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Programme Note

The title of my string trio Schoenberg … est Mort! - the work is dedicated to Zebra Trio – maybe needs a little explanation, because the title is not only ironic (in “quotes”) it is tentatively doubly ironic, in as much as I try, with the help of the exclamation mark, to give any living esthetic “opponents” to Schönberg a “kick in the shins”.
By not just borrowing the title from Pierre Boulez’s polemic and widely known article from 1952 “Schoenberg est mort” – the article contains one of music history’s most famed patricides – but by giving it this little twist, I wish to draw attention to the fact that even in our time, there are still attempts to oversimplify the narrative of music history, where for instance snubbing certain types of expression – like Schönberg’s – as too intricate, too unkind towards the audience and thereby irrelevant is a favourite pastime. (I think this is especially the case in the Anglo-Saxon world).

A way of looking at Schönberg’s music that he may have appreciated, is to ascertain that he is the end of line of, or a very important part of a long line of composers throughout history to whom it is has to some extent been to achieve a continuous music in constant change or in a state of metamorphosis. Variation through resourcefulness could be a key word here. This in contradiction to the other musical modernism that took its beginnings in Paris in the years before and after the First World War, where the idea of contrasting highly different musical elements, was the most important tool in the attempt to create new forms.

It makes it easy to perceive the constantly varying and thus narrative Schönbergian form of expression, the constant search for variation in for instance harmonies, as “emotional” music, while the juxtaposition of elements, the by far most common form of contemporary expression in everything from arts to contemporary music today, leaves us with the role as spectators or observers.

Schönberg’s contribution is so important and intense today, and ironically – again that word! – because it represents an alternative way to think music, with its roots in language and dialectics, as opposed to the dominating juxtaposed and thereby fragmented modernism.

Is Schönberg then truly of the “old world”? both Boulez and the times have changed. There is so much more in Schönberg’s music than in the works formulated in the “neoclassically” formed works that Boulez critized in his article. The amazing period in Schönberg’s ouvre, his music produced between 1893 an 1909, where he explores and tries to solve the problem of uniting the sonata form’s many limbs to one unified structure; floating harmonics and intervals are ordered in symmetries and patterns that “relate only to themselves”; new forms of syntacs; Brahms’ idea of the constant and continuous metamorphosis. A truly overwhelmingly generous and important period in Schönberg’s ouvre!

After the initial commission from Zebra Trio that generously emerged from a late night bacchanal with Anssi Karttunen and Magnus Lindberg in Oslo in the fall of 2010, everything nicely took form in a straight line from the Sarabande in cello Suite number 3 in c minor by J. S. Bach, with the tenderly formed line that is extremely melodic and at the same time indicates each harmony change. (Horisontal and vertical at the same time as Schönberg would have put it.) Most of it achieved by the melodic use of thirds with chromatic inflexions which gives a nice melodic – and also harmonic – progression.

I experimented with putting the same line on top of itself four times, each with a little rhythmic displacement and a little reversion of the pitches in the individual lines. After a few tries, Schönberg’s musical visage – or was it his death mask? – appeared. (His music from before 1908; 1. String Quartet, 1. Chamber Symphony etc.) And as it happens to composers; there I was with material I could not resist using. The material did not come without some inbuilt difficulties, in as much as it took the form of a “brick” that I had to meditate over for some time before I believed to have found the correct solutions that could do my new found “Schönberg material” justice.

I ended up with a form, where I, true to the dialectic principles of this music try to do what is the essence of composing – at least in the spirit of Schönberg – which is: to vary as much as at all possible without letting go of my starting point. (Grundgestalt!). All this with the intimacy and opacity of the String Trio as a magnificent challenge.

I see Schönberg’s way of writing music as a political statement in and of itself. Now even more than earlier; an artistic expression that refuses to let itself be deciphered once and for all, and which at the same time carries and is uplifted by a deeply felt humanism and a profound seriousity. And I do not mean the humourless, stale seriousity.
It is the expression of a mindset that is even more necessary today, surrounded as we are by oversimplified mindsets in every part of our lives, not least in politics. Schönberg’s example laves us better equipped morally and well prepared to offer resistance.

As a composer I can only hope to add my little contribution to this mindset.
At least my initials are the same his …

A.Sch.March

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