It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Aug 20, 2010

Anton Webern's Dodecaphonic Conspiracy

Shocking allegations about an influential 20th century composer swept across the Internet in 1998. According to a widely circulated story attributed to the Associated Press, Austrian composer Anton Webern was a Nazi spy who helped steal atom bomb secrets from the U.S. during World War II by encrypting classified data in his musical scores.

Here's the controversial text in question:

Composer Webern was Double Agent for Nazis
By Heinrich Kincaid
(c) The Associated Press
BERLIN, GERMANY (AP) - Recent admissions by an ex-Nazi official living in Argentina have confirmed what some musicologists have suspected for years: that early twentieth century German composer Anton Webern and his colleagues devised the so-called "serial" technique of music to encrypt messages to Nazi spies living in the United States and Britain.

In what can surely be considered the most brazen instance of Art Imitating Espionage to date, avant garde composers of the Hitler years working in conjunction with designers of the Nazi Enigma code were bamboozling unsuspecting audiences with their atonal thunderings while at the same time passing critical scientific data back and forth between nations.

"This calls into question the entire Second Viennese School of music," announced minimalist composer John Adams from his home in the Adirondack Mountains. "Ever since I first encountered compositions by Arnold Schonberg I wondered what the hell anyone ever heard in it. Now I know."

Gunned down by an American soldier in occupied Berlin, 62 year old Anton Webern's death was until now considered a tragic loss to the musical world. At the time the U.S. Army reported that the killing was "a mistake", and that in stepping onto the street at night to smoke a cigarette Webern was violating a strict curfew rule.

It is now known that Webern was using music to shuttle Werner Heisenberg's discoveries in atomic energy to German spy Klaus Fuchs working on the Manhattan atom bomb project in New Mexico. Due to the secret nature of the project, which was still underway after the invasion of Berlin, Army officials at the time were unable to describe the true reason for Webern's murder.

Hans Scherbius, a Nazi party official who worked with Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, admitted at age eighty-seven that the Nazis secretly were behind the twelve-tone technique of composition, which was officially reviled to give it the outlaw status it needed to remain outside of the larger public purview.

"These pieces were nothing more than cipher for encoding messages," he chuckled during an interview on his balcony in Buenos Aires. "It was only because it was 'naughty' and difficult that elite audiences accepted it, even championed it."

Physicist Edward Teller, who kept a 9-foot Steinway piano in his apartment at the Los Alamos laboratory, was the unwitting deliverer of Heisenburg's data to Fuchs, who eagerly attended parties thrown by Teller, an enthusiastic booster of Webern's music.

Arnold Schonberg, the older musician who first devised the serial technique at the request of the Weimar government of Germany, composed in America to deliver bomb data stolen by Fuchs back to the Nazis, who worked feverishly to design their own atomic weapons.

As an example, Scherbius showed Associated Press reporters the score of Webern's Opus 30 "Variations for Orchestra" overlaid with a cardboard template. The notes formed a mathematical grid that deciphered into German a comparison between the neutron release cross-sections of uranium isotopes 235 and 238.

Schonberg responded with a collection of songs for soprano and woodwinds that encrypted the chemical makeup of the polonium-beryllium initiator at the core of the Trinity explosion.

And in Japan, Toru Takemitsu took time out from his own neo-romanticism to transmit data via music of his nation's progress with the atom.

"The most curious thing about it," says composer Philip Glass in New York City, "is that musicians continued to write twelve-tone music after the war, even though they had no idea why it was really invented. Indeed, there are guys who are churning out serialism to this day."

Unlike the diatonic music, which is based on scales that have been agreed upon by listeners throughout the world for all of history, twelve-tone music treats each note of the chromatic scale with equal importance, and contains a built-in mathematical refusal to form chords that are pleasing by traditional standards. Known also as serialism, the style has never been accepted outside of an elite cadre of musicians, who believe it is the only fresh and valid direction for post-Wagnerian classical music to go.

"Even if this is really true," states conductor Pierre Boulez, a composer who continues to utilize serial techniques, "the music has been vindicated by music critics for decades now. I see no reason to suddenly invalidate an art form just because of some funny business at its inception."

It may look like a news story and even read vaguely like one, but it in reality appears to be a smartly outline hoax. The style is too casual and opinionated, the facts are mostly wrong, and the scenario described is implausible.

What we have, rather, is a clever bit of satire which harps on an all-too-familiar point about modern art – that it's too cerebral and inaccessible, and perhaps isn't even art at all.

Avant-garde composers like Webern and Schoenberg are easy targets for such criticism. Their more challenging works have long been considered unlistenable by some, and the question "Is it really music?" has frequently been posed. It's but a small comedic leap to the suggestion that their methods were invented for some nefarious, non-musical purpose – say, transmitting scientific data to Nazi spies.

In part because it was never really intended to fool anyone – it's not that kind of hoax – it's not hard to prove the story a fake. What follows is a short list of factual errors and logical inconsistencies. It's not exhaustive, but more than sufficient to debunk the central claims. Additions to the list are welcome...

  • Although Anton Webern was killed in the tragic manner described, the incident happened in Mittersill, Austria, not Berlin.
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  • Klaus Fuchs spied for Russia, not Germany.
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  • The Webern work alluded to, "Variations for Orchestra, Op.30," was composed in 1940 – two years before the Manhattan Project began.
  • Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu could not have been privy to his country's nuclear secrets during World War II.  He was all of 14 years old when Japan surrendered.
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  • We're told that Webern and his comrades encoded data in their scores with help from the designers of "the Nazi Enigma code." More accurately, Enigma was a machine, the most sophisticated cryptological tool of its time. In any case, we're asked to believe that the brilliant designers of this machine helped Webern encrypt messages that required nothing more than a cardboard template to decode.
  • According to the story, Klaus Fuchs was spying for the Nazis. If so, what was the strategic point of Webern passing secrets from Heisenberg in Germany to Fuchs at the Manhattan Project? Isn't that backwards?
  • Why would Arnold Schoenberg, a Jew who fled Nazi oppression in Germany in 1933, spy for the Third Reich? It's nonsensical. Furthermore, it's true that Schoenberg was in America during the war, but he was teaching at UCLA throughout. How was he supposedly gaining access to top secret information from Los Alamos?
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Composer Chris Hertzog has provided its own comments on the story.

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.

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