Schoenberg Piano Concerto, op. 42

performed by Mitsuko Uchida and the Cleveland orchestra under Pierre Boulez


It’s here. I’ve been eager to write this article now for years.

It was a strange experience I had with this work, as I was describing to someone the other day, in the early stages repulsed but still intrigued by it, continually coming back and listening to it a little more each time, until at some point, I’m not really sure when, I just loved it. It wasn’t like the sudden epiphany I had with Babbitt’s second string quartet (and by extension, much of his music), but more a struggle. There was something in this work, and I’m still not quite sure what it is, that kept dragging me back to it, pulling me in, like a door I’d go knock on every once in a while, and finally got in.

That was a few years ago, and I’m sure I would be brought to tears if I could hear it live. But first, what makes a work like this so unique, and how should we think about it? My favorite (and only) recording is with Mitsuko Uchida, and she explains comically and elegantly what it’s like to approach this piece. Let’s watch:

I feel much the same way writing about Schoenberg as I do about Brahms. The way they develop their works, what the content is based on and where it comes from, the underlying logic is something that by its very nature takes a certain degree of musicality or attention to recognize or talk about intelligently. I’m going to hedge again.

I’ve never score read this with the intention of any kind of analysis, never 12-counted it or analyzed the use of the row, its permutations, or anything else, but for what it’s worth, here it is:

From Wikipedia, and the caption: “Opening melody (mm. 1-8), constructed from a statement of the town row (P0) (Steinberg 1998, 396). Note the repetition of pitches nine through eleven (t, 6, 8)
For (not a ton, but at least) more detail, you should just read the Wikipedia article (and whatever else you can find about the work), but it shares things like the following, all quoted directly:

  • The opening melody of the concerto is thirty-nine bars long and presents all four modes of the tone row in the following order: basic set, inversion of retrograde, retrograde, and inversion.
  • The piece is a late work, written in America. The manuscript contains markings at the beginning of each of the four movements, suggesting an autobiographical connection between this work and the composer, as well as German refugees in general.
  • The markings are “Life was so easy”, “Suddenly hatred broke out”, “A grave situation was created”, and “But life goes on”, each matched with a suitable expression in the music

Program music? For a “true dodecaphonic” piano concerto (as Aimard says)? Hmmmm. But what I think I will try to accomplish through this article, more than anything… is not to analyze it. I can’t. At least not without a better grounding in post-tonal theory and some more piano practice, lest I regurgitate what I’ve read. However, there are a few things that make this piece, as advanced as it is, quite approachable.

For one, it’s only twenty minutes long, quite compact for a piano concerto, nothing like either of Brahms’ or the (dreadfully uneventful) Chopin concertos, and in four (also rather small) sections played back-to-back. The aforementioned ‘markings’ for each section perhaps give some clue or indication as to the intention or ‘focus’ of each section, but I tend to see these kinds of notations as a sort of musical ‘leading the witness,’ or in this case the listener. With these actually from the composer, however, I’m more keen on paying them some attention. Pierre-Laurent Aimard says the below about each of the four sections, in more musical terms:

  1. “very Viennese,” containing a “waltz”
  2. full of, “anxious fragmentation,” and the “sort of free Expressionist gestures that fueled his middle period”
  3. “very expressive, sombre and tragic,” “slow,” containing a “Funeral March”
  4. “very ironic and very varied in terms of character”

Now that’s something to listen for. The first section is indeed in 3/8, as above, and it’s interesting that the first movement is a waltz, while that wasn’t saved for a middle movement. As Uchida said, it reminds her of Haydn or “very late Brahms,” and while Schoenberg is obviously doing very contemporary, nontraditional things in this work (12-tone and all the rest), he’s adhering to, even honoring traditional forms and sounds.

Something else, as Uchida mentions in the above video (have you watched it? have you? go.) is that the tone row makes heavy use of fourths and the major and minor third, making it sound “so soft!” as she says. So while it’s dodecaphonic, treating all notes of the chromatic scale equally, the intervals present in the row exhibit qualities that make the work sound ‘softer’ or more approachable than one might initially think, and that’s a result of Schoenberg’s choice of the row and his utilization of it throughout the work.

I must say that I approached this work, as I said above, entirely ignorantly, in a vacuum, free of the cues of music theory or emotion or anything, and came to love it for the way I hear it. It has to me a certain delicacy, a richness of palate, even a decadence in its expression, lyricism and ornateness, but also an overwhelmingly strong sense of tragedy, not sappy or overdone, but something that cannot go unexpressed.

It was only later, in reading the Wikipedia article about the work, that I gasped at something I read, that answered my question. Like I said, I kept coming back to the piece, giving it a try here and there, and getting sucked a little farther in each time, until I could listen to it multiple times and be in awe at the color and emotion and the expression packed into this little work. What I read was this:

Former Schoenberg student Lou Harrison said, “One of the major joys … is in the structure of the phrases. You know when you are hearing a theme, a building or answering phrase, a development or a coda. There is no swerving from the form-building nature of these classical phrases. The pleasure to be had from listening to them is the same that one has from hearing the large forms of Mozart. … This is a feeling too seldom communicated in contemporary music, in much of which the most obvious formal considerations are not evident at all.”

(Miller and Lieberman 1998, 22).

Sorry for all the quoting, but there’s no better way to describe it. It is the same pleasure one has from hearing Mozart, and you do know when you’re hearing something significant. It’s just there, is sweeps you off your feet, not necessarily in a pleasant or cheerful way, but it latches onto you nonetheless. Incredible.

So, then, sometimes the way in is not always at the beginning. This is one of Schoenberg’s latest, most mature works, but it’s also one that, for the right listener, could be the perfect way into his world. The way I’ve tried to describe it to someone (in entirely arbitrary, inaccurate, but, I feel, nonetheless effective, terms) is that suddenly, in this concerto, we have not just the richly vibrant ‘color palate’ that Romantic harmony (late Brahms) gave us, but a broad, vivid, wider scope of color, greater use of dissonances, of new sounds, so that on the one hand, it might all sound like an out of tune orchestra of cats in heat to someone unwilling to adjust, but on the other, it’s a new world, a new language where there are suddenly new methods and ways of expressing oneself, and Schoenberg’s piano concerto is a compelling, passionate, heartfelt, heartbreaking example, perhaps one of the greatest examples, of a man who developed his craft to an astounding level of perfection. It’s also, regardless of era, composer, background, any other qualifiers, one of the greatest things ever written. I don’t know what else I can say.

Stay tuned for more things coming up next week that aren’t piano related.


2 thoughts on “Schoenberg Piano Concerto, op. 42

  1. I will have to check that out. I recently bought a collection of Schönberg’s solo piano pieces performed by Glenn Gould. Oh, boy!

    1. I have been quite impressed by Pollini’s performances of the solo works, but for me, Uchida owns this concerto. I also kind of tend to avoid Gould if it isn’t Bach, or sometimes even if it is.

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