Schoenberg String Quartet in D major

performed by the LaSalle Quartet

I owe very, very much to Mozart; and if one studies, for instance, the way in which I write for string quartet, then one cannot deny that I have learned this directly from Mozart. And I am proud of it!

-Arnold Schoenberg

This work, occasionally (or at least once) referred to as Schoenberg’s quartet no. 0, was written in 1897 and premiered privately the following year, in March. In December of the same year, it was given its true premiere, in Vienna, but not published until 1966, after the composer’s death.

I wonder why Schoenberg never published the work, because he apparently did spend some significant time and effort on it. Wikipedia says the following:

Schoenberg’s friend Alexander von Zemlinsky gave him much advice and criticism during the composition of this work. Zemlinsky even showed an early draft of it to Johannes Brahms, whom Schoenberg very much admired. It was given the old master’s approval.

The above references Malcolm MacDonald’s 2001 book Brahms, and it’s why I thought it appropriate to include the two quartets where I did, as a wonderful link to what is coming up next week and afterward. You’ll see.

In any case, as with Zemlinsky’s earliest effort, Brahms seemed to approve, which is saying something. I see Schoenberg’s first effort as having similarities to Brahms and especially to Zemlinsky, more so at least than to Schoenberg’s own later works, but if one listens, we might hear some early traces of what was to come.

When I first heard the opening gestures of the first movement, I was blown away. It was actually while I was working on the article for the first quartet, op. 7, that I heard this work and thought momentarily about swapping the two out, which I obviously did not do. Schoenberg’s earliest work feels like…. juvenilia, not because it’s primitive or unsuccessful or poorly executed, but because the composer took such huge strides so early into his career and left this voice behind so quickly that it seems an entirely separate world from what the man is known for today. As a result, listening to it feels a bit like the musical equivalent of flipping through old childhood photos of a friend that they didn’t want you to see, or reading the earliest notes of an author’s unpublished first story. I guess it is quite literally like that last one, though.

In any case, the work is instantly bouncy and cheerful, perhaps even a bit rustic, festive, inviting. John Palmer writes very clearly about the work at AllMusic, and there’s no sense in my regurgitating his analysis here, but even before you read it, there’s a general classic feel to Schoenberg’s first movement, something purely musical, traditional, yet wholly enjoyable. Palmer points these out as being the treatment of the first two themes, the Beethovenesque transition (what seems like a new theme unto itself, but isn’t), and the treatment of the restatement of the melody in the “genuine recapitulation… with Brahms-influenced re-orchestration and compression.” This, again, is solid craft, a well-executed first movement. While it might not have the drive or tension of Schoenberg’s later quartets, anyone who listens to Schoenberg’s late works and doubts his ability to write as pristinely in the Romantic tradition that even (or especially) Brahms would appreciate has clearly not listened to this quartet. We have two contrasting themes, a fake-out of sorts that quotes the first theme, hinting at an exposition repeat, instead leading us into the development section (an area where Schoenberg’s approach would later improve), and the aforementioned recapitulation. What more could you want from a first movement? There isn’t as much bite or epic transformation in the development, but it’s a great start.

The first movement with its coda makes up for almost a third of the length of the work, and next we have the second movement, an intermezzo in ternary form. It opens in an… ethnic, almost Jewish-sounding melody. It’s not quite dark, but I’d say the first part borders almost on mournful. The central passage begins in a manner that sounds brighter and more upbeat, but it doesn’t last long and the opening content returns re-orchestrated, as with the recapitulation of the first. There are fleeting moments here that sound waltzy, but no. It feels very much like an intermezzo, a couple of still interesting but ultimately secondary thoughts to the bigger picture, and it makes for the smallest movement.

The third movement begins with a solo cello, carving out a melody reminiscent of downward, melancholy brush strokes, which the viola and violins pick up one by one. It turns into back-and-forthing of sorts before we see that this is a theme-and-variations. This must have pleased Brahms, and it does call to mind the Bearded Wonder’s splendid ability for variations, as we saw last week. This movement feels the most like the Schoenberg that the world came to know and love, a progression, development of content that maintains a sense of unity and yet is changing in new and exciting ways. There are stormy, turbulent variations toward the middle, making this the most Schoenberg-sounding movement so far. There’s this sense of bubbling, unbridled creativity in the movement that must have impressed the older composers who heard the young composer’s effort. Interestingly, this movement is also the longest of the work, slightly longer than the first movement, and making up more than a third of the total playing time. This somehow seems fitting.

The finale, says Palmer, is a rondo, with “a fanfare introduction.” There is a stately, majestic nature about the instruments playing strongly in unison, but the movement quickly moves to a quaint folksiness that reminds me of the charming beginning, except here it’s even more carefree and playful. There’s a lot going on here, and (am I crazy or do) melodies from earlier in the quartet fly by in bits and pieces. It’s warm and sunny, but not without its own happy helping of tension and crunch. The rondo is exciting, lively, compact, and dense without being overwhelming or too rich. It ends brightly with a fantastic little coda to round out a wonderful work.

If there were any musical ear out there who hadn’t heard this quartet, I think their overall response would be along the lines of being anxious to know who this composer was and what he went on to do later, because while it might not be a towering pillar of the string quartet repertoire, it is really a wonderful work on multiple levels, and shows lots of talent that we now know the young composer later honed, even if he swiftly moved away from continuing to write in this idiom. That being the case, I feel this work is an example of his (potentially) inherent talent (if that isn’t just as real as unicorns and leprechauns), a musical mind and ingenuity that propelled him to go on to do truly historic things from the earliest of his published works.

Perhaps it’s just that those later quartets outshone this one, but I see no reason why this work shouldn’t have been published and isn’t performed more today. Perhaps the composer moved on so quickly that he didn’t want to give any impression that that idiom would make up a significant phase of his career, and indeed it did not. Lovely work.

Stay tuned this coming week as we eventually get to a late, great, enormous work from a contemporary of Schoenberg.

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