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The Essay
Show #280
Another Conspiracy Theory
David Gunn

Not long ago, a story over the AP wire suggested that the death of Anton von Webern, the quintessential serial composer of the early 20th century, was not a tragic accident, but rather a well orchestrated plot by the US Government. Until now, the standard Army line was that in September 1945, Webern was in Mittersill for the second annual meeting of the Existential Electrocution League, a compositional think tank run by Darmstadt anarchists. After one lengthy seminar lasted well into the night, Webern stepped out onto the street to smoke a cigarette, thereby "violating a strict curfew rule," and an Army soldier, sensing dangerously subversive tendencies, shot him. Conflicting evidence has since surfaced, however, such as (1) Webern was not a smoker but rather a Sagittarius, (2) an hour before the accident was allegedly perpetrated, dozens of paying customers saw the composer playing stride piano accompaniment in a Miami Beach nightclub for chanteuse Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, and (3) Dr. Helmut Schilling, Webern's personal physician from 1932 through 1945(?), claims that Webern visited him at his office in Oberammergau in 1944 complaining of heat exhaustion. Before the doctor could examine him, 80% of Webern suddenly spontaneously combusted, and he died on the spot. The doctor later showed the body to his colleagues, who all vouched for the identity of the composer, before cannibalizing the cadaver for salable organs. Even harder to explain, a 16mm film currently under house impoundment by the Department of Defense's Alien Incursion Response Team reportedly shows a very much alive and well Webern trading one-liners with animatronic extraterrestrials in an Area 52 Dinner Theater production in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

There's more. Alban Berg, the serial composer who studied alongside Webern from 1904 to 1908, discovered a virulent abscess on his back shortly after completing a violin concerto that was inspired by the sudden, tragic death of the then 18-year old Manon Gropius. Berg sought medical help, but the abscess continued to worsen, and Berg died in a Vienna hospital in late 1935 moments after accidentally spontaneously combusting. The anesthesiologist who witnessed the flesh fire was a Dr. Lisle Lint McHugh. Only after he, too, mysteriously disappeared did an intern at the hospital, finding no address attributable to Dr. McHugh, discover that the name was an anagrammatization of Helmut Schilling.

Sixteen years later, composer Arnold Schonberg, who had more than a passing interest in the two ex-serialists, was in Hollywood negotiating the movie rights to Pierrot Lunaire, his romanticized recontextualization of the Darmstadt anarchy movement. He had capitulated to the producer, Elgin Hutchmills, who insisted on renaming it "Organ Spumoni," but in return he was hired to write the musical score. After he stayed up all night to work on the overture, the composer came down with viral blepharospasms. Normally, a squirt of penicillin ointment in the Canal of Schlemm puts this annoying but otherwise benign eye malady to rest. But each day Schonberg was on the set, the condition worsened, until Elgin ordered him to Los Angeles County Hospital, where his cousin, Chief of Ophthalmology Glen Lulich Smith, could examine him. Dr. Smith did so, and reportedly found nothing that a warm water eye bath couldn't fix. But when he administered the eyewash, the distinguished serial composer abruptly burst into flames. Horrified, the doctor tried to extinguish the fiery Schonberg, and in the process suffered third-degree burns on his hands and tongue. In the end, Smith could only sweep the remains of the composer into a bedpan, and consider the matter closed. But because there was an outstanding warrant on Schonberg for practicing atonality without a permit dating from 1913, the police got involved. And when they began sniffing around Los Angeles County Hospital, they discovered an absence of both the deceased and the attendant physician, and a bizarre set of anagrammatic coincidences: the letters of both Glen Lulich Smith and Elgin Hutchmills could be rearranged to spell Helmut Schilling, and those in Organ Spumoni also spelled Manon Gropius. Coincidence? Or the signature of a crazed serialist killer?

It is not for me to stand up in a crowded cinema and yell "conspiracy theory!," or to even mention it calmly during this 280th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. Rather it is for me to simply report the facts as I make them up, and let the burden of proof wrestle with our own conspiratorial Kalvos.