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.

1. Dank (Thanks)

The first song, Dank, is set in a roughly AA’BA” form, following the structure of the poem itself closely.

Großes hast du mir gegeben in jenen Hochstunden,
Die für uns bestehen im Zeitlosen.
Großes hast du mir gegeben: ich danke dir!

Schönheit schenkten wir uns im stets Wachsenden,
Was ich mir vorbehielt im Raumlosen.
Schönheit schenkten wir uns: ich danke dir!

Ungewollt schufst du mir noch das Gewaltigste,
Schufst mir das Niegeahnte: den schönen Schmerz!
Tief in die Seele bohrtest du mir
Ein finsteres Schwertweh.
Dumpf nächtig trennend
Und dennoch hell winterlich leuchtend.

Schön! dreifach schön! denn von dir kam es ja!
Ungewollt schufst du mir noch das Gewaltigste,
Schufst mir das Niegeahnte: ich danke dir!


The A sections are all centered solidly around D major, emphasized by a Brahmsian style, thickly chordal with bass in octaves, while the B section features roving and very chromatic harmony reminiscent of Wagner alongside nervously jumping rhythms. Both are connected by a turn motif in the piano that first appears after the initial A section and appears at intervals during the B section.

The song opens with a rising line beginning on B minor and cadencing in D major, at which point the voice appears. At the last word of its first phrase, the word “eternity” is set to a falling octave and answered by a burst of activity in the piano. The final line begins with the appropriate pomp, and the more personal “I thank you” with the first silence in the piano line so far. The rising motif of the opening is echoed, this time beginning in the major.

A new turn figure appears in the piano, and is repeated, though the voice returns partway through the repetition with a new melody ending on the same falling octave at the word “boundlessness.” The words “We gave each other beauty” are then echoed with a transformation of the material beginning the stanza, and “I thank you” is set to the same music as before, though the accompaniment here cadences in D minor.

A few more chords move the music into G minor, where the B section begins, breaking out violently and passionately. A new lunging rhythmic impulse animates the music as the voice strains against the boundaries of its part and the piano moves in lurching chromatic jumps. The phrasing also becomes more complicated at this point, while important parts of the verse are demarcated by the turn motif in the piano, which appears especially as the section comes to a close.

The final A section begins when the chromatic adventures and leaping rhythms of the B section spill over into a cascade of chords and tremolos, at which point a crescendo leads to the stentorian declaration of the ending with its slower 4/2 meter and densely chordal accompaniment. In contrast to the preceding section, these final bars are conspicuously diatonic, and although the ending of the vocal line on the leading tone in a diminished seventh chord lends a slightly unfinished tone to the melody, it is immediately resolved in the piano, which echoes the initial rising motif first in the major, then in the original version beginning on B minor and ending in D major.

2. Abschied (Farewell)

The second song is set in a less regular ternary form with an abbreviated return of the A section at the end.  The stanza structure of the poem is not reflected by the divisions of the song to the same degree as Dank.

Aus den Trümmern einer hohen Schönheit
Laß mich bauen einen tiefen Schmerz.
Weinen laß mich aus den tiefsten Schmerzen
Eine Träne, wie nur Männer weinen.
Und dann geh!

Und nimm noch ein Gedenken heißer Liebe,
Freudig dir geschenkt;
Ewig mein bleibt, was du mir gelassen;
Meiner Wehmut sternloses Dunkel.
Und dann geh!

Und laß mich stumm erstarren;
Du zieh fürder deine helle Bahn,
Stern der Sterne! frage nicht nach Leichen!

Sieh’, mir naht der hehr’ste Göttertröster,
Meine selbstgebor’ne Urgewalt.
Tief in mir die alte Nacht der Nächte
Weitet sich zur großen Weltumnachtung.
Der Alleinheit schwere Trümmer,
Schmerzen wachsen, wachsen zur Unendlichkeit.

Sieh! Ich selber werde Nacht und Schönheit.
Allumfassend unbegrenztes Weh!
Ziehe weiter, heller Stern der Sterne.
Unerkannt, wie meine große Liebe;

Dunkel schweigend, wie die großen Schmerzen,
Wo du wendest, wo du siegend leuchtest,
Stets umwogt dich meine große Nacht!


The second song is of remarkable length at nearly nine minutes. As in the first song, Abschied’s rhetorical outer sections enclose a turbulent central storm. It reverses the harmonic methods used, however, as here the trudging gait of the initial A section refuses to settle down in either the implied D minor or the radiant apparition of F major, while the middle section, agitated though it is, has many moments of stability, all in major keys. The reappearance of an implied D minor and the ambling accompaniment in the middle of a stanza allows Schoenberg to reflect the B section’s motifs at the last “Sieh!” as well as use the same F major chords for “Stern der Sterne.”

Abschied begins with a slow-moving melody set to a steady accompaniment, as if walking. The harmony is troubled, restless, but very solidly in the region of D minor, and it seems as if the key will be confirmed when the vocal line plunges to the dominant at the words “Und dann geh!” (And then, go!), but a cadence is once more avoided, and the singer begins the second stanza immediately, suddenly drawing the music into the brightness of F major with the word “Liebe” (love), which also remains unconfirmed. The accompaniment is more animated than before at first, but soon falls back to its original pace.

The next iteration of “Und dann geh,” set to the same music as before, is answered even more quickly, reflecting the poem’s continuation of the thought and speech pattern in the next stanza. After the first line, Schoenberg’s accompaniment freezes the bass line on A while a ghostly procession of chords passes by: A major, G minor, A major, G minor, floating “silently.” The outburst of pure F major at the words “Stern der Sterne” that follows comes as a complete reversal of mood, though this too dissolves into D minor, and a reminiscence of the A major, G minor sequence with a more animated rhythm in the piano leads into the more strident middle section.

As the rhetoric of the poem changes with the word “Sieh” (See), so the music too changes to reflect the mystically-charged imagery and world-embracing attitude of this section. The key changes to B-flat major, and though there is a strong cadence on F at the word “Urgewalt” (primal power), the music returns to B-flat shortly afterwards, and a new triplet rhythm floods the accompaniment, surging from the bass register to the treble. The last lines of this stanza provoke a mounting outburst in the piano that moves through a variety of keys before climaxing in a flurry of B-flat major tremolos.

The next stanza begins in the manner of the previous one, but after the second line, the accompaniment returns to the region of D minor and the floating chords from before make their appearance. Once again, this is followed by an outburst of F major at “Stern der Sterne.” The accompaniment becomes increasingly animated from this point, leaving behind the trudging quarter notes of the opening. The final stanza begins immediately after the preceding one, and the words “grossen Schmerzen” (great sorrows) are set to the same pained line as the “teifsten Schmerzen” (deepest pains) of the first stanza. At the words “siegend leuchtest” (shine triumphant), F major reappears as brightly as before in broadly moving chords, and this tonality is confirmed in a lengthy coda that recalls several of the song’s major motifs in a mood of quiet contemplation.

Buy at ArkivMusic:

Schoenberg: Complete Songs

2 thoughts on “Opus 1: Zwei Gesänge (1898)

  1. What an opening! That music over a century old can still be vital! In discussions, I have sensed a current that appears to wish away the music of the past, deny the meaning it has for us, claim that only the music of today is relevant. It is hard not to be swept away by the intensity of the emotion in these Lieder… the sentiment comes close to the experience of us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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