Deborah Holmes and her Biography of the Remarkable Eugenie Schwarzwald


Caricature of Eugenie Schwarzwald in 1926, upon the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of her first school

Some four years ago on this blog, I wrote an article on the extraordinary educator Eugenie Schwarzwald. That was before I read Deborah Holmes’ important Schwarzwald biography, sadly only available in German.  Holmes is a British academic working in Salzburg and in apparent command of perfect, idiomatic German. She’s given the title of her biography: Langeweile ist Gift – Boredom is Poison, and though this was the educational philosophy of Schwarzwald, Holmes seems to have made it central to her narrative as well: she’s a fluid writer and avoids professorial heavy weather wordage. Her biography on the back flap cites her as a cultural and literary historian, which explains the many insights she offers. As an academic, she avoids the hagiographic approach German biographers often seem inclined to produce and which have been our only references until now.


Gymnastics on the roof of the Schwarzwald School

She writes in her introduction that she wishes to counter some of the superficial myths that have come to surround Schwarzwald over the past couple of decades. These myths are the product of taking her outward circumstances as “female, Jewish and Nazi victim” as both starting and finishing point. She slams down one facile claim after another: Schwarzwald was not the first Austrian woman to attend university; she was not the first to establish a school that prepared girls for university entrance. Her faculty was not exclusively made up of the extreme avant-garde and she was neither phenomenally wealthy, nor particularly hard up. She was also not the “inventor” of the soup kitchen or of “holiday colonies” which offered escape to the countryside for poor urban children. Holmes goes on to point out that most of her initiatives were not charitable, but dependent on self-help or some form of payment. I can’t say that there is much in Holme’s book, however, that would lead me to change the central planks of my article from 2014, though I too repeat several myths Holmes wishes to debunk.

Friedel and ES

Schwartzwald with Egon Friedell, a man who was very much the centre of her circle and who in 1938 threw himself out of a window when he believed the Gestapo had come for him

Schwarzwald may not have been the first person to set the above initiatives into motion, but she certainly took existing, often obscure and previously unsuccessful models and adapted them to the needs of those around her. Her list of genuine achievements is hardly modest as Holmes makes clear: She was the first Austrian woman to graduate summa cum laude in her chosen subjects, and she most definitely founded a preparatory level of secondary education for girls called “Real Gymnasium” – a definition that finds no exact English equivalent, but means it focused on sciences, maths and the arts in preference to the standard preparatory university subjects of ancient languages, literature, history and philosophy. She was also the first to introduce primary school co-education in the Austrian half of the dual monarchy.  She was, as Holmes quotes Paul Stefan, “a facilitator and enabler, no less an art form than poetry, painting or music”. It is this observation that makes Schwarzwald such an interesting figure in the history of 20th century music.

Paul Stefan

Paul Stefan 1879-1943

Neither Holmes nor other biographers of Schwarzwald nor indeed, the biographers of Zuckerkandl or Vienna’s many other salonnières seem to be tuned in to their significance to the development of music in the early part of the 20th century. Holmes identifies Stefan as a “Culture Editor” when every music historian knows him as one of the editors of the monthly new-music journal Anbruch. He was a student of Schönberg and associate of Paul Pisk as well as being co-founder of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1922. To present his word as that of the “Culture Editor Paul Stefan” is again to scoot over the role Schwarzwald played in facilitating what we now know as Schönberg’s “Second Viennese School”.


The first Schoenberg biography, written by his student Egon Wellesz and published in 1920

But Holmes is in very good company. Few cultural historians of fin de siècle Vienna accord music the same significance as other aspects of Viennese Modernism. It’s a peculiar phenomenon shared by (in my view) Carl Schorske and Peter Gay. But aside from general views of Vienna in 1900, the fact remains that there is little superficially to suggest the salonnières of Vienna were particularly fond of, or even interested in music, beyond the aristocratic application of music as background entertainment to weightier issues. One has to look beyond the women themselves, and view the effects they had on those around them in order to understand how important their roles were.

Schwarzwald mit Berg und Wellesz

Egon Wellesz, Alban Berg, Eugenie Schwarzwald, (Helene Berg?) and Hermann Schwarzwald in Grundlsee

There are probably historic and intellectual reasons for music’s less central position in the cultural history of Vienna, and thereby its apparent lack of centrality in the biographies of Zuckerkandl and Eugenie Schwarzwald. A history of concerts in Vienna, written by Eduard Hanslick and now available on-line, offers an indication of how inaccessible music was to the broader public. He starts his survey in 1750 and even if the clergy and aristocracy appreciated and promoted music, a culturally aware middle class barely existed and the lower orders would only have heard music in religious services, the streets and taverns or military bands. Of course there was the “Hausmusik” of the Biedermeier years, but serious music, and particularly opera only began reaching beyond Habsburg aristocracy into the emerging middle class in the second half of the 19th century.  By the beginning of the 20th century, middle class attachment to music, and the factions that grew out of it, began to take on characteristics of an unhealthy fanaticism. Music’s power to intoxicate the susceptible was viewed with indulgent bemusement by those who stood outside of its power. It became a confrontation between the subjective power of music and the objective power of science: the perfect clash of Vienna’s fin de siècle.


Robert Musil 1880-1842

This “clash” is brilliantly presented in Robert Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften – Man without Qualities and his representation of the relationship between Ulrich, an urbane mathematician, and the unhinged musical couple, Clarisse and Walter. In an age still under the spell of Wagner, music had pushed expressive boundaries to the limits, while demonstrating the power of emotional manipulation that would only be supplanted later by cinema. Music was a kind of insanity to which a good deal of Vienna had succumbed. It is an interesting coincidence that Musil incorporates Schwarzwald in the figure of Ulrich’s cousin, the salonnière Diotima, a paradox that seems difficult to accord with Holme’s picture of Schwarzwald.


Musil’s “Diotima”? The young Schwarzwald

But Holmes does correct a number of misconceptions while providing details into Schwarzwald’s provisions for Schönberg and his school. It was not as a teacher in Schwarzwald’s school, as I had previously implied in my earlier article, but due to the fact that Schwarzwald was running several schools at the same time with class rooms left free for individuals to use. It was not just Schönberg who took up the offer of a free teaching facility, but also the architect Adolf Loos.


Adolf Loos, 1870-1933

But perhaps we both underestimated Schwarzwald’s support of music, not just as emotional diversion, but as a genuine engine of progress. Egon Wellesz wrote a great deal about Schwarzwald and it was through her he met his first librettist Jakob Wassermann, and through her extended circle, he would meet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Her support of him and Schönberg as teachers in her school is barely acknowledged and he does not mention her support of Rudolf Serkin at all.


The young Rudolf Serkin 1903-1991

The support of Serkin was more than allowing a promising young musician an opportunity of performing while canapes were served. Holmes dismisses as “myth” the assumption that Schwarzwald was even a salonnière. She presents her as someone who simply had a very open house with little or no structure as to how evenings might pan out. People came and went as they wished – usually after the theatre. Nothing as formal as canapes would have been served and she would not have required Serkin to entertain the guests. Instead, she mounted concerts in both her Viennese drawing room and in her enormous summer home on the alpine Grundlsee Lake. Concerts and recitals appear to have been the most structured element in her open house. She even presented concerts that were part of Schönberg’s Society for Private Performances. She may not have understood music per se, but she understood its importance and appears, unlike Berta Zuckerkandl, to have engaged with it as a cultural rather than social medium.

Berta Zuckerkandl

Berta Zuckerkandl 1864-1945

Without being explicit, Holmes offers a distinction between Zuckerkandl and Schwarzwald. It has been too easy to define them as two competing Viennese Salonnières. Zuckerkandl genuinely held a formal salon while Schwarzwald simply had people coming and going, often “couch surfing” for days. Zuckerkandl was from a wealthy and influential family. Schwarzwald’s husband was a privy councillor, or “Hofrat”, the highest level civil servant: He was well paid, but not wealthy. He took part in the negotiations of St. Germain in 1918 – the post-war treaty for Austria that was the equivalent to Germany’s Versailles peace agreement. Zuckerkandl was interested primarily in the visual arts and Gustav Klimt had her patronage to thank for his prominence. She was herself an exceptional art critic and writer and the daughter of the press baron Mortiz Szeps as well as the wife of the noted anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl. As a young girl, she would be the secret messenger between her father’s newspaper and Crown Prince Rudolf, who supplied progressive, though anonymous articles that attacked the policies of his father, the emperor Franz Joseph. She was to become the sister-in-law of George Clemenceau and attempt to facilitate a separate peace between Austria and France during the First World War. Even if she was not particularly receptive to music, her nephew, Viktor Zuckerkandl was a noted musicologist and music journalist, and later, Maurice Ravel would dedicate La Valse to her after a month’s stay as Zuckerkandl’s guest in Vienna. It was also in her salon, that Alma met Gustav Mahler. The weekly salon was Zuckerkandl’s profession, whereas the assortment of artists, intellectuals, students, vagrants and freeloaders who frequented Schwarzwald’s drawing room were merely incidental to her calling as educationalist and all-round “do-gooder”. In 1897, the Secessionist Movement was founded in Zuckerkandl’s salon, as was the Salzburg Festival in 1920.


Schwarzwald’s circle: Eugenie Schwarzwald; Adolf Loos; Hermann Schwarzwald, Mrs. Paul Stefan. Seated below the writers Karin Michaelis and Peter Altenberger

It is in this latter incident in 1920 that demonstrates further how Berta Zuckerkandl and Eugenie Schwarzwald ultimately differed. When the Secessionists were founded in 1897, they were the creative youth of Vienna. By the time Max Reinhardt, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss and Alfred Roller were frequenting Zuckerkandl’s salons, they were no longer the angry young men of fin de siècle Vienna, but the golden establishment of Austria’s post-imperial institutions. Though only eight years older than Schwarzwald, the progression from Zuckerkandl’s generation to Schwarzwald’s was considerable. It was in Zuckerkandl’s salon that the artist Gustav Klimt, the architects Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann, the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Hermann Bahr would come together. It was at Schwarzwald’s open house where the painter Oskar Kokoschka would mingle with Arnold Schönberg or the architect Adolf Loos with the writer Peter Altenberg. If Zuckerkandl’s circle was “seceding” from Vienna’s 19th century academies, Schwarzwald’s circle had already bypassed both academies and secessionists, setting out in totally new 20th century directions.


Oskar Kokoschka and his brother Brohuslav

There were other differences as well, but Holmes doesn’t go into them – they are only points I’ve picked up from reading about both women. In any case, one gets the sense that Schwarzwald was a genuine progressive and brave enough to put her head above the parapet. She was ruthlessly ridiculed and even hated. The poetess Else Lasker-Schüler felt it was impossible to be in Schwarzwald’s presence without “feeling defiled”, no doubt a derogatory aspersion cast at Schwarzwald’s presumed lesbianism. Canetti and Kraus thought she was a gossip and a busy-body, but both men were notoriously abusive towards women and saw in Schwarzwald an unsurpassed opportunity for literary and journalistic misogyny. This would have been understandable since Schwarzwald was courageous enough to fight for women’s entitlements. For example, she decided in 1916 that women should be able to study law. If the universities wouldn’t offer this opportunity, her school would and she opened her own law academy as early as 1917. In a Vienna still enthralled by the appalling philosophy of the woman-hating, anti-Semitic self-loathing Jewish homosexual, Otto Weininger, Schwarzwald’s open offensive on behalf of women’s opportunities, (more important to her at this point than rights) would have rankled.

Berg and Schönberg

Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg

On the subject of Schönberg and Schwarzwald, Holmes offers interesting facts without much insight as to the consequences of their relationship. She makes no claim to be a musicologist or music historian. She lets us know that Egon Wellesz believed that Adolf Loos brought Schwarzwald and Schönberg together. Biographers of Loos believe it was the other way around. H.H. Stuckenschmidt thought it was Zemlinsky who introduced the two, though I would tend to go with her last variant, and return to the figure of Paul Stefan. No matter, it was soon after performances of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, that Schwarzwald believed it unworthy that a composer who was being spoken of by everyone should be at the mercy of giving private lessons. On days when classrooms were empty, she handed them over to Schönberg, thus allowing him to build “his own free conservatory”. Wellesz puts the date down to 1903. Schönberg taught harmony and counterpoint while Zemlinsky taught analysis and instrumentation. It would not have been a Schwarzwald initiative without a woman being involved, and the much neglected and often maligned Elsa Bienenfeld taught music history. She was a former pupil of both Schönberg and Zemlinsky. In 1942, at the age of 65, she was murdered at the Nazi concentration camp Maly Trostinets near Minsk. Holmes makes the convincing argument that Schönberg and Zemlinsky’s settings of Gottfried Keller, were down to the fact that Keller was a favourite writer of Schwarzwald. There can be little doubting Schwarzwald’s direct influence on new music, even if Schönberg didn’t start propagating his twelve-tone revolution until 1923.

Schwarzwald Zimmer von Loos

Interior of Schwarzwald’s Vienna flat designed by Adolf Loos

What Schönberg was to music, Loos was to architecture and Schwarzwald made similar provisions for him so that he too could build a school of architecture that represented his sparse, unadorned aesthetic and utilitarian ideals – ideas that would become manifest later in Bauhaus.

Rudolf Serkin

The young Rudolf Serkin

Schwarzwald’s relationship with Rudolf Serkin was as maternal as she would ever be with anyone. She took him into her school as a talented fifteen year-old, freshly arrived from the Bohemian provinces with his impoverished parents. Serkin would participate in Schönberg’s Society of Private performances, usually performing orchestral reductions for piano, though he also performed works by Josef Matthias Hauer, an Austrian composer who provided Schönberg with the prototype of twelve tone composition.


“Seeblick”, Schwarzwald’ enormous summer home, a former hotel on the hill above Grundlsee

Schwarzwald’s summer retreat was a former hotel on the banks of Lake Grundlsee, which post-war inflation allowed her to purchase for the price of a pepper corn. As with her home in Vienna, it appeared to be a free-for-all with people coming and going, though she apparently structured the evenings slightly more with concerts and readings. It’s hard to imagine another location where so many people who were so crucial to the shape, size, thinking, and sight and sound of the 20th century would have gathered at the same time. Schwarzwald had brought many of her initiatives to Berlin, thereby making her Grundlsee hotel a summer retreat that reached beyond the now tiny state of inter-war Austria.

Käthe Kollwitz

The artist Käthe Kollwitz 1867-1945 – a frequent visitor to Seeblick

That this brave woman has been largely forgotten in her native country while remaining totally unknown elsewhere is depressing. Holme’s biography deserves an English version as too often the Anglo-American perspective ignores the enormous contributions to social and political progress made elsewhere. It’s disappointing that as accomplished as Holmes’s biography is, it took a British academic to write it. Austrian academics and historians have remained resistant to prodding the less obvious depths of cultural loss between 1938 and 1945. It’s a process that only the latest generation has begun to tackle. Few could have made greater contributions to education, women’s entitlements, culture or the dynamic of synthesising charity with self-help than Eugenie Schwarzwald. Few who were responsible for such contributions have been so resoundingly forgotten.

Karl Buresch

Karl Buresch, a future chancellor of the Austrian First Republic, working as a teacher at one of Schwarzwald’s summer school retreats in the country

As one can read in my previous essay, she didn’t survive the war, dying shortly after the death of her beloved husband Hermann, her possessions Aryanised, her most noted pupils exiled and her memory and contributions totally written out of history by the Nazis. It’s worth mentioning that Holmes’s work has not been without resonance. Last year, Robert Streibel produced a selection of Schwarzwald’s journalism. It offers nearly 300 pages of Schwarzwald’s articles on everything from co-education to Kokoschka making her more than the journalistic equal of anyone writing in Vienna at the time.