The received wisdom on Schonberg’s groundbreaking Chamber Symphony No. 1 is that it is all about an approach to concision and brevity, an act of ruthless, purifying compression in reaction to the late-Romantic giganticism represented by Mahler’s symphonies and Schoenberg’s own Gurre-Lieder and Pelleas and Melisande, among many others. Schoenberg pared the grandiose orchestral forces down to 15 solo instruments and encapsulated the standard multi-movement symphony into a single composite movement.
That was the form in which the Chamber Symphony, completed while vacationing in Bavaria in July 1906, had its premiere in February 1907, and it is in that form that it became a modernist icon, inspiring many similar works. With its thematic use of superimposed fourths and whole-tone scales that worked vertically (harmonically) as well as horizontally (melodically), the work became a famous pointer to the future, a harbinger of things to come for Schoenberg and much of 20th-century music.
Yet the work looks backward as much as forward, something brought out more clearly when Schoenberg arranged it for full orchestra in 1935. This was a period during his early years in Los Angeles in which the composer reflected on the relationship of his own style with music of the past, arranging and adapting works by Monn and Handel (and two years later the Brahms Piano Quartet heard on the program last night), and writing the Suite “in Old Style.” Schoenberg conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere of the full orchestra version of the Chamber Symphony in a program of his own music, December 27, 1935, in Bovard Auditorium at USC, where the composer was then lecturing. (The other works on the program were the Suite and Verklärte Nacht as arranged for string orchestra. The Chamber Symphony, incidentally, was listed then as Op. 9-A.)
And the brevity of the Chamber Symphony is relative to other contemporary works, including Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and his D-minor String Quartet, both also in a single movement. (The Chamber Symphony is longer than many whole multi-movement symphonies by Haydn and Mozart.) Schoenberg cites Liszt as an inspiration for the idea of an encapsulated form (and Liszt was following the model of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy). In the Chamber Symphony, this single movement is subdivided into five very distinct parts, though they are played without a break.
One way of looking at the overall plan for the piece is as a large sonata-form movement with interludes representing a scherzo and a slow movement. The first section corresponds with the exposition. A slow, ripe introduction takes us to F major, then a quick march up a stack of fourths eventually leads to E major, the home key of the work, in which tonality is an attenuated but still very real factor. There are several well-characterized themes in this section and one — another energetic upward thrust, of a whole-tone scale in rushing triplets — returns as a transition to the second section, which is a very fast scherzo, complete with a wisp of a trio. The third section elaborates the themes of the exposition in a more reflective, but still quite dynamic, environment, like the development section of a sonata form. An ethereally soft and sad slow section of almost Mahlerian pathos is based again on rising fourths. The dazzling fifth section serves as both the free recapitulation of the sonata form and as the ebullient finale of the symphony.
Though complex, this structure develops organically and is quite audible, particularly if you pick up the cue for the close of the first section. This is very much a tune-driven piece, with the scherzo and slow “movement” aspects also functioning as a sort of development of themes by context and character. The grammar of Schoenberg’s lines was fresh and boundary pushing, but the spirited rhetorical gestures emerge from the sound world of Mahler and Richard Strauss, as does the emotional sincerity, which the relative concision only intensifies.
— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.