Schoenberg After Pierrot

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

I haven’t said much so far about Arnold Schoenberg’s craft, i.e., how he pulled the notes out of his hat. You’ll get some of that this time. It matters to musicians, who want to know just how the magician worked his magic. To audiences, it doesn’t matter quite as much. We can concern ourselves more with style, i.e., what the music sounds like and how it pulls our chains.

I’ve learned something about that from seeing how my undergrads responded when they first encountered music by the Emancipator of Dissonance. Almost to a person, they would recall that stock horror-movie scene in which an oddly curious young woman decides to see what’s up with the bumping sound she hears coming from her gloomy, cobweb-choked basement. Schoenberg apparently enabled several generations of film composers to do their best work ever, at least in terms of Full-Out Creep. Or: he vastly extended musical language in order to express areas of extreme human emotion and experience previously underserved. Such artistic work became known as Expressionism. It’s an effect, not a technique.

Late in 1912 Schoenberg completed his Expressionist masterpiece Pierrot lunaire and introduced it in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. (Gershwin heard Pierrot at its New York premiere in 1923.) Then a funny thing happened.

He fell silent.

Not entirely silent, of course. But the upheavals and privations of the war years made it hard for him to undertake major works, especially knowing that performances of whatever he wrote would likely never take place.

Something else was going on too. Schoenberg had found the radical “atonal” language of Pierrot lunaire difficult to create and sustain: Pierrot is a series of vignettes, each built around a different generative idea. To assemble “melodies” and “harmonies” that suggested no tonal centers, no chords, few of the structures that had governed Western music since the Renaissance, was an arduous task with no clear guidelines. Like Philippe de Vitry in the 14th century, Schoenberg needed new theory to enable new craft to help him to make quicker, smarter decisions about his material.

In the course of the 1920s Schoenberg devised just such a method, now known as serial technique or “12-tone theory.” Its principles were simple: the basis of every composition was at least one row or series of all 12 notes of the chromatic scale arranged in a particular sequence. The sequence could also be stated in reverse (retrograde), or upside-down (inverted), or in retrograde inversion. Furthermore, its beginning pitch could be transposed to any note in the chromatic scale. But the integrity of the sequence should be maintained, and no pitch should be omitted or repeated. In this way Schoenberg maintained the character of motives drawn from a row. And he didn’t have to work out the pitches for every chord or tune as they came along!

Schoenberg developed this technique in a number of remarkable instrumental works modeled on Classical forms: the Serenade op. 24, Piano Suite op. 25, Variations for orchestra op. 31, and String Quartet No. 3 op. 30, among others. All utilized familiar formal patterns, rhythms, and textures that somewhat offset the alien qualities of the pitch language.

Yet the work I’d recommend as an introduction to Schoenberg’s 12-tone music is Moses und Aron, a sprawling, unfinished opera written between 1930 and ‘32 that received no staged performances until the 1950’s. Why this? First, because it tells a story. You can hear how perfectly Schoenberg’s radical music supports the churning emotions unleashed in this Old Testament tale. Second, once you’ve experienced it you’ll better understand Schoenberg the man. Moses und Aron is an allegory about aspiration, vocation, leadership, and human frailty. Schoenberg—a religious man—saw his own work as a calling (Lat. vocare = to call); he deeply identified with Moses, a visionary chosen by God as his prophet but also a man who lacked the eloquence to sway crowds. He asks God for help, so God appoints Aaron as his spokesman. Although Aaron’s tongue is silver (he’s a tenor!), he is all too ready to compromise, to lubricate his message with “images” rather than the purer, plainer spiritual truth. It’s pretty clear where Schoenberg’s sentiments lay. For an earlier work, he wrote these words:

You shall not make an image. For an image confines, limits, grasps what should remain limitless and unimaginable. . . . You shall not worship the little! You must believe in the spirit, directly, without emotion, selflessly.

In Moses und Aron, Schoenberg speaks through Moses, who tells the Israelites that the One, invisible, almighty, and unimaginable, requires no sacrifices from them—only their complete devotion. Unable to comprehend such a god, the crowd responds derisively until Aaron performs three “miracles”—sleight-of-hand that astounds and quiets the crowd. In Act 2, they require that Aaron erect a golden calf, another image they can see and thus understand. His accommodation of their shallow faith leads to an orgy of social destruction.

If I hadn’t been in Vienna years ago doing research by day and scoring cheap tickets to the Staatsoper by night, I might never have understood M&A myself. But when I saw it presented in a naturalistic staging (e.g., actors wearing Bronze Age bathrobes, the desert as a desert, the Golden Calf as, well, a golden calf) with first-rate singers and the support of the Vienna Philharmonic, I was hooked. Later I acquired Pierre Boulez’s DG recording and further acquainted myself with M&A’s boldly drawn characters and sumptuous orchestral accompaniments.

Since then I’ve made the acquaintance of Sylvain Cambreling’s more recent release (Hänssler Classic 93.314; SACD), an account I found even more compelling, and slightly better recorded, than Boulez’s. Here are two scenes that hint at the riches within this work. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Burning Bush calls Moses to “Be God’s prophet!” brushing aside his protestations:

00:00 / 03:10

Moses: Only one, infinite, omnipresent, unperceived and inconceivable God.

Voice from the Burning Bush: Here lay your shoes aside. . . . You stand on ground that is holy. Be God’s prophet!

Moses: God of my fathers . . . ask not thy servant to be thy prophet. I am old. I ask thee, let me tend my sheep in silence.

Voice: You have seen your kindred enslaved, have known the truth, so you can do nothing else: . . . set your people free!

In Act 2, Scene 3, worship of the Golden Calf leads to (as the libretto calls it) an Orgy of Drunkenness and Dancing:

00:00 / 04:44


The complete Georg Solti performance above is the best currently available on YouTube. Click here for the (downloadable) libretto you’ll need, from the Hänssler SACD.

Two other strong works, from Schoenberg’s American years, offer additional perspectives on his music. One is the 1942 Piano Concerto op. 42. Written when it began to look like the Allies might actually defeat Hitler, it’s almost light-hearted. Its single movement breaks down into four sections: a waltz, a scherzo, a slow movement, and a rondo finale. Once again, Classic forms lend form and familiarity to serial pitch language. Sort of.

Mitsuko Uchida’s disc with Boulez (Philips) is a useful collection; it includes other significant solo piano works by Schoenberg and his pupils and acolytes Webern, and Berg. I also like an older recording from Alfred Brendel:


Finally, the 1947 A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46, motivated by

a report of an occasion when Jews on their way to the gas chamber found courage in singing the Sh’ma Yisrael, the command to love God, who is one lord. . . . The orchestral accompaniment to the witness’s spoken narration illustrates a reality more horrible than anything that Schoenberg could have imagined [earlier], and his original melody for the Hebrew cantillation is an extraordinary concept, expressing a desperate tenacity that belongs very much to its author. (O. W. Neighbour, New Grove 1980)

My reference recording is that of Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG, 1993). It is recommendable for its visceral, supercharged playing and for DG’s vivid sound. The remainder of the album consists of orchestral music by Anton Webern, well worth hearing.


The text, like that of M&A, is by the composer, based on accounts he obtained from several survivors. As with Pierrot, the text is delivered in strict rhythms specified in the score. (It is not quite the Sprechstimme of Pierrot, which also specifies approximate pitches.) A number of other performances are available on YouTube; since the stumbling block for many first-time listeners is this recited text, which can sound quite stilted, as an alternative I suggest Hermann Prey’s for its naturalism.

Next time: American symphonists, including a whole other A. Schoenberg.

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