Schoenberg String Quartet no. 2, op. 10

performed by the Quatuor Diotima and Sandrine Piau, or below by the New Vienna String Quartet and Evelyn Lear

If I had to pinpoint a moment in musical history, a piece in particular that is the breaking point, the straw that broke the Romantic camel’s back, where the bubble of tonality finally burst, this would be it.

It’s always a little tricky making such definitive statements about things like that. When, exactly, did the Romantic era begin, for example? Well, it was sometime in the early 19th century, for sure, but can it really be pinpointed beyond that? My personal answer would be Beethoven’s Eroica. That might seem quite early, but there’s something personal about his third symphony, not as much in the form of the music (though it was the longest symphony ever composed at the time) as much as for the purpose behind it. Other candidates might include Beethoven’s fifth or ninth, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, or Schubert’s ninth, but all of those works fall right around the second or third decade of the 19th century. Change as big as that, though, is never instantaneous. Another significant point for music, one that almost never fails to give me chills, even when played on the piano, is the Tristan Chord. If you don’t know what that is (or even if you do), I highly recommend sparing the five minutes to hear Maestro Antonio Pappano’s five-minute discussion of what Wagner’s Tristan Chord is and why it’s so important:

In any case, there are these milestones in music, and that was one of them.

The 20th century parallel, then, might be the abolition of tonality altogether. Debussy had begun to paint in vividness of harmony and color never before heard, Scriabin had begun working with wildly inventive harmonies and his own Theosophical or synesthetic influences, but it’s often Schoenberg who’s credited with or demonized for breaking music, for ruining it for everyone who came after. He and his op. 4 were vilified, but there was (thankfully) more to come. What is that moment?

Well, it doesn’t slap us in the face immediately, especially if you’ve listened to some of the other early work. As James Leonard says at AllMusic:

The Quartet No. 2 itself begins tonally, and its first two movements are, in fact, in F sharp minor. The opening movement is in sonata form with the usual harmonic relation between keys.

We’ll get to that historic moment shortly. First, a bit more history.


The work was dedicated to his wife Mathilde, but this is an interesting gesture to say the least, for it was from the tumult and strife of Schoenberg learning of her affair with Richard Gerstl, a painter and friend, that he wrote this work. They had a mutual admiration for one another; as you may know, Schoenberg himself painted with quite some skill, and it appears that Gerstl had given the composer some instruction in painting, even painting the below portrait of Schoenberg.


When Schoenberg learned of the affair and confronted his wife about it, she left him and their children for the young painter, a decade younger than Schoenberg, who was at the time in his 30s. One can (maybe not) imagine the amount of heartbreak and betrayal the composer felt at this, and it is palpable in his work, but there was another loss to be experienced.

When Mathilde was eventually persuaded to return to her husband (by one of his students), Gerstl was so distressed at losing her, as well as “his isolation from his associates, and his lack of artistic acceptance,” says Wiki, that “Gerstl entered his studio during the night of 4 November 1908 and apparently burned every letter and piece of paper he could find.” After burning his papers and artwork, of which eight drawings aside from his paintings survive, he hanged himself in front of his studio mirror. He was 25 years old. Mathilde was so distraught by this that she was later institutionalized, where she remained for the rest of her life.

* * *

The work marks a few firsts. For one, it was (to my knowledge and the comments of many others) the first time a vocal part has been written in a string quartet, or any chamber music, for that matter. Second, it reaches, at the finale, the moment where Schoenberg sets aside all notion of tonality and harmonic structure. “Instead,” Leonard says, “it relies on George‘s text and motivic relationships to give coherence to the music.”

I highly suggest going back and (probably more importantly listening to rather than) reading about Schoenberg’s first string quartet, only a few opus numbers before this one. That work is an enormous, epic, rich, sprawling mass of music, an incredible double-function form, just a grand early accomplishment of the composer’s early output, but it stretches the balloon of tonality so thin that it doesn’t pop, but that you can see through to the other side. In today’s work, a quartet of about a half hour, that bubble bursts; the dam does break, and the intensity is less one of epic enormity as it is almost suffocatingly personal, raw, densely emotional. I wonder why. 

As mentioned above, the first movement actually does abide by those old standards of sonata form and harmonic relations, in F sharp minor. The first movement has its two subjects and proceeds accordingly. It’s the darker, eerie sibling of the first string quartet. It has a similar compelling sense of forward motion, of clarity despite intense density. Something that I feel like I get a lot from Schoenberg’s music, especially into the serial music, is this sense that we know when we’re hearing a motif, that these individual building blocks are so distinctly clear, all while never losing their charm or power. The dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure in this first movement appears and reappears, but even from the beginning, there’s a standout characteristic about it that makes this music approachable, at least in that sense. If your ear is already accustomed to the more modern tonalities, there is a certain transparency here that’s very enticing. The music itself, though, is agitated, disturbed, even a bit diseased, but still fragrant, slightly otherworldly.

The second movement, as Leonard mentions, is a scherzo with trios. This is looking to be, in many ways, quite a standard string quartet. It’s chirpy, chattery, and we hear another dotted figure that sounds like it could be a cousin to the figure from the first movement. The scherzo feels episodic, with stops and starts, but has an unsettled busy-ness to it when it gets going. There are deceptive moments here that almost suggest cheer or sunshine, but a sul ponticello or dissonant shadow casts a darkness over them before they can spread. There’s a texture and atmosphere, silences included, that is reminiscent of what Webern would eventually sound like in some places, bare, angular, focused music, with bursts of buzzing energy, like an ant’s nest that’s been awakened into action. A look at the score here gives many insights into the music, and some interesting figures that are used.

And then we reach the third movement, where the soprano is introduced. She begins by singing her part, from Stefan George’s Litanei, and we find ourselves no longer in F sharp minor, but E flat minor, what Leonard calls “one of the most difficult keys for a string player to perform in.” Indeed, it is a rare key, and there’s not much literature in this key, but here we are.

The third movement begins by directly referencing the bouncy dotted theme of the second movement, in an elongated fashion, and this theme leads us into the introduction of the soprano:

Tief ist die trauer die mich umdüstert,
Ein tret ich wieder, Herr! in dein haus.

(Deep is the sadness that gloomily comes over me,
Again I step, Lord, in your house.)

The entire text of the third and fourth moments can be found here. Needless to say, George’s poetry is as pained and heartfelt as Schoenberg’s music thus far, and his setting of it suitably otherworldly and unsettling, but also in a way fragrantly, delicately beautiful, acrid but captivating. The quartet leaves room for the soloist to stand out, but the feeling is very much that they’re all on level footing, the quartet far from just an accompaniment. It’s all very intense, and we end with:

Töte das sehnen, schliesse die wunde!
Nimm mir die liebe, gib mir dein glück!

(Kill the longing, close the wound!
Take my love away, give me your joy!)

The third movement focuses almost solely on the delivery of the text in that after the introductory passage, there is almost not a single moment without the soprano.

The finale, then, is the moment where things really change. The music tells us that so much of the tension or struggle in the work has been resolved, for it is quiet, cool, passive, but in its state of rest or lower energy, we’re in an entirely new place. This movement, too has its introductory passage, a few minutes worth of music, before George’s poetry appears, seeming to speak of the new tonal world into which we’ve settled:

Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten.
Mir blassen durch das dunkel die gesichter
Die freundlich eben noch sich zu mir drehten.

(I feel air from another planet.
I faintly through the darkness see faces
Friendly even now, turning toward me.)

While the music at times seems to echo the beautiful, calm romances of something the composer’s op. 4, we are in almost wholly atonal territory, and a glance through the text shows us that all is not well. Some lines even seem eerily fitting for the musical aspects of the movement:

Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend,
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend.

(I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,
With unfathomable thanks and unnamed praise,
Bereft of desire, I surrender myself to the great breath.)

Listen and hear beauty, pain, struggle, richness, and maybe, depending on how you look at it, whiffs of acceptance.

In einem meer kristallnen glanzes schwimme–
Ich bin ein funke nur vom heiligen feuer
Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.

(Swimming in a sea of crystal radiance–
I am only a spark of the holy fire
I am only a whisper of the holy voice.)

This is a point in the composer’s life, and perhaps in music history, after which nothing was the same. Let that sink in and give this piece a good listen or two. While it ends on an F sharp major chord, the parallel major of the opening movements, it raises questions and has brought things to the fore that cannot be forgotten, and indeed it is in the composer’s works after this one that he begins to answer those questions.

We shan’t address that for now. I have revisits of Schoenberg’s early pieces to write before we move on to other things, but we will (eventually) be seeing much more of Schoenberg. Coming up next, though, is one of his students, so that’s something to look forward to tomorrow and Tuesday before we get to some much more modern vocal music to wrap up this little series. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading.


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