The death of a great artist whom we knew while he lived and worked strangely changes the aspect of his personality. He and his art had been a source of inspiration to us; we keenly anticipated any new work he would produce, curious to learn the ways of his imagination. The book was open and we never thought we would one day have to read the last page. Suddenly the story has ended and we are left to consider, not its progress, but the whole tale. And when we read the chapters once again, we discover in each a new quality of completeness. When we now consider Schoenberg's works, he does not emerge foremost the founder of "composition with twelve notes". Questions of style, technique and idiom have receded, and the message his art conveys remains the all-important thing. The Gurrelieder of 1900 are as much part of it as the late Tanz um das goldene Kalb. His output from 1899 (Verklärte Nacht) to his death in 1951 comprises many phases and seemingly contradictory styles; knowledge of the works discloses, however, that each followed inevitably from the preceding. One should bear in mind that Schoenberg has written nearly as many compositions with seven notes (that is with defined key centre) as with twelve (not counting the important works of the transitional period of 1908–1923). Yet his compositions in D minor or E major have been as challenging as his compositions with twelve notes.
In December 1908 I attended one of the regular subscription concerts of the Rosé Quartet. They belonged to Vienna’s musical events and took place in the dignified Bösendorfer Saal, long since demolished, whose walls proudly showed in golden lettering that Brahms, Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and Hans von Bülow had once played there. On the programme was a new string quartet, in F sharp minor, by a young composer whose earlier works had. already angered the Viennese. A sextet Verklärte Nacht, a first string Quartet, a Chamber Symphony, all introduced by Rose, and a symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande had each caused something of a little scandal because of their unwonted musical language – yes, Verklärte Nacht even. This time matters were to become much worse. Already during the first two movements unrest was growing among the audience and some people left the hall. And hell broke loose when during an exposed passage a well-known critic got to his feet and shouted at the top of his voice: “Stop it! Stop it! We have had enough!” It was then that people forgot their drawing-room manners; part of the audience joined in the riot which others tried to silence. There is a soprano solo in the last two movements which was sung by the great artist Marie Gutheil-Schoder. She and the Rosés did not lose their nerve and bravely carried the Quartet to its end, but not much of the music penetrated the noise. Afterwards the battle went on with still less restraint. People stayed in the hall and abused each other. Gentle Anton von Webern almost got embroiled in fisticuffs. I myself heatedly argued with another musician about keys and consonances, and whether there were any in the piece. (By the way, the man later became a staunch Schoenbergian.) “No melody, no form, not a single common chord!” “You must be deaf if you couldn’t hear them!” “This is no music!” “This is very fine music!” – thus went the crude arguments between the opposing parties.
We enthusiasts sat dejectedly together after the concert and held a council of war. Next morning Alban Berg and myself went to see Rosé. We thanked him for his courage and then shyly asked whether, in view of what had happened last night, and in spite of it, he and his colleagues would be prepared to give an early repeat performance. Our argument was that the music had not really been allowed a hearing. To our great satisfaction Rosé immediately consented. The second performance took place a few weeks later and was an unequivocal success.
To me Schoenberg’s Quartet in F sharp minor is one of the masterpieces without which music would be poorer. What had frightened the Rosé habitués more than anything else, was, I believe, the many dissonances they encountered – there is no denying their existence. It seems that dissonances have always been introduced by the quick minds of the composers in defiance of the public's slow ears. They are complex sounds, but their expressive power is attractive. Once they prevail they easily upset tonality, and this is exactly what happened in Schoenberg’s later works. In the Quartet, however, the key of F sharp minor is maintained as a central forte, in spite of harmonies that range across a multitude of keys. There is a concise sonata movement and a bizarre scherzo during which a quotation of a Viennese folksong occurs. Then comes a slow and very serious set of variations in E fiat minor on thematic material from the first two movements, with a soprano solo on the poem Litanei by Stefan George. This beautiful piece is remarkable for its very integrated work; every note of the texture is derived from the theme. In some ways the theme is treated like Schoenberg’s later ‘basic shapes’: the melodic substance remains unaltered while the variations change the rhythm and occasionally invert the melodic line. The last movement, a setting of Stefan George’s Entrückung (Rapture), penetrates deeply into a new world of sound. The words begin “I feel the air of other planets”, and a sense of serene elation pervades the music. No key signature is indicated and the music's strange harmonies often provide only loose ties, if any, to the key of F sharp.
Schoenberg had proved before that he could handle traditional musical forms, yet from the outset it was clear that his message was a new one. Apart from Die Gurrelieder and Verklärte Nacht, there are three early large-scale works which show his searching and uncompromising mind: Pelleas und Melisande (1902), the first string Quartet (1904), and the first Chamber Symphony (1906). All three combine the symphonic scheme of sonata movement, scherzo, slow movement and finale into a single compound form, but otherwise they could hardly be more different. Compare the huge orchestra of Pelleas which includes eight horns and five trombones, with the fifteen solo instruments of the Chamber Symphony. Pelleas is a fine work, romantic, one would say, in its exuberance, with all the virtues of romanticism and few of its vices. The texture is strictly polyphonic and already shows the great complexity of Schoenberg’s imagination.
One may argue whether it was wise to present the vast amount of concentrated music as one uninterrupted piece, yet form and content of the work are wholly successful; the finale especially is great music.
The first string Quartet in D minor is on more sober, classical lines. The thematic material is highly integrated in that new themes are often derived from the old by way of variation: the melodic line remains intact, but a new rhythm changes the music's character, and the new theme serves in a new function. Here we see at a stage still earlier than the second Quartet a kind of variation that was to become fundamental in the “composition with twelve notes”. The energetic principal theme with which the Quartet begins is most elaborately constructed. Alban Berg, in an essay Warum ist Schoenbergs Musik so schwer verständlich? (Why is Schoenberg’s music so difficult to understand?), once very thoroughly analysed the theme’s structure, illustrating by example the richness of Schoenberg’s invention. The same theme, turned to the major, closes the Quartet with one of Schoenberg’s most beautiful pages.
The first Chamber Symphony in E major, the last work before the second string Quartet, is in high spirits and more concise than any of Schoenberg’s earlier works, though here again the movements are interlocked. Yet the form remains clear-cut. A transition links the sonata exposition with the scherzo, which in its turn leads directly to the development section. The themes of both exposition and scherzo are combined in a rich polyphonic texture until the climax of the development suddenly gives way to the Adagio of the Symphony. The finale brings the recapitulation of both exposition and Adagio, though the order of the themes differs widely from that of their first appearance; also, their formal significance has changed according to the finale character of the section. There is an abundance of themes in the Symphony; the opening sonata exposition alone consists of no fewer than ten, five of which form the principal section, two the ‘bridge passage’, one the beautiful ‘subsidiary subject’ (what a shame we have no better technical terms!), and two the ‘codetta’. In this work Schoenberg introduced a type of chord consisting of fourths (instead of the usual thirds), in particular a six-note chord which is not immediately related to the central key and is often used, like other tonally ambiguous chords, for modulations and transitions. The Symphony's exposition opens with a horn call of five fourths and, to quote Schoenberg himself, “derived from an impetuously rising theme of the horn, the fourth-chords are spreading-through the whole architecture of the work, putting their stamp on everything that happens in the music. They appear not only in the melody or as chordal colours but penetrate the harmonic structure; that is, they are just chords among the others.” Again a principle of twelve-note composition is anticipated: the same combination of notes appears in succession, i.e. as melody, and simultaneously, i.e. as chords. We students found the new six-note chords most exciting, and when we were six together we used to have a game by singing the Chamber Symphony’s opening cadence.
The second string Quartet marks a turning point in Schoenberg’s compositions. He had looked across the borders of a tonality governed by a central key; he would not have been Schoenberg if he had not crossed beyond. Years of daring exploration began, but not until 1924 did he finally find what he had been searching for: a style of composing congenial to his musical thoughts, which would at the same time give ample scope for building musical forms. Yet the years of quest resulted in some of Schoenberg’s most fascinating works. On the occasion of the first performance of his song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (composed one year after the second Quartet), he wrote: “With the songs after George I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form that for years had been before my mind”. It was the first work in which central keys were purposely avoided (the Piano Pieces, Op. 11, are of a later date). But the ideal he had realized was certainly nothing negative. A glance at the music will show that an increased subtlety and flexibility of expression is achieved by colourful dissonant chords and a rhythmic freedom which is no more tied by metrical symmetry than are melody and harmony by tonal relations. Still, there is at least one song, the tenth, which begins and ends in D major, though the final cadence is blurred by turning to the Neapolitan Sixth. (The cycle is definitely for high voice, though it is often sung by a mezzo soprano or contralto. The tessitura asks for a considerable compass, but wherever the lowest range is employed the patt is marked with triple piano and the accompaniment almost vanishes. Schoenberg chose a lyric soprano, Martha Winternitz-Dorda, to sing the first performance. When she asked for permission to sing a particularly low passage one octave higher, Schoenberg smiled and told her to try as it was written. Diffidently and almost inaudibly she began to whisper, but Schoenberg happily cried: “Wonderful! Exactly as I want it! Just the right tone and expression!”)
Schoenberg was aiming at a kind of musical prose, as supple as recitative, whose form would be based on the inherent logic and coherence of musical shapes, without the props of symmetry or key. In fact, one of the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (1908), was originally called Das obligate Rezitativ. Accompanied by patches of polyphonic texture, one continuous melody passes through the instruments and eventually encompasses the whole range of the orchestra. The melody expands solely by variation of a few motifs which recur hardly twice in the same shape. The character of the music is persuasive, argumentative, if you like. Schoenberg passionately indulged in exploring the wealth of new sounds he had discovered and the new forms they would yield. The titles of the Five Orchestral Pieces reveal what was in his mind. The first and fourth, Vorgefühl (Presentiment) and Peripetie, ominous and frightening with sudden outbreaks of fear and terror, consist mainly of abruptly juxtaposed contrasts, though in the first an ostinato quaver motif provides the rhythmic continuity. The second piece, Vergangenes (Bygones), is slow and in a reflective vein. Schoenberg here draws sounds of the utmost tenderness from the orchestra. But the most astonishing aural vision occurs in the third piece. The subtly changing colours on a lake’s lightly rippled surface are painted by changing orchestral timbres of a five-part chord. The instruments sustaining the chord give way to others of slightly different colour, at first at every half bar, but gradually in quicker succession until they occur at every semiquaver. In this way a climax of changing colours is built up, which quickly recedes until the original pace returns. Delicate short passages of other instruments occasionally shade the colours of the quasi-sustained chord –shadows of crossing birds, as it apere. We have here an extremely refined piece of music, difficult to play and to listen to. A very delicate balance between the discreetly entering instruments has to be maintained; and only a sensitive mind with acute ears will discern and enjoy the interplay of softly shaded tone colours.
The Five Orchestral Pieces are Schoenberg’s only large-scale instrumental work of that period, but there are several important vocal works, in particular the Melodramas Pierrot lunaire (1912), the Monodrama Erwartung (1909), and the Drama with Music Die Glückliche Hand (1913). Oddly enough all three bear the Word ‘drama’ in their subtitles though only two are written for the stage. At that time Schoenberg practised painting and concepts from the visual arts occupied his mind. Pierrot lunaire is, of course, the artist himself, who is more at home in the realm of his imagination than in reality, and who lives on the moon rather than on earth. Twenty-one poems show him in the most absurd situations and reflections, comic, serious and sentimental. His counterpart is the philistine Cassander – the two are a nuisance to each other. What an opportunity for displaying the expressive qualities of the new musical language! Each of the pieces has an eccentric character of its own, and each is scored for a different combination of the ensemble’s five instruments.
In Erwartung, Schoenberg attempted a large-scale piece without the traditional means of musical construction, that is, not only without keys and metrical symmetry, but also without thematic material and defined motivic work. Contrasts of character, tempo, dynamics and texture are juxtaposed within narrow space. The melodies are either short, or extended by immediate variation of one or two motifs, as in the recitative from the Orchestral Pieces. No other large-scale work of Schoenberg’s is, or seems, so loosely knit, yet the music coheres because the heterogeneous parts complement each other. It is a tour de force of musical form without formative devices. Of course words and drama supply their own forms. A purely musical construction on similar lines would hardly have been possible. During Schoenberg’s so-called impressionistic period, that is, after the composition with seven and before the composition with twelve notes, most of his works are either vocal or short. Tonality’s power to organize a large-scale form had not yet been replaced. The metre of a poem, on the other hand, or even the mere context of words, provides a framework around which the music crystallizes. For the staging of Die glückliche Hand, Schoenberg devised a scheme of changing colours and lighting which runs concurrently with the music and dramatic action. The musical form, more compact than in Erwartung, consists of distinctly grouped sections. Substantial choral pieces, both spoken and sung, open the work and round it off.
Composition with twelve notes began ten years later, and with it a new chapter in the story that was Schoenberg’s message. We should not lose sight of the fact that the earlier chapters presented no lesser problems to the musical world. His music is the most complex on record and its complexity refers to all musical dimensions, to the dissonances, the wide melodic leaps, die rhythmic irregularities (not only of metre), and the very full texture. Now, complexity is a vice only if the subject in question can be expressed in simpler terms – and who would dare to assert this of Schoenberg's musical thoughts? He himself did not always like to write in so unusual a fashion and described in his Harmonielehre how often he hesitated to put on paper the daring sounds that his imagination dictated, and how later attempts to simplify them regularly failed. His inner ear again confirmed what he had written, and, he said, “surely, the ear is a musician’s only reasoning organ”. The complexities of Schoenberg’s music are due to die powerful imagination of his extraordinarily quick mind which easily conceived and organized the most elaborate schemes. His invention shunned repetitions. In fact, every second thought of his was already a far-reaching variation of the first, and every new work a still farther reaching consequence of what he had written before – to become again, in its turn, a spring-board to the next. He was always far ahead even of those who wanted to follow him. And it may still take a very long time until we have gone the whole way he has traced.
Orpheus in New Guises. London 1952, p. 47–54
Wednesday, Jun 19th
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