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More on the Webern-Nazi Hoax

Dateline: 07/03/98

Composer Chris Hertzog has been kind enough to send along his insightful comments on the Webern hoax discussed in our previous feature, The Dodecaphonic Conspiracy.

To recap briefly: there's a fake news story going around by email which claims that noted 20th century Viennese composer Anton Webern encoded U.S. atom bomb secrets in his musical scores in order to pass them to Nazi spies during World War II.

Previously, I cited a few good reasons to disbelieve the story, but there are plenty more, as Mr. Hertzog demonstrates below:

Hello,

I'm a composer, and like most of my colleagues, immediately recognized the Webern forwarded "news article" as a humorous fraud. As someone who gets pissed off at all the misinformation on the Web, I appreciate your dissection of the story. A few more tip-offs that something was wrong:

1) John Adams is quoted in the story as not understanding Schoenberg's music, and implies that he hates it, an obvious falsehood to anyone familiar with Adams' work. Adams has described his own Chamber Symphony as a cross between Schoenberg and cartoon music (and if you listen carefully, you can hear him quoting Schoenberg tongue in cheek!). In the most recent issue of Perspectives of New Music (the granddaddy of American new music magazines), John Adams describes how his own Violin Concerto was influenced by Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, a famous twelve-tone composition. Also, as far as I know, Adams lives in San Francisco, not New England.

2) Schoenberg's famous article on "The method of composing with 12 tones" was published in in the mid 1920s (1925 I believe, although I have no proof of it in front of me), years before the Third Reich came to power. His first works using this technique were written between 1920-1923. Recent scholarship has uncovered that avant-garde Russian composers such as Nikolai Roslavets developed twelve-tone technique independently a decade before Schoenberg, and the American composer Charles Ives experimented with twelve-tone rows even earlier than that. Twelve-tone composition was one of those historical ideas that was in the air at the time.

3) By showcasing avant-garde art and music in their famous "Degenerate Art" exhibit in the 1930s, the Nazis brought far more public attention to twelve-tone music than had they simply ignored it. (Kinda like most Americans had never even heard of Robert Mapplethorpe or Andre Serrano or Karen Finley until the big NEA hoopla a few years back suddenly made them, or their artwork, household names).

Ironically, the one 20th-century Viennese composer who is notorious for putting secret codes into his music was not mentioned in this "news story": Alban Berg. However, Berg's secret codes were not military, but rather an obsessive-complusive reworking into music of his unrequited (and adulterous) love for Hannah Fuchs-Robettin. The best known example of this is in Berg's Lyric Suite, where different motives represent Berg and Fuchs. (As a composition professor once pointed out to me, "When Berg makes this movement 69 measures long--he really means 69!!") See noted Berg scholar George Perle's "The Secret Programme of the Lyric Suite" in vol. cxviii of The Musical Times (1977). In the early 1980s, Berg expert Douglas Jarman also discovered a multitude of Hannah Fuchs references in Berg's Violin Concerto, a work which was dedicated to Alma Mahler-Gropius's recently deceased daughter, and subtitled "In memory of an angel." Turns out, according to Jarman, that the violin concerto has a hidden program chock full of musical sublimation of Berg's blue balls for Hannah Fuchs. Jarman's argument is extremely convincing.

And finally, in the truth is stranger than fiction department, an American composer, George Antheil, actually did patent a device for encoding guidance instructions for torpedoes in World War II. Even stranger, Hedy Lamarr was the co-author of this patent. It used piano-roll-like devices to rapidly switch frequencies so they could not be intercepted by enemies. Although the military never used Antheil's and Lamarr's patent during WWII, it is now considered to be the spiritual forerunner of the multiple-frequency transmission and reception used in current cellular phone technology.

References:

  • The John Adams interview where he professes his admiration for Schoenberg may be found in Perspectives of New Music, V. 34, no. 2 (Summer 1996).
  • The Douglas Jarman article revealing the hidden program of the Violin Concerto is called "Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess, and the secret programme of the Violin Concerto" and may be found in The Berg Companion (Macmillan Press: 1989), a book Jarman edited.
  • In poking around the book stacks, I discovered a newly published (1998) book entitled Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg's Music. It is edited by Siglind Bruhn, and published by Garland. I haven't read it, but thumbing through the volume, it's obviously an academic book. Most of the 13 essays require musical knowledge, but several appear to be comprehensible to readers with a limited musical background. There was plenty of cryptology in Berg's music, but it certainly had nothing to do with Nazi military secrets....

– Chris Hertzog


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