You are on page 1of 4

1

Schoenbergs Piano Music: A Deeper Legacy1 Mark Berry For better or for worse, Schoenbergs status as the progenitor of 12-tone serialism is the one thing that most people know about him. It is his cultural legacy, but it also obscures the explosive, exciting works he wrote as the enfant terrible of fin-de-sicle Viennese musical culture, and glosses over the many twists and turns that make his story so intriguing. Getting to know Schoenbergs piano music, a body of work that spans over two decades of tumult, fills out the picture of a composer who, love him or hate him, should never be taken for granted. *** Schoenberg was coming off a tough year when he sat down in February 1909 to write his Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11. The premiere of his Second String Quartet in December was a complete scandal, generating even more outrage among Viennese music mavens than the infamous first performances of his Chamber Symphony, Opus 9 and First String Quartet. On its own, this wasnt such a big deal: to the combative and confident Schoenberg, such strong critical responses only confirmed the rightness of his vision, and he continued to receive encouragement from Mahler and other luminaries. The riotous reaction to the Second Quartet came, however, on the heels of an incredible personal humiliation. In the summer of 1908, his wife Mathilde, the sister of his one-time teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, left him and moved in with his friend, the painter Richard Gerstl. By November, the affair was over, Mathilde moved back in with Schoenbergand Gerstl committed suicide. To top it all off, Schoenberg was dirt poor with two children and an adulterous spouse to support.

Program Essay for Russell Shermans performance of Schoenbergs piano music at the Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance, Mannes School of Music, June 13, 2011

Far from distracting Schoenberg from his work, the personal and professional chaos seems to have prompted a deep, wholesale re-evaluation of how and why he composed. Writing in August 1909 to Ferruccio Busoni, Schoenberg summed up his new approach as one that privileged direct, personal spontaneity above all else:
My only intention is to have no intentions! No formal, architectural or other artistic intentions (except perhaps of capturing the mood of a poem), no aesthetic intentionsnone of any kind; at most this: to place nothing inhibiting in the stream of my unconscious sensations. To allow nothing to infiltrate which may be invoked either by intelligence or consciousness.

In the same letter, Schoenberg expressed doubts that he could ever fully reach his artistic goal; Opus 11, his initial attempt to tap into the deep well of his creative intuition, shows just how hard it was to let go of convention. The first movement is an onslaught of musical contradictions, and the second contains an incessant, ominous two-note ostinato that persists as in a nightmare, but both ultimately follow a standard A-B-A form. While the music has the illogical, scattershot feeling of a daydream, it also feels as if Schoenberg, underneath it all, was deliberately secondguessing his own subjectivity. The third movement of Opus 11 reveals little of the conscious large-scale structural planning that peeks through the first two movements; its striking opening theme never recurs, and the music unfolds as if it is being improvised on the spot. The Six Little Piano Pieces, Opus 19, written two years later, continues along this same path. Aphoristic in the extreme, each movement exploits short gestures and eschews grand thematic statements. Many scholars point out that the final movement was written in June 1911, shortly after Mahler died, and speculate that the characteristic pealing chords are Schoenbergs reenactment of the bells ringing out at his mentors funeral. ***

Today I have discovered something which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years. When Schoenberg made this bold proclamation in 1921 (or 1922; scholars are unsure of the date), he was, of course, talking about the serial ordering of pitch sets that would form the basis of his 12-tone method. Both his Five Piano Pieces, Opus 23 and his Suite, Opus 25 were written in that period between 1921 and 1923 when Schoenberg started what Ethan Haimo calls the long and arduous compositional voyage toward dodecaphony. Through most of Opus 23, Schoenberg doesnt use a complete row of twelve tones, but instead manipulates short motivestransposing them, turning them backward and upside down to create related gestures. The first movement, for example, begins with a six-note figure that is the font from which its own accompanying voices are derived. Something closer to the fully mature 12-tone procedure occurs in Opus 25, which he completed shortly after the Five Piano Pieces. In Opus 25, three of the five movements also adopt the forms and rhythmic patterns of Baroque dances, a striking anachronism in light of his previous experimentation with subjective expression. Both Schoenbergs experimentation with serial procedures and the perverse reliance on centuries-old forms stem from a frustration with the inability of the aesthetic that spawned Opuses 11 and 19 to generate anything more than fleeting outbursts. Schoenberg addressed the need to temper intuition with deliberate planning in his 1941 essay Composition with Twelve Tones (I):
One must be convinced of the infallibility of ones own fantasy and one must believe in ones inspiration. Nevertheless the desire for conscious control of the new means and forms will arise in every artists mind; and he will wish to know consciously the laws and rules which govern the forms he conceived as in a dream.

This new artistic attitude could also have been the result of a change in Schoenbergs relationship with the musical establishment. Before World War I broke out, he had two major

successes: Pierrot Lunaire, which toured throughout Austria and Germany in 1912, and GurreLieder, which was met with wild acclaim after its 1913 premiere in Vienna. Between 1919 and 1921, his Society for Private Musical Performances presented over 300 concerts, he started to conduct professionally, and the city of Amsterdam hosted a festival of his music. Although still controversial, Schoenberg was beginning to garner a certain amount of notoriety. He was no longer the outsider. *** When Schoenberg composed Opuses 33a and 33b, he was on faculty at the Akademie der Knste in Berlin, enjoying institutional respect and financial stability unprecedented in his career up to that point. He had taken over Busonis master class at the school in 1926, and stayed for seven years. In addition to his two piano pieces, Schoenberg also composed many other of his mature 12-tone works, including the Orchestral Variations, Opus 31, the comic opera Von Heute auf Morgen, and the Third String Quartet. Although Schoenberg was happy and secure in his life at that time, Germany as a whole was careening headlong into the madness of a Nazi dictatorship. In 1933, the same year that Hitler ascended to power as chancellor, the German government announced that it would remove Jews from the Academy. Schoenberg, Jewish by birth, left Berlin for Paris, never to return.