Few individuals have had such an impact on the course of musical history as Arnold Schoenberg, and yet to reduce him to the role of an innovator would not do justice to his fascinatingly varied output. To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth we are focusing on his works over two consecutive seasons, providing audiences with an opportunity to rediscover Schoenberg as a composer.
Things did not work out as Schoenberg himself had hoped: he had wanted people to regard him as a “superior version of Tchaikovsky” and believed that “once they have got to know my tunes, they will want to whistle them in the street”. But no one need be afraid any longer of the erstwhile enfant terrible who was ridiculed in Berlin in 1911 as a “travelling entertainer and as the purveyor of humbug”. Moreover, no one would deny any longer that during his own lifetime Schoenberg was already one of the most influential figures in the whole history of music. His status as a thinker with a razor-sharp mind, as a sought-after teacher and as the composer of bold and revolutionary works has long been acknowledged, and yet his music is still too little performed when measured by the yardstick of his undisputed significance.
When the young Schoenberg abandoned his job as a bank clerk and, much to the dismay of his family, decided to pursue a career in music, no one could have foreseen the consequences of his decision. A native of Vienna, he moved to Berlin in 1901 and began to work in the city as a composer at Ernst von Wolzogen’s Überbrettl Cabaret. Richard Strauss, who was one of the conductors at the Court Opera, had words of praise for the compositions that his young colleague showed him, observing that “although they are over-elaborate, they nonetheless attest to great abilities & great gifts”. Schoenberg was soon to adopt a much less elaborate style and when he settled in Berlin for a second time in 1911, he was inspired by a new aesthetic programme: “I am striving to achieve a state of total liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and logic. This means an end to all ‘motivic working out’. And an end to harmony as the cement or brickwork of a building”.
Schoenberg’s goal: “freedom from all forms of cohesion and logic”
Schoenberg had already struck out in a new direction in his Chamber Symphony op. 9 of 1906. He himself described this seminal work of musical modernism as a “genuine turning point”. The extreme transparency of this score already points towards the rejection of the traditional hierarchy between melody instrument and accompaniment. Schoenberg had not yet broken free from the shackles of traditional tonality even if he had pushed the existing rules to their furthest extreme, but he had at least broken free from Wagner, the former superego whom he had followed at least in part in his monumental Gurre-Lieder.
Three years later Schoenberg created a work that could be described as “anti-Wagnerian”. His monodrama Erwartung is a psychological case study about a woman’s fears and anxieties. Here is an example of musical Expressionism at its most radical: nervous, fragmentary, hypersensitive. Erwartung bristles with emotional extremes but has not yet broken free from the sumptuous sonorities of the large late Romantic orchestra. And yet there is already a pointer in the direction of greater succinctness, a style that Schoenberg was to perfect in his later works. Brevity and vividness were now his credo, finally leading him in the years around 1920 to what he defined as “music made up of twelve notes, all of them related only to one another”. On this principle he was to base his new system of rules by which music could be organized.
His critics misunderstood him when they claimed that this new system represented a break with everything previously known: “The fuss will pass, there’s no future to it and no past.” The oratorio Die Jakobsleiter, on which Schoenberg worked between 1916 and his death in 1951, allows us to see from its multiple layers how this new system of his developed out of his earlier style. Moreover, Schoenberg never tired of stressing to what extent his music was rooted in that of the past, including predecessors from Bach to Brahms.
Schoenberg never tired of stressing how much his music was rooted in the past
Schoenberg’s third stay in Berlin began very promisingly. He ran a masterclass at the Academy of Arts and his Variations for Orchestra op. 31 were premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1928. Within five years, however, the National Socialists had driven him from the city. As part of the exodus of Jewish intellectuals Schoenberg was one of the first to seek exile in the United States, where he remained until the end of his life, an uncomfortable outsider who inspired not only respect but even admiration.
Within the context of our sesquicentennial celebrations, audiences will be able to trace at first hand Schoenberg’s journey from late Romanticism to musical modernism. Concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker, chamber recitals and an exhibition will demonstrate the multiple talents of an artist whose “commitment to the absolute”, to quote the Expressionist writer Franz Werfel, remains as fascinating as ever.
The Schönberg focus of the 2023/24 Season
25 Jan 2024, 20:00
Series: B – Concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker