Spring Symphonies: 19/60 Schönberg: Chamber Symphony No 1, Op 9

Arnold Schönberg by Man Ray

When I was first getting into classical music Schönberg and the band of composers who followed him (Berg, Webern and Eisler in the main) were the thing.  The split between mainstream tonality (such as it was) and their focus on the atonal was the great schism and this work, premiered in 1907 was cited as the one that changed the direction of music.  Of course those were different times and 35 years ago no one really thought that some of the things which were around would stick around.  Nor did they have quite the overview of the musical world that we have now.  So this work was so what talismanic - Schönberg being the main driver of the movement and a man of boundless energy in doing so - didn’t quite topple the way music was written forever.  As it so happens, history shows things were a lot more complicated than that as Alex Ross’ “The Rest is Noise” so eloquently accounts.

Schonberg’s music had started out in a full romantic mode.  For example his Verklarte Nacht (1899) and Pelleas und Melisande (1902/03) are muscular and teaming with rich harmonic ideas in a sensual landscape.  This work provides a step forward to an atonal world of combinations of notes that had been rarely heard before in the classical concert hall or salon. By 1909 his Five Orchestral Pieces presented atonality in full swing and by the time of his Variations for Orchestra in 1926 he had gone further to suggest that atonality must encompass all of the 12 tone scale note just some of it in every piece (though eventually his theories got too much for some of his acolytes).  But let us not forget that whilst he was pushing this line with his characteristic uncompromising assertiveness, he was also in the 1920s and 1930s arranging Bach and memorably Brahms in a way that would suggest he had an exceptional ear for the orchestra in whatever musical language.

Its that latter quality that hits one listening to the 20’ish minutes of the Chamber Symphony.  There is nothing small scale about it.  The five sections broadly equating to movements were given by the composer as follows:

  • Sonata. Allegro
  • Scherzo
  • Development
  • Adagio
  • Recapitulation and Finale

Which is all well and good but this music teams with ideas, flows one way then the next, layers tunes and most all in my first hearings produces such interesting sounds that actually getting your head round the structure is a longer term thing.

What attracts me to Schönberg’s music is it’s sheer vitality - almost a lust for life and a creative imperative.  Thinking of the times and places he lived, the people he knew in Vienna and Hollywood - it is hard to imagine a great thinker and creator would be reticent in that environment.  This isn’t just about his music - his paintings too show a bold forward-looking presence, no hiding in the background for Schönberg.

Self Porttrait
It is scored for flute/piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, E flat clarinet, Clarinet and bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, 2 horns and strings.  There is a version for larger orchestra Op 9b made by Schönberg and one for even smaller forces made by Anton Webern.

Unlike Webern’s Chamber Symphony (which I covered earlier this month) there’s very little crystalline about Schönberg’s work.  So often the ear is caught by combinations of instruments, orchestral timbre that one simply hasn’t heard before.  Robert Craft has pointed out that this was very important and especially when we think that some of the notes themselves provided a huge technical challenge to the players themselves - flutter-tongued bassoons to cite one example.

The sections have no clear delineation in the aural landscape at first hearing.  The music rockets away and both sound quality (timbre) and direction (the notes) are rather like an icy cold shower at first.  The Adagio is in fact quite conventional and almost seems to hark back to Mahler or Wagner.  The faster sections are breakneck - sometimes hard to swallow.  The piece is beautifully proportioned and as we head to the final pages were know we are there and by that time the themes and language point the direction pretty clearly.

What happened after this work is of course that same history that I talked about above.  Music in the 20th Century took no prisoners - the times so frequently didn’t allow it.  But now, listening back at this mould-breaking work we have a strange sense that this was quite conservative.  After the experiments of John Cage, Reich and the serialists, Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, and so many other bold souls Schönberg’s rather academic insistence on atonality or 12 tone seems mechanistic and a bit familiar today.

It may well be that the horn call that starts in the fifth bar as a fanfare for a new musical revolution didn’t quite get to where the Second Viennese School wanted to be. They did change bits of the musical landscape and were very influential.  It’s often daft in music as in any art to say “it all started here” but in this case we can say from here, there was no going back for any of us.

Here’s members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra playing it:


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