Biography of Russian Composer Joseph Schillinger Part 1

About the Russian composer Joseph Schillinger, history and biography of the man who coupled mathematics and music to great effect.


Joseph Schillinger (1895-1943)

At a symposium of composers in New York in the late 1930s, Joseph Schillinger treated his audience to a first-time hearing of his newest keyboard composition. Rich with melody, it was hauntingly evocative--but of whom? "Mozart," volunteered one listener after the piece was concluded; "Bach," suggested another. Other composers present thought they'd heard echoes of Debussy. Beethoven, and Brahms. But they all missed the mark. The Russian-born Schillinger had fashioned his opus by plotting the daily price fluctuations of such wholesale commodities as Chicago wheat and Kansas hogs on a sheet of graph paper and then assigning a proportionate musical value to each square on the graph. "I happened to use financial-page stock market quotations," he said. "I could as easily have used telephone numbers or an outline of the Manhattan skyline."

This demonstration was no mere musical sleight of hand, the work of some second-rate parlor trickster. Schillinger had made the mathematical underpinnings of music his life's work, and while some thought him a charlatan during his heyday in the 1920s and '30s, his credentials and reputation as a composer, conductor, and teacher were impressive. His works, such as the North Russian Symphony (1931) and The People and the Prophet (1931), composed according to precise mathematical principles, were often performed by the great orchestras of America and Europe, and his influence on American musicians--he numbered George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey among his students--was incontrovertible. Gershwin, who studied with Schillinger three times a week for 4 1/2 years, composed Porgy and Bess under his tutelage; and Glenn Miller is said to have tossed off "Moonlight Serenade" for Schillinger as an exercise in note permutations.

Schillinger did not think it cynical in the least to view music in coldly mathematical terms. "My belief," he wrote, "is that because music has been created by intuitive or trial-and-error method and there has never been any scientific investigation of the resources, there is more new unexploited material in forms in music than in any other field subjected to scientific investigation." Just as music could be composed according to formula, he demonstrated that the greatest music of Bach and Beethoven could be plotted on graphs and shown to work according to mathematical patterns.

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