Five Pieces, Op. 23
"I cannot often enough warn against the overrating of analysis since it invariably leads to what I have always fought against: the knowledge of how something is made; whereas I have always tried to promote the knowledge of what something is."
While the newest music in this evening's recital was written nearly 80 years ago, it carries with it still the fierce and daunting reputation of its creator. And now, amid commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg's death in 1951, we find that none of the sharp and threatening edges of his compositions have been smoothed with familiarity or the passage of decades. Somehow, despite its age, Schoenberg's music is always part of the present. We cannot say that this music was - it perpetually is.
For us, the general audience, it is not a concession to say that this is demanding repertory. The name conjures images of densely annotated study-scores and long shelves heavy with learned analyses. We have heard the phrases: serial composition, 12-tone music, atonality, inversion, retrograde tone row - each unwelcoming to the uninitiated. But if we take Schoenberg at his word and try to find our way into the music as it is as opposed to how it was made, we may agree with the noted pianist and scholar Charles Rosen when he writes that it is "the most expressive music ever written."
Consider the times. The Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, were completed between February and August of 1909. The Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, and the Suite for Piano, Op. 25, were composed between July 1920 and March 1923, in overlapping efforts.
In 1907, Picasso had fractured the art world with the seminal Cubist work Les demoiselles d'Avignon. The depiction of nude prostitutes rendered in angles and flesh-colored planes shocked viewers. In that same year, Richard Strauss's Salome so scandalized the opera-going public that performances were banned in Vienna, New York, and London. A little-known author from Dublin was trying in vain to find a publisher for a collection of 15 short stories about private and public lives in his hometown. And volatile political and economic strains were registering across the continent.
By the time of the publication of the Suite for Piano in 1923, Picasso had nearly exhausted the frontiers of Cubism and as a successful and famous artist was revisiting a romantic neo-classical style. The still groundbreaking roars of Elektra and the return to a silvered nostalgia in Der Rosenkavalier were more than a decade in Strauss's past. James Joyce had published Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. Work on Finnegans Wake was underway. And Europe was struggling to recover from the deaths of millions of its best in the trenches of the Great War. "Quick eyes gone under earth's lid," in Ezra Pound's phrase. Eventful days.
Schoenberg's Vienna, during these 15 or so years, was the hub of Austro-German intellectual and artistic life. Sigmund Freud was forming the Psychoanalytical Society - Jung being a member. Wassily Kandinsky was leading the Abstract Expressionist movement with the Blaue Reiter group. Schoenberg himself had gained the favor of Gustav Mahler. It was a vortex of energies striving for the new. And it witnessed the widening of the rift between an increasingly conservative public and a stubbornly innovative artistic community.
By 1909, the largely self-taught Schoenberg, a devoted student of the musical traditions which preceded him, had decided that a step beyond the enormous legacies of Brahms and Wagner would free him to explore means of expression which could sustain a relevance to his changing world. Rosen writes:
"[Schoenberg] believed that his own work arose clearly and naturally out of post-Wagnerian chromaticism and post-Brahmsian asymmetrical phrasing - so clearly, in fact, that the first works must have seemed to the composer, if not to his critics, to be not at all experimental in character, merely a cautious step along a marked-out path."
Moving in the same direction as the Imagist poets in Paris, Schoenberg sought concision, not elaboration - an unparalleled density of emotional content bounded in short durations, but communicating those constantly shifting emotions with the fleetness of thought. It was not a choice made lightly:
"And I maintain: one must have grasped, admired, and marveled at the mysterious wonders of our tonal harmony, the unbelievably delicate balance of its architectural values and its cabbalistic mathematics as I have, in order to feel, when one no longer has need of them, that one requires new means. Questions of sonority, whose attraction ranks scarcely so high amongst the eternal values, are by comparison trivial."
These letters, which amount to a manifesto, declare what it is about this music that still challenges us. Our expectations must be re-calibrated for a music in which sensations come by the "thousands simultaneously" in an unfamiliar vocabulary.
The despair and deprivations of the war years silenced Schoenberg's output, though they did not stop him from further experimentation. It may be speculation to suggest that the unlimited expression of feeling made possible by the departure from tonality brought him too close to that very despair and chaos of the conflagration. There was a need for a kind of intellectual rigor and organization. With the end of the war and a resolve to move past the seemingly inescapable, Schoenberg developed a new technique, one that gave cohesion to his expression without in any way limiting its scope. Hitler's rise to power in the '20s would displace Schoenberg, eventually, to America. And the man who in the next decade would find himself playing tennis with George Gershwin in the sunshine of Los Angeles had invented serialism. Unfettered freedom from tonality had been like playing without a net.
In Schoenberg's own words, 12-tone technique is "the method of composition with 12 tones related only to one another." It is a crude reduction, but we can say that a composer, in effect, writes in a key, or tone row, of his or her own creation, one consisting of the 12 different notes of the chromatic scale organized in a specific sequence. That sequence is subject to an array of manipulations, but at the simplest level, the composition must use these notes serially; that is, in the sequence of the established row.
Serialism would become the most influential compositional technique of the 20th century, and aisles of books have already been written about the procedure. It seems impertinent to try to expand upon that research when the composer has suggested that what these pieces are must supersede a discussion of how these pieces were made.
Schoenberg's piano compositions are always milestones of his innovations. Op. 11 marked a departure from tonality. The two sets of Op. 23 and Op. 25 mark the arrival of serialism. And though they were composed during the same period, each set retains a specific character: the Five Piano Pieces of Op. 23, perhaps, as a reflection on the intervening years and the Suite for Piano Op. 25 as an energetic look forward.
Op. 23 shares the brevity of Op. 11; the five pieces, following closely after one another, say all they have to say in little more than 10 minutes. Though Schoenberg does not fully deploy his serial method until the final piece (cheekily labeled a waltz), we can hear a lighter texture in this music. There is, of course, an unrelenting density of expression, but the variety of moods is greater than the macabre explorations of Op. 11. One might even find a manic humor in the final three pieces.
— Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.