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The view long-held among listeners too lazy to become better informed – or who simply dismiss any music not written a century before they were born – that Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was, simply (if that’s the operative word) a “composer of 12-tone music” is slowly crumbling before the dissemination of his oeuvre by figures such as composer-conductors Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Emanuel Ax. Schoenberg, like Stravinsky, dealt in various styles (including some of his own invention), crafting each out of the other. Thus the Wagnerian chromaticism of his early Verklärte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisande, and Gurrelieder prepared the way for the more intense, more far-out chromaticism – bordering on atonality – of the First Chamber Symphony and the Second String Quartet, all written before World War I) and, skipping a bridge phase or two, to his first full-fledged 12-tone composition, the Op. 23 Piano Pieces (1923), and his first orchestral work fully embracing this method, the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928).
Compressing history a bit more: By 1942, with Europe, but a distant memory – physically, at any rate – and the more rigorous forms of serialism no longer having for him the attractions of old, a “new” Schoenberg emerges in the Piano Concerto. While it is by no stretch of the imagination “popular” music, to some strait-laced Schoenberg disciples it even represented a cop-out, with obvious traces of tonality! This slander was vigorously denied by the composer, in a letter to his pupil René Leibowitz. Perhaps, the disciples reasoned, Schoenberg had been sitting too long in the California sun. Closer to the truth is that Schoenberg, like many great artists, was moving on – by looking back: in this instance, back to Brahmsian harmony, for which his admiration had never waned over the years, and which he found altogether compatible with his admiration for Wagner, the supposed antithesis to all that Brahms represented.
It would, however, be a mistake to regard Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto as a throwback to his pre-serial youth. It is, rather, music that in many ways recapitulates in such a way that it emerges as something decidedly new.
The work was born out of a curious set of circumstances. Oscar Levant (1906-1972), pianist, raconteur, and friend to the stars of Hollywood and Broadway, whose dissipations were as celebrated as his verbal sallies and his sensitive Gershwin interpretations, studied briefly with Schoenberg in Los Angeles and later asked his teacher to write for him “a slight piano piece”. In his Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), Levant recorded, “When I returned to New York there was correspondence, and suddenly this small piano piece burned feverishly in Schoenberg’s mind and he decided to write a piano concerto. He sent me some early sketches, and it is possible that in the main row of tones my name or initials were involved. However, I wasn’t prepared for a piano concerto, and in the meantime Hanns Eisler assumed the role of a negotiator for Schoenberg. Among other things, the fee grew to a vast sum for which, as the dedicatee, I was promised immortality.” The concerto notion was dropped, as a vehicle for Levant, at any rate. Meeting the composer several years later, Levant noted, “In a spasm of goodwill, I said, ‘I owe you some money’. [Schoenberg] nodded in agreement and I gave him a check. He was very cheerful about the whole thing. I didn’t really owe him any money [Levant had made a down payment on the ‘slight piano piece’] – it was just an excuse to ameliorate the whole situation.
The Concerto, completed in July of 1942, was nevertheless presented under the most glamorous circumstances nearly two years later. The soloist was the redoubtable pianist of the Schoenberg circle, Eduard Steuermann, with the NBC Symphony – “Toscanini’s orchestra” – conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
In consideration of the fact that Virgil Thomson, among the most celebrated of American music critics – and a composer of no mean gifts himself, was present and “working” on that occasion, let his wise words suffice to sum up the concerto’s structure and character:
“The piece… consists of four sections neatly sewn together and played without pause – waltz, a scherzo, an adagio, and a rondo. All are based on a single theme, though there is considerable development of secondary material in the scherzo. The musical syntax is that commonly-known as the 12-tone system, which is to say that employment of dissonance is integral rather than ornamental. The expression of the work is romantic and deeply sentimental, as is Schoenberg’s custom and as is the best of the modern Viennese tradition.” [A bit of Thomsonian tongue-in-cheek?]
“The instrumentation, too,” Thomson continues, “is characteristic of its author. It is delicate and scattered, The music hops about from one instrument to another all the time. It sounds like chamber music for a hundred players. There is plenty of melody, but no massing of instruments on any single line for giving the melody emphasis. The work is not oratorical, anyway. It is poetical and reflective. And it builds up its moments of emphasis by rhythmic device and contrapuntal complication very much as old Sebastian Bach was wont to do. Its inspiration and its communication are lyrical, intimate, thoughtful, sweet, and sometimes witty, like good private talk… Its particular combination of lyric freedom and figurational fancy with the strictest tonal logic places it high among the works of this greatest among the living Viennese masters (resident now in Los Angeles) and high among the musical achievements of our century. With the increasing conservatism of contemporary composers about matters harmonic, many of our young people have never really heard much modern music. Radical and thoroughgoing modern music, I mean. It is too seldom performed. Well, here is a piece of it and a very fine one, a beautiful and original work that is really thought through and that doesn’t sound quite like anything else.”
- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.