Schoenberg & his 2nd String Quartet: Love & Atonality
So I've been brushing up my Schoenberg (he's pictured here with a portrait by Richard Gerstl from 1906) – especially with the impending launch of the revised edition of the classic thriller, “The Schoenberg Code,” a serial novel in 12 chapters (watch this space).
The 2nd Quartet is one of those more-talked-about-than-performed works (this performance will actually be the first live performance of it I've ever experienced in 50 years of concert-going). And yet it's considered to be a major work of the early 20th Century, credited with being the first step on the road to “atonality.”
In this case, the quartet starts in F-sharp Minor; the scherzo is in D Minor; the third movement, which adds a soprano to sing “Litany” by Stefan George, is in E-flat Minor. It's the fourth movement with the soprano singing another George poem that begins famously, “I feel the air of another planet,” that is the first foray into non-tonality. But it doesn't sound that much different from what we've heard in the earlier movements: true, he quits using a key-signature and there are fewer traditional chords but before what had been going on in between a lot of those traditional chords was not exactly giving it a very strong sense of traditional tonality.
Still, despite this whiff from another planet's atmosphere, the quartet ends on an F-sharp Major chord, just as you would have expected in the Tonal World. But like landing on the moon 40 years ago, it was just one small step – though a very important one – before setting up something more permanent.
Here is an audio from YouTube (one of those without a video component) with the LaSalle Quartet and soprano Margaret Price, in the 4th Movement of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2:
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Soprano Katharine Dain will be joining Momenta for this Friday's performance at Gretna Music.
There were lots of composers in the late-19th Century who pushed the boundaries of that tonal world. Wagner, most famously, in Tristan und Isolde in the late-1850s, though he pulled back from it when he returned to the Ring after it was finished. Well into the 20th Century, Tristan was regarded as the closest any composer had ever come to leaving the Earth's atmosphere of comfortable tonality.
Franz Liszt, after giving up the flashiness of his virtuosic years to write eerily meditative pieces, composed his “Bagatelle without Tonality” in 1885. Here, harmony loses its traditional function to become simply “color.” For instance, the upward rush of “dominant 7th” chords, because they don't resolve as they ought to, just becomes another sound without any hierarchical context – which anticipates what Claude Debussy would be composing in a few short years.
One of the primary tenets of Tonality was the expectation that a piece begins in a key and would end in the same key (or, if in a minor key, in its relative major which isn't so much a change of key as a change of modality). What happened in between was part of the drama of classical music's most basic forms: statement of a key, digression from that key, then a resolution of the harmonic drama by returning to conclude in that key.
By 1901, Gustav Mahler had already been fudging with those expectations and discovered the world didn't end when his 2nd Symphony started in C Minor but ended in E-flat Major (which at least is the same key signature) or more adventurously when the 4th started in G Major and ended in E Major (no traditional relationship, there).
Schoenberg's 1st String Quartet (that is, the first published one) was a one-movement work in D Minor. Even though it ended in D Major, what happened in between the first chord and the last ones some 40 minutes later was so intensely chromatic and so little related to the “home key” (the tonality of the piece), it left heads spinning for lack of anything to hang on to, given the normal scheme of things.
“Atonality” is usually viewed as the antithesis of Tonality or, in most chases, as utter chaos and, therefore, ugly. But you can be “not tonal” and still have the standard recognizable chords of tonality: they're just not operating the way people were used to (that's the difference between chords and harmony: technically, harmony is the process by which chords connect; tonality, then, is the context in which the harmony operates).
Debussy's “impressionistic” use of chords was not necessarily always tonal but no one really considered it “atonal” and certainly not chaotic or ugly. Still, some people (even today) find it unsettling because it doesn't “go anywhere” the way tonality propels chords. For others, it just sits there, sounding pretty but not compelling. In a way, it's like reading a novel built on “stream of consciousness” – it's interesting (maybe) but what's the story about? There's no plot. Tonality, then, is like having a plot – you don't know if it's going to be a happy or sad ending but you know, at least, it's going to have an ending, some sense of resolution.
Of course, the idea of having a singer in a string quartet (and not having it called a “Soprano Quintet,” for instance) is also unexpected. Beethoven added voices to the symphony and Mahler added “song” to the possibilities of what a symphony could be: his 2nd, 3rd and 4th symphonies include songs – and even his all-instrumental 1st Symphony incorporates a well-known song (most people think of it as “Frère Jacques”) in its third movement. But Schoenberg was the first (that I'm aware of) to write a string quartet – the chamber music equivalent of the symphony with all its serious baggage – with a soprano. (Other works may have been vocal works scored with a string quartet, but they weren't called, in the abstract sense, String Quartets.)
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But there's been one thing that always puzzled me about this piece – not the tonality thing, not the adding-a-soprano thing: it's a quotation in the 2nd movement, a well-known song that everybody in the audience would probably recognize.
“Ach, du lieber Augustin!”
What the heck is THAT doing in here?! It never made sense to me. We're going along in this skittish scherzo with its march-like parody and then – whoa – here comes this little children's ditty. And it's just a once-and-done appearance, a mere snippet. Did the 2nd violinist get bored and just start playing whatever came into his mind? Is there, perhaps, some deeper significance I'm not getting?
Schoenberg never wrote about WHY it's there – at least that I've found (I haven't read all his essays, yet). He did mention that the audience's reaction at the first performance was pretty grim after the first movement (essentially, no reaction). But when it came to the appearance of “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” which he thought might elicit some chuckles of recognition, they broke out into rude laughter that never stopped. By the end of the performance, the poor soprano was in tears: everybody was laughing and shouting so much, did anyone even hear the music?
I never really knew what “Ach, du lieber Augustin” means, though. The line “alles ist hin” that concludes the first stanza means “All is lost.” But the next stanza includes the line
“Money's gone, girlfriend's gone”
And I thought, “aHA!”
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Now, let's look at the two poems by Stefan George. The 3rd movement's poem, “Litany,” begins on the same pitch as F-sharp but now it's a G-flat in E-flat Minor, for those of you interested in tonal continuity. After a recollection of the first movement's opening, she begins to sing “Deep is the sadness that overclouds me”... It is the prayer of a man faltering towards the hope that, by the final two lines, God will
“Kill ev'ry longing, close the wound,
Take from me love and give me thy peace.”
The movement is a set of variations moving along under the vocal line and based on motives first heard in the very opening of the quartet (so much for chaos: score one for unity of design). Schoenberg would famously state that all music is repetition – and variation is a form of repetition where some things change and others don't.
But at the end of this movement, the soprano cries out, reaching a high C on the word “liebe” – love – before dramatically swooping over two octaves down to a B below Middle C. (Yowza!)
For years, I'd heard this work (in recordings), sometimes never really paying attention to the words but certainly never paying attention to their significance: why these words? What made him chose this poem? What impact does his life at the time have on this music?
Now, many program annotators avoid getting into the details of a composer's personal life to explain (if one could) what this music “means.” Sure, one could talk about the struggle with Fate that is the heart of Beethoven's 5th Symphony as the composer wrestling with his deafness. This certainly personifies the struggle but also limits it: without that, the music transcends a personal experience to become a universal struggle that we can all, in some way literally or figuratively, relate to.
What was going on in Schoenberg's life at the time he wrote the 2nd String Quartet?
Two years earlier, he began widening his creative outlet by taking up painting. There was a painter named Richard Gerstl (see his self-portrait from 1901, right) who gave him some guidance and ended up renting a studio in the building where Schoenberg lived. They sometimes painted together and Gerstl accompanied the family on holidays in the country. Schoenberg's wife Mathilde also studied painting with Gerstl. He painted several portraits of her, in fact: one with one of her daughters, you can see below.
It wasn't long before the painter and the composer's wife started having an affair.
Schoenberg was certainly no easy person to live with. Prone to paradoxes, as Alma Mahler described him, he was impulsive and (as Gustav Mahler once called him) conceited. Strongly opinionated, he could suddenly become very rude in conversation even with his friends. Distrustful of audiences because of the nasty reactions most of his music had elicited, he demanded loyalty from his friends and considered anyone who disagreed with him as being against him.
Perhaps that was why Mathilde ran away with Gerstl.
Schoenberg knew they were having an affair and cautioned his friend that “no woman should come between them.” In June, Mathilde took her children to Gmunden to get the family's summer holiday ready, one that would include as their guests several of Schoenberg's students, his teacher Alexander Zemlinsky and his wife – and Richard Gerstl. The discussion of the affair was the substance of most of the 20 letters Mathilde wrote from Gmunden to her husband back in Vienna during those two weeks in June. Apparently, the “retreat” was not going to be the happiest of vacations. She wrote,
“Am I really always so disgusting to you? And are you always so good to me? You'd really like to beat me up sometimes (but I would fight back). You're always so good and I'm insufferable – that's the way it is and always has been. It really sickens me because I am so very fond of you. But do you believe me?”
On the 26th or 27th, Schoenberg arrived at Gmunden almost at the same time Gerstl did.
On July 5th, Schoenberg received a copy of new poems by Stefan George, mostly about death and transfiguration, misery caused by love and “a wish to be dead to the world.” At this point, he picked up the fragments he'd written the year before for the start of a new string quartet, one in F-sharp Minor. The first movement was complete and the second movement not quite.
Perhaps the spot he started again would be where he now quoted “Ach, du lieber Augustin” – it may explain its unexpectedness, a parody of an old Viennese Waltz: “all is lost, all is lost,” the refrain goes, perhaps rattling through his brain like an ear-worm.
He soon started sketching a setting of “Rapture” (better known by its first line, “I feel the air of another planet”) as the 3rd movement. In the midst of that, though, he then started on “Litany” which he completed by July 11th. By the 27th, he had gone back and finished the 2nd movement. There's no date on the manuscript for the completion of the last movement: anecdotal evidence indicates he had completed the sketches either in July or, more likely, August.
On August 27th, Schoenberg walked in on his wife and Gerstl, catching them, as they say, in flagrante delicto. Mathilde left her husband and ran off with Gerstl. Her subsequent letters were nearly incoherent with “clearly suicidal impulses”. Schoenberg wrote out several wills, himself, expressing in one his “regret at what he had not yet achieved.”
He returned to Vienna. The quartet was now complete. One of his students, Anton Webern, eventually persuaded Mathilde to return to her husband which she eventually and reluctantly did.
Schoenberg immediately resumed setting more poems by Stefan George to music, a cycle that became “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” which he'd already begun working on before. George's story of a middle-eastern prince in love with an unattainable woman turns “the garden into a scene for anguished passion as he is gripped by an erotic impulse so strong it imperiously drives him to the edge of self-destruction.”
By September, he was finished with the 13th song of the set that would eventually consist of fifteen songs in all – and Schoenberg was, by the way, a dyed-in-the-wool triskaidekaphobe.
On November 4th, then, Richard Gerstl gathered some of his sketches and paintings in his study, and burned them, then stabbed himself, and finally hung himself, naked, before a mirror.
The quartet received its first performance - a disaster (see Schoenberg's description, below) - a few days before Christmas.
The following February, Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet, Op. 10, appeared in print with a dedication, “To my wife.”
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Perhaps the argument could be made, as many writers insist, that a composer's personal life has no bearing on his creative output, that Beethoven would have written the same music (or similar music) whether or not he'd been deaf, that Brahms' 1st Symphony would still have taken a long time to finish even if Clara Schumann never existed. It's possible Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet would have been the same regardless of how successful the summer vacation of 1908 had been.
But I doubt it.
Of the premiere, Schoenberg wrote in 1936 when the Kolish Quartet's recording of his string quartets was being produced:
My second string quartet caused, at its first performance in Vienna, December 1908, riots which surpassed every previous and subsequent happening of this kind. Although there were also some personal enemies of mine, who used the occasion to annoy me - a fact which can today be proved true - I have to admit, that these riots were justified without the hatred of my enemies, because they were a natural reaction of a conservatively educated audience to a new kind of music. Astonishingly, the first movement passed without any reaction, either for or against. But, after the first measures of the second movement, the greater part of the audience started to laugh and did not cease to disturb the performance during the third movement "Litanei," (in form of variations) and the fourth movement "Entrückung." It was very embarrassing for the Rosé Quartet and the singer, the great Mme. Marie Gutheil-Schoder. But at the end of this fourth movement a remarkable thing happened. After the singer ceases, there comes a long coda played by the string quartet alone. While, as before mentioned, the audience failed to respect even a singing lady, this coda was accepted without any audible disturbance. Perhaps even my enemies and adversaries might have felt something here.
You can listen to the entire quartet at the Arnold Schoenberg Jukebox, here. You can download the score of the entire quartet, here.
Quotations about the events of Schoenberg's summer vacation in 1908 are from Bryan Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg (1908-1923) (with an engraving of Jacob wrestling with the angel on the cover), published by Oxford University Press in 2000; and from Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, published in 2002 by Farrar Strauss & Giroux.
It is in his introduction that Shawn writes how all that's been written about Schoenberg's music in the past hundred years is so technically oriented to be of little value to someone who just wants to LISTEN to the music: “perhaps,” he says, “Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.”
Which reminds me, don't forget to check back in at Thoughts on a Train, starting Tuesday, September 8th, for the first installment of The Schoenberg Code - a serial novel in 12 chapters, my musico-literary parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
- Dr. Dick
performed by the New Vienna String Quartet (Neues Wiener Streichquartett)
A playlist with all four movements can be found here.
“…it awakens feelings that are not far from those caused by euphony.”
From this article, which I’ll cite also below
This work is perhaps the most traditional of the quartets we’ll be discussing, and leave it to Schoenberg to produce a work that at once embodies such traditional and modern qualities.
Perhaps not actually his last quartet to be completed, though, it is number four. The Wikipedia article that sweepingly addresses all four of the quartets mentions in unsatisfying passing that there were many movements, attempts, or incomplete things written for string quartet, and mentions a string quartet no. 5 from 1949. A Google search produced this link from Belmont Music Publishers with a video that I can’t access, perhaps due to my location, or the video is just gone.
In any case, no. 4 from 1936 is the last published, ‘official’ quartet from Schoenberg, from around the same time as his violin concerto, and if you’re familiar with that work or his others of the time, this quartet fits pretty clearly into his late style.
The piece was a commission from (for?) Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who’d also commissioned his third quartet, but the fourth came at a rough time in Schoenberg’s life. A busy schedule and the weather affected his health, and thereby the family’s financial situation; they moved during this time from New York to California, not to mention the whole “leaving your home country because of World War II” situation. But apparently the work itself was completed in a rather short period of time.
The piece is in four movements, like you’d expect from Beethoven or Brahms or anyone else, even with a sonata-form type layout for the first movement. The second movement kind of sort of lilts and tips at a waltz, followed by a slow, dark third movement and what many people, including the Brentano Quartet’s program notes for the piece describe as a march-like finale. We’ll get to that.
It’s important that you’ve read the articles about some of Schoenberg’s other works: Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-Lieder, his Drei Klavierstucke; is there more? In any case, as the history books have told us and sufficiently boiled down to a nice clean statement, Schoenberg was the man who ‘invented’ twelve-tone composition (I know, I know), but he was also a die-hard Romantic. So what I personally find interesting in this quartet, as we shall discuss, is that, like Webern, he here uses a very traditional, classical form (the string quartet, in four movements) to present
to us a solidly, fully-formed, mature twelve-tone work, but one that is kind of elegantly and seemingly effortlessly drawn up into a clean, Classical package. How cool is that?
One of the big lightbulb questions I had when I began to think about and process twelve-tone music was “How do you present a sonata-form structure outside of the context of diatonic harmony?” Without the minor/major or tonic/dominant relationship to the two main themes of a sonata form, how does one present that structure so that there’s a ‘plot’ to a movement?
Had I heard this piece at the time (at least a year ago by now), I would have probably been able to identify the two themes at play, but possibly not why they were identifiable. In any case, there are many different ways a composer can lay out the two main subjects of his work: certain intervals within the row, certain rhythms or executions of the same row, and as we saw with Babbitt last week, even something like the dynamics for certain rows becomes a factor in making up the personality of a subject.
What Schoenberg starts with, again in contrast with Babbitt’s penchant last week for hiding and kind of obscuring the row, is the row pretty much laid out for us in plain sight. This maybe is a different kind of suspense, like when you’re watching a thriller action film and you also don’t know who the bad guy is; that’s one kind of suspense. But even if you have an omniscience that the character doesn’t, you still feel interested and engaged. There’s tension.
I thought there was a jpg of the first few bars of the quartet somewhere online, but I can’t seem to find it, so check out this article called A Primer for Atonal Set Theory, which seems like a good read by itself, but also shows the opening few bars for first violin. (It also delightfully gives credit first to Milton Babbitt for development of the idea while acknowledging that lots of people did similar things in different ways.)
In contrast with Babbitt’s quartet (or his other works), the first twelve pitches that the violin plays make up the row. Note a few of them repeat when they appear, but the order of the pitch classes is not affected. This opening melody, to be honest, I find to be mildly grating, bristly, and not terribly pleasant. Whether that is the intended effect or not is irrelevant; that opening line, and probably some specific intervals or places within it, feel almost immediately seared into the brain, so that when similar melodies or progressions pop up again later (read the atonal set theory article, maybe), they’re quite easily identifiable. And pop up they do, and not just in this movement. In any case, this is a very effective way to begin the piece, quite outright, but at least transparent. The article linked in the opening quote is here, and it describes the the first movement as such:
The basic row is presented in the first five bars; starting in bar six it is contrasted with a lyrical secondary theme. Over the course of the movement, lyrical episodes develop from this theme, which is repeatedly contrasted with the striking main theme. In addition to the basic row, which is notable for its tone repetition, thirds and sixths are heard not only as horizontal intervals but also as chordal elements of the accompaniment.
The twelve notes of the row are broken into four trichords (I saw this somewhere online and can’t seem to find it now), certain tonal qualities built into the row when played simultaneously rather than one-after-the-other as in the opening. Naxos, on this sparse but informative page, I believe is quoting the composer himself as saying:
[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.
I think that’s quite noticeable to most ears. In any case, those two above sources explain the piece very well. What’s satisfying about the first movement is that, even for a new listener, it feels like it outlines important things to listen to, has a readily accessible structure and focus, and even if it isn’t whitebread tonality from the Classical era, it should be easy to follow.
After the longest movement, we have the second, marked comodo. Aside from taking the role of the minuet and trio (I guess? It’s in 3/4, and ternary form), the piece feels strongly related to the opening movement, at least at the beginning. It feels like we haven’t traveled very far, but rather made a few changes. We move farther away from the content of the first movement in the B section, but themes from the opening subject do reappear.
The real change, I feel, breathtaking, like a splash of cold water (be that good or bad) is in the third movement, marked largo, and the shortest of the four. It’s rich and powerful, but also seemingly delicate and frail. After a long, slow unison passage, the cello is the first to break the form, and it’s kind of sad and beautiful, a pained slow movement, written in 8/8 with quarter note equalling 78.
Naxos, linked above, quotes the composer as saying:
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.
In any case, the B section mentioned here is quite obvious in its motivic nature, lively compared to the opening A section, which, again splashingly, reappears around halfway through the movement. That whole unison thing in octaves is powerful stuff, and it’s used to great effect. Again the cello is first to appear, in a “compressed recapitulation of the B section.”
The final movement is what many refer to as the march, but if anything, I feel it calls to mind the first movement, which felt more inspiringly marchy. But that doesn’t last long, and it becomes quickly apparent that this movement is the most lively and perhaps intense of them all. There are short bursts of energy, almost chaos, in a 6/8 section marked agitato. Interesting things happen in this movement like the violins being marked in 6/4 against the lower strings in 12/8, the same length, just double against triple meter. Schoenberg himself says of this movement: “This Allegro contains a great abundance of thematic material because every repetition is varied far-reachingly and gives birth to new formulations.”
It seems to be the tense climax of this entire, quite troubled yet delicately beautiful quartet. There are moments that sound like something out of a Hitchcock film score (I know, I know), and then this interesting little bit; surely plenty to be occupied with, but I at least hear some relation to the first movement, making for a tidy, emotional, disturbed package. The movement (and the piece) ends delicately and unassumingly, almost peacefully, if you were inclined to believe it.
In this paper about the piece that I didn’t entirely read, written by Nathan Stolz, the ultimate conclusion it seems, is as follows, from the Conclusion section on page ten:
It seems Schoenberg uses a particular technique for a short phrase, say two to five measures, and then he switches to another technique. He rarely continues a single contrapuntal technique for an extended period of time, and therefore he employs many. Schoenberg uses different partitioning of the row to create new melodies. In the case of this row, it is necessary to do so, because the constant division of the row into the same four trichords can be limiting.
I’m not sure why I found that so interesting. Perhaps just because Babbitt seemed to be so rigid and formulaic and structured with his ideas from beginning to end, taking an idea to its furthest limits, while Schoenberg, relatively speaking, seems to be a bit more… adaptive, flexible with his approach, different “contrapuntal techniques,” which was what stood out to me the most in this piece, Schoenberg’s affinity for classical things in modern contexts.
I really enjoy parts of this quartet, but I can’t say I love the piece (yet). It’s the latest of Schoenberg’s (published) quartets, and certainly an important work in the composer’s repertoire. I can’t wait until we get around to the violin and piano concertos, but as for our series of 20th century string quartets, Schoenberg couldn’t be left out.
Next week’s piece is the last in our short series, and while it’s quite different from today’s work, in the playlist I had them in, Schoenberg’s quartet seems to lead so naturally into next week’s shorter quartet from 1932. See you then.