About this Recording
8.557528 - SCHOENBERG, A.: Violin Concerto / Ode to Napoleon / A Survivor from Warsaw (Craft) (Schoenberg, Vol. 10)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men’s Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 46


A Survivor from Warsaw, composed in 1947, is a fully formed music drama of only six minutes duration. The economy of statement and formal compression are extreme, even for this composer. The effectiveness of the work depends on dramatic contrasts: speaking (narration) versus singing (the chorus); English (past-tense recollections in the narration) versus German (present-tense reality, in the impersonation of the Sergeant); the association of bugle calls and military drum rhythms with the Germans, and of irregular, limping rhythms in the strings with their Jewish victims; the fragmentation of the first part of the piece versus the unity and continuity of the ending; the limitation to small combinations of instruments in the first part versus the full orchestra in the last part; the fluctuating tempi and metres in the first part versus the constant metre and slightly inflected tempo in the last.

The horror of the scene is established in the first few seconds by dissonant (twelve-tone) bugle calls accompanied by violins and basses playing comminatory tremolandos at extreme ranges, and by a piercing snare-drum roll. The picture is filled out and intensified by nerve-shattering instrumental effects: sudden, rhythmically disjunct outbursts of trills in the upper woodwinds and trombone; muted trumpet fluttertonguing; rapidly repeated notes in bassoons, oboe, and high xylophone; the high, needlelike punctures of violin harmonics; tapping on the strings with the wood of the bow (col legno battuto); sul ponticello squeaks in the cello; loud detonations in basses and trilling shrieks in the high range of the winds. The most effective orchestral scene changing is in the accompaniment by percussion alone of the Sergeant’s first command, and in the characterization of his robotic emptiness and rigidity through the hollow click of the xylophone.

The most dramatic moment in the Survivor is the entrance of the male chorus near the end singing the Hebrew prayer Sh’ma Yisroël (Deuteronomy 6), traditionally recited at the immanence of death, here accompanied by the full orchestra.

Prelude to Genesis for Mixed Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 44

Early in 1944, Nathaniel Schilkret, conductor of a popular Los Angeles radio concert series, commissioned a Biblical suite from a number of prominent refugee composers, Stravinsky, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Milhaud, Toch, Tansman among them. When their contributions had been completed, Schilkret invited Schoenberg to write a wordless Prelude to the opus, a representation of Chaos and the creation of the world. He agreed, on condition that his fee would be the same as Stravinsky’s, and that, like him, he could also employ a chorus, albeit singing a wordless vocalise. Schoenberg wrote his Prelude in only seven days, completing it on 30 September 1945. The première of the Suite took place in Los Angeles on 18 November 1945, conducted by Werner Janssen, who, three years earlier, had given the première of Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes. Stravinsky and Schoenberg sat on opposite sides of the hall during the dress rehearsal, and did not meet.

After hearing the Stravinsky, Schoenberg was heard to remark that the piece “does not end, it just stops.” Some listeners would say the same of Schoenberg’s Prelude.

The principal melodic motive in the Prelude is played by the tuba at the beginning, reminding the listener of the same placement of this instrument in Wagner’s Faust Overture. So too, the beginning of the second section of the piece suggests the beginning of Tristan. Schoenberg develops complex polyphonic music from it, largely in treble range and featuring woodwinds. The chorus enters singing the “Tristan” motive in octaves in the female parts, followed by the males in unison and in inverse canon. The tempo accelerates, with, in one place, all four horns playing the same difficult line, which is doubled at the octave by the upper winds. The ending is left to the unaccompanied chorus alone.

Dreimal Tausend Jahre, Op. 50A

“Three times in a thousand years” the Temple was devastated. Schoenberg’s a cappella four-part mixed-choir setting of the text by Dagobert Runes was completed on 20 April 1949. The melodic hexachord of the sopranos in the first bar is sung by them in retrograde in the second bar, forming a melody that could be described as tonal. The second half of the piece is sung more softly than the first and, also in contrast, the female parts are distinguished by staccato articulation. The music was first printed in the Stockholm periodical Prisms in 1949, and first performed in Fylkingen, Sweden, by a chamber choir conducted by Eric Ericson. The text is based on a Hassidic poem.

Psalm 130, De Profundis, for Mixed Chorus a cappella (six voices), Op. 50B

De Profundis is a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 130 for mixed chorus a cappella. Composed between 20 June and 3 July 1950, the first performance took place on 29 January 1954, in Cologne, conducted by Bernhard Zimmerman. The piece was intended for an Anthology of Jewish Music, published by Edward B. Marks Music Corp., New York, which sent the original Hebrew text and an English translation to the composer. On 29 May 1951, Schoenberg wrote to the publisher asking if the piece had been performed and wondering “how the dramatic character appeared, produced through the alternation of speaking and singing voices. …There is no objection of mine against using an instrument with each of the six vocal lines to keep intonation and rhythm in order; because this is always my main demand and I deem it more important than the so-called pure sound of voices”. The structure of the piece is formed not only by combining pitched choral singing and spoken choral declamation, but also by contrasting passages of pure speech with passages of pure singing. A variety of moods is encompassed, from a quiet beginning in the lower female voices, a lovely melody, to a fortissimo cry, “Adonay”. De Profundis is Schoenberg’s last completed composition.

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for String Quartet, Piano, and Reciter, Op. 41

The Ode to Napoleon was written between 12 March and 12 June 1942. On 15 January 1948, the composer told his biographer, H. H. Stuckenschmidt: “Lord Byron, who had at first admired Napoleon greatly, was so disappointed by his simple resignation [actually his abdication in 1814 at Fontainebleau] that he made him the object of his most bitter scorn. I do not think that I failed to reflect this in my composition.” Schoenberg did not fail, of course, but two or three climaxes in the melodrama verge on the bombastic. It must be said that Byron was less successful than Schoenberg, whose music raises the poem to a higher level; the composer’s anger is expressed with greater dignity and compactness. Byron wrote the sixteen nineline stanzas in a few hours and in a mood of outraged contempt for his former hero, but the poet’s high speed is at the expense of repetition of meaning. Shortly after the verses were finished, Byron’s publisher asked him to add three stanzas. The poet obliged with an ending that eulogizes George Washington and includes the Ode’s most renowned couplet:

Since he miscalled the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend had fallen so far.

Schoenberg first read the poem in German in 1941, and misconstrued Napoleon as a prefiguration of Hitler. The composer’s widow has testified that he was profoundly moved while composing the music for the final three stanzas, which provided opportunities for large musical contrasts. Hitler, of course, was very much alive in 1942, but Schoenberg correctly predicted the Führer’s downfall.

The Ode relies on the twelve-tone method, but the ordering of the basic set E–F–D flat–C–G sharp–A–B–B flat–D–E flat–G–F sharp permits many tonal references, including an E flat major final chord, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, originally dedicated to Napoleon.

The première of the Ode took place on 24 November 1944, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinsky. Schoenberg composed a bass part for this performance, thus allowing the full string orchestra to participate, but he was not happy with this version and permitted the performance only to please the conductor. The composer preferred the original piano quintet, and demanded a male Reciter, a singer of high musicianship, since the recitation of the spoken rhythms of the vocal part must be precise. The instrumental accompaniment, in which the piano part is predominant, illustrates the text in a programmatic style.

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 36

The first movement of the Violin Concerto was completed on 9 February 1934, a year and a half before Alban Berg began his concerto for the same instrument. The piece is dedicated to “Meinen lieben Freund und Kampfgenossen [My dear friend and fellow warrior] Dr. Anton von Webern”. It was Schoenberg’s own favourite among his orchestral pieces.

The three movements are marked Poco Allegro, Andante Grazioso, and Allegro. The second is dated 27 August 1936, the third, 23 September 1936. Louis Krasner, the concerto’s first “conqueror”, as Schoenberg called him, both commissioned and first performed the piece, in Philadelphia, 6 and 7 December 1940, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Krasner wrote that:

…Schoenberg proudly conceived his concerto in grand style and with a flair for the violin. It is knowingly designed and reflects his eagerness to explore new challenges for the instrument. Its technical innovations are thoroughly and ingeniously researched and thoughtfully developed. …After I played it for Schoenberg, he triumphantly exclaimed: “You see, I knew it could be played because actually I was able to manage every note of it on the violin with my own hands.”

After the third performance, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos in Minneapolis on 30 November 1945, Schoenberg wrote to Krasner asking for an account of the reception of the piece:

…Especially the following points are of great interest to me: Is everything clear in my tempo marks? How is the orchestra dynamically? Does the violin always easily dominate, or are there dark spots, where it is difficult or even impossible to hear? Do all the Hauptstimmen, H—, distinctly come to the fore? Can you name sections which according to your impressions, or [those of] friends of yours, have been a) distinctly disliked by the audience or by music lovers; or b) agreeable to the same or others? Do not resent these questions: you and Mr. Mitropoulos are the only two persons at present who can answer them. It would be nice if you would also [ask] Mr. Mitropoulos about these problems.

Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto should be approached as essentially a work of melodic development and variation. Its phrase-lengths and shapes, tempo contrasts, rhythmic figurations, repetition, metric variation (2/2, 3/4, 2/2), melodic structure, even, to some extent, the treatment of the orchestra, are extensions of the language of Brahms.

The constantly changing orchestral textures require a high degree of concentration, even though the character of the music is always clearly delineated. The alla marcia last movement, which begins with the longest orchestral tutti in the work, has the greatest drive and continuity, despite the long cadenza. The ending is the most majestic Schoenberg ever wrote.

Robert Craft


Available sung texts can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/557528.htm

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