Schoenberg String Quartet no. 1, op. 7

performed by the New Vienna String Quartet


(above is the first ‘movement’; the entire work is available from this playlist)

I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have written complicated music myself in scores of up to thirty staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.

Gustav Mahler, about Schoenberg’s op. 7 String Quartet

Buckle up.

If any of the early Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven string quartet articles gave you any impression that the string quartet was a small, dainty, in any way insignificant form, then think again. With four movements coming in at more than 45 minutes, it’s easily as long as or longer than many symphonies, even of its time. Mozart never wrote a symphony that long, and even some Romantic-era symphonies aren’t as lengthy.

the String Quartet No.1 in D minor, Op.7 represents this pioneer effort in the genre of lengthy, pure music. The degree to which interest and involvement are maintained over the course of the Quartet’s forty-five minutes is a testament to how well Schoenberg succeeded in this new arena and, while the work perhaps lacks the consummate craftsmanship of some of the later instrumental compositions, we can rightly consider it to be his first unqualified large-scale success.

Blair Johnston at AllMusic

In any case, it wasn’t actually his first quartet. There is a D major string quartet that dates from 1897 and premiered a year later, but only published posthumously, in 1966. I suppose we’ll get around to that at a later date.

I suppose I shouldn’t say the work is in four movements. The score doesn’t denote individual movements, but sections, which are played without pause. Wikipedia says:

A large work consisting of one movement which lasts longer than 45 minutes, Schoenberg’s First String Quartet was his first assured masterpiece, and it was the real beginning of his reputation as a composer.

With such a low opus number, we are still in a period where Schoenberg was working (technically) tonally, so the piece bears a key of D minor, but listening to it, it pushes the boundaries, the limits of this tonality until it’s about to burst. The chromaticism stretches the confines of tonality like an overfilled balloon, until it is ready to give in, even more so than the op. 4 sextet.

Wikipedia makes mention that Schoenberg’s only official music teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, criticized heavily the D major (posthumously published) quartet , but showed it to Brahms, who is said to have approved of it. I would imagine that if he could have gotten past some of the extreme tonalities and all the rest (which maybe wouldn’t have bothered him), he would have been amazed at Schoenberg’s economy of material in this work, for while it spans more than 45 minutes, there really isn’t much new content presented. This, to me, is quite easy to hear after only a few listenings of the work. Wiki says:

It also carries a small collection of themes which appear again and again in many different guises. Besides his extension of tonality and tight motivic structure, Schoenberg makes use of another innovation, which he called “musical prose.” Instead of balanced phrase structures typical of string quartet writing up to that period, he favored asymmetrical phrases that build themselves into larger cohesive groups.

This work has to be one of the most epic quartets, nay, pieces of music, that I’ve ever listened to. Not only is it enormous in length, the scope of the work, emotionally and otherwise, is huge. As mentioned earlier, the economy of content, the basic themes are used and reused, constantly reappearing, creating this feeling of travel, reinvention, a long, transformative journey, an enormous arc with so much heft (still, but just barely) able to span a monstrous length of time and space.

I feel like this is a good place to start hedging.

I should say in my day-to-day life introduction of pieces to friends or coworkers or whoever, I don’t really care about the more pedantic, academic stuff, like significant key changes, modulations, structural elements, and all the rest. They’re wonderful things to appreciate and look for, but they require another level of digging and analysis that I’m generally not capable of for matters of time, interest, ability, etc.

On the other hand, what I’d like to accomplish, in most cases, is say enough about a piece to make someone curious enough to listen, or know enough about it to think differently, to look for one or two things in particular, understand the historical context, etc. Something as simple as “the final movement of the Brahms sextet [from last week] quotes material used in the first movement.” That’s a little something to look for, as potentially unimportant as it is. Other things may be more meaningful. That is to say, academically, professionally, I am completely unqualified to speak about these (Schoenberg’s) works on an academic, analytical level, but I hope to say enough about them that someone who’s never heard them (or never wanted to) can listen and say “Oh, I see what he was talking about.” “That makes sense.” Maybe even “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” Schoenberg’s first quartet. Let’s go.

Remember Liszt’s piano sonata? Remember double-function form? Liszt laid out for us a structure that worked as both a one-movement sonata form and a multi-movement work. Schoenberg has done the same, but to me far more effectively. Give a good, close listen to the opening 90 seconds of the work, and basically… everything that we hear in this enormous 45+ minute work is based on material that is presented here.

The piece opens with first violin presenting this infectious, sticky, memorable, resilient theme, characterized by dotted eighth notes and sixteenths. A look at the score shows sixteenth notes against triplet figures, 3 against 4, 4 against 5. The ornateness of the work continues, we get to 5 against 6… there’s all kinds of intricacy and depth and complexity that shows up in the score that is difficult to hear if you can’t see it first to know it’s there. At least to me.

In any case, at bar 30, marked wieder im Zeitmass, the cello picks up the opening theme marked ff, but starting on E flat. Although it’s been less than a minute since we heard it the first time, the almost instant feeling is that we’ve gone somewhere. I couldn’t have told you it was in E flat without reading the score, but the result feels like… like when you drip drops of food coloring or paint onto a spinning disk and it immediately blossoms out into wild patterns and shapes. That’s what I feel like has already happened in just the beginning of this first movement (that’s what I’m going to call them, even though they’re probably just sections), that we’re going to go on this wild and foreign but somehow also very familiar journey.

Even in places where that first subject isn’t played outright (as it is multiple times throughout this first section), there are still hints of it, wisps, like it’s just left the room and will return shortly. Johnston continues (and I apologize for quoting it so heavily, but it’s wonderfully written) to say:

Into this one large sonata movement (deeply influenced by the single-movement experiments of Franz Liszt some fifty years earlier) Schoenberg inserts a scherzo and an adagio-during the development portion of the overarching design-that draw on the same basic thematic substance as the more primary sections. Schoenberg’s naturally contrapuntal mindset is everywhere apparent, and hardly a single non-motivic gesture or phrase is to be found; surface harmonies result almost exclusively from this contrapuntal melodic web, with the result that, on the small scale at least, tonality is occasionally obscured to the point that the music begins to resemble the wholly atonal efforts of a few years later.

That opening subject isn’t the only thing that keeps popping its head up everywhere. It’s like noticing something for the first time, and then suddenly seeing it pop up everywhere  you go. Listen to this point of the first section for an incredible example of a cooler, not-so complex section that has its own kind of intensity, leading to a much brighter passage. You can breathe a bit easier, but we still haven’t gotten out from the clutches of these themes that keep reappearing, and never will. The intensity in the work waxes and wanes, to make for a 13-minute first section that is itself quite intense.

The subsequent section seems to do an inner-movement thing, presenting content in the same vein as, or rather in the shadow of, the volume of genius development and progress we’ve already seen in the first section. It certainly has its sunnier, more polite movements, but no matter how you change the face, the context, the backdrop, those primary themes are still there, almost hauntingly so.

After the second section (also, I’m referring to the sections as presented on the recording I’m referencing, also reflected in the above video, and I assume others?!) we get the surprise that maybe this whole ‘movement’/’section’ was just a development… the opening subject comes back in full form and splendor, followed by a solemn cello solo, leading us to one of the first actual seams in the work. The cello solo stops, and violin picks up to bring us to the third movement of the work, the adagio.

It’s serious in a different way, somber, pensive; it lingers, giving both the performers and listeners time to savor or contemplate the space we’re in now, instead of whirling around furiously. It’s a different approach, but a critical one in the progress of the work, but not even here are we removed from our leading roles, the subjects that have been with us now for coming up on 30 minutes.

Now, I wouldn’t call this an ‘angry’ work or whatever, but this third section is quite different in nature, like slowly releasing the pressure from a shaken bottle of cola. It’s long, deep breaths, but not all relaxed and released. The subjects still continually reappear, but the tension and uneasiness and some of the anxious tension has subsided. It’s also significant in size (like the others), but let’s skip to the end.

While the final section, marked Maßig, isn’t just a bucket of roses, it’s noticeably brighter than the others. It’s got its busy moments, and is still a densely rich section of this massive work, but suddenly, it’s like the curtains have been drawn on the themes that have been with us for over a half hour already. There’s some kind of resolution, a sigh, a breath of fresh air. We can suddenly see the end of the line, deeply feel a few moments of resolve in this work, that now the whole storyline has come into view.

It’s like looking around at the emerald city and thinking ‘so this is what it’s all about… after yellow brick roads and monsters and stories… this is where we were headed.’ Yup.

The trajectory of the work is so incredible, listening to the first two minutes and the last two, so much of the same content is heard, and yet in very different ways. It is nothing less than thrilling to hear the evolution, the growth and transformation presented in this work, while Schoenberg, like Brahms, uses an incredible economy of material to build this landscape, a 46-minute epic with only four instruments and a teeny bit of material. Breathtaking.

For this week, the first piece we’ll be touching after this one is almost as far away from this work on the spectrum of large/small scale as can be gotten, but still intimidating to talk about. Then it’s on to something I’ve been waiting to discuss for ages. Stay tuned.

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