Wednesday, 25 March 2020

'The violinist is really playing "fiddle" music': Schoenberg's Violin Concerto

From my biography, Arnold Schoenberg (US/Americas edition here), chapter 7, pp.167-72

First draft. With kind permission of the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Schoenberg, row chart
(Arnold Schönberg Center)

... In between the Suite and the Kol nidre, however, Schoenberg had shown that emigration in no sense entailed turning his back on the ‘poison of atonality’, nor indeed upon the twelve-note method. If anything, his willingness on occasion to return to his first planet – however much it might have changed in the meantime – betokened greater self-assurance. The new world of New Music would always be there, even in the New World. The Violin Concerto, op.36 and the Fourth String Quartet, op.37, were his two twelve-note masterpieces from this period. Schoenberg had entertained thoughts of a violin concerto during the twenties, and had made a few sketches in 1922 and again in 1927, the latter for a chamber concerto in the wake of Berg’s, for piano with ‘accompaniment’ from piano, three clarinets – that wind-band sound again – trumpet, horn, trombone, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It was only in 1934, though, that he began work on material for this concerto, and then broke off quickly, composing the rest – as so often, at great speed – during the summer of 1936. Unlike the proposed work from 1927, moreover, it is written for full orchestra, very much placed in and attempting to extend the grand Austro-German tradition of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms in this particular genre. Perhaps with slight defensiveness, he wrote to Webern in January 1936 that he had conceived of the work at the same time as Berg had of his. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that it is the first of only two completed concertos of his ‘own’. One might be tempted to consider the Monn and Handel reworkings from 1932-3 as preparation, but Schoenberg did not tend to work like that; he had, after all, composed Gurrelieder with little experience of orchestral writing and none whatsoever on that scale.

Jascha Heifetz in his dressing room, 1936
(University of Michigan Music Society)

Like Liszt for the piano, albeit without personal transcendental mastery of the instrument, Schoenberg out-virtuosoed the virtuosi with a work declared unplayable: all of which added to its mystique – and also to the downright fear it seems to have inspired in potential performers. Schoenberg told the Los Angeles concert organiser, Peter Yates, that since Jascha Heifetz had declared it unplayable, there was no one alive who would be able to perform it. Schoenberg had approached Heifetz, yet another émigré, when Kolisch, over-extended with other work commitments, had regretfully declined. Moreover, a music critic, José Rodriguez, informed Schoenberg that ‘a virtuoso’ had said it would remain unplayed until violinists acquired new fourth fingers. Schoenberg, Rodriguez reported, had laughed ‘like a pleased child’ at that, saying: ‘Yes, yes. That will be fine. The concerto is extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands. I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.’ 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, they nevertheless made some play of conformity to tradition, as of course did Berg’s. Schoenberg seems to have rejoiced – at the very least, the score rejoices – in making mischievous play with apparently contesting demands between an extension of traditional virtuosity and the present polyphonic and motivic demands of his dodecaphonic method. Interestingly, there are a good few notes that would have to be struck out as ‘wrong’, were one to consider the method as a ‘system’. They will always be confirmed, however, as ‘correct’ by a player who experiments with altering them. The fury of inspiration, to employ a Romantic category of which he would unquestionably and unquestioningly have approved, is palpable when one consults the autograph score, corrections and all: more legible than Beethoven, say, yet evincing the white heat demanded of a successful performance. The Latvian-Canadian violinist and composer, Louis Gesensway, playing in the orchestra for the first performance, was so incensed by its reception that he wrote to a newspaper extolling its ‘utmost perfection’, its lack of a single ‘trite or hackneyed phrase’, declaring moreover: ‘The violinist is really playing “fiddle” music.’

(Illustration from Berry, Arnold Schoenberg)

Louis Krasner
Photograph: Max Fenichel (1936),
public domain

In the end, the piece, dedicated to Webern, fell to Louis Krasner. Krasner, who had also commissioned and premiered Berg’s concerto, learned that Schoenberg was at work on the piece when he found himself on the same ocean liner as Kolisch in 1936. He practised the part for a year prior to its 1940 premiere with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a relatively unusual echo of Vienna, elements in the audience resorted to ‘tradition’, hissing, laughing, calling out. So too, it seems did the orchestral management, which had refused to offer the customary publicity and even the necessary funding for so unwelcome an interloper. Stokowski actually had to pay for the performing resources and Krasner’s fee out of his own pocket, for which noble deed Schoenberg, unable to attend, praised the conductor’s ‘brave stand toward my work and against illiterate snobs’. Having reported that ‘most critics seem to agree’ the work ‘sounds like an exaggerated version of the testing room at an abrasive plant,’ the Philadelphia Inquirer continued its account of this new Skandalkonzert. Krasner had received a meed of applause from the listeners when the hissing of the music itself began’. Stokowski stepped to the front of the stage and said: ‘Shall we forever make the same foolish, narrow-minded, unsportsmanlike blunders, upon only hearing a thing once? … Certainly Schoenberg is one of the greatest musicians alive today. His music is extremely difficult to understand. We don’t ask you to like it or dislike it, but to give it a fair chance. That’s American. But to condemn it after one hearing – that simply cannot be done.’
… ‘if Philadelphia is to grow culturally, we must give every kind of art a chance.’
‘If Schoenberg writes any more works, and you are willing, I would like to conduct more of them.’ A shrill feminine voice from the balcony cried: ‘Funny!’ … None of the audience walked out during the Concerto – but it was noted that several of the audience didn’t walk in until it was ended. 
Leopold Stokowski, c.1936

The work’s difficulties, of whatever nature, will speak for themselves. As ever, though, with Schoenberg, the best thing is probably to let them do so and, however clichéd this may sound, simply listen to the music ‘as music’, to let it take one where it will. I may not have helped here by myself talking up the difficulty, but in a biographical study, it would arguably be misleading not to do so. In any case, tales of scandal often prove a spur to listen. The three movements are traditional both in number and in type: sonata form-Andante grazioso-marching finale. There is more than a hint, once again, of that ‘special’ key, D minor. Within a more disciplined, quasi-Classical framework, the riot of colouristic imagination is clearly the same work as the composer of the op.16 Orchestral Pieces. Cadenza writing offers ample opportunity display from the ‘new’ fourth finger, as elsewhere do treacherous harmonics and double stopping, often combining pizzicato and arco (bowed) playing. If there is a better instantiation of the lyrical slow movement in a twentieth-century concerto, a better example of such a movement’s principal theme as an heir to the lyrical, Mozartian past, then I know of neither. Needless to say, in this new understanding of the instrumental aria, there is no ‘mere’ ornamentation; every note counts, as it must for any fervent disciple of Loos. The work in its entirety stands as oriented to the blazing, fortissimo conclusion of its finale as any by Beethoven.

Sketch: Arnold Schönberg Center