Tag Archives: Arnold Schoenberg

100 years later, Schoenberg’s ‘Pieces’ still leave audiences grumpy

stein_score_I_2The four-hand piano reduction of part of the first of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, by Arnold Schoenberg.


This year marks another centenary besides that of Vagn Holmboe: the writing of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of Arnold Schoenberg.

Saturday night I went to a concert by the local Lynn Philharmonia, the music conservatory orchestra at Lynn University, and did a review for ArtsPaper. The group opened its season with the Schoenberg in the 1949 reduction, but it still made a strong impact – particularly on the audience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much grousing in the lobby and the seats around me; perhaps that’s to be expected, but it bears noting that this music was written in 1909 and has been regularly available in recordings and performances for decades. But the average concertgoer can’t stand it, apparently, and this brings back the old argument of whether atonality ever will be accepted as a listening experience — with the important exception of as background music for movies and television, usually of the thriller variety.

The Five Pieces lasts about 15 minutes, or thereabouts, and I’ve spent the last couple days looking at the score, admiring its craftsmanship and subtlety. It must have taken enormous courage to write music like this in 1909. Only Charles Ives was doing the same sort of thing, and his music is less abstract; almost everything the American composer wrote has a program. There were other experimenters out there: 1909 was the year Strauss’ Elektra premiered, Stravinsky’s Firebird took shape, and Scriabin finished Poem of Fire (Fifth Symphony).

But those, too, are either theater or programmatic pieces, and while Schoenberg appended titles to each of the Five Pieces, this music is more about musical experimentation than it is evoking any particular mood or event. The third piece is about changing instrumentation to make an essentially static music move, and the other movements have themes that are taken through their paces, albeit in a very compressed, not particularly linear way.( I’m not trying to do hardcore analysis here, just noting some obvious things about the music.)

For the listener, it’s hard to hear these transformations, and the music can sound undifferentiated and formless. And while chords like those are perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, as the serial killer lifts his knife above his head while his victim screams in terror, concertgoers don’t want to hear them as pure music. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said in one way or another for many years, but what struck me about the Schoenberg was that it’s 100 years old and the verdict is still: No, thanks.

image002Der Meister at work.

I think it’s likely that atonal music only will ever be accepted by a mass audience as background music, and that so much of it is so indistinguishable from other pieces of its ilk that most of it is dead as soon as it’s written, at least in a sense accepted by audiences at large. Schoenberg himself went in a slightly  more conservative direction himself after this, if not to tonality; his Violin Concerto, which  I wrote about earlier, is a great piece whose difficult tonal language is ameliorated by its clear narrative structure: this is a piece that is going somewhere, and it’s exciting to follow it.

The music that manages to stand the test of time has a clear personality, whether attractive or not. You can hear someone trying to say something , and you want to stick around for the conversation. It may be that the very nature of atonal music makes it too difficult to let a personality come through, even in the case of someone like Schoenberg.

I don’t really know. All  I can say is that I was struck at how visceral the reaction was to this piece Saturday night, a piece that predates the major wars of the 20th century, and which has long been established as a major canonical work.  True, South Florida audiences tend to be conservative, but  they also tend to be well-educated, so they should have known what was coming. And I think they did, which made their  grumpiness about it even more notable.

I guess Schoenberg still has to win his fight for acceptance, but it seems to me that for the most part, he probably never will.

Hahn’s Schoenberg an important event

There aren’t many recordings of the Violin Concerto of Arnold Schoenberg — Zvi Zeitlin and Pierre Amoyal have done it — so the disc of the concerto released this spring by the American violinist Hilary Hahn with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is something of a major event.

And with good reason: This is as compelling a performance of this very difficult work as you can expect to hear anywhere.

The primary reason for that is that Schoenberg, unlike so many of the dodecaphonists who followed in his wake, is at heart a 19th-century heart-on-sleeve Romantic composer, and what you hear in this reading of the work is a violinist who understands that. This is a 12-tone concerto, but it speaks the emotional language of the great tonal masterworks that preceded it, and needs to be interpreted that way.
Hahn has always been an adventurous violinist.

How many other young players would release discs of concertos by Spohr and Paganini, or early on commission a new American work to pair with a beautiful reading of the Barber concerto? (Having interviewed her 10 or so years ago, I can testify to how smart she is, and how dedicated and serious she is about her craft.)

My favorite performances of hers on record have been her reading of the Bernstein Serenade, a first-rate piece for which she makes an eloquent case, and the Shostakovich First Concerto, which seemed to engage all parts of her performing personality. I may have to add the Schoenberg to that list, because she has taken on the challenge of the work and made it her own.

Listen, for instance, to what she makes of the difficult cadenza towards the end of the third movement. Its leaps and skitters are precise and in tune, but the best part of it is the quality of brooding expectancy Hahn brings to the music. It pulls the listener in, eager for what happens next.

Or listen to how she opens the second movement, singing the initial passages with a perfect clarity that sits beautifully on top of the delicate orchestral accompaniment. Throughout this performance her magnificent technical mastery is combined with an interpretive conception that has been clearly thought out and that makes splendid use of Schoenberg’s narrative line.

The Swedish RSO under Salonen couldn’t be better, either. Every bit of orchestral color in Schoenberg’s score is beautifully realized, and fosters new respect for the composer’s ability at orchestration. There is a wonderful swinging quality in the middle of the first movement in which Schoenberg appears to be referencing jazz styles — at least it sounds that way to me — and the orchestra shimmies coolly, and precisely, along as Hahn jumps in and out.

Hahn writes in an essay for this Deutsche Grammophon disc that work on the Schoenberg gave her new insight into the D minor concerto of Jean Sibelius, also recorded here. She does a beautiful job with this work as well, stressing its epic qualities with choices such as a very deliberate tempo just before the coda of the first movement. As with the Schoenberg, she’s fully up to the technical hurdles of the Sibelius, which are formidable as well.

Although I admired this reading of the work, and find it an excellent companion to the Schoenberg, I’m partial to a more overtly Romantic interpretation, such as you find in the recording by Gil Shaham. There’s something just a little reserved about Hahn’s performance that kept me from complete absorption.

With her newest recording, Hilary Hahn has made not just a wonderful record, but an important one. It’s not likely we’ll see great numbers of other violinists following in her wake with bids to play and record this thorny masterwork, so this performance could be a benchmark for players and listeners for years to come.

It’s always exciting as a journalist to see an artist with great promise grow and master new challenges, and the Schoenberg Violin Concerto is absolutely one of those for Hilary Hahn. She deserves our respect and thanks for championing this seminal work.