Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)
String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 • Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment
The best way to understand Arnold Schoenberg is through direct experience with his music. However, his words on the subject of music, his libretti, as well as his paintings open up new areas of thought. Schoenberg’s own programme notes on the Third and Fourth Quartets are fascinating, at times inexplicable, self-probing, and indispensable pieces of writing. These notes, for a private recording in Los Angeles, 1936, were written in English, his adopted language. Following are excerpts with my own sparse commentary.
The four string quartets I have published had at least five or six predecessors. The habit of composing so many string quartets had gradually arisen.
As a child of less than nine years, I had started composing little and, later, larger pieces for two violins, in imitation of such music as I used to play with my teacher or with a cousin of mine. When I could play violin duets of Viotti, Pleyel and others, I imitated their style. Thus I progressed in composing in the measure I progressed in playing.
It is the first and second movements of the third string quartet, and the first and last movements of the fourth which resemble catalogued forms in only a few respects. Not only does the order of appearance of their functional constituents (themes, melodies, units, motives and other structural elements) differ from the conventional, but also whether they are repeated, elaborated or abandoned seems to depend on different factors. The methods which provide for coherence and comprehensibility, (that is, the methods by which the functional constituents connect, add, introduce, contrast, juxtapose and prepare for fluent continuity), also depend on different factors.
The words inside the parentheses and the ideas which these words represent are cause for many questions of meaning, much study and reflection.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30
Although it has been suggested by various musicians that the first movement of the Third Quartet is patterned after the Schubert A minor Quartet, Schoenberg seems to disagree, as noted above and by what follows:
As a little boy I was tormented by a picture of a scene of a fairytale “Das Gespensterschiff”, (The Ghostship) whose captain had been nailed through the head to the topmast by his rebellious crew. I am sure that this was not the program of the first movement of the third string quartet. But it might have been, subconsciously, a very gruesome premonition which caused me to write this work, because as often as I thought about this movement, that picture came to my mind.
The temptation to classify this movement as theme and variations in combination with an alternative form is understandable, because not one of the many repetitions of the main theme and its alternative appear unchanged. These changes are very far-reaching, they even involve the internal organization, modify the order of some details, and combine them with others. On the other hand the form of theme and variation is very strict and would not admit farreaching structural deviations. Accordingly, if a comparison with one of the catalogued forms is advisable, its similarity to a Rondo form offers a better prospect for classification.
This movement is a piece of great beauty and depth and it reminds this writer and cellist of the Andante of Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563, with its variations within variations. I believe that many stimuli enter one’s mind and are reborn as inspiration.
As already mentioned, this, and also the fourth movement can easily be defined as catalogued forms. They are rondo forms. In fact, the form of Minuet and Trio and recapitulation of the Minuet is also a Rondo form, and this especially was extended to a larger form by Beethoven’s repetition of the Trio and by Schumann’s addition of a second Trio.
Although the form is like its classical counterpart, the rhythmic and thematic variety mark it as a further adventure in the realm of the Tanzschritte of Op. 29.
This form is identical with the so-called Sonata-Rondo.
In all of music there may not be a rondo so full of invention, disguised thematic returns and extended codas (except, perhaps, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth).
It is perhaps not so surprising to find in a contemporary composition so many variations of the main themes, whereas in classic compositions, as a rule, the recognizability of the theme is a principle. But our modern ear does not like so many unchanged repetitions, and accordingly, if in the Rondo, a theme has to appear so often and a composer has to depend on so little thematic material, the scarcity of this economy must be balanced by far-reaching changes of whatever material is at hand.
This is especially poignant given our own music’s use of repetition.
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37
Allegro molto; Energico
[The first violin’s opening phrase] can rightfully be called the main theme, because of its frequent recurrences, some of which one might be inclined to consider as recapitulations in the manner of the sonata form.
Here Schoenberg cites some subordinate themes and brief elaborations of previous material which he selected:
for similar reasons and in order to function like landmarks, as guides in a complicated organization, where recognition is obstructed by continuous variations.
This movement, not the first of the Third Quartet, is patterned on the old sonata form. Schoenberg only mentions in passing the extended section of “impetuoso” solos and does not mention the variations of texture at all.
This comodo is closely related to the Intermezzo type. It is an A-B-A form. Its B section brings new thematic material, but has otherwise a certain resemblance to a Durchführung (elaboration) because it combines its own themes with the preceding ones, in many ways.
This material is now shifted into every direction of the musical space, before a recapitulation of the first group occurs.
This recapitulation erects the structure in a manner quite different from the beginning, thereby still including combinations with the material of the B section.
A concert-goer mentioned that he heard this movement as a Hollywood production number with dancers and singers. Schoenberg has noted the “fancy”
instrumentation when describing a subordinate theme:
whose sonority is produced by the lightning flashes of harmonics which accompany a cantabile on the G-string of the first violin. A repetition in the cello is clothed in an even richer color.
The trio section must be called wildly variable!
The form is an A-B-A-B with a modulatory elaboration inserted before the recurrence of the B section. It begins with a recitative played in unison of the same pitch of all the four strings.
Schoenberg cites two measures of the aforementioned insertion and writes:
In six measures a climax is reached by semicontrapuntal elaboration and development of the contents of these two measures, which is dissolved into a segment, bridging and introducing the recapitulation of the B section. The deviation from the first formulation of this part is far-reaching, because of the difference
in purpose. The first time it served as a lyric contrast to the dramatic outbursts of the recitative, which it had to overcome by virtue of its intrinsic warmth. The second time, when the insertion of the section has already reduced the tension of the beginning, its purpose is to prepare for an ending.
The striking opening Largo unison gives way to a B section which explores one theme Schoenberg described as:
A cantabile melody formulated in the form of a period, antecedent followed by a consequent, very simple and regular, comprising six measures.
This theme’s elaborations and diminutions lead back to the recitative which is now followed by a compressedrecapitulation of the B section.
This Allegro contains a great abundance of thematic material because every repetition is varied far-reachingly and gives birth to new formulations.
The scholar, performer or listener can analyze the fourth movement but we must follow Schoenberg’s ineluctable and creative logic. From Schoenberg’s letter to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, August 3, 1936: “I am very content with the work and think it will be much more pleasant than the third. But—I believe always so.”
Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment
Here, as in the String Trio, the master wrote quickly; the violin part was composed between 3 and 22 March 1949. An explanation of how he prepared to compose is given in answer to a question from Julius Bahle, albeit not about the Phantasy. “Unnameable mental image of sounding and moving space, of a form with
characteristic relationships; of moving masses whose shape is unnameable and not amenable to comparison.”
Josef Rufer wrote in his The Works of Arnold Schoenberg: “During the course of the violin part, the row forms which are being used, as well as those which are planned for the piano part, are noted in red, green or black pencil.”
I hear this piece as a virtuosic peroration for violin, with commentary from the piano accompaniment. In addition, I sense Schoenberg’s assimilation of old music:
My teachers were in the first place, Bach and Mozart; in the second place, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. My originality comes from the fact that I immediately imitated everything good that I ever saw. Even if I did not see it first in the works of others.
And I may say this: often enough, I saw it first in my own work. For I did not merely stick to what I had seen; I took it over in order to possess it, and it led to something new… I lay claim to the merit of having written really new music which, as it rests on tradition, is destined to become a tradition.
In 1949 Schoenberg wrote an epilogue for the string quartet programme notes. I feel this epilogue applies to all of his later music.
It looks as if the time has come, when audienceswill listen to my music with more favor andkindness. This seems to me the given momentalso to do something in my favor.
For years, instead of studying my scoresand trying to find out who I am, one has tried toget rid of the problems I possibly might offer, by stamping me with a trade-mark. The 12 Tone Constructor, The Atonalist. Whatever I might have to present, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, soft or harsh, true or false, was of no concern.
I have often enough explained that the method of composing with twelve tones is only a matter of organization and what displeases many listeners are the dissonances and the absence of a constantly-present tonality. It looks as if today’s listeners are not enough afraid of such evils and are ready to accept such meaningless noises as the murder and mystery stories of the radio use for background illustration. That such nonsense is possible is the result of the audiences failing to question “what did he say” but instead being satisfied of recognizing a style, mannerism, “how did he say it”, atonality.
Today, atonality is tolerated by all radio listeners, on condition that it would not try to say anything sensible, anything trying to move your soul, to touch your feelings.
The fact of the use of the twelve tones was now made public by pupils and friends of mine, and when in 1933 I came to America I could not change my trade-mark. Laymen, musicians, newspapermen and critics whom I met, wanted me to write a lecture and give it in several places, though I was sure of the immaturity of the attempts to explain, at this time, properly the problems involved in this method. I was of course only capable to deliver a superficial explanation, a description, of the methods of distribution of the twelve tones. I was always aware of this imperfection, and this is why I gave to the lecture the title Method of Composing with Twelve Tones! I was convinced, that in emphasizing composing—method of composing—I had created a splendid isolation between my inquisitive tormentors and myself.
If one knows what composing means, one would, in my opinion, know how to avoid such silly questions.