Five Uneasy Pieces

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

It is not pretty, any of it.

But its maker, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), found its making necessary. By reinventing the language of Western music, he hoped to extend the heritage of Brahms and Wagner for a new generation. He knew he would be misunderstood, reviled, or—worst of all!—ignored. He accepted the first two possibilities and in the course of a long, productive career rendered the third impossible. His supporters called him the Emancipator of Dissonance. “Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be,” he said, “so I let it be me.” Why?

I can answer this by citing eight key Schoenberg works—five now, three later. Even if you never develop a taste for them, you need to know they exist, because Schoenberg may have been the single most influential composer of the 20th century. (His onetime pupil John Cage, equally reviled and equally important, is the only other musician commonly chosen for that “honor.”)

My attitude toward Schoenberg roughly parallels that of American composer John Adams (b. 1947). He and I are the same age, we both had Schoenberg forced upon us at university, and we both developed love/hate fixations as a result. Adams, however, became a super-creative West Coast musical figure in his own right. He overcame Schoenberg with unusual vigor. I’m going to let his story stand in for mine. Read it, especially if the name Schoenberg means nothing to you. To get a sense of the person behind the music, you could also skim a wide-ranging interview with his daughter Nuria. Or try this more basic biography.

Schoenberg began by imitating Wagner, Strauss, and Brahms. That’s typical: young composers often learn by doing, working from contemporary models before developing a personal style. For Schoenberg, born in humble circumstances, this method took on added significance. He couldn’t afford years in conservatory, classes in counterpoint and orchestration, formal study with older masters. According to one perceptive biographer,

He was in all essentials self-taught. Fortune had endowed him not only with prodigious musical aptitude but with the intellectual energy and force of personality to ensure that it triumphed. . . . He [felt that] he never profited from what he was taught unless he had already discovered it for himself. . . . His approach to composition remained exploratory; he saw life as synonymous with change. (O. W. Neighbour, New Grove 1980)

In the late 1890s Schoenberg undertook a one-movement symphonic poem for string sextet, Verklärte Nacht, inspired by Richard Dehmel’s verse. He did not actually set the poetry’s violently emotional text; the music can be enjoyed and “understood” without reference to it. A slow introduction in D minor leads to an anguished sonata structure:

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After a forceful transition to another sonata structure, we hear warmer, more positive sounds. The coda is one of the most attractive passages in Schoenberg’s early work:

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It all hangs together, revealing Schoenberg’s genius for design, his sure way with themes that double as psychological signifiers and formal guideposts. Above, we heard parts of a recent recording curated by Robert Craft for Naxos featuring cellist Fred Sherry and violinist Leila Josefowicz. These are top-notch performances, strongly recommended. (Schoenberg eventually created a string-orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht. My longtime preference there is a 1974 recording from Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker.)

Onward: Gurrelieder (c1901–1911), a vast cantata of sorts, was Schoenberg’s most ambitious early effort. It is riddled with glorious moments, but it seems overlong, perhaps because we already know this song (it’s Wagnerian, with elements of Strauss and Debussy added like paint thinner). We know these tropes (Fatal Attraction, Death and Transfiguration, God Defied, Nature Deified, singing animals, ghostly hoofbeats in the night). It’s Freischütz. It’s Tristan and Götterdämmerung. It’s Zarathustra. It’s Carmen and Salome. Schoenberg was still learning by doing, not yet ready to challenge all that Romantic convention. Before long he would literally change his tune.

Stokowski rediscovered Gurrelieder in the 1930s, and since then the work has never lacked supporters, nor has it suffered neglect as a recording project. Latest is Edward Gardner’s offering from Chandos, which offers the Bergen Philharmonic, a starry vocal cast, and several choirs. Ralph Couzens’ high-res engineering may not provide the last ounce of transparency, but this is not music meant to be transparent. Listen to the chaotic polyphony of the male choirs in full cry:

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Greetings, O King, here at Gurre’s shores!
Now we charge across the island.
Holla! Our arrows fly from unstrung bows,
with hollow eyes and hands of bone . . .

The Song of the Wood Dove and the C-major “sunrise” finale help offset the ecstatic but doom-laden slog through Waldemar’s Forbidden Love. Plus, you’ll probably never hear a better performance than the one organized by Mr. Gardner. Here’s mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson as the Wood Dove:

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Doves of Gurre! Sorrow plagues me . . .
Come! Listen!
Tove is dead! Night rests upon her eyes,
that were the king’s day!

By 1908 and String Quartet No. 2, Schoenberg had begun actively flexing new creative muscles. Later he would write, “The task of the creator consists in establishing laws, and not in following laws.” In the course of the quartet’s four movements the music moves from being rooted in a traditional tonal center (F-sharp minor) to a condition of “atonality,” i.e., avoidance of melodies or harmonies that suggest any key whatsoever. A soprano joins the quartet for its last two movements. Here is a portion of the fourth:

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I breathe the air of another planet.
Through the darkness, faces now seem fainter . . .
Trees and paths I loved grow pale. 
(Stefan George)

Schoenberg’s personal life was a shambles when he wrote this. At one point his wife Mathilde left him; numerous aspects of the music refer to the anguish he felt at their separation. When she returned, he dedicated the quartet to her.

Our clip features the Asasello-Quartett and soprano Eva Resch. It’s from a superb complete set of Schoenberg’s string quartets on Genuin. That recording captures so well the AQ’s gorgeous sound and utter control that I found myself listening to three of the four quartets at a single sitting. (Otherwise unthinkable, really.)

If Quartet No. 2 hints at Schoenberg’s future, Pierrot lunaire spells it out. The story of Pierrot, Schoenberg’s most famous/notorious contribution to 20th-century New Music, has been told many times. (Here’s an excellent short account; scroll down to Phillip Huscher’s notes.) Its 1912 premiere in Berlin had an impact equal to the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps in Paris. Both works shattered people’s perceptions of what music ought to sound like, of what it could say. Interesting tidbit: Stravinsky actually met Schoenberg and heard Pierrot in Berlin a month or so after its first performance. He was blown away.

You don’t need to know much about the music before you hear it. The poetry, by Albert Giraud, evokes dreamlike states of mind, “from nightmarish madness, pain, and decadence to romance, poignancy, and genuine wit” (Huscher again). Just don’t look for literal meaning.

Here is the Chicago Symphony performance for which Huscher wrote those notes:


We’ll come back to Pierrot (in “Three More Uneasy Pieces,” perhaps?). In the meantime, consider getting hold of a recent DVD documentary in which Mitsuko Uchida, Clemens Hagen, Anthony McGill and others reflect on Schoenberg’s masterpiece while rehearsing for a Pierrot performance at the Salzburg Festival. (Their performance is included on the DVD.) Witnessing these artists’ skill and commitment helped me change my mind about this music. Maybe it’ll help you too.

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