About this Recording
8.557526 - SCHOENBERG, A.: Chamber Symphony No. 2 / Die gluckliche Hand / Wind Quintet (Craft) (Schoenberg, Vol. 8)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Chamber Symphony No. 2 • Die glückliche Hand • Wind Quintet, Op. 26


Chamber Symphony No. 2 In two movements: Adagio and Con fuoco

The Second Chamber Symphony was begun in August 1906, soon after the completion of the First Chamber Symphony, but set aside until the summer of 1939, when Schoenberg returned to the piece, finishing the first movement on 14th August and the second on 21st October, 1939. A letter from the composer to Fritz Stiedry, who conducted the première in a broadcast concert in Town Hall, New York, 15th December, 1940, reveals the history of the opus:

[Between 1906 and 1939] my style has become much more profound and I have much difficulty in making the ideas which I wrote down many years ago without too much thought (rightly trusting to my feeling for design) conform to my present demand for a high degree of “visible” logic. This is now one of my greatest difficulties, for it also affects the material of the piece.

… This material is very good: expressive, characteristic, rich, and interesting. But it is meant to be carried out in the manner which I was capable of at the time of the Second Quartet.

The first movement is finished. I have altered very little; only the ending is entirely new, and the instrumentation. In a few places I have altered the harmonization, and I have changed the accompaniment figures rather frequently. After numerous experiments, I decided to rework these completely. I am very well satisfied with the movement. Besides, it is easy to play; very easy …

Now I am working on the second movement. If I succeed in finishing it, it will be quite effective: a very lively Allegro … The last movement [eventually the end of the second movement] is an “epilogue”, which does bring thematically new material… The musical and “psychic” problems are presented exhaustively in the two completed movements; the final movement merely appends, so to speak, certain “observations”.

Schoenberg wrote to Stiedry again after hearing acetate recordings of his première performance of the piece:

I find the strings too noisy, and this is because each of the staccatos marked is played sforzato instead of being played as an unusually short note. For me, the noise of the strings is so distorting that the winds do not come out plastically enough. [Apropos] the detached notes, [they] were mostly played as staccatos. This is wrong—at least in my music. I really mean that each note should be bowed — or breathed — separately (8th January, 1941).

The little-known Second Chamber Symphony ought to be the most popular of Schoenberg’s later masterpieces. Neither “atonal” nor “twelve-tone”, it contrasts a lush, melodious, dramatic first movement with a rapid and richly polyphonic second movement. The first movement has always been popular, but the far more difficult-to-play second movement is still (2008) underappreciated. The Allegro movement invites comparison with the middle movement of Stravinsky’s Ode, if only in rhythm, the exploitation of a six-eightmetre accommodating twos and threes simultaneously, the syncopations and offbeats. But the Schoenberg is incomparably more abundant in substance, emotional power, and compositional skill, the Stravinsky being rigidly diatonic, homophonic, and mired in protracted temporizing. The Schoenberg further requires a much higher degree of instrumental virtuosity than any piece by Stravinsky. The music of both composers in this period is still labeled as “neoclassic”. If the reader has a score, he or she should turn to bar 453 of Schoenberg’s Con fuoco, and enjoy the thrilling timbre of the bassoon doubling of the clarinet.

Die glückliche Hand

Schoenberg wrote the Die glückliche Hand libretto (“The Hand of Fate” would be a better title), a “Drama With Music”, in June 1910, and began the music three months later, on 9th September. Composed in early 1912, before Pierrot Lunaire, the music was completed after it, in 1913. The full score manuscript, in the Library of Congress, is dated “November 18, 1913, Berlin”. The first and last scenes were written last, Schoenberg having changed his mind about the form of the opus while he was working on the transition to the final scene, the jagged music near the end of the third scene that accompanies the Man’s pursuit of “the beautiful woman” through a rocky landscape, a scene that concludes when she dislodges a boulder from a place above him that falls on and crushes him. The 1910 libretto makes no mention of the off-stage band and the mocking laughter from the chorus that distinguish the first and last scenes and that are the same in both as well as in their bass-clarinet and bassoons ostinato introductions.

Soon after completing Die glückliche Hand, Schoenberg began to generate ideas about its realization on stage. He wanted “the greatest unreality,” a “play with apparitions of colours and forms, designed by Kandinsky or Kokoschka”. In the spring of 1914 the composer met with the Intendant of the Dresden Opera, Count Seebach, to discuss the possibility of staging the work, together with Erwartung, but World War I forced the delay of a première for a decade, Erwartung in Prague and Die glückliche Hand in Vienna, by which time new developments had alienated the aesthetics and the musico-dramatic languages of both.

Die glückliche Hand is a pantomime for two silent actors and one solo singer, “the Man”—whose nine brief sung phrases are hardly comparable to the long, overpowering vocal rôle of “the Woman” in Erwartung. (Apart from its division into four scenes, Die glückliche Hand contains no significant resemblances to Erwartung.) The Glückliche Hand music is very much more compressed than that of Erwartung, and its two middle scenes, apart from the lines by the Man, are purely orchestral. The first and fourth scenes employ a small chorus of six female and six male singers and an offstage band of seven players, whose music is superimposed on the large orchestra. Further, Die glückliche Hand returns to traditional elements, a symmetrical form, clear divisions (somewhat in the sense of a “number” opera), motivic development, repetition (the three-note, minor-second down, majorsecond- up motive, introduced by the flute in bar 126 and after that successively throughout the orchestra more times than any other motive in Schoenberg’s music, and a greatly expanded use of ostinato. For this last, the entire first scene is constructed on a double ostinato, one of the two components played by timpani and harp in the bass register, the other by solo violas and cellos in the upper register. This nine-note “ostinato chord”, as Schoenberg referred to it, quietly accompanies the twelve singers, who whisper, sing, and speak-sing (Sprechstimme) in elaborate polyphony. The third scene begins with an ostinato, and more of them are found at bars 97–100, 129–130, 140–142, 146–153, 181–184 (“choo-choo” train music reminiscent of the ostinato scene-changing music in Erwartung.) The twelve vocal parts at the end of Scene Four are almost entirely sung (no Sprechstimme) and they are stronger and more prominent than in Scene One.

Apart from the chorus and the nine short phrases sung by the Man, the libretto is in the stage directions (see below). The “plot” is simple. At the beginning, we see the Man lying face down, head toward the audience, feet toward the inner stage. A monster (hyena species with bat wings) gnaws at his neck. The chorus is positioned behind a dark curtain at the rear centre stage, their twelve green-lit faces peering through holes in the curtain. The Man is the Great Artist (Schoenberg) and the gnawing monster is his ego, which craves recognition and acclaim. The “Greek” chorus upbraids the Man for desiring the futile rewards of success: “You poor fool … You, who have the divine in you, yet covet the worldly.” At the start of Scene Two a beautiful woman appears. She gives a goblet to the Man, who drinks its contents but does not see her, whereupon the woman loses her initial sympathy for him and goes to the side of the stage where an “elegantly dressed gentleman” takes the woman in his arms. They go off together, and the Man groans, but in a moment the Woman returns to him. At the end of the scene she leaves him again. This, of course, is autobiography. In 1908, Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, eloped with a young painter, Richard Gerstl, who had been working on Schoenberg’s portrait. Not long after the elopement Gerstl hanged himself. Anton Webern, Schoenberg’s pupil, persuaded him to take her back. The composer’s public humiliation at the time, not to mention his anger and wounded pride, are revealed in a letter to Alma Mahler, 7th October, 1910:

If I am to be honest and say something about my works (which I do not willingly do, since I actually write them in order to conceal myself thoroughly behind them, so that I will not be seen), it could only be this: It is not meant symbolically, but only envisioned and felt. Not thought at all. Colour, noises, lights, sounds, movements, looks, gestures — in short, the media which make up the ingredients of the stage — are to be linked to one another in a varied way. Nothing more than that. It meant something to my emotions as I wrote it down … I don’t want to be understood: I want to express myself — but I hope that I will be misunderstood.

Scene Three begins with a unison figure in bass octaves (lower strings, harp, bass clarinet, bassoons) with the character of a fugue subject. The second entrance repeats the rhythm of the subject but not the notes. The Man goes to a cave where he discovers a goldsmith’s shop with several workers. In the middle is an anvil, a huge hammer under it. As the Man contemplates the workers, he remarks that what they are doing can be done more simply. He goes to the anvil, places a block of gold on it, then brings the hammer down on it, splitting the anvil and allowing the gold to fall into the cleft. The workers had been preparing to stop him, but when he retrieves a perfect diadem set with precious stones they express wonder at the achievement. (The glitter of the jewel is evoked by a mixture of trills and flutter-tonguing in the wind instruments.) Eventually, after he gives his masterpiece to them, they decide to attack him, at which point the scene changes. The woman returns, now naked to the hip on her left side, and the “elegant gentleman” returns as well. He follows the woman, who climbs to the top of a plateau. The Man pursues her through rocky terrain. The woman attains a higher elevation and dislodges a boulder toward the Man, who is standing below, hitting and burying him. The Fourth Scene returns to the first, with, at the end, the chorus mocking the Man: “Must you live again what you have so often lived? You poor fool!”

Apart from the aforementioned personal history, the allegory symbolizes the successful Viennese composer of operettas and popular music in the “elegantly dressed gentleman,” while the incompetent workmen are untalented, hack composers, and the anvil that the Man crushes — the blow of a huge wooden hammer is heard in the orchestra at this point (bar 115) — can be thought of as representing tonality, the diadem, one of the beautiful objects that the man of genius will create, symbolizes the new atonality. (In addition to the hammer, the orchestral arsenal includes a “Metallrohr”, an instrument known to the fabricators of “Musique Concrète”.)

At the time of composing Die glückliche Hand, Schoenberg was an exhibiting painter, personally and artistically close to Kandinsky, which explains the composer’s addition of a colour dimension to this Gesamtkunstwerk dream-world opera. The colour changes are “notated” in the score by some seventy abstract signs indicating the varying shades and intensities of coloured lights shifting in correspondence to the stage action. This colour sign-language requires exact synchronization between the aural and the visual components. The principal event in Scene Three is “a crescendo of colour”: red, brown, dirty green, blue-gray, violet, timed to the music of bars 125–139. As Schoenberg wrote, “The play of lights and colours is based not only on intensities, but on values which can only be compared with pitches.”

Wind Quintet, Op. 26

The neo-classicism of Schoenberg’s music from about 1920 is wholly different from what might have been predicted from his principal composition (unfinished) during World War I, Jacob’s Ladder. This new direction developed simultaneously with the invention of a new compositional technique variously known as dodecaphonic and serial. Classical forms provided the structural frames for the atonal music of Op. 23, Op. 24, Op. 25, and Op. 26, though serial procedures are introduced in only one movement of Opus 23 and Opus 24. The two later compositions are entirely “dodecaphonic”. But, then, every Schoenberg opus is complete in itself and its stepping-stone foundation component should be disregarded. The composer’s commitment to the polyphonic art of Bach began with the Quintet, the Four Choruses, Op. 37, and the Satires, Op. 28. When I wrote to him in June 1950 comparing Opus 28 to the Musical Offering, he quickly answered: “You place me too high”, but he was clearly aware of the correspondence between the two works.

Whereas the movements of the Serenade, Op. 24, and the Piano Suite, Op. 25, are modeled on late- Baroque dance forms (Minuet, Gigue, Gavotte), the Quintet follows the structure of the four-movement sonata form, with a repeated exposition in the first movement and a Rondo finale. The scope of the piece is symphonic, and the texture recalls the contrapuntal style of the First Chamber Symphony.

Realising that a work of 38 minutes in atonal idiom for five winds might be less audience-friendly than any of his music heretofore, Schoenberg sought to beguile his masterpiece with a display of instrumental virtuosity that surpassed anything even he had ever attempted. Only now, a half-century after the première, has the piece become playable at the tempos Schoenberg requires. The wind-instrument players of his time had to be conducted (Webern rehearsed and conducted it in the early years) and managed to get through it in about an hour. Composed between 21st April, 1923 and 26th July, 1924, the first performance, by members of the Vienna Philharmonic, took place in that city, conducted by Schoenberg’s son-in-law Felix Greissle, on 13th September, 1924, Schoenberg’s fiftieth birthday. It lasted one hour. The present recorded performance takes 38 minutes.

Robert Craft

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