Schoenberg: Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by Maurizio Pollini

That looks intimidating, those three links, but honestly, these pieces aren’t terribly overwhelming. In total, they come to about 13 or 14 minutes of music. Very delicious, important music.
While last week’s piece was kind of a prequel to the music later in these composers’ careers, this piano work of Schoenberg’s may be our chapter one. I at least consider it so, for a few reasons.
While the work itself is actually about the same length (depending on performances, obviously, give or take) of Webern’s passacaglia, it’s a solo piano piece, so to me, it’s much easier to ‘follow.’ It’s pared down, straightforward, and pure in that respect.
I never encountered this piece (that I recall) until long after I’d cracked into the more modern works of the 20th century. By that time, I’d already become fascinated with Schoenberg’s piano and violin concertos, his string quartets (fascinated, but not as familiar), as well as some works from Berg and Webern, even as far as Babbitt, so to come back to this early tonally wobbly piece is not such a stretch. It feels… homey, warm, cozy.
While there’s no real connection that I can find (or have found, but admittedly, I haven’t looked) between the two composers, I hear this work and immediately think ‘Scriabin.’ There’s kind of a… a fiery, deep delicacy to the pieces. Again, at this time, Schoenberg hadn’t developed his 12-tone system. You’ll remember from last Tuesday’s (first) post about the Second Viennese school, there’s some disagreement about this piece’s relationship to tonality. That being said, his
approach to (a)tonality was greatly different from Scriabin’s. The composition of this piece would have fallen between Scriabin’s fifth and sixth sonatas, a year before his Poem of Fire, quite an advanced work that feels like it came from much later in his career.
In any case, Schoenberg’s treatment of tonality here in these pieces calls Scriabin’s late piano sonatas to mind for me, something like the ninth, with its unsettling delicacy. But that’s just me. In any case, I love it.
While this piece may seem unsettling and gnarly to someone not as familiar with 20th century work, perhaps totally unfamiliar, it might be easy to write off as atonal, but there are many things here, even to a novice listener, that will betray its foundations in tonality, no matter how weak.
For one, there are strong, clear lyrical lines that show up as themes throughout the work (we’ll talk about that later), ornamentation like appoggiaturas, trills, and basic chordal accompaniment. Certain themes or motifs are repeated (although, as we’ll mention later, not developed). Those aspects all make for a moving, flowing, lyrical piece that feels like it wants to go somewhere, but there’s a ton of unresolved tension in it that makes any strict tonal analysis difficult.
Something else that should be noted is the structure of these pieces. While they are organized together to make up one work, there isn’t an internal structure present among them that resembles anything like a sonata.
That all being said, let’s talk about the movements.
The first is the most… not important, but hefty (?), in many ways. The themes present in this first piece will show up in some way or other in the latter two pieces, so in style and language, they are unified, but there’s not any development to be aware of. The first of the three feels, to me, to be the most… calm, or subdued, but there is an ominous kind of atmosphere to it. It has its louder moments, but not as much as the other two.
It was fascinating to follow along in the score for even just the opening of this movement, because it is so simple, so clean, it is transparent, but deep. There are a few loud bass moments that punctuate the opening lines. It sounds to me something like… the building agitation of a firefly stuck in a mason jar flipped upside down on a table, if you think about it in a very Ravelian sort of way. There are chattery, more agitated moments, but the brevity of the piece and the lack of true development make it feel like the piece never really takes off or goes anywhere. But that’s not to say it’s a disappointment. The effect is very strong.
In listening to these pieces in succession, it can be difficult to distinguish where the first ends and the second begins if you aren’t paying attention. There isn’t a largely noticeable contrast of mood, but there is a persistent theme throughout this longest of the three pieces. It opens with a very regular triplet rhythm (the opens in 12/8 but it feels like a regular eighth note pulse) on a bass D and F, a kind of heartbeat, but shortly after, a melody appears that reminds me very much of Berg’s piano sonata, I think. It feels familiar, in any case, and I think that’s why. The pregnant pauses between phrases feel like big question marks, empty spaces begging to be filled. Our heartbeat returns, an ostinato of sorts? It plays against the Berg-sounding theme in this piece, and with these two very clearly identifiable ideas disappearing and reappearing, there is a bit more drama in this middle piece. It’s also the longest. The empty space creates a lot of atmosphere. There are a few sustained trills, the first of which, at least to me, marks the climax and heart of the piece. After that, our triplet heartbeat returns, our Berg-y theme makes a final appearance and the piece comes to a quiet end.
Unlike the beginning of the second piece, you can’t miss it when the third and shortest piece begins. It is raucous and stormy in an unrelenting way, shattering the spacious atmosphere left by the spaces of the earlier two pieces. In contrast to the two previous pieces, with their eerie delicacy, this one sounds like all the glass plates from the cabinet being thrown on the floor in rapid succession. It’s tragic and violent. It’s also the shortest movement. Shortly after that impolite beginning, even it gives us just a few moments to breathe, almost as if its trying to take back what it did earlier. In any case, the piece is a strong statement, and there are some sixteenth-note figures in the treble and bass that remind me of a few moments in his much later piano concerto. And then, after all that, after such bold statements, the third and final of the three pieces ends.
It is a bold move in this piece, after three tonally ambiguous, unique pieces for piano, that there’s no final statement, no conclusion to be made. And perhaps that is the conclusion. There’s a sort of powerful anticlimax, I feel, in these pieces, and it’s this idea, a feeling of raw, bare simplicity and extreme clarity, that Webern more than Schoenberg would be known for, but we will get there next week.
The other thing I think of about this piece is the hyper-intellectual supposition that many people attribute to twelve-tone or serialist music, that anyone who likes or listens to it is giving themselves a cerebral erection, that it’s some kind of hifalutin elitist movement, but I strongly beg to differ. Something so simple, so transparent but so packed with emotion, has no pretentious bone in it. It’s pretty straightforward, and quite frankly, I find it quite easy to understand. I know I said I came to listen to it after all those other more modern works, but I remember listening to Berg’s op. 1 and really having no idea what to write because it was a strong, somewhat organized piece with themes and structure and I didn’t know what it should mean to me, what it wanted to say. Maybe I still don’t, but it was complicated and more difficult to digest. A piece like this is very straightforward; there are no pretenses, no formalities to adhere to. It is an important work in 20th century classical music (or in any century), a liberating, simple, and beautiful work.
See you next week. Back to Webern.

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