Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Postscript on the Kandinsky-Schoenberg Friendship
Lissa Tyler Renaud

When I was working on the April entry for this series—Jelena's, about the friendship between Kandinsky and Schoenberg—I had thoughts about "the bonds that tie us," and also came across some wonderful images that didn't get used. So I am taking this excuse to share them.


It struck me that, on a personal level, Kandinsky and Schoenberg had a lot in common that could form the basis for friendship. First, there was a certain fluidity in their identities that they might have recognized in one another. In Kandinsky's case, his father's family was from the Mongolian Tungus tribe, which had moved to the Konda River from which the name Kandinsky derives. His mother was a Muscovite; Kandinsky spent his childhood between Moscow and Odessa, and went on as an adult to be always between cultures: he was seen as a Russian alien expat while living in Germany, then as "Asiatic" when returning to Russia during WWI, and then as a Russian refugee in France after fleeing the Nazis in 1933. As for Schoenberg, he was born Jewish in Vienna, converted to Lutheranism in 1898 at 23, and returned to Judaism when emigrating to the U.S. as a refugee from the Nazis in 1933.


This fluidity also extended to their artistic interests, which moved freely between disciplines. Kandinsky had had art and musicianship in his life from an early age and began to paint seriously at 30; Schoenberg the musician also started to paint when he was 33. Both wrote stage plays, and designed sets for them. All in all, on many levels both of them lived—chose to live and were forced to live—as outsiders: multinational, multicultural, multidisciplinary.


Both Kandinsky and Schoenberg played the cello when they were young:



Kandinsky playing the cello, with a friend on the piano,
c. 1886. Photo collection Centre Pompidou



Schoenberg on cello with the Fritz Kreisler on first violin,
a little before 1900. Louis Savant (horn), Karl Redlich (flute [flageolet]),
Eduard Gärtner (the other violinist). 


It is also striking that Kandinsky the painter had such a life in music, and Schoenberg the composer also had a life in painting.


Linoleum cut by Gabriele Münter:
Kandinsky on the Harmonium, 1907



Painting by Arnold Schoenberg: Vision, c. 1911


It is also always surprising that Kandinsky and Schoenberg both got interested in the theatre in 1908/9, without even knowing each other (they started corresponding in 1911). There is much to say about the stage pieces they each wrote, which effectively kickstarted, or served with a handful of others as prototypes for, the anti-Naturalism, German Expressionist theatre movement. But now, in this Postscript, I'd like just to point out that they were both the first ones to make the stage lighting itself a kind of character in a play—an unusual idea to have had separately, much less at the same time. For comparison:

Here is a stage direction for the lighting in Scene 2 of Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound (1909). It begins with a receding blue mist, a bright green hill, a "brilliant white light," and alternating notes, a, b, b, a flat:

    The background violet, fairly bright… [T]he background suddenly turns a dirty brown. The hill becomes dirty green. And right in the middle of the hill forms an indefinite black patch, which appears now distinct, now blurred. At each change in definition, the brilliant white light turns progressively grayer. On the left side of the hill, a big yellow flower suddenly becomes visible.



Schoenberg's set for The Lucky Hand, featuring the lighting instruments.
Photo from Arnold Schönberg Center, Austria.


Here is a stage direction for Scene 3 of Schoenberg's The Lucky Hand (1909/10). It begins when the stage has gotten darker as the sounds of wind and music have gradually gotten louder: 

    Conjoined with this wind-crescendo is a light-crescendo. It begins with dull red light (from above) that turns to brown and then a dirty green. Next it changes to a dark blue-gray, followed by violet. This grows, in turn, into an intense dark red which becomes ever brighter and more glaring until, after reaching a blood red, it is mixed more and more with orange and then bright yellow; finally a glaring yellow light alone remains… 

Their similar ideas and natural affinities were a bond between them, even when they were separated by war or thousands of miles. Even a direct assault on their friendship could only alienate them for a time. Last month's piece described the finally-failed attempt in the 1920s by Alma, the gossip-mongering widow of the composer, Gustav Mahler, to drive a wedge between them. Schoenberg had been a great follower of her first husband's, and Kandinsky was working with her second husband, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. Under Alma's influence—her accusation that Kandinsky was anti-Semitic—Schoenberg had written a furious letter to Kandinsky. One of my favorite parts of Kandinsky's shocked, clear-eyed and loving reply is right at the beginning: "I do not know who, and why, someone was interested in upsetting and perhaps definitively destroying our (as I certainly thought) enduring, purely human relationship… Whom would that benefit?"

A few years later, they ran into each other on vacation and then met to get some sun with their wives.

Something mysterious had brought them into an enduring, purely human relationship.

*    *   *



Note: The quotations from the stage lighting directions are taken from

Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures, and Documents,

ed. Jelena Hahl-Koch; trans. John C. Crawford (London: Faber and Fabre, 1984). 96, 119.



Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives

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