By Greg Cahill
Mathilde Schoenberg is not a household name, yet at the turn of the 20th century, she served as muse for one of the classical-music world’s most innovative composers and a figure in a tawdry tale—you could say she’s the star of Mozart in the Jungle, the Schoenberg Edition. Born Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, the demure and enigmatic young woman in 1901 married Arnold Schoenberg before becoming linked to a love triangle involving the artist Richard Gerstl, an affair that produced tragic results.
The emotional toll of the affair inspired Schoenberg’s intense String Quartet No. 2, in F-sharp minor, Op. 10, which serves as the centerpiece of The Mathilde Album (Warner Classics), the newly released recording by the Quatuor Arod with soprano Elsa Dreisig. The album also includes Alexander von Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 2, in D minor, Op. 15, as well as Anton Webern’s Langsamersatz in E-flat minor.
Here are the sordid events.
In 1895, Schoenberg, then a cellist, had met Alexander von Zemlinsky after joining the latter’s amateur orchestra, Polyhymnia. It was a fortuitous meeting, albeit one that would lead to heartache and tragedy. The two became close friends—Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint, the only formal music lessons Schoenberg ever received—and later brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde.
The affair had far-reaching impact on some of the most seminal, radical, and influential pieces of the 20th century.
According to the cultural historian Raymond Coffer, these characters composed a “fascinating real life, ultimately tragic, triangular love story, one that was set against the heady days of fin de siècle Vienna and the ravishing surroundings of a beautiful Alpine lake. The three characters were Richard Gerstl, born 1883, a young, withdrawn, difficult artist who, despite painting some of the most extraordinary works of his time, killed himself in 1908, never having exhibited in his lifetime; Arnold Schoenberg, a famous and extraordinarily influential composer, who was the first to write atonally and later invented serialism; and Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, six years older than Gerstl, who both men desired. For Gerstl, his brief liaison with the older woman had dire consequences. Excluded from Schoenberg’s circle and with the woman he loved finally returning to her husband, he stabbed and hung himself in front of his studio mirror in November 1908, aged just 25. His works were packed hastily away and it was only in 1931, when they were discovered in a Vienna warehouse, that they were finally shown to the public for the first time.
“This, though, is no old-age story of the love-life of artists. Instead, the affair had far-reaching impact both on the art of Gerstl and on some of the most seminal, radical, and influential pieces composed by Schoenberg and his contemporaries in the 20th century.”
Of late, interest in Mathilde’s life, and the music she inspired, has piqued—in 2017, she inspired a play about her love affair and its tragic consequences. And, more recently, she has caught the collective ear of Quatuor Arod: violinists Jordan Victoria and Alexandre Vu, violist Tanguy Parisot, and cellist Samy Rachid.
“The Mathilde Album all started with Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 2,” says Arod violinist Jordan Victoria. “We had to prepare for the ARD Music Competition. Franck Chevalier of the Diotima Quartet told us to choose this piece. At the beginning, we kind of regretted this choice—it was so difficult and such a long piece that we asked ourselves if we could do something with it! But after a few months practicing, we discovered that it was one of the most exciting and beautiful quartets we had to play and by the way the craziest story behind it. That was the moment we found the link with Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet with the voice inside that represents Mathilde Zemlinsky in different aspects like sadness, humor, anger, hypocrisy, and many more. The poems, of course, are also something extraordinary with one of our favorite lines: ‘I feel air from another planet,’ at the moment in which Schoenberg is going to the other side of the music, the atonality.
“After these two quartets, we decided to conclude the story with something by a friend of the family, Anton Webern, who helped Mathilde to come back to Schoenberg. The Langsamersatz is a wink to the beauty of naive and passionate love, a good way to remember her first love.”