Friday, 13 September 2019

Schoenberg at 145: selected works and recordings on his birthday

Charlie Chaplin, Gertrud and Arnold Schoenberg, Los Angeles, 1935
(Photographer: Max Munn Autrey)

Arnold Schoenberg was the twentieth century’s most violently controversial composer; he remains so for us. Was he its greatest? Perhaps, perhaps not: there will always be several other deserving pretenders to the title; it is scarcely a title worth bothering about. Is his music the most performed, the most listened to? Certainly not. Indeed part of his ‘greatness’, certainly of his controversy, lies in confrontation with a world that often will not listen, sometimes does not even know. Schoenberg’s is in many ways a tragic story that yet awaits its true catharsis. Like Beethoven, the degree of Schoenberg’s influence dwarfs that of any other twentieth-century composer, Stravinsky included. The latter’s Rite of Spring, Les Noces, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and so on undoubtedly changed the face of twentieth-century music; yet Schoenberg’s break with the tonal universe within which Western art music had operated for roughly three centuries and his subsequent adoption of the ‘method of composing with twelve notes related only to one another’ utterly transformed its course. That transformation extended far beyond mere ‘influence’. When the soprano in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet sings that she feels the ‘air of another planet’, not only do we feel it too; we know that, having breathed that air, nothing will ever quite be the same again – even if, perhaps especially if, we elect to return to tonality, be it that of earlier or later music.

Schoenberg remains the great modernist composer, forbidding and heroic, in life and work a standing, intransigent rebuke to the commercialist imperatives of his time and ours. He was, however, much more than that too. He was also a Viennese Jew who converted to Lutheranism and back again. He lived his life largely between Vienna and Berlin; then, following the Nazi seizure of power, he lost his job, his bearings, his life, and became an exile, settling far from the Central European culture in which he had grown up, in Los Angeles. Born in the vanished world – a world always with us in its art and in its history too – of Austria-Hungary, an anti-Semite on every street corner, Schoenberg died, not only having lived through the trauma, which he had long foreseen, of the Holocaust, but having witnessed the creation of the State of Israel, a Zionist project to which he felt and voiced the strongest yet most difficult of connections.

This is a story I have recently been trying to tell, not least through the music that lies at its very heart. For if we never listen, how shall we know? If I have one piece of advice, however, it would be to forget, at least for now, the disputes surrounding this music, whether ‘for’ or ‘against’. Listen to this music as part of an œuvre that has more in common, both with itself and with the great Austro-German tradition with which Schoenberg so proudly identified himself, than many would ever admit; by all means listen to it too as a harbinger of the musical world to come, of Boulez and Stockhausen, of Henze and Nono. Above all, however, listen to Schoenberg’s music as music, and let its hyper-expressivity speak to you as might that of Wagner and Brahms, of Bach and Mozart, of Beethoven and Mahler.

Verklärte Nacht

It would be well-nigh inconceivable not to start with the string sextet, Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), one of Schoenberg’s earliest essays in the art of reconciling Wagnerian harmonic development with Brahmsian motivic writing. One can think of it, listen to it, that way if one likes, or one can listen to it as a response to Richard Dehmel’s erotic poem, whose narrative structure it follows closely, the latter’s five stanzas reflected, even transfigured in five contrasted musical sections; with Schoenberg, it is rarely a matter of either/or. Odd-numbered sections present the forest: there is sepulchral darkness to the opening, as our (aural) eyes adjust, but also the sense of a gateway to something unknown, dangerous perhaps, yet also exciting. The second and fourth sections present Dehmel’s words of woman and man respectively. The woman confesses that she had married a man she did not love; she had therefore yielded to another, a stranger, whose child she now bears. Transfiguration is effected through the man’s nobility of soul, manifested not in a self-denying act of charity, but in a violin and cello duet of love. ‘Two people walk through the high, bright night.’ The 1950 Hollywood Quartet recording, for which Schoenberg himself wrote a programme note, may have been matched, but it has never been surpassed.


If Tristan und Isolde haunts the pages of Verklärte Nacht, how much more so does it the gargantuan tale of love, betrayal, and catharsis, Gurrelieder. Götterdämmerung does too, not least in the parallel vassals’ chorus. One may readily forget, given the accomplishment of his orchestral writing here, that Schoenberg had never previously written a completed work calling for full, let alone such gargantuan, orchestra. (He had to order special manuscript paper for the number of staves required; none such existed.) Listen to its course, however, and you will hear the change in Schoenberg’s orchestral writing over the period of its orchestration, long put to one side for financial reasons. Harmony and melody remain, but the final part speaks of a world that had known the first fruits of ‘atonality’. Claudio Abbado and massed Berlin forces, many artists the same as in his commercial Vienna Philharmonic recording, capture the work’s late Romanticism and modernity to a tee.

String Quartet no.2

How could one not include this fabled quartet? In many ways, it is an ‘easier’ listen than Schoenberg’s first numbered essay in this genre. The journey from tonality to atonality provides a narrative of its own, Schoenberg’s compositional journey more generally telescoped into a drama first without and then with words. Ghosts of Vienna past are, typically for Schoenberg, ever present. Listen to the second violin’s singing of a line from the Viennese popular song ‘Ach du lieber Augustin’, suggestive of something afoot: ‘It’s all over, it’s all over.’ Soon: ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten.’ (‘I feel the air of another planet.’) Gravity, tonal or planetary, loses its pull: ‘I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving … I feel I am above the last cloud.’ The final ‘resolution’, such as it is, turning to F-sharp major, the quartet having opened in F-sharp minor, sounds surprising, even perverse. This, to quote the title of a lecture Schoenberg would give in exile, is ‘How one becomes lonely’ – or is it how one becomes free, becomes ultimately reconciled with a new world? Are they one and the same, as Brahms (frei aber froh) might have counselled him? Here are the New Vienna Quartet from 1967:


The Second String Quartet, written in 1908, prepared the way for a ‘miracle year’, 1909, in Schoenberg’s output, comparable to that of Schubert in 1815 or Schumann in 1840. How to choose but one work from this highpoint of ‘free atonality’? Answers, perhaps, on one of the many postcards Schoenberg, sometimes affectionate, sometimes playful, sometimes angry, loved to send. His one-act opera (a ‘monodrama’, with a single character), Erwartung has at least as great a claim as any. It remains one of the astounding musical accomplishments of the twentieth century. The libretto was written by a dermatologist, Marie Pappenheim, later an important figure in the German sexual liberation movement: she offered a clinical understanding of hysteria as the context for the extraordinary outpouring we hear – and feel. ‘The aim,’ Schoenberg would explain in 1929, ‘is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.’ The single event, the Woman’s stumbling over the corpse of her lover, essentially expands itself, both forwards and backwards, over time. Verklärte Nacht, then, is sped up, magnified, subverted, perhaps even reversed. Anja Silja, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Christoph von Dohnányi judge the work’s competing demands at least as well as any other artists, in a recording deservedly considered a classic.

Pierrot lunaire

If Erwartung is impossible for humans to perform to perfection, the very conception of Pierrot lunaire seems designed to preclude the possibility of reconciling so many competing forces. Is it a work of cabaret? Assuredly, yet not only that. Is it an instrumental masterpiece, as Stravinsky averred? Ditto. Again, best to listen, enjoy, and take it for what it is in any particular performance on any particular occasion. Recommendations do not come higher than Christine Schäfter, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and that most legendary yet ambivalent of Schoenbergians, Pierre Boulez. Herewith a film made with their recording:

Suite, op.25

Let us move ahead to the Roaring Twenties, to the world of the new twelve-note method. Always a method, Schoenberg insisted: never a system. The chronology of Schoenberg’s first works and sections of works written according to the new method – much of which he had been working towards earlier, even in Pierrot – is complex; we need not bother with it here. Instead, once again, only listen: here to the first work in its entirety written as such. The neo-Baroque Suite for Piano, op.25 will ideally performed with dazzling Bauhaus surface gleam that yet reveals an eminently Bösendorfer sensibility beneath. No one comes closer to that ideal for me than Maurizio Pollini (first movement), but Florent Boffard's recording offers an estimable alternative:

Moses und Aron

In Moses und Aron, the fourth and last of his operas, left incomplete – perhaps uncompletable – at his death, Schoenberg wrestled with so many of the themes of his music and life. It is a work about difficulty, about communication, about the relationship between genius and the public, between God and man. Ferociously difficult to perform, above all for the chorus, called upon to perform dodecaphonic Bach whilst performing an ‘erotic orgy’ around the Golden Calf, it is, however, anything but difficult to listen to: so long as one grants it due attention. Michael Gielen and Boulez, especially in his second, Concertgebouw recording of this searing drama, made in the wake of staged performance, penetrate to its heart as few others do. However, there remains something special indeed about the first performance, conducted by Hans Rosbaud, who told in a 1961 interview of a 'very dramatic moment in my career':

One night, perhaps at one o’clock, … the telephone rang furiously; the radio station of Hamburg … asked me if I could conduct the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. The regular conductor [Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt] had [had] an accident and could not conduct the performance, for which the radio station had invited many important people …, among other guests, Mrs Schoenberg and her daughter Nuria … I asked, ‘When will this first performance take place?’ And they answered, ‘Exactly in one week … Mr Rosbaud, do come, you must come, you cannot abandon us in this desperate situation!

Violin Concerto

Schoenberg’s inability to complete Moses, no performance imaginable in exile, did not preclude composition and completion of a host of American works. Alleged unplayability – for the soloist, Jascha Heifetz having declared it so – long contributed to a mystique that did not help it be loved, or even listened to. However, the greatest difficulty seems to have been musical rather than technical. If the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms had proved notably ‘symphonic’ when compared with ‘easier’ works in the repertoire; Schoenberg’s, by contrast, seems to have rejoiced in mischievous play between the apparently contrasting demands of traditional virtuosity intensified and the twelve-note method. Yet there beats a traditional, even traditionalist, heart within, its three movements as expected, both in number and in type: sonata form-Andante grazioso-marching finale. Ultimately, this is a work of hyper-Romanticism, deserving both to be played and listened to as such. Zvi Zeitlin understood that well, here in a beautifully comprehending performance with Rafael Kubelík and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. As ever, the trick is to treat music as music: all else will follow.

A Survivor from Warsaw

Always inclined or rather destined to bear witness, Schoenberg became, if anything, still more so, once the Holocaust he had long foreseen came into barbaric being. ‘It means at first,’ he wrote, insistent both upon his faith and his status as a creative, not documentary, artist: ‘a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. … The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.’ The words, Schoenberg’s own, were derived from accounts by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. The gas chamber awaiting, they spontaneously erupt into a rendition, triumphant, defiant, indescribably harrowing, of the ancient Hebrew song, ‘Shema Yisroel’. Abbado and the VPO, alert to the work’s Mahlerian ghosts as well as to its Adornian challenge, prove superlative guides in this, our final stop for now.

For fuller recording recommendations, not restricted to YouTube, and indeed more on Schoenberg generally, please see my book, Arnold Schoenberg, published by Reaktion Books, distributed in the Americas by Chicago University Press.