Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, snare drum, xylophone, strings, and solo piano
First LA Phil performance: February 25, 1965, Zubin Mehta conducting, with pianist Alfred Brendel
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 emerged 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 recapitulates in many ways, and 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, 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 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, 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 conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
Virgil Thomson, among the most celebrated of American music critics – and a composer of no mean gifts himself – summed up the concerto’s structure and character:
“The piece… consists of four sections neatly sewn together and played without pause – a 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.”
“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.”
– Herbert Glass