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8.557521 - SCHOENBERG: 6 A Cappella Choruses / String Quartet No. 2 / Suite in G Major (Schoenberg, Vol. 3)
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Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Six a cappella Mixed Choruses

In August 1928 the “State Commission for the Folksong-Book for Youth,” Berlin, invited Schoenberg to arrange (harmonize) three sixteenth-century popular German folk-songs according to his own dictates. Schoenberg became deeply absorbed in the work and created three miniature polyphonic masterpieces. In Los Angeles in 1948 he decided to compose three more of these choruses in the same style.

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10

Schoenberg began the composition of his second, F sharp minor, string quartet, Opus 10, in Vienna, on 9th March, 1907. The four movements were not written in chronological order, the first having been composed more than a year before the others. The third movement, Litanei, was completed on 11th July, 1908, the second movement (Scherzo) on 21st July, 1908, and the whole piece was completed on 1st September, in Gmunden. In the summer, some time before this, the 25-year-old painter Richard Gerstl, a keen musician, student of philosophy and of Greek and Latin, eloped with Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde. Three months afterward, in November, blaming himself for the flagitious act, Gerstl committed suicide. He had been living in a rented studio in the same building as the Schoenberg apartment, had painted both of them, and given lessons to Schoenberg in the painter’s art, but also developing a passion for his wife, who was nine years younger than the composer. Largely through the mediations of Webern, she was persuaded to return to him, and he to accept her, but her maternal feelings for their two very young children must have been her most compelling reason. Schoenberg’s diaries about the experience (published in Allen Shawn’s superb book about the composer)1 are a revelation of his acrobatic psychological processes and the impregnability of his ego.

The two vocal movements that conclude the quartet, Litanei and Entrückung, presage a new world in Schoenberg’s musical development, the feeling of “air from another planet”, as a line in Entrückung puts it. The present writer cannot say whether or not the music was composed during or after these tempestuous events, but in any case, the quartet is dedicated “To My Wife”. It was performed by the Rosé ensemble in the Bösendorfersaal, Vienna, 21st December, 1908, with Frau Marie Gutheil-Schoder singing the settings of the Stefan George poems. These movements mark Schoenberg’s greatest advance in harmonic discovery and sensitivity thus far in his life: every chord, progression, combination of pitches, is utterly new and unerringly right, and the quiet, deliquescent string introduction to Entrückung, and the enthralling combination of voice and quartet throughout are a peak in early twentieth-century music.

Schoenberg’s attraction to George is a subject for a writer with deep knowledge of German as well as music, and a book-length study of the interrelation is long overdue. The present writer has chosen to present the Quartet, Op. 10, in its original form and not in Schoenberg’s 1929 string orchestra version for the reason that the latter tends to overweight the bass line where it doubles the cello. Further, the vocal movements contain some of the most inward Schoenberg ever wrote; Opus 10 does not make public statements.

Suite for Strings in G

Schoenberg’s first American composition is in five movements: Overture (11), Adagio (12), Minuet (13), Gavotte (14), and Gigue (15). In August 1934, after a bitter winter in Boston, the composer visited the summer music school at Chautauqua, New York, at the invitation of one of its directors, the Australian pianist, Ernest Hutcheson, who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in the 1880s, and whom the composer had known and befriended in pre-World War I Germany. Coincidentally, Hutcheson was president of the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and hoped to engage Schoenberg to teach there. The Boston experience had convinced him that the New York climate would be too severe for him, but, needing a source of income, he asked Hutcheson to postpone, not withdraw, the offer. In a letter to his brother-in-law discussing possible salaries, which Hutcheson feared might be exorbitant — Schoenberg’s reputation as a teacher was unparalleled — the composer coyly remarks: “True, they don’t know how cheap I’d be”. Ultimately he moved to the more salubrious climate of southern California. Informing Hutcheson of this decision in a letter of 28th March, 1935, Schoenberg adds a further reason, which should interest culture historians: the inadequacy of the average American music student’s “basic grounding”:

I was always very dissatisfied with the European student’s qualifications … [but] I did usually find that there was at least a certain fairly general knowledge of the works of the masters … in the main lacking here.… The high price of printed music … makes it impossible for most students to own even a rudimentary collection of something like the 200 volumes that all but the poorest had in Austria.

While at Chautauqua, Schoenberg met Martin Bernstein, a young double-bass player from New York University, who induced him to write a piece for young players of the near future, whom American high school and college orchestras were beginning to train. Schoenberg, wholly unaware of the primitive level of music training in American institutions at the time, wrote:

I have the belief that all composers, especially modern composers, and very especially I, should be interested in the promotion of such endeavours. For here one can lay the foundations of a new artistic culture, here young people can be given possibilities of understanding the new fields of expression and the means which are suitable for these.

Toward the end of August, Schoenberg began work on his “Suite written in the old style for string orchestra”, and by 7th September had sketched the stretto of his first-movement fugue. “Alten stile” must be understood as pertaining more to the eighteenth-century dance forms of the pieces than to the contrapuntal, harmonic, rhythmic, and instrumental aspects. The Gavotte was completed on 11th October, the Minuet on 23rd October, the Adagio on 6th November, and the entire work on 26th December at “5860 Canyon Cove, Hollywood”, according to his inscription in the score. The first performance was given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer on 18th May, 1935. At the bottom of the title page of the manuscript, now in the collection of Dr Arthur Wilhelm in Basel, the composer wrote in red pencil: “The spots in this score are Klemperer’s drops of sweat”. In fact, Klemperer and his professional players found this “student level” opus extremely difficult to perform, for which reason it is still, seventy years later, practically unknown.

No programme notes seem to be necessary apart from a characteristic foreword by Schoenberg, not found in the score:

This is what I had to achieve. I had to prepare [the students] using harmony which leads to modern feelings, for modern performance techniques. Fingerings, bowings, phrasing, intonation, dynamics — all this should be developed without the introduction of insuperable difficulties. But modern intonation, contrapuntal technique and phrase formation were also to be emphasized, so that the student might gradually come to realise that “melody” does not consist only of those primitive unvaried symmetrical structures which are the delight of mediocrity in all countries and among all peoples.… In doing this, I was guided by my personal knowledge of the stringed instruments.

An analysis should enrich the knowledge of the players, but it should also be informative for their teacher and conductor. Today, so many call themselves conservative who have nothing to conserve because they possess nothing that is worth conserving, not even the capacity to write a fugue like the one in this work. Therefore they maintain and conserve only their own incapacity and ignorance; they want to protect themselves and others from the possibility that new things should ever be said which would call for at least one prerequisite: technical competence.

Robert Craft

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