds the Society for Private Musical Performances to present his darkly disturbing expressions of loneliness and passion before a uniformly educated (and shockingly attractive) audience. However, most of the perfomances are interrupted within the first few minutes by screaming, gun-shots, revelations of infidelity, the return of a supposedly dead nephew, or all of the above. He alternates between prolific bouts of theorizing, composing, and obsessing over Alma Mahler.

Alexander Zemlinsky

Arnold's oldest friend and teacher - until a family member and a love affair come between them! Zemlinsky writes emotionally wrought tone poems about love, adultery, and murder, and tries to woo Alma Mahler, who before her marriage to Gustav "taunted him with his diminutive stature and unattractive appearance" (New Grove Dictionary); after extensive plastic surgery, however, he is now drop-dead gorgeous.

Mathilde Schoenberg (née Zemlinsky)

This passionate and sultry sister of Alexander impulsively marries Arnold, but later has an affair with Arnold's art teacher, Richard Gerstl. She is torn between the man she loves and the man whose children she bore; eventually, though, she returns to Arnold, with tragic consequences....

Richard Gerstl

Talented, artistic, and gorgeous, he introduces Arnold to expressionist painting before seducing Arnold's wife Mathilde! When Mathilde leaves him to return to Arnold, he takes his own life. Or did he? No signs of his body were ever found where he leaped from Erwartung Cliff....

Richard Dehmel

Brilliant, handsome, and romantic poet whose work is marked by the “pathos of a new, anti-bourgeois sexual morality [and] the idea of an all-conquering Eros that shuns every convention” (Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt). He lives the same way he writes, falling in love intensely and obsessively with the likes of Alma Mahler and Ida Auerbach.

Ida Auerbach

Beautiful and pregnant wife of Colonel Auerbach, she falls in love with Richard Dehmel, inspiring his poem "Verklaerte Nacht" - the tale of a woman shamedly confessing to her great new love that she is pregnant by another man; whereupon he absolves her of her guilt and promises to raise the child as his own, thus transfiguring the night, and their lives!

Alban Berg

Brilliant and incorrigibly handsome composition student of Arnold, but their relationship soon turns thorny. He insists on writing gorgeously lyrical operatic depictions of madness and death, which stretch Arnold's twelve-tone method in unimagined directions! He marries Helene Nahowski, but their relationship is soon strained by Alban's preoccupations with Arnold and with Alma Mahler, before he dies tragically (and mysteriously) of an insect bite.

Gertrud Schoenberg (née Kolisch)

After Mathilde's untimely death, Arnold quickly remarried this alluring beauty, the sister of Rudolf Kolisch, first violinist of the Kolisch Quartet. Some in Vienna Hills would say too quickly...

Anton Webern

Arnold's most devoted pupil, who regards the classy serialist with "an esteem the fervour of which at times resembled that of a love affair" (New Grove). A composer of miraculously perfect miniatures, he married his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl but later had a fling with the poetess Hildegard Jone, and never got over his infatuation with Arnold - until his untimely shooting death on the porch of his daughter's house, perhaps the victim of some enemy of his black-marketeer son-in-law, leading to the climactic question at the culmination of season 14: Who Shot Anton?

Alma Mahler (née Schindler)

The ravishingly beautiful widow of Gustav, she holds all the men enthralled (and all the women in a jealous rage!) as she recounts her seduction of the reclusively brilliant symphonist Mahler at her weekly kaffee klatsches. She was herself a talented composer before retiring her gifts to marry Mahler; now she composes serial heartbreak for love triangles! All of Vienna Hills is in suspense about her next passion; will it be architect Walter Gropius? poet Franz Werfel? And who is that darkly handsome, hooded stranger who begins arriving uninvited at Alma's kaffee klatsches in season 4? Could it possibly be....?

Gustav Mahler

Manic depressive, unfailingly brilliant, strikingly handsome, but (supposedly) dead since 1911, Gustav's ghost seems to haunt the residents of Vienna Hills. No one can quite forget the way he seemed to prophesize his own daughter's death in his Kindertotenlieder, or the way he brought a new expressive depth and complexity to the symphonic form. Also he had those really irresistible high cheekbones.

Igor Stravinsky

A brilliant composer of ballets and a pesky long-time rival, this short, somewhat geeky (but still devilishly handsome) Russian wastes no opportunity to poke fun at Arnold's twelve-tone method and all his supposedly pretentious theorizing. Everyone in Vienna Hills knows, though, it's just because he's jealous. He'll probably even start writing using serial techniques himself, as soon as he can get Arnold out of the way.... That might demand a spinoff, though.

Will the residents of Vienna Hills ever find true love and happiness? Will Arnold get the recognition he deserves, or will he decide to just say screw it all and move to Hollywood to become a film composer? Who did shoot Anton, and will Helene ever let Berg's final unfinished masterpiece Lulu be completed and performed? All these questions may take several seasons to answer, but one thing you can be sure: all your expectations will be retrogradely inverted each week on "Twelve Tones of Passion"!

This weekend the New World Symphony performs Arnold Schoenberg's masterpiece Verklaerte Nacht, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. The performance will feature stunning revelations about love and paternity, but will probably not be interrupted by gunshots or screaming. Unless another damn cell phone goes off.


Anonymous said...

Just picked up your blog of Friday, September 16, 2005 entitled "Second Viennese soap opera" (the Brits are always a bit slow on these things!). You have obviously been reading my articles, first published in February at the Peabody Conservatory . Check out my"Soap Opera and Genius in the Second Viennese", all about Alban Berg and Mathilde Schoenberg's infidelities - delicious stuff. Also, when my book and doctoral thesis on Richard Gerstl (and his relationship with Mathilde and Arnold) is done next spring, I'll have some very interesting things to say, so back in touch then! Watch this spacer. Raymond Coffer -

Anonymous said...

yeah but what about Berg and the adorable Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (more like Hanna Fuchs-Berg)his secret love for over a decade....and the refusal of his wife Helene to acknowledge.

Oscar Grillo said...

This is better than "Ugly Betty"...Even the music is better!!!!

Matt Heller said...

Thanks to all of you for reading my little hypothetical TV scenario! I actually wasn't aware of Raymond Coffer's fascinating articles, or the whole Fuchs-Robettin subplot. Obviously there is material here for several seasons.

I don't know how to compare Schoenberg to Ugly Betty, but I think they both make compelling characters. If any of the networks call, I'll make sure that you guys get jobs as head writers.

Irrelevant said...

Love, love, LOVE your soap! :)

Of course, my day is now ruined because I'll be ruminating (notice the assonance, or whatever it is...?) about it, most likely in the presence of people who know nothing about dodecaphony... Or about soap, for that matter.

Too bad Aaron Spelling is now departed. It breaks my heart to think what could have been...

Well done!

Irrelevant said...


You forgot the doll! How could you forget the doll? (Manufactured by an albino seamstress - possibly the illegitimate child of the late Kronprinz Rudolf - and ordered by the painfully gorgeous Kokoschka.)

Think of the unthinkable dramatic possibilities it offers: Kokoschka takes it with him on carriage rides - and from afar (really, REALLY far) it does look like the spitting image of Alma, fur and all.

Meanwhile, somwhere else in Vienna Hills...