Nr. 1: Präludium
Nr. 2: Gavotte – Nr. 3. Musette
Nr. 4: Intermezzo
Nr. 5: Menuett. Trio
Nr. 6: Gigue
DURATION: ca. 16 min.
Looking at the opus numbers in Schönberg’s catalog of works, it seems that the seven years after 1912 (when the epochal Pierrot lunaire Op. 21 was written) were a less productive time for him in terms of composition; and in fact, he only finished the Four Orchestral Songs Op. 22. Perhaps the First World War occasioned his silenced, but on closer inspection we can see that he had embarked on an intensive search; he was working on a huge symphonic project, he wrote the text for Jakobsleiter (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and composed the first part of that large-scale choral work.
After Opp. 11 through 21 (composed in a creative frenzy following his abandonment of major-minor tonality), Schönberg turned his efforts toward a consolidation of his newly-found musical energies; the very outset of Jakobsleiter suggests his departure with a thematic-chordal twelve-tone complex (although, as Schönberg himself said, it is here an isolated instance, not a methodical idea). “Afterward, I was preoccupied with the notion of deliberately basing the structure of my music on a uniform musical idea, one which would not only foster all other ideas, but also regulate their accompaniment and the chords, the ‘harmonies’” (letter to Nicolas Slonimsky, June 3, 1937). As he neared his goal in 1920, his creativity gained new impetus, resulting more or less simultaneously in the Five Piano Pieces Op. 23, the Serenade Op. 24 and the Suite for piano Op. 25 during the time up to 1923.
Schönberg probably meant the first version of the Prelude and the Intermezzo of the Suite Op. 25 from summer 1921 to say that he had “found something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years” (as his pupil Josef Rufer recorded; several other sources have also preserved his dictum) – and he was right, despite the irony that remark may contain – the “method of composing with twelve tones related only to one another” was to leave its mark on the music of the 20th century in the most diverse ways.
However, more crucially than any hegemonic implications, Schönberg must have been aware of the method’s significance for his own creative endeavors; apart from their quite different consequences, his works of the subsequent years indicate that he had found conventional forms for his transformed, post-tonal musical language. Thus the Suite Op. 25 harkens back to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as, indirectly, Mozart and the music of the 19th century – placing the historical, obsolescent forms in a new context (as Schönberg himself had attempted in 1897 with his Gavotte and Musette for String Orchestra).
The twelve-tone row on which the Suite is built (its cancrizans begins with B-A-C-H [B flat, A, C, B natural], often used in the music of past centuries) is employed in only eight out of a possible 48 permutations (the original row, cancrizans, inversion and cancrizans inversion, as well as its tritone transposition) – a restriction which Schönberg compensated by flexibly manipulating the technique according to the character of each piece.
The first draft of the Prelude is dated July 24 – 29, 1921; the piece gains its forward drive above all from the pitch repetitions entering in Measure 3, along with the opening theme itself. There is only one brief breathing space in this short piece, the result of a repeated sighing motif in the middle.
The second piece, a graceful gavotte and musette, provides an antithesis which is no less lively; the movement’s origins in dance are distinctly audible (especially when compared to Bach’s suites), even if the meter is difficult to identify on first hearing, due to the highly varied rhythm and syncopated accompaniment.
According to the date (July 25, 1921), Schönberg began the Intermezzo at about the same time as the Prelude. However, this slow movement at the Suite’s center differs from the Prelude in that, whereas the twelve-tone row in the latter piece was developed as a polyphonic interweaving of independent voice motion, the Intermezzo provides contrast in the form of an accompanying formula in the descant, a calm melody in the low register. According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, pitch repetition is prohibited, but this is a frequent occurrence in Schönberg, arising from the compositional circumstances. There are passages in his twelve-tone works which can scarcely be analyzed schematically, yet the logic of a structure based on the tone-row is always present. Here, an accompanying pattern derives from the tone-row part, while the remaining pitches shape the theme; the calmly moving piece grows on this basis, becoming less reminiscent of the Baroque than of 19th-century piano music.
A Minuet and Trio follows; the latter is surely one of the most reprinted musical examples of all Schönberg’ piano works. A martellato canonically links all the permutations of the row appearing in the Suite in an episode which, although presenting the twelve-tone method in a somewhat textbook manner, lasts scarcely more than a minute, framed by the restrained minuet with its singing melody; Schönberg handles the movement’s dodecaphonic configuration extremely deftly.
The final movement is a Gigue which hurtles along with barely harnessed rhythmic energy. Instead of the traditional 6/8 meter, Schönberg uses 2/2, varying the rhythm with meticulously notated accents and occasional switches to 3/4 bars. It is quite possible that he knew Mozart’s Gigue in G major (KV 574), which also subverts the 6/8 rhythm using similar metrical displacements; at all events, it would doubtless be a fine model for the last movement of the Suite, a work replete with innovative drive and yet tellingly attuned to musical history and tradition.
© Arnold Schönberg Center