About this Recording
8.557520 - SCHOENBERG, A.: Concerto for String Quartet / The Book of the Hanging Gardens (Craft) (Schoenberg, Vol. 2)
English  German 

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B flat, after the Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7 by George Frideric Handel, freely transcribed and developed by Arnold Schoenberg

Whereas the playing time of Handel’s concerto for strings and continuo is fourteen minutes, and Schoenberg’s orchestral elaboration of it 22 minutes, the work should be counted among the latter’s compositions and not simply as one of his orchestrations (Brahms, Bach). He was not an unqualified admirer of Handel, and indeed became livid if the name was mentioned in the same breath as Bach. Apropos the Monn Cello Concerto recomposed for Pablo Casals, Schoenberg wrote:

“I was mainly intent on removing the defects of the Handelian style. Just as Mozart did with Handel’s Messiah, I have had to get rid of whole handfuls of rosalias and sequences, replacing them with real substance. I also did my best to deal with the other main defect of the Handelian style, which is that the theme is always best when it first appears and grows steadily more insignificant and trivial in the course of the piece.”

The concerto grosso form was introduced by Arcangelo Corelli in Rome at the end of the seventeenth century. In the early eighteenth century, after a fruitful period in Venice, composing operas for the city’s flourishing theaters, Handel moved to Rome, where he soon came under Corelli’s influence in the new genre of string ensemble music. In 1714 Handel followed Corelli’s pupil Geminiani to London, where Corelli’s set of twelve concerti, published posthumously, had established a fashion. Handel’s own set of twelve concerti probably dates from September 1739, which seems a long time later, but the twenty-five-year interval was filled in his case with the creation of a scarcely believable quantity of other music, operas, oratorios, cantatas, works for keyboard and other instruments.

Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, after Handel, was composed in the summer of 1933 in the Villa Stresa, Avenue Rapp, Arcachon (Gironde), where he had written the Cello Concerto the year before. Though officially described as a “leave of absence,” on 23rd May 1933 he had been forced to leave Berlin, and to flee with his wife and infant daughter to the Hotel Regina, 192 rue de Rivoli, Paris, where he soon reconverted from Lutheranism to the Jewish faith of his early childhood. The Concerto was completed in Arcachon before he left for America in October. The work was first performed on 26th September 1934 in Prague, conducted by K. B. Jirak and with the Kolisch Quartet as soloists. Rudolf Kolisch, the first violinist, was the composer’s brother-in-law.

These biographical circumstances seem to be at odds with the character of the piece, arguably the happiest, most high-spirited, playful, tender, tuneful, and balletic music that he ever wrote. It is also one of the most demanding for the solo instruments of a quartet since Beethoven’s Great Fugue. The character of the music could classify it as more a symphony than a concerto, i.e., its slow introduction (Largo); fugal Allegro first movement with extensive cadenza at the end; slow (Largo) lyric 3/4 second movement; Scherzo (4/8 time) Allegretto grazioso third movement (quasicadenza at midpoint); and 3/2 time dance finale (Hornpipe), but one listens to it thinking of the great ballet Balanchine would have made of it.

The instrumentation is lapidary even for Schoenberg, who manages by means of orchestral doublings, constantly changing color combinations, shifting of high and low ranges, and careful manipulation of dynamics, never to “cover” the solo quartet. The beginning of the first Allegro, for example, an accelerating, mostly one-pitch fugue subject for six woodwinds playing forte, is matched in volume by a second entrance scored for pizzicato solo violin, xylophone, piano, and harp, in other words percussive timbres and articulation (plucked and hammered instruments). The subject itself is suspenseful, a single note shifted through different, increasing speeds.

After a forty-bar exposition, Schoenberg departs radically from Handel in harmony and instrumental style, employing consecutive triple stops and harmonics in the solo strings. A little later still, the quartet seems to go berserk, zooming through a wild “passage,” light years from Handel, harmonically and instrumentally, but ending with the fugue theme. The next event is a cadenza for the soloists, each one playing consecutive octaves in chromatic movement. Music lovers can only delight in the developments, thematic recapitulations, contrapuntal designs, and an adagio ending that presents the fugue theme in a variety of speeds, simultaneously and in different timbres and ranges.

The second movement features the solo quartet, muted and with little help from the orchestra, except for one lovely four-bar phrase where it is joined by three different combinations of solo string trios from the ripieni sections of the orchestra. The melody, the counterpoint, are exquisite. So is the coda, which ingeniously modulates to a new key.

Everyone will recognize, and want to sing along with, the familiar melody of the third movement, at least until its oddly dotted rhythmic development and changing keys break free from Handel’s harmonic spectrum. But the syncopated maestoso Hornpipe finale is the glory of this too-little-known, difficult to play masterpiece, which has never received such a fine performance.

Suite for Piano, Opus 25

According to the manuscript, this neo-classic dance suite—Präludium, Gavotte, Musette, Intermezzo, Menuett with Trio and da capo, Gigue—was written between 24th July, 1921 and 20th March, 1923. Actually, the Intermezzo was composed on 21st July, 1921, about the time that Schoenberg told his pupil Josef Rufer:

“Today I have discovered something that will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years” (i.e. the twelve-tone row).

Allen Shawn’s comments on the Piano Suite in his book Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey1 point out that “The first two groups of four notes … end in a tritone, and the first and last notes are a tritone apart. The last four notes of the row spell the name Bach backwards. (H means B in German, and B means B flat.) All the movements of the Suite are based on the four forms of the row plus its transposition to B flat. But what must more immediately compel new listeners is the rhythmic invention in the Präludium, and, indeed, in all the other movements.” Shawn wisely invites us to examine musettes by Couperin and Bach.

What immediately strikes the listener about this music is its glitter and transparency, high-octane brilliance, simplicity for the ear (and extreme difficulty for the player). It contains more repetition than any other Schoenberg piece, since the Gavotte is heard twice, the first part of the Musette twice, the first part of the Menuett three times, both halves of the trio twice, and the first third of the Gigue twice. Ostinati are also common, particularly in the Intermezzo. In bars 21–22 Schoenberg even manages to evoke Scott Joplin, consciously or not. Remarkable, too, are the many single lines (Gigue) and two-part counterpoint.

Lied der Waldtaube from Gurre-Lieder
(1923 Chamber Ensemble Version)

This most beautiful of Schoenberg’s Lieder is also his most popular and in no need of commentary. The listener should focus attention to the skill of the transcription of the accompaniment from an orchestra of over one hundred (in the original) for only the fifteen instruments of his Chamber Symphony, joined by piano and harmonium. Fittingly, the first performance took place in Copenhagen.

The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op. 15
15 Poems from Stefan George’s Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten

Schoenberg became interested in Stefan George’s poetry in the autumn of 1907, and had set poems by him before The Hanging Gardens (1908), most notably the Litanei (Litany) and Entrückung (Rapture), the third and fourth movements of the Second String Quartet, which add a high soprano voice to the instruments. The composer and poet seem to have had no personal connection at all. One reason could be that as charismatic leaders of cults, they too much resembled each other.

In 1889, in Paris, George began to attend Mallarmé’s “Tuesday evenings”, where he soon attracted some of the most intelligent young literati in the German-speaking world, among them Hugo von Hofmannstal. George was homosexual by inclination, a fact he tried to disguise by referring to lovers in genderneutral terms (“you”, “my child”). The texts of The Hanging Gardens are love poems, the only ones George ever addressed to a woman (in this case the wife of Richard Dehmel, author of the poem that inspired Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht). But we are told nothing about the relationship between her and the man, except that they are destined to separate. We are also unable to visualize the scene, which includes white marble baroque fountains, storks and ponds, a desert, Northern garden flowers and tropical palms. Furthermore, there is no consistent narrative and there are no events.

The first performance of The Hanging Gardens took place in Berlin, the Ehrbar Hall, 14th January, 1910, sung by Martha Winternitz-Dorda. Schoenberg’s messianic program note for the occasion reads, in part: With the George songs I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for years. Until now, I lacked the strength and confidence to make it a reality. But now that I have set out along this path once and for all, I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic; and though to the goal towards which I am striving appears to me a certain one, I am, nonetheless, already feeling the resistance I shall have to overcome: I feel that even the least of temperaments will rise in revolt, and suspect that even those who have so far believed in me will not want to acknowledge the necessary nature of this development. So it seemed a good thing to point out, by performing the Gurrelieder—which years ago were friendless, but today have friends enough—that I am being forced in this direction not because my invention or technique is inadequate, nor because I am uninformed about all the other things the prevailing aesthetics demand, but that I am obeying an inner compulsion, which is stronger than my upbringing: that I am obeying the formative process which, being natural to me, is stronger than my artistic education.

Schoenberg’s pupil Egon Wellesz quotes the composer saying that the initial words of the text, no matter the meaning or the “poetic events”, meant nothing to him while composing, and that he claimed to have understood the poetic context only days after finishing the music:

“There to my great astonishment I discovered that I was never more faithful to the poet than when, led as it were, by the first direct contact with the opening sounds, I felt instinctively all that must necessarily follow from these initial sounds. Then it became clear to me that it is with a work of art as with every perfect organism.… It is so homogenous in its constitution that it discloses in every detail its truest and inmost being. Thus I came to a full understanding … of Stefan George’s poems from their sound alone … the external agreement between music and text— declamation, tempo, and tonal intensity—has little to do with inner meaning.”

R. C.


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