Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Schoenberg & his 2nd String Quartet: Love & Atonality

This Friday, I'm doing a pre-concert talk for my friends at Gretna Music, this one for the string quartet, Momenta. They'll be performing two concerts this week – on Friday (8pm) it's Ernest Bloch's “Prelude,” Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 and Beethoven's Quartet in E Minor Op. 59/2. Sunday's concert (7:30pm) includes Schumann's String Quartet No. 3 plus two contemporary works, one by Luciano Berio for Viola & Tape and the world-premiere of “Suspended Love” (a work for violin & percussion) by Kee-Yong Chong, one of the leading composers from Malaysia.

So I've been brushing up my Schoenberg (he's pictured here with a portrait by Richard Gerstl from 1906) – especially with the impending launch of the revised edition of the classic thriller, “The Schoenberg Code,” a serial novel in 12 chapters (watch this space).

The 2nd Quartet is one of those more-talked-about-than-performed works (this performance will actually be the first live performance of it I've ever experienced in 50 years of concert-going). And yet it's considered to be a major work of the early 20th Century, credited with being the first step on the road to “atonality.”

In this case, the quartet starts in F-sharp Minor; the scherzo is in D Minor; the third movement, which adds a soprano to sing “Litany” by Stefan George, is in E-flat Minor. It's the fourth movement with the soprano singing another George poem that begins famously, “I feel the air of another planet,” that is the first foray into non-tonality. But it doesn't sound that much different from what we've heard in the earlier movements: true, he quits using a key-signature and there are fewer traditional chords but before what had been going on in between a lot of those traditional chords was not exactly giving it a very strong sense of traditional tonality.

Still, despite this whiff from another planet's atmosphere, the quartet ends on an F-sharp Major chord, just as you would have expected in the Tonal World. But like landing on the moon 40 years ago, it was just one small step – though a very important one – before setting up something more permanent.

Here is an audio from YouTube (one of those without a video component) with the LaSalle Quartet and soprano Margaret Price, in the 4th Movement of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2:
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Soprano Katharine Dain will be joining Momenta for this Friday's performance at Gretna Music.

There were lots of composers in the late-19th Century who pushed the boundaries of that tonal world. Wagner, most famously, in Tristan und Isolde in the late-1850s, though he pulled back from it when he returned to the Ring after it was finished. Well into the 20th Century, Tristan was regarded as the closest any composer had ever come to leaving the Earth's atmosphere of comfortable tonality.

Franz Liszt, after giving up the flashiness of his virtuosic years to write eerily meditative pieces, composed his “Bagatelle without Tonality” in 1885. Here, harmony loses its traditional function to become simply “color.” For instance, the upward rush of “dominant 7th” chords, because they don't resolve as they ought to, just becomes another sound without any hierarchical context – which anticipates what Claude Debussy would be composing in a few short years.

One of the primary tenets of Tonality was the expectation that a piece begins in a key and would end in the same key (or, if in a minor key, in its relative major which isn't so much a change of key as a change of modality). What happened in between was part of the drama of classical music's most basic forms: statement of a key, digression from that key, then a resolution of the harmonic drama by returning to conclude in that key.

By 1901, Gustav Mahler had already been fudging with those expectations and discovered the world didn't end when his 2nd Symphony started in C Minor but ended in E-flat Major (which at least is the same key signature) or more adventurously when the 4th started in G Major and ended in E Major (no traditional relationship, there).

Schoenberg's 1st String Quartet (that is, the first published one) was a one-movement work in D Minor. Even though it ended in D Major, what happened in between the first chord and the last ones some 40 minutes later was so intensely chromatic and so little related to the “home key” (the tonality of the piece), it left heads spinning for lack of anything to hang on to, given the normal scheme of things.

“Atonality” is usually viewed as the antithesis of Tonality or, in most chases, as utter chaos and, therefore, ugly. But you can be “not tonal” and still have the standard recognizable chords of tonality: they're just not operating the way people were used to (that's the difference between chords and harmony: technically, harmony is the process by which chords connect; tonality, then, is the context in which the harmony operates).

Debussy's “impressionistic” use of chords was not necessarily always tonal but no one really considered it “atonal” and certainly not chaotic or ugly. Still, some people (even today) find it unsettling because it doesn't “go anywhere” the way tonality propels chords. For others, it just sits there, sounding pretty but not compelling. In a way, it's like reading a novel built on “stream of consciousness” – it's interesting (maybe) but what's the story about? There's no plot. Tonality, then, is like having a plot – you don't know if it's going to be a happy or sad ending but you know, at least, it's going to have an ending, some sense of resolution.

Of course, the idea of having a singer in a string quartet (and not having it called a “Soprano Quintet,” for instance) is also unexpected. Beethoven added voices to the symphony and Mahler added “song” to the possibilities of what a symphony could be: his 2nd, 3rd and 4th symphonies include songs – and even his all-instrumental 1st Symphony incorporates a well-known song (most people think of it as “Frère Jacques”) in its third movement. But Schoenberg was the first (that I'm aware of) to write a string quartet – the chamber music equivalent of the symphony with all its serious baggage – with a soprano. (Other works may have been vocal works scored with a string quartet, but they weren't called, in the abstract sense, String Quartets.)

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But there's been one thing that always puzzled me about this piece – not the tonality thing, not the adding-a-soprano thing: it's a quotation in the 2nd movement, a well-known song that everybody in the audience would probably recognize.

Ach, du lieber Augustin!”

What the heck is THAT doing in here?! It never made sense to me. We're going along in this skittish scherzo with its march-like parody and then – whoa – here comes this little children's ditty. And it's just a once-and-done appearance, a mere snippet. Did the 2nd violinist get bored and just start playing whatever came into his mind? Is there, perhaps, some deeper significance I'm not getting?

Schoenberg never wrote about WHY it's there – at least that I've found (I haven't read all his essays, yet). He did mention that the audience's reaction at the first performance was pretty grim after the first movement (essentially, no reaction). But when it came to the appearance of “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” which he thought might elicit some chuckles of recognition, they broke out into rude laughter that never stopped. By the end of the performance, the poor soprano was in tears: everybody was laughing and shouting so much, did anyone even hear the music?

I never really knew what “Ach, du lieber Augustin” means, though. The line “alles ist hin” that concludes the first stanza means “All is lost.” But the next stanza includes the line

Money's gone, girlfriend's gone

And I thought, “aHA!”

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Now, let's look at the two poems by Stefan George. The 3rd movement's poem, “Litany,” begins on the same pitch as F-sharp but now it's a G-flat in E-flat Minor, for those of you interested in tonal continuity. After a recollection of the first movement's opening, she begins to sing “Deep is the sadness that overclouds me”... It is the prayer of a man faltering towards the hope that, by the final two lines, God will

Kill ev'ry longing, close the wound,
Take from me love and give me thy peace.”

The movement is a set of variations moving along under the vocal line and based on motives first heard in the very opening of the quartet (so much for chaos: score one for unity of design). Schoenberg would famously state that all music is repetition – and variation is a form of repetition where some things change and others don't.

But at the end of this movement, the soprano cries out, reaching a high C on the word “liebe” – love – before dramatically swooping over two octaves down to a B below Middle C. (Yowza!)

For years, I'd heard this work (in recordings), sometimes never really paying attention to the words but certainly never paying attention to their significance: why these words? What made him chose this poem? What impact does his life at the time have on this music?

Now, many program annotators avoid getting into the details of a composer's personal life to explain (if one could) what this music “means.” Sure, one could talk about the struggle with Fate that is the heart of Beethoven's 5th Symphony as the composer wrestling with his deafness. This certainly personifies the struggle but also limits it: without that, the music transcends a personal experience to become a universal struggle that we can all, in some way literally or figuratively, relate to.

What was going on in Schoenberg's life at the time he wrote the 2nd String Quartet?

Two years earlier, he began widening his creative outlet by taking up painting. There was a painter named Richard Gerstl (see his self-portrait from 1901, right) who gave him some guidance and ended up renting a studio in the building where Schoenberg lived. They sometimes painted together and Gerstl accompanied the family on holidays in the country. Schoenberg's wife Mathilde also studied painting with Gerstl. He painted several portraits of her, in fact: one with one of her daughters, you can see below.

It wasn't long before the painter and the composer's wife started having an affair.

Schoenberg was certainly no easy person to live with. Prone to paradoxes, as Alma Mahler described him, he was impulsive and (as Gustav Mahler once called him) conceited. Strongly opinionated, he could suddenly become very rude in conversation even with his friends. Distrustful of audiences because of the nasty reactions most of his music had elicited, he demanded loyalty from his friends and considered anyone who disagreed with him as being against him.

Perhaps that was why Mathilde ran away with Gerstl.

Schoenberg knew they were having an affair and cautioned his friend that “no woman should come between them.” In June, Mathilde took her children to Gmunden to get the family's summer holiday ready, one that would include as their guests several of Schoenberg's students, his teacher Alexander Zemlinsky and his wife – and Richard Gerstl. The discussion of the affair was the substance of most of the 20 letters Mathilde wrote from Gmunden to her husband back in Vienna during those two weeks in June. Apparently, the “retreat” was not going to be the happiest of vacations. She wrote,

Am I really always so disgusting to you? And are you always so good to me? You'd really like to beat me up sometimes (but I would fight back). You're always so good and I'm insufferable – that's the way it is and always has been. It really sickens me because I am so very fond of you. But do you believe me?

On the 26th or 27th, Schoenberg arrived at Gmunden almost at the same time Gerstl did.

On July 5th, Schoenberg received a copy of new poems by Stefan George, mostly about death and transfiguration, misery caused by love and “a wish to be dead to the world.” At this point, he picked up the fragments he'd written the year before for the start of a new string quartet, one in F-sharp Minor. The first movement was complete and the second movement not quite.

Perhaps the spot he started again would be where he now quoted “Ach, du lieber Augustin” – it may explain its unexpectedness, a parody of an old Viennese Waltz: “all is lost, all is lost,” the refrain goes, perhaps rattling through his brain like an ear-worm.

He soon started sketching a setting of “Rapture” (better known by its first line, “I feel the air of another planet”) as the 3rd movement. In the midst of that, though, he then started on “Litany” which he completed by July 11th. By the 27th, he had gone back and finished the 2nd movement. There's no date on the manuscript for the completion of the last movement: anecdotal evidence indicates he had completed the sketches either in July or, more likely, August.

On August 27th, Schoenberg walked in on his wife and Gerstl, catching them, as they say, in flagrante delicto. Mathilde left her husband and ran off with Gerstl. Her subsequent letters were nearly incoherent with “clearly suicidal impulses”. Schoenberg wrote out several wills, himself, expressing in one his “regret at what he had not yet achieved.”

He returned to Vienna. The quartet was now complete. One of his students, Anton Webern, eventually persuaded Mathilde to return to her husband which she eventually and reluctantly did.

Schoenberg immediately resumed setting more poems by Stefan George to music, a cycle that became “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” which he'd already begun working on before. George's story of a middle-eastern prince in love with an unattainable woman turns “the garden into a scene for anguished passion as he is gripped by an erotic impulse so strong it imperiously drives him to the edge of self-destruction.”

By September, he was finished with the 13th song of the set that would eventually consist of fifteen songs in all – and Schoenberg was, by the way, a dyed-in-the-wool triskaidekaphobe.

On November 4th, then, Richard Gerstl gathered some of his sketches and paintings in his study, and burned them, then stabbed himself, and finally hung himself, naked, before a mirror.

The quartet received its first performance - a disaster (see Schoenberg's description, below) - a few days before Christmas.

The following February, Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet, Op. 10, appeared in print with a dedication, “To my wife.”

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Perhaps the argument could be made, as many writers insist, that a composer's personal life has no bearing on his creative output, that Beethoven would have written the same music (or similar music) whether or not he'd been deaf, that Brahms' 1st Symphony would still have taken a long time to finish even if Clara Schumann never existed. It's possible Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet would have been the same regardless of how successful the summer vacation of 1908 had been.

But I doubt it.

Of the premiere, Schoenberg wrote in 1936 when the Kolish Quartet's recording of his string quartets was being produced:

My second string quartet caused, at its first performance in Vienna, December 1908, riots which surpassed every previous and subsequent happening of this kind. Although there were also some personal enemies of mine, who used the occasion to annoy me - a fact which can today be proved true - I have to admit, that these riots were justified without the hatred of my enemies, because they were a natural reaction of a conservatively educated audience to a new kind of music. Astonishingly, the first movement passed without any reaction, either for or against. But, after the first measures of the second movement, the greater part of the audience started to laugh and did not cease to disturb the performance during the third movement "Litanei," (in form of variations) and the fourth movement "Entrückung." It was very embarrassing for the Rosé Quartet and the singer, the great Mme. Marie Gutheil-Schoder. But at the end of this fourth movement a remarkable thing happened. After the singer ceases, there comes a long coda played by the string quartet alone. While, as before mentioned, the audience failed to respect even a singing lady, this coda was accepted without any audible disturbance. Perhaps even my enemies and adversaries might have felt something here.

You can listen to the entire quartet at the Arnold Schoenberg Jukebox, here. You can download the score of the entire quartet, here.

Quotations about the events of Schoenberg's summer vacation in 1908 are from Bryan Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg (1908-1923) (with an engraving of Jacob wrestling with the angel on the cover), published by Oxford University Press in 2000; and from Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, published in 2002 by Farrar Strauss & Giroux.

It is in his introduction that Shawn writes how all that's been written about Schoenberg's music in the past hundred years is so technically oriented to be of little value to someone who just wants to LISTEN to the music: “perhaps,” he says, “Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.”

Which reminds me, don't forget to check back in at Thoughts on a Train, starting Tuesday, September 8th, for the first installment of The Schoenberg Code - a serial novel in 12 chapters, my musico-literary parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

- Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the dishy details! I certainly agree that the the 2nd string quartet is best listened to, not talked about, but the soap opera is fascinating in its own right.