Schönberg began working on the Serenade op. 24 in September 1921 and finished the work on 14 April 1923. It was premiered privately at the Viennese home of Norbert Schwarzmann on 2 May 1924 and received its first public performance that summer at Donaueschingen. The Serenade marks one of Schönberg’s first attempts to adapt serial compositional techniques to large-scale form, largely without the support of text. The stability of traditional genres (March, Minuet, Theme and Variations) allowed Schönberg a freedom to experiment with new compositional procedures. The atmosphere of this chamber work for clarinet, bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, cello and bass voice resembles that of “Pierrot lunaire.” The special effects required from the instruments (pizzicato, col legno, flutter tongue) create unusual tone colours. The combination of violin, clarinet, and plucked strings echoes the timbres of ‘Schrammelmusik.’ In addition to the variety of colours and moods created by various instrumental combinations, Schönberg encourages a variety of expression through changes in tempi and nuances of dynamics. The seven movements are arranged symmetrically: 1 (March) and 7 (Finale) share musical material, 2 (Minuet) and 5 (Dance Scene) have similar dance-like characters, while 3 (Variations) and 6 (Song [without Words]) are more reflective. The central movement, a song (Sonnet by Petrarch), provides the focal point for the whole. The March uses a ternary design with easily recognizable inversions of the main theme; although it is entitled “March,” its tempo and character are more that of a traditional, though frequently interrupted, waltz. The Menuett is also ternary with an exact repetition of the first section following a faster Trio. The third movement consists of a long theme in the clarinet followed by six variations. Of these variations, Schönberg himself wrote: “The following variations use inversions and retrograde inversions, diminutions and augmentations, canons of various kinds, and rhythmic shifts to differenct beats – in other words, all the technical tools of the method are here, except the limitation to only twelve different tones” (“My Evolution”). Schönberg encountered Petrarch through the translation of Karl Förster. The sonnet is set syllabically: the eleven-syllable lines coincide with the 12-tone row such that the beginning of each line begins with a new note. The song, sung by a bass voice, has a lyrical character, and the instruments participate in conveying the text (text painting becomes apparent at words like “lion,” “flies,” and “weeps”). The choice of a sonnet by the classicist Petrarca seems to be paradoxical, for this piece marks one of Schönberg’s first 12-tone composition. In op. 24 he used only the prime form (‘Grundgestalt’) of the row but varied it with octave transpositions. The Dance Scene features several different characters from a driving march to a lilting waltz; in this movement triads allude to tonal practices but serve no harmonic function. The Song without Words conveys a lyrical melody, but Schönberg adds the sensuous contrast among bowed and plucked strings and winds.
O könnt’ ich je der Rach’ an ihr genesen, Die mich durch Blick und Rede gleich zerstöret, Und dann zu größerm Leid sich von mir kehret, Die Augen bergend mir, die süßen, bösen!
So meiner Geister matt bekümmert Wesen Sauget mir aus allmählich und verzehret und brüllend, Und brüllend, wie ein Leu, ans Herz mir fähret Die Nacht, die ich zur Ruhe mir erlesen!
Die Seele, die sonst nur Tod verdränget, Trennt sich von mir, und, ihrer Haft entkommen, Fliegt sie zu ihr, die drohend sie empfänget. Wohl hat es manchmal Wunder mich genommen, Wenn die nun spricht und weint und sie umfänget, Daß fort sie schläft, wenn solches sie vernommen.