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Arnold Schoenberg’s Music Notation Based on Tennis: A Tribute to George Gershwin

What the U.S. Open has to do with atonality and one of the great losses of twentieth-century music.

Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg is best-known as the inventor of the twelve-tone technique and a pioneer of atonality, but he was also a man of many curiosities and passions. A lover of tennis, which he famously played with his tennis partner George Gershwin, Schoenberg channeled his enthusiasm for the sport into a new system of music notation, based on a transcription of the events in a tennis match — one of the many gems in the phenomenal anthology of innovation in notation systems, Notations 21.

In 1937, mere months before his tragic death at the unfair age of 38, Gershwin shot this home movie on his tennis court at Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, featuring Schoenberg and his wife Gertrud, along with some brief glimpses of Gershwin himself. The film is scored with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 Op.37, written in 1936 and recorded in 1937 by the Kolisch Quartet, which was sponsored by Gershwin. The video ends with a photograph of Gershwin painting his famous portrait of Schoenberg mashed up with audio of Schoenberg’s moving tribute to Gershwin, recorded on July 12th, 1937, the day after Gershwin’s death.

George Gershwin was one of these rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music, to him, was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men. And there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he has achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music but also a contribution to the music of the whole world. In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me.” ~ Arnold Schoenberg

Thanks, Ruth

Published September 1, 2011




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