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Who Is Joseph Schillinger?

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Who Is Joseph Schillinger?


 Joseph Schillinger was born and raised at the turn of the 20th century in Kharkov, a Ukranian town then part of the Russian empire.  He was from the beginning an extremely systematic thinker in all of his affairs, and was credited with having an encyclopedic memory, e.g., when he taught, he never used notes, and he dictated all of his writing to his wife (save for musical and other graphic examples).  As a child, he read and studied a great deal on his own, and experimented with music composition and playwriting behind his parents’ backs (they were business people, and encouraged him to continue their line).  He formally completed his college education at the age of 19 – though he had become a professional teacher at 18 – and then studied for four years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he won the gold medal for composition (the highest prize).  He had a continuing interest in classical and oriental philosophy and religion, and even practiced yoga; he also sought out teachers and books on mathematics, physics, acoustics, mythology, literature, etc.

From 1918 to 1922, he held several official and unofficial teaching positions.  He preferred food and supplies as payment rather than money, which was useless in Kharkov, where that dangerous span of four years saw fourteen different local governments.  His positions were:  Head of the Music Department of the Ukraine Board of Education, Dean of the State Academy of Music in Kharkov, Consultant of the State Opera, conductor and lecturer for the Ukraine Board of Education and the State Symphony Orchestra, Composer for the State Academic Theatre for Children, and Choirmaster and lecturer for several Soviet regimental and workers’ clubs.

From 1922 to 1928 he served as consultant to the Board of Education in Moscow and Leningrad, Senior Instructor at the State Institute of Musical Education (Leningrad), and Professor of the History of Arts at the same institution.  Since Schillinger and Dimitri Shostakovich were friends, it is probable that they met during this time, either while Shostakovich was still a student, or just afterwards.  According to Schillinger, Shostakovich was the best sight reader at the piano he had ever met.  Likewise, when an all-Beethoven & Schillinger concert was given in America in early 1929, Shostakovich sent a lovingly doctored painting of the two composers sitting together outside.  This latter prank was amongst the last of Schillinger’s opportunities to contact Russian friends once he lived in America; the Soviet government did not look kindly on his move.  Few composers who permanently absconded from the USSR ever got their music performed there again. 

In 1927, Schillinger’s last full year in Russia, he traveled to the Caucasus and made some of the first known recordings of Georgian folk music – “representative of the European polyphonic forms of the tenth to the eighteenth centuries” – and he organized and directed the first Russian jazz orchestra.  The group consisted of three saxophones, three brass, four rhythm, two violins, and even an oboe!  In the summer of 1928, John Dewey visited the Soviet Union, which assigned Schillinger as its representative of contemporary Russian music.  This proved to be a fateful meeting – Schillinger’s plans to immigrate to America later that year relied heavily on Mr. Dewey inviting him to give a lecture in New York City for the American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia. 

From late 1928 to 1931, after moving to the U.S., Schillinger collaborated with [the Russian inventor] Leon Theremin on various musico-scientific problems and in the construction of musical instruments.  Schillinger wrote the first manual for playing the Space-Controlled Theremin, and in 1929 he wrote the first ever through-composed piece for that instrument, which he titled "First Airphonic Suite, Opus 21, for orchestra and solo Theremin."  SoMC includes a short melody from the Suite as a subject for analysis (orchestral accompaniment reduced to piano sketch).  I note this because scores and recordings of his music are in such short supply now that one must turn to the examples in his theoretical writings to get any sense of his music.

From 1930 to 1936, Schillinger lectured on his theories at The New School at New York University and at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He also took up private teaching—lectures brought him more prestige than money.  By 1936, his reputation, coupled with his waiting list, allowed him to teach full time.  All lessons were $10 each, no exceptions.  He also undertook writing some correspondence lessons, specially-designed for his jazz students who wanted to continue their studies by mail while on tour.   Eventually, he wrote a complete course of tested pedagogical material:  they were $15 a lesson, 300 lessons total.  Schillinger made sure to correct all homework, and answer all technical and even extra-curricular questions.  It is interesting to note that the complete course came to $4500; obviously, Schillinger lived well on teaching! When his System was published posthumously, the editors essentially stitched it together from the correspondence courses (themselves a product of shorthand dictation), minus some work on orchestration, and minus the writer’s technical and pedagogical assistance, which had been so important to students during his lifetime.  It sold for $30.


A note on Schillinger’s American teaching credentials, from Mathematical Basis of the Arts (or, Mathbart):

"This theory has been presented in part before various learned societies, including the American Institute for the Study of Advanced Education, the Mathematics Division of the American Institute of the City of New York, the Mathematicians Faculty Club of Columbia University, and the American Musicological Society.  It has also been offered…in the form of courses and lectures at Teachers College of Columbia University (Departments of Mathematics, Fine Arts, and Music), a
t New York University, and at the New School for Social Research.  Students of this theory included educators, architects, artists, designers, composers, and conductors (46)."


Of musical criticism, Schillinger told his wife:  “Nobody has the right to say that any creative work stinks.  He can only say that in his opinion it stinks — which is a quite different matter altogether.” As a teacher, then, he concluded that music can only be taught like other philosophical and physical sciences are taught – by explaining the possibilities and their effects through analysis and synthesis – thereby leaving the creative act to the student’s initiative.

Schillinger’s star pupil was George Gershwin, who studied with him in New York for four and a half years, before moving to Hollywood.  Gershwin had studied nearly every branch of the System when he died in 1937.  Evidence of Gershwin’s studies can be found as early as the Cuban Overture, where counterpoint (note the small episodes with woodwinds), form, orchestration, and harmony (listen for the polytonal chord at the end) are all effected.  Everything between the Overture and Porgy and Bess was written under the tutelage and careful supervision of Schillinger and his system.  Gershwin’s well-known opera still serves as an asset to the system’s practical validity (when correctly taught and used) – or at the very least as an academic curiosity, a rank it does not currently hold.

As another outstanding example of Schillinger’s theories in action:  Glenn Miller once wrote out a series of harmony exercises for a homework assignment, and Schillinger was so taken with one of them that he suggested Glenn orchestrate it.  Glenn made a small fortune with that “Moonlight Serenade.”


Schillinger was, economically, the model American:  for every new dollar he earned, he would spend almost all of it.  Given his income, and the economic deflation from the Depression, this meant he spent a considerable sum.  In his fifteen years in New York City, he lived in fourteen different apartments.  Whenever he looked for a new apartment, he would say, “let’s take everything into consideration except the rent."  According to his wife, his monetary habits were such that, “as soon as any appreciable sum had accumulated, he would spend it on the latest musical instruments, scientific apparatus, office equipment, or cameras and materials."  He never knew how much money he kept in his wallet, and was an extremely fastidious dresser; in fact, he owned about two hundred pairs of socks of different weights and colors, forty suits, twenty coats, dozens of shirts, and countless ties and accessories.  To all of these he applied his theory of rhythmic design, and permuted them all so that he never fully repeated an outfit.

Schillinger did not want the kind of fame that often accompanies fortune, though. More than popular publicity, he wanted a foundation that could present his theories and place at his disposal a laboratory and assistants to develop the machines and art products that were the results of his discoveries.

He was completely obsessed with uncovering a system of relations between all of the arts.  When he was 25, he wrote a poem called Theurgian’s Commandments (published in 1920 in Kharkov) that dealt with the fusion of the senses and the arts of the future.  He eventually believed that he had discovered a general system for the analysis and synthesis of the arts.  Indeed, even in his last hours, while dying of cancer and heavily drugged with opiates, he saw the arts blend into colors, movements, and music.  Nicolas Slonimsky wrote in 1947, some years after Schillinger had passed away, that “the interesting aspect of Schillinger’s mental make-up was his pantheistic conception of the world.  His religion was man’s conquering mind."