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Most of the music written by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) during the first decade of this century – including the monodrama Erwartung, his Second String Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, the song cycle Buch der hängenden Gärten, the Op. 11 piano pieces, and the present Five Pieces, Op. 16 – was received at worst with open hostility, at best by blank stares.

“Incomprehensible” quickly became the operational Schoenbergian adjective, although none of these works was written according to the precepts of what was to become at once a principal bugaboo and arguably the most influential of 20th-century musical innovations: the system of writing with 12 tones, or dodecaphony, which Schoenberg would codify during the next decade.

In the aforementioned works – and nowhere more than in Op. 16 – Schoenberg was not merely stretching the harmonic, rhythmic, and tonal practices of the past but in a sense breaking with them, albeit respectfully, with his near-abandonment of tonality and triadic harmony.

During much of this pre-World War period, Schoenberg was a student in Vienna of composer-conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky. Within a few years of having begun work with Zemlinsky, Schoenberg was himself teaching, his master students including Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who would with him be canonized as the Second Viennese School – the First comprising Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven).

By the onset of the war Schoenberg had achieved some success as a conductor (of his own and other composers’ music) and as a known, if less than universally understood, composer.

In a letter written in 1928, Schoenberg stated: “For the present it matters more to me if people understand my older works.... Only those who understand...them will be able to hear [later ones] with any understanding beyond the fashionable minimum.... I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogeyman as to being a natural continuer of properly understood, good old tradition.”
That is a concise and durable statement of principle, a guide for the open-eared listener, and one more variant on a truism applicable to all important composers: no matter how radical, their music retains elements of the past. That is obviously so in the outré-for-their-time Five Pieces (1909), which can sound downright Romantic to properly tuned modern ears.

Back now to 1912, that year of epochal musical creations, when Stravinsky wrote his Sacre du printemps and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were first performed: two composers inventing divergent musical futures out of disparate elements of the past.

Then, too, 1912 was the highpoint of yet another vein of modernism, represented by the refined sensuality of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. It was also the year in which Mahler’s posthumous Ninth Symphony, which had a profound influence on Schoenberg, was first heard, while the Russian Romantic symphonic tradition achieved its bloated climax with Rheinhold Gliére’s Ilya Murometz. And, while Gliére was burying the past with his excesses, a spare new tradition came into being in Russia that same year with Prokofiev’s first performance of his “barbaric” D-flat Piano Concerto. (Simultaneity buffs, take note: John Cage was born, in Los Angeles, in 1912.)

Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, completed in 1909, had to wait three years to be heard in public, and then it was not the musicians of his native Vienna who took up the cudgels on his behalf but an enlightened Englishman, Sir Henry Wood, who led the premiere at one of his London Promenade concerts. The date: September 3, 1912.

Reviews were numerous, since Schoenberg’s reputation as an iconoclast had preceded him. Among the least scathing was that from the most respected of British musical observers, Ernest Newman, who related, “It is not often an English audience hisses music it does not like, but a good third of the people the other day permitted themselves that luxury after the performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg. Another third of the audience was not hissing because it was laughing, and the remaining third seemed too puzzled either to laugh or to hiss.... Nevertheless, I take leave to suggest that Schoenberg is not the mere fool or madman that he is generally supposed to be.... May it not be that the new composer sees a logic in tonal relations that to the rest of us seem merely chaos at present, but the coherence of which may be clear enough to us all some day?”

Facetiously intended as Newman’s conclusion may be, it is on the mark. Furthermore, those early listeners who remarked on the score’s eccentricity had an ally in the composer himself, as witness the following in one of his letters to Richard Strauss: “The greatest difficulty in performing these pieces is that...it is really impossible to read the score. It would be almost imperative to perform them through blind faith. I can promise you something really colossal, especially in sound and mood. For that is what they are all about – completely unsymphonic, devoid of architecture or construction, just an uninterrupted changing of colors, rhythms, and moods.”

The temptation to quote more about music in response to which so many have recorded their impressions will end with the following from Schoenberg’s own program note: “The music seeks to express all that swells in us subconsciously like a dream; which is a great fluctuant power, and is built upon none of the lines that are familiar to us; which has a rhythm, as blood has a pulsating rhythm, as all life in us has its rhythm; which has a tonality, but only as the sea or the storm has its tonality; which has harmonies, though we cannot grasp or analyze them nor can we trace its themes. All its technical craft is submerged, made one and indivisible with the content of the work.”

The movement titles, by the way, were added at the request of the publisher, C. F. Peters, to make the music more saleable. Schoenberg himself revised the work twice, reorchestrating the work for smaller forces. In the 1949 revision – now the standard version in the orchestral repertoire – the composer reduced the brass and winds somewhat, without substantially changing the music or the scope of the work.

I) Vorgefühle — Premonitions, of unnamed, fearful events. Based on a theme heard at the outset, in muted cellos and then clarinet. Virtually all of the movement, including the tensely expressive climax, is derived from that theme.

II) Vergangenes — The Past: looking back on faces seen and emotions experienced. Based on a five-note theme, announced by muted solo cello. Don’t even try to keep up with Schoenberg’s complex counterpoint and development. Concentrate instead on the gorgeous variety of tone color.

III) Farben — Colors — a title much later changed to “Summer Morning by a Lake”. In his 1911 treatise, Harmonielehre, Schoenberg wrote: “I cannot unreservedly agree with the distinction between color and pitch. I find that a note is perceived by its color, one of whose dimensions is pitch.... If the ear could discriminate between differences of color, it might be feasible to invent melodies built of colors [Klangfarbmelodien].” He might have been referring to this very movement, written two years earlier.

IV) Peripetis — Wandering About — marked sehr rasch, very quick. In its nervous scurryings, reminiscent of No. 1. This time, however, a more dense structure, with overlapping contrasting figures, and a raucous climax.

V) Das obligate Rezitativ — The Obligatory (or is it obbligato?) Recitative (best not to ask, and it doesn’t really matter): Schoenberg authority Leonard Stein describes this movement as “essentially one, long cantus firmus theme of 136 measures in triple meter, constantly developing in waves to higher and higher pitches, followed by quiescent liquidating passages. The density of the five- and six-part counterpoint often obscures the main line, which is marked carefully in the score and is handed around constantly from instrument to instrument.”

-- Herbert Glass

DETAILS

Orchestration:
piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: August 8, 1929, Eugene Goossens conducting (original 1909 version); January 3, 1963, Zubin Mehta conducting (1949 version).