A New “Tone”
Orchestral Works by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Brahms
At Schoenberg’s Heels
In March 1912 Arnold Schoenberg wrote in his Berlin diary: “The persistence of my students, who are always at my heels trying to outdo what I offer, puts me in danger of becoming their imitator, and it keeps me from calmly building on what I have already attained.” Although no names are mentioned in this very personal confession, there is no doubt that Schoenberg felt under pressure, particularly from his favourite students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg.
No group of works illustrates the close contact and creative exchange between the three central figures of the Second Viennese School as impressively as the orchestral pieces heard at this concert. It should not be surprising that Schoenberg assumed the role of initiator. Between May and August 1909 he composed a set of five orchestral pieces, which were published and performed for the first time three years later as opus 16. Webern was hard on the heels of the “master”: only two of Schoenberg’s pieces had been completed when he announced on 10 June that he also intended to begin composing works for orchestra. Berg was inspired by Schoenberg as well when he composed his Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6 a few years later.
“A Completely New Sound” – Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 16
Motivated by an intense desire for self-expression, Schoenberg and his students strived for a radical reform of the musical language. In Schoenberg’s Pieces for Orchestra op. 16 this endeavour resulted in an innovative treatment of the orchestral medium and the style of orchestral composition. The third piece is based on the principle of changing colours. In the well-known opening passage Schoenberg does not achieve musical development by altering the pitch but rather the timbre: an extremely soft, five-part chord is played in alternation by two different groups of instruments. The transition from one instrumental group to the other is imperceptible, thus creating the impression of pulsating oscillation between two distinct sound complexes which differ in colour and density. If we listen more carefully we realize that two different processes of oscillation are actually superimposed. While the timbre changes every half-bar in the winds, the notes of the chord are passed between the solo viola and solo double bass at the twice the speed. In 1912 Webern wrote that Schoenberg compared the “shimmering sound” resulting from this subtle compositional technique “to the ever-changing impressions of colour in a moderately agitated sea surface.”
Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra op. 6b
The use of changing timbres is an important element in Webern’s Pieces for Orchestra, the revised version of which was published in the late 1920s as opus 6b. The third piece is a striking example. Only eleven bars in length, it is one of the shortest works in the orchestral literature and is even more compact than Schoenberg’s opus 16. During this brief amount of time, however, we encounter a wealth of different colours. Each of the concise melodic figures is played by a different instrument. We first hear the viola, clarinet and double bass one after the other, then a combined tone consisting of flute, glockenspiel and horn. At the close there is again a series of pure colours (bassoon, then violin, then celesta and finally a trumpet). Webern also applies the principle of continuous colour change to the melodic realm, radicalizing it at the same time. Each timbre appears only once on the melodic level in the work, which is orchestrated in the style of chamber music.
Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6
The quest for a “new sound” not only led to a different treatment of the orchestral medium but also an expansion of the acoustic materials used. Berg was particularly radical in his incorporation of percussive timbres. The first of his Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6 begins and ends within the sphere of noise, calling for bass and snare drum, cymbals, large and small tam-tam and two pairs of timpani. This large percussion complement is further expanded later in the work: the second movement, Reigen [Round Dance], includes tenor drum and triangle and, in the concluding March, glockenspiel, xylophone and a “large hammer (with non-metallic sound)”.
Pastoral Idyll? – Johannes Brahms’s Second Symphony
While the First Symphony, with which Johannes Brahms had finally found his way to large-scale symphonic form after years of struggle, was deemed a “work for earnest connoisseurs” (Eduard Hanslick), its successor was regarded as a more accessible counterpart. Bucolic horn calls, soulful string cantilenas, the original sequence of stylized dances in the third movement and the unrelentingly propulsive finale were construed by many interpreters as the expression of a pastoral idyll and carefree cheerfulness.
Although the pastoral tone is a characteristic feature of the Second Symphony, deeper penetration into its sound world reveals that the symphonic idyll is not that unbroken after all. In a fascinating study the musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has explored the “melancholy” moments in this work and Brahms’s ambivalent attitude towards cheerfulness. For example, the second theme of the expansive first movement of the D major Symphony is surprisingly in a minor key. Furthermore, Brahms introduces three trombones and bass tuba in the opening section, instruments which add a dark colour to the orchestral sound palette and are generally used deliberately in 19th-century symphonic music to emphasize key passages and important moments.
The two faces of opus 73 are already apparent in the opening passage. After the horns and woodwinds have presented the rocking, pastoral first theme, which Brahms contrasts with a metrically shifted bass motif, the symphonic first theme suddenly recedes, leaving a circling unison line in the strings that continues to descend and ends in a soft drum roll. It is the signal for three dark chord sequences in the trombones, separated by the semitone motif that opened the symphony.
A letter from Brahms’s friend, the conductor Vinzenz Lachner, indicates that this central passage was regarded as confusing and in need of explanation. Lachner asked the composer: “Why do you throw into the idyllically serene atmosphere with which the first movement begins the rumbling kettledrums, the gloomy, lugubrious tones of the trombones and tuba?” Brahms answered with a letter in which he not only justified the dark tones of the cheerful symphony but also revealed himself as one of the great “melancholic lone wolves” of the 19th century: “I will also say briefly that I very much wanted to manage in that first movement without using trombones, and tried to ... But their first entrance, that’s mine, and I can’t get along without it and thus the trombones. Were I to defend the passage, I would have to be long-winded. I would have to confess that I am, by the by, a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output – perhaps not entirely by chance – that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why’”.