On Anxieties and Overcoming Them
Works by Arnold Schoenberg and Peter Tchaikovsky
A first solo concerto: Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto op. 36
Arnold Schoenberg was already 62 years old and had been in American exile for three years when he completed his first concerto for solo instrument and orchestra. The reason he found it difficult to compose a work in this genre is obvious: the element of virtuosity which is always implied, the display of dexterity, the star cult associated with solo playing – all of that must have been repugnant to him. If anything, the “symphonic concerto” as Johannes Brahms had treated it could be a model – a form that was a synthesis of scepticism towards the heroism of the individual and the equality of the parts resulting from dodecaphony. Thus, both of his solo concertos – that for violin and that for piano, composed a few years later – are naturally anything but circus showpieces. They are difficult, however, and call for brilliant musicians. Even Jascha Heifetz did not want to attempt the Violin Concerto, and Schoenberg conceded that one probably needed a left hand with six fingers in order to rise to its challenges.
In fact, it is a concerto conceived in three sections with the sequence of movements that was usual for centuries: a moderately fast first movement, a slow middle movement and a brisk finale. The two outer movements are approximately equal in length, each a good twelve minutes, and the middle movement is somewhat shorter. The first is in sonata form, the second in three-part song form, the third a rondo with a cyclical reference to the opening Poco allegro. All three movements contain sections which could be connected to the traditional ideas of exposition, development and recapitulation, but – as always with Schoenberg – the “development”, that is, the process of transformation and modification of the motivic material, already begins with the first note, and when a theme is taken up again, it naturally never appears unchanged. The first entrance of the solo violin immediately introduces, in alternation with the violas and cellos, a motif of dotted crotchets, quavers and minims whose internal tension not only characterizes the first movement but also appears already at the beginning of the Andante grazioso. In addition, although this second movement is written in two-four metre, it repeatedly suggests the waltz. The Finale, in its “stringency with scrunching pomp” (Rudolf Stephan), clearly reveals itself as a march. In all the main ideas of this composition, one can hear that from his twelve-tone row Schoenberg takes the smallest possible interval with the greatest possible dissonance as a basis – the minor second, inverted to a major seventh in the second movement, as though the music is cautiously feeling its way before attempting great leaps, which it then does in abundance.
The difficulty of the solo part has already been mentioned. The extreme virtuosity is astounding, with its wide leaps, sequences of floating string harmonics, sudden dynamic changes and crazy double and multiple stops, with a playing technique that one associates more with gypsy melodies or Carmen fantasies than with the Second Viennese School: pizzicato in the left hand with simultaneous, directly overlapping arco [bowed] playing of other notes. This complexity is not an end in itself and, despite the transparency of the orchestral writing, can often barely be heard as such. Instead, it presents the solo instrument as an endangered existence: constantly on the brink of being overtaxed, proceeding at the risk of abject failure. “Every phrase is cleverly devised; he continually calls for tempo changes – for soloist, orchestra and conductor, an alpine expedition in the air of another planet” (Patricia Kopatchinskaja).
Overcoming and exaltation: Peter Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony
Frolovskoye near the town of Klin outside of Moscow was the summer residence of Peter Tchaikovsky. In May 1888 he began work on a new symphony there, his fifth, but: “No ideas, no inclination! Still I am hoping gradually to collect material for a symphony,” he confided to his brother Modest. What actually troubled him went far beyond this one planned symphony, as he later wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: “I am often overcome with doubts, and I ask myself: hasn’t the time come to stop? Haven’t I overstrained my imagination? Has the spring perhaps run dry?” During that summer Tchaikovsky took up gardening as a hobby, which took his mind off other things and was perhaps conducive to art. The parallel found in his letters to Nadezhda von Meck is at any rate too obvious to be completely unconscious: “My flowers are developing – with a few exceptions – quite poorly and slowly; they will barely even blossom properly,” he wrote in June. A month later: “My flowers, which I feared would die, have nearly all recovered, and some have blossomed luxuriantly.” Three weeks after that he was able to announce: “I am so pleased that my symphony is finally finished.”
The struggle with Providence
Perhaps we should take the close association that Tchaikovsky saw in this collective growth process as an indication of the particular significance of this symphony, of an almost organic quality that connects it with his life. There can be no doubt that it – like the Fourth, which preceded it by ten years – was intended to “express everything for which there are no words, but which the soul wishes to express, and which requires to be expressed”. Specific programmatic notes on the first two movements are found in his notebook: “Introduction. Total submission to Fate or, what is the same, to the inscrutable designs of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against XXX. (II) Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???”
“Fate” is a topos which runs through many of Tchaikovsky’s works, and dealing with this force is the “theme” of his Fifth Symphony. Its musical form is a motto which is presented in the introduction by two clarinets playing in unison and appears in each of the four movements. After the introduction it disappears for the time being, making way for an expansive movement with new themes. “Doubts, laments, reproaches” against the ominous XXX – by which Tchaikovsky was possibly referring to his homosexuality – are certainly only one element. The joys of a merry dance, a hope soaring ethereally upwards are also part of it, but these tender feelings are not fulfilled. From the abyss into which the movement sinks towards the end (the trumpets only briefly again allude admonishingly to a motif of the fate motto), the Andante ascends – the first melody is heard in the horn above the mysterious darkness of the opening eight bars of the strings. A second, somewhat more animated melody is assigned to the oboe: a “ray of light” illuminates the darkness, Tchaikovsky noted. The fate motif forcefully interrupts these delicate tones twice and is calmed again twice. A waltz continues the buoyant mood; not until the end of the brief dance does the fate motif steal into the triple metre – but the great transformation is already imminent. The Finale opens with the fate theme, but now solemn and majestic in E major – a first glimpse of a possible solution, which does not lie in overcoming or eliminating the prevailing powers but in accepting and adopting them. Until then, many a conflict must still be fought out. The major part of the movement is in E minor; the path to apotheosis leads through a great deal of turmoil and much confusion.