Many thanks to Jenny for her excellent performance.
A piece of music demonstrating bad composing habits.
Sorry about the delay in my post on Verklarte Nacht. Other things have gotten in the way of it, and I want to make sure it’s really worth the wait. I have been writing it.
Now on Amazon. It’s a good disc and a fine companion to Capriccio’s other set.
In contrast to the striding Brahmsian rhetoric of the Op. 1 songs or the delicate world evoked by Dehmel’s poetry in Op. 2, the six songs of Op. 3 are united neither by mood nor by the poet set therein. Even more confusingly, one of them was written a few years before the others (contemporaneously with the Gurre-Lieder), and one other was significantly revised from an earlier version.
Between the writing of the earlier songs in Op. 3 and the latter ones came the premiere of Schoenberg’s now famous Verklarte Nacht, Op. 4, which was met with hostility and incomprehension from critics. This set, bookended by two songs on the topic of independence in the face of adversity and criticism, could be seen as a declaration of Schoenberg’s devotion to his chosen path.
In recognition of the death of the great Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange, I offer up this analysis I wrote of a theme from one of Mahler’s most beautiful movements a few years ago.
I have talked to a number of readers and listeners who want to get into Mahler’s music but find it inaccessible, asking them what seems to put them off about it. One recurring motif in these discussions was the nature of Mahler’s themes. Never content to simply repeat sections of the music verbatim (only two of his Symphonies, the 1st and the 6th, have exposition repeats), his themes are subject to constant development and transformation, spawning seemingly endless variations with each new appearance.
In 1899, the same year as Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg composed three songs inspired by the same poet whose work led to that Sextet. Richard Dehmel was the first poet to provoke a breakthrough in Schoenberg’s style, one which he said he “found without even looking,” and indeed the idiom of these songs is immediately distinct from those of Op. 1.
These new songs are more delicate, less forthright in their expression but all the more assured in their writing. They are also less extended, and it is that combination of concision with potent and provocative emotion that points most clearly to Schoenberg’s future; the third song’s outburst of longing lasts barely a minute, but it resonates far beyond its brief span.
Schoenberg added a fourth song by a different poet to these three, a setting that nonetheless matches the others well in its ambiguous reverie.
Schoenberg’s first opus-numbered work consists of a pair of songs written at the end of the 19th century. Songs, indeed, play a significant role in the first decade of Schoenberg’s output. He continued to write a great deal of vocal music, but this manifested in choral pieces, opera, and melodrama, rather than in lieder.
At the time of his first Opus, Schoenberg’s models for composition were the twin pillars of Brahms and Wagner, and one can certainly hear the influence of both in this extremely ambitious diptych. Both songs, of extraordinary length, are bursting with expressive inflections of chromatic harmony and lengthy melodic lines that already display the characteristic wide leaps which are integral to Schoenberg’s style.
In comparison to the more reserved poetry that Schoenberg would later set, the poems are remarkably effusive, and the composer likely chose them as a reflection of the feelings he felt at the time, part of the same creative burst that would lead to Verklarte Nacht a year later.
The death of musical modernism has been proclaimed since the day of its birth. Like many traditions, it has been proud of its parentage and eager to break free of it, and this double-mindedness has manifested in each generation’s claim that its music is not modern, but merely a continuation of tradition.
Arnold Schoenberg remains to this day a controversial figure in the world of music, perhaps more for his legacy and his role in the history of 20th century modernism than for his actual compositions, which are still far less well-known than those of any other figure of comparable stature.
My goal for this year will be to make his music, the most important aspect of this multi-faceted composer, more accessible to the lay listener with at least some knowledge of musical terminology. I will attempt to go through all of the opus numbered works, from the Two Songs Op. 1 to the final choral pieces of Op. 50, explaining how the music is structured in terms of form and expressive goals.
Not every work will be as easy (or as difficult) as the others, but all of them will certainly reward careful attention and multiple listens, and among other things, I will be providing recommended recordings to accompany my basic analyses.
Here’s hoping that you are interested in coming along for some or all of this fascinating journey through one of the most important oeuvres in classical music.