Celebrating Arnold Schoenberg at 150
In honor of the upcoming 150th anniversary of his birth (September 13, 1874), Wise Music is pleased to present a sampling of works by Arnold Schoenberg, demonstrating the striking range of this essential composer. Schoenberg’s early works, written before the development of his twelve-tone system, were in close dialogue with the German Romantic tradition of Brahms and Wagner. After a period of largely twelve-tone composition, in 1933 he emigrated to the U.S. from Germany after facing persecution from the Nazi party on account of his Jewish heritage; many of the works written after his arrival in the U.S. engage both with tonality and historical musical traditions. From clever construction and manipulation of tone rows to playful interpretation of past works, Schoenberg’s output employs a wide range of techniques that showcases his capacity for creative evolution.
The Five Pieces for Orchestra are among Schoenberg’s most seminal works. They explore pitch space through what is sometimes termed “free atonality,” avoiding sustained tonal centers without being bound to the constraints of a twelve-tone row. Each piece is an extraordinarily colorful and expressive miniature with a distinctive character. The orchestration is unique and evocative, often focusing on composite timbres created by unusual groupings of instruments. To this end, the original 1909 version used a very large orchestra including quadruple winds and a contrabass clarinet, but several other versions of the set—including a chamber orchestra version and a 1949 revision for more standard symphonic orchestra—are available and preserve many of the works’ most distinctive and influential timbres.
Schoenberg composed the Concerto for String Quartet while living in France, just before emigrating to the United States. Throughout, Schoenberg persuasively blends Handel’s Baroque style with his own harmonic language; such stylistic play reflected Schoenberg’s sincere affection for Handel’s music.
“I certainly went further than Brahms or Mozart in their arrangements of Handel,” wrote Schoenberg. “I switched completely freely and independently and, using what is usable, made a completely new construction. From this freedom I believe one will be stylistically hardly more disturbed than by the cadenzas that modern authors apply to classical concertos.” The effect is a charming and surprising work, which plays with our perceptions of musical discourse in fascinating ways and is ripe for rediscovery.
The Suite for string orchestra was the first work that Schoenberg wrote after settling in Los Angeles. Originally intended for university orchestras, the work ultimately was too difficult for student players and was premiered by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Like the Concerto for String Quartet, it is significantly inspired by Baroque music; while not an “arrangement” of a particular work like the Concerto, it draws its five-movement form, complex polyphonic lines, and major/minor tonality from Baroque styles. Critics of the time found this overt tonality surprising, but Schoenberg was clear that the Suite did not represent any kind of renunciation of his serialist and atonal explorations. Instead, he seemed to intend it as not only a didactic work for student performers, but also for composers, calling the work a “lesson” in “the progress possible within tonality.” It is a beautiful lesson, filled with graceful, lilting melodic gestures and light-footed transitions.
Concerto for Violin, op. 36 (1936)
In his program notes to the Concerto for String Quartet, Schoenberg wrote that the work reflected an “intention to set new technical tasks for individual instruments, which [he] intend[ed] to carry out further with a piano and violin concerto.” A man of his word, he executed this plan in the 1936 Concerto for Violin and 1942 Concerto for Piano, both of which feature incredibly virtuosic soloist parts—so difficult, in fact, that a lauded violinist reportedly claimed that the violin concerto would remain unperformed until his colleagues grew new fourth fingers. As with so many initially “unplayable” works, this ultimately was proven untrue—in this case by the dedication of violinist Louis Krasner and the technical growth of successive generations of violinists. The performative demands of the work are well-rewarded by its musical sophistication, including clever use of a twelve-tone row to create quasi-tonal harmonies and gestural mimicry of tonal melodies. These moments of tonal allusion complement the traditional three movement fast-slow-fast concerto form that Schoenberg employed and create a rich harmonic interplay between soloist and orchestra.
Schoenberg began his second chamber symphony in 1906 but did not complete it 1939, a full 33 years later. He wrote that the first month spent working on it in 1939 was consumed with asking himself “What was the author getting at here?,” as his style “had greatly deepened” in the intervening years, making it “hard to reconcile what [he] then rightly wrote, trusting [his] sense of form and not thinking too much, with [his] current extensive demands in respect of ‘visible’ logic.” In the end, however, Schoenberg masterfully married the youthful spontaneity of his 1909 work with his more mature style, especially through re-orchestrations which leaned less heavily on instrumental doublings and employed more combinations of instruments across the sections of the orchestra. While the second chamber symphony largely employs less direct stylistic allusion to older music than works like the Suite or Concerto for String Quartet, Schoenberg was unafraid to draw on tonal resources such as frequent use of sequential gestures and expansions of traditional tonality such as extensive fourth-based harmonies. Through these means, Schoenberg created a delightful two-movement symphony that combines many of the most attractive aspects of his varied stylistic periods.
The above video, produced by the Arnold Schönberg Center in 2022, features Schoenberg discussing his music and life in English. Established in 1998 in Vienna, this Center is a unique repository of Arnold Schoenberg’s archival legacy and a cultural center that is open to the public. Exhibitions on Schoenberg’s life and work, a replica of his Los Angeles study as well as a concert series and symposia all contribute to a comprehensive experience that will enable the visitor to better understand Schoenberg’s contributions to music and the arts. To celebrate Schoenberg’s 150th birthday, outstanding concerts and exhibitions will take place at the Arnold Schönberg Center from January to December 2024.