The Ode to Napoleon for Reciter, String Quartet, and Piano was composed during the Second World War as a protest against tyranny. Lord Byron’s poem castigating Napoleon served the composer in expressing his own feelings concerning latter-day tyrants. For this purpose a reciter is used, declaiming in the manner of inflected speech – resembling the Sprechstimme of the composer’s Pierrot Lunaire, which is notated precisely by means of notes written above and below a single-line staff. Most of the principal musical figures are derived from these inflections, the Reciter often participating with the instrumentalists in the exposé of the musical ideas.
Expressions of sarcasm and scorn are depicted throughout the work by means of numerous characteristic motifs based mostly on a single chord structure (in ascending order: A, C, F, G-sharp, C-sharp, E; forming the twelve-tone set with its transposition a step higher). Thus many consonant chords are heard in the course of the piece culminating in the final tonal cadence to E-flat. Although there exists occasional musical imagery to delineate specific expressions in the text, the musical structure preserves its own unity, primarily in the recapitulation and development of its main ideas, which hold the diverse parts of the text together.
The Ode is divided into four parts (five, three, four, and seven stanzas respectively) separated by instrumental interludes and prefaced by an introduction which contains the leading motifs. The first part, following the entrance of the Reciter, consists primarily of two themes – the “Napoleon” motifs – denouncing the tyrant. The second main part, following an instrumental interlude, treats three historical characters whose fate is contrasted with Napoleon’s. After a second interlude, which uses elements of the Introduction, the third part is presented, interrupted by frequent recitative passages. The final section follows a brief interlude and develops nearly all the main aspects of the poem, culminating in the reference to Washington (depicted by a four-note up-down-up motif: D, E-flat, G, B-flat) as the heroic counterpart of the tyrant. This final passage gradually settles down to a definite tonality (E-flat), which has been hinted at throughout the composition and which is made possible by the unfolding of the logical consequences of the 12-tone set itself.
Schoenberg commenced work on the composition in March and completed it in June (the dates noted in the manuscript are March 12 and June 12). On one of the days during its composition – I believe it was a Sunday, since that was the usual day on which I visited Schoenberg – he showed me with barely concealed pride and excitement a serendipitous discovery he had just made. Now it was rather unusual for Schoenberg to show anybody his works in progress (I remember only a few other occasions), so he must have been struck by the remarkable inspiration which produced in combination the “Marseillaise” and the motif of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony at the very spot where the reciter declaims the words “the earthquake voice of victory.” (As Schoenberg states in one of his articles, “Often enough inspiration intervenes spontaneously and gives its blessing undemanded.”)
In the period following the completion of the Ode, attempts were made to arrange a performance of the work and a search begun to locate a suitable speaker. Among the speakers considered (and actually approached) was Basil Rathbone; however, for one reason or another, these attempts failed and it was not until Artur Rodzinski conducted the string section of the New York Philharmonic (for which Schoenberg made the necessary additions to the original score) on 23 November that the work was finally heard. With Mack Harrell as speaker and Edward Steuermann as pianist, the performance was repeated and heard on a nationwide broadcast on November 25. (The Schoenberg Institute has a recording of this historic broadcast.)
Schoenberg himself heard the Ode played live in its original form only at a rehearsal preceding the concert in honor of his 75th birthday (13 September 1949) in Los Angeles. The speaker was William Schallert, I was the pianist, and the quartet was led by Adolph Koldofsky. In a special coaching session with the speaker, Schoenberg, his dark eyes flashing expressively while he recited lines from the work, emphasized, above all, their dramatic and expressive values. The inflections of pitch, marked so carefully in the score, were treated in a secondary manner. The main impression of the Ode was, and remains, one of powerful dramatic expression.
— Note by Leonard Stein,
Founding Director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California from 1976 to 1991.