Simple flute figures float on a soft bed of brass. Next, a twinkling harp adds to the increasingly lush texture of the orchestra, which centres around a simple 2-chord progression. Then, a luxuriant, majestic sweep in the strings signals the beginning of our journey into the mists of a medieval Scandinavian kingdom. Sounds like a prime piece of high Romanticism, right? You might be surprised to know, however, that this is actually the introduction to Gurrelieder, a work by the iconoclastic Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg – inventor of twelve-tone serialism and general scourge of all previously prevailing notions of harmony. This is the picture of Schoenberg that many of us are taught in school: a dry, emotionless theoretician obsessed with exploding bourgeois conceptions of musical beauty. But as works such as Gurrelieder prove, this was by no means always the case with the composer, and his road toward serialism was far from straight. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at the composer’s early oeuvre.

Young, serious Schoenberg in 1903
© Wikimedia Commons

On the edge of Romanticism

Working in Vienna at the turn of the century, Schoenberg felt himself something of a cultural outsider. From a lower-class background and without university education, he was at odds with an artistic milieu that considered itself the toast of the musical world. This sense of exclusion arguably laid the groundwork for his later assaults on musical convention, but the works that he produced during this early period are nevertheless still steeped in a reverence for musical tradition and past masters – particularly Wagner and Brahms. These two guiding lights were considered mutually exclusive points of reference at the time: Brahms, with his conception of self-sufficient, non-referential “absolute” music could not have been further from Wagner’s flights into the all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk. Schoenberg, however, wished to blend the formal structures of Brahms with Wagner’s weighty sonorities and daring chromaticism, and this approach can be seen clearly in Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a work which positions itself firmly in the mould of high German Romanticism.

Taking its name and subject matter from a poem in Richard Dehmel’s 1896 collection Weib und Welt (Woman and the World), this programmatic string sextet follows the story of a couple who, while walking in moonlit woods, come to terms with the fact that the woman is pregnant by another man. The beauty of the night, however, allows the man to forgive her – any sense of blame is “transfigured” by the majesty of the natural world. This unorthodox portrayal of sexual relationships likely appealed to Schoenberg, chiming in with his own disdain for middle-class values. The way in which Schoenberg renders the story, however, sounds rather traditional – at least to modern ears. Sorrowful, descending themes in the strings open the work, creating a tangible sense of dread. Yet this dread is still a consonant one: far from the queasy dissonances of Schoenberg’s expressionist work – relating, as they do, a distinctly Modernist sense of alienation – this minor-key tonality reflects a traditional sense of musical emotiveness. Granted, there are passages of intense chromaticism that look forward to the composer’s experiments in atonality – particularly in the Lebhaft bewegt finale section – yet the overall diatonicism of the piece illustrates how Schoenberg was not yet ready to abandon his Romantic influences. You can watch the Osiris Trio perform a piano trio arrangement of Verklärte Nacht here. Also illustrative of Schoenberg’s respect for diatonicism during this period are his Six Songs of 1903 and the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, completed in the same year and premiered in 1905.

Richard Gerstl's portrait of Schoenberg in 1905. On a psychiatrist's couch, perhaps?
© Public domain

Transitional phase and Gurrelieder

In the early 20th century, German and Austrian art was dominated by Expressionism – a movement which placed its emphasis on the interior world of emotion. In music this often manifested in angular melodic lines, harsh dissonances and experimental techniques, with composers attempting to give voice to the unpredictable and irrational unconscious as theorised by Freud. This movement toward discord and complexity seemed tailor-made for Schoenberg, whose interest in tonal innovation was burgeoning. His first Chamber Symphony of 1906 is often seen as a major turning point in the movement away from the high Romantic style that characterised his early work. While far from the free-ranging atonality that is often associated with Schoenberg, it nevertheless dispenses with traditional harmonic relationships and revels in uncertainty. Schoenberg’s next opus, the String Quartet no. 2 of 1908, took things even further out. What started as an exercise in testing the limits of traditional musical language became an all-out foray into atonality. The following year saw the completion of Erwartung (Expectation), an Expressionist masterwork in every sense. In it, Schoenberg uses the operatic form of the monodrama – in which a single vocalist portrays one character for the entirety of the piece – to portray the psychological torment of a woman in search of her lover. The atonality is stated, the rhythms in the orchestral playing unpredictable.

It may come as a surprise, then, that it was some years after the completion of Erwartung that Schoenberg unleashed Gurrelieder, the bombastic secular cantata that we know today. It was rapturously received on its 1913 première in Vienna, where Schoenberg was honoured with a 15-minute ovation and even a laurel crown. But, as one can tell on listening to the work, Gurrelieder was not born out of the composer’s increasing Expressionist impulses but out of the late Romanticism of his early career. In fact, its composition began hot on the heels of Verklärte Nacht. It began life as a Lieder cycle for voice and piano in 1900. The scope of the work quickly outgrew the competition it was originally written for, however, as Schoenberg swelled the instrumentation to a huge orchestra, an eight-voice mixed chorus, three four-voice male choruses and five soloists. The composer took an 1868 poem by Jens Peter Jacobsen as his subject matter, based on a Danish saga about the tragic tale of King Waldemar and his lover, Tove. Both Mahler and Wagner figured heavily in the composer’s influences at the time, manifesting in Gurrelieder’s lush soundworld and epic scope. Also in the Wagnerian vein is Schoenberg’s judicious use of musical motifs to represent not only certain characters, but also emotional states and natural phenomena – the composer’s later student Alban Berg would go on to identify no less than 35 of these in the work.

Over the next two years, Schoenberg would work on the orchestration to Gurrelieder before finally abandoning it in 1903. However, the success of a performance of a piano arrangement of the first part of the work in 1910 led the composer to take it up the piece again. What caused Schoenberg to revisit a part of his aesthetic life which, by his own admission, now seem alien to him? Was it a craving for critical acclaim? This could be the case, but it is also worth noting that with Schoenberg it is difficult to impose strict lines of demarcation between compositional periods. As late as 1909, in fact, he would assert his affinity with non-Expressionist composers by declaring, “much in me coincides with Reger, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, and others.” Perhaps something of the young Romantic still lived on in Schoenberg the analytical, experimental Expressionist. Watch the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and soloists such as Stuart Skelton and Alwyn Mellor perform the work in its entirety here.

Schoenberg's 1908 self-portrait
© Arnold Schoenberg Center

Express yourself: Schoenberg before the War

Gurrelieder can be viewed as something of an anomaly in Schoenberg’s pre-WWI output. Though he had looked back to the Romanticism of his early years, the march toward more avant garde forms of expression was inexorable. A year before the première of Gurrelieder, the actress and vocalist Albertine Zehme approached Schoenberg with an exciting new project. She had recently sung Otto Wrieslande’s settings of poems from a collection by Albert Giraud called Pierrot lunaire, and wanted Schoenberg to write his own settings for her. The pair envisioned a high-art, experimental version of German cabaret, for which Giraud’s clownish Pierrot seemed the perfect vessel. Schoenberg narrowed the work down to three groups of seven songs – a move that some critics assert adhered to his increasing interest in mystical numerology. The first group sees the titular character grapple with carnal love and religious faith, the second with violence, crime and blasphemy, while Pierrot sings of his return to his hometown in the final group. “Sing” here is a somewhat slippery term. In Gurrelieder Schoenberg had experimented with Sprechgesang, a style of operatic singing which uses looser articulation to hint at speech. In his avant garde cabaret, however, Schoenberg went even further out, stipulating a newer style known as Sprechstimme. Here, the vocalist only needed to adhere to specified rhythms, while notes were almost abandoned in favour of constantly rising and falling pitches. For the instrumental accompaniment, Schoenberg envisioned an ensemble of eight instruments played by five musicians: a pianist, a cellist, a flute and piccolo player, a clarinettist doubling up on bass clarinet and a viola/violinist. Each song sees these instruments placed in different combinations, allowing for a kaleidoscopic variety of texture.

The helpless, tragicomic figure of Pierrot chimed in keenly with the Expressionist investigation into man’s lack of control over himself. But that didn’t stop a chorus of heckles and laughter from the audience at the première of Pierrot lunaire. Despite this, Anton Webern – another student of Schoenberg’s – called the performance “an unqualified success”. Despite the disorienting, disordered nature of the work’s atonality, Schoenberg nevertheless imposed some familiar forms on the piece, such as the canon and fugue structure in its “Der Mondfleck” section. In this unique mixture of freedom and form, one can perhaps see the beginnings of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. In fact, Pierrot lunaire was essentially the last major work Schoenburg composed before the outbreak of the First World War, which left him essentially silent as a composer until he unleashed serialism on the world in 1924.

Go here to watch a 2014 performance of the work by members of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, who utilise mixed media at some points in the concert.

1913 cartoon of a riotous Schoenberg concert from Die Zeit
© Wikimedia Commons

Schoenberg’s pre-serialist works can be seen as a struggle between two conflicting impulses: a desire to be part of the classical tradition that the composer undoubtedly revered, and an urge to push beyond the aesthetic confines inherent in such a tradition. There is no straight line between Schoenberg’s movement from high Romanticism to the farthest reaches of atonal Expressionism, but there is always evidence of his desire to unsettle convention. Discussing Pierrot lunaire in a 1948 interview with The New York Times, Schoenberg asked, “Does it still sound strange?” Clearly, the composer hoped that his music could still freak out the squares.