Schoenberg: Erwartung, op. 17

performed by Janis Martin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, or by the astoundingly talented Jessye Norman at the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine (the only one I can find with subtitles), or in a higher-quality video below featuring Karita Mattila (no subs)


In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.

Schoenberg describing Erwartung

What more is there to say?

Well, a lot, I’m sure. I’ll include this video below, and if you can’t be bothered to read down to that point, at least watch this very quick, very elegant introduction to the work:

Schoenberg’s Erwartung (or ‘Expectation’) is, rather than an opera, actually described as “a one-act monodrama in four scenes by Arnold Schoenberg to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim” on its Wikipedia page. The piece was composed in 1909, but not premiered until a decade and a half later, in 1924, under the baton of his one-time teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Schoenberg’s opus numbers are largely chronological, so the opus number 17 and the composition year of 1909 does put it around the time of his op. 11, 15, and 16. For marital themes in Schoenberg’s work, not that you’d actually be looking for them but because you may not know a little bit about what happened to him and his marriage, check out his second string quartet, op. 10. Powerful stuff.

A discussion of the above performance (or one much like it) in the New York Times in 1989 describes the work and Norman’s incredible performance. Before we discuss that, though, I’d like to mention a few more things about the work.

It’s in four scenes, the last taking up 22 minutes of the half-hour work, the first three each being under three minutes as a result. Boulez’s recording has it divided into eight tracks, the fourth scene taking up the last five of those. Relative to other operas (or just compared with operas, as this is a ‘monodrama’), this is a very short piece. It’s scored for solo soprano and a large orchestra. Philip Friedheim describes the work as the composer’s “only lengthy work in an athematic style.” That is to say that in its 426 measures, “no musical material returns once stated,” according to Wikipedia (or Friedheim). Schoenberg was a master of thematic development, use of an economy of material that unfolds or develops to communicate something bigger, such as in his epic, amazing first string quartet. But here, the music unfolds in a very linear manner, never “looking back,” you could say.

For an actual discussion of the plot, you could refer to the Synopsis section of the Wikipedia article. It’s very brief, but I won’t reproduce it here, save the first sentence:

A woman is in an apprehensive state as she searches for her lover.

Actually, somewhat similar to last week’s piece, Pélleas et Mélisande, this one begins in a forest, at night. Remember, there are no other characters present, so this entire thing is a soliloquy, hence the term ‘monodrama.’ We are hearing her thoughts, her words, almost in a dream state, as the fullness of an entire experience’s worth of panic and emotion wash over her in one second, taking instead 1800 seconds (give or take) to express when not in “real time” of life and living.

This idea is a fascinating one, conveying, not narrative and story and dialogue and the basic ideas of tension and release that you would expect to have in any story, but just a snapshot of human existence, one person’s struggle. To take something so personal, so intimate, so raw, and put it on the stage, in such a public forum, makes for a series of contradictions to me that are nothing if not compelling.

Back to the New York Times for a moment, and that article I linked above. It’s written by Donal Henehan, and he begins by saying that this work and its companion on the program for the evening were “composed at a volatile time when the ideas of Freud and such Expressionist painters as Kandinsky were setting out a radical new agenda for 20th-century social and artistic thought.”

The second work mentioned in this article, which Norman performed that same night at the Met, is Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. At under an hour, it too is far shorter than most operas, and so it has become somewhat common to put these two works together on a bill for an evening, and as a result, we shall do the same this week, but we begin with Schoenberg. He refers to it as “a purely psychological drama.” That should be interesting, huh?

Deborah Voigt speaks succinctly and elegantly about this piece, not only what it says and does, but what it’s like to execute it musically and what the resulting effect is when it’s done well. Please watch this video if you haven’t already above:

So that’s what we’re here to experience.

I looked and looked for other videos of the piece without the buzzing sound from the above Norman video, but as Voigt says, it’s really critical to understand the music, so if you don’t speak German, you’ll need some subtitles.

As she says, Schoenberg is an absolute master at painting pictures with his music. Atonal, cacophonous, whatever you want to say, it’s intensely vivid. Think of it like some of those sand-painting videos we’ve probably all seen before (like this one that got passed around some time ago), and how in an instant, with one gesture, the entire scene can change completely, become wholly unrecognizable.

Schoenberg does this with the music, so the result here, while many composers, especially in opera, use the music to support or suggest visual elements, is really the stage on which this piece unfolds. In contrast, it is the physical space which is still, with no one else coming or going to speak with our ‘Frau’ for the duration of the work.

Two examples of this come in the very early moments of the piece, in the first scene. Where the video below begins, notice what is happening musically when she mentions flowers, being scared, and silence:

At ‘withered,’ did you hear what happened? That’s maybe just me, there’s a sickly, diseased heartbeat in the middle voice of the orchestra, and then moments later, when she says it’s warm, it’s gone, replaced by supple string sounds.

Next, at ‘I’m afraid,’ the music obviously bursts into a flurry of frantic chaos, but only for that moment. But in contrast with that, what’s next?

‘So horribly silent and empty.’ And what else would accompany that line but silence, save one plucked string to remind you it’s there.

We could go on. In the next sentence, the moon is mentioned and there appears a glistening, crystal-clear solo violin.

In my estimation, it is these very intensely illustrative elements that make the ‘themes’ that the composer elsewhere worked with, the things that anchor the work, give it forward motion, and it is all toward the goal of making this one woman’s terrifying, emotional roller coaster that much more important to us. As Voigt says, “Did she do it? Didn’t she do it?… Was he really unfaithful to her?”

So, then, as I’ve said before, I completely understand the potential inconvenience in having to follow subtitles and/or get a translation. I would suggest one of two approaches as you listen to this piece, if that’s something you decide to do.

First, maybe try somewhere to find a translation of the libretto in print (which it seems I failed to do). Read it first, before the music, to get an idea of the overall layout of the music and its content. And then, whether you’ve had the chance to do that or not, just go listen to the music, and as you do, try to pay very close attention to Schoenberg’s use of the orchestra.

Granted, as above, you might very well not hear that little violin solo and think, “Oh, that’s the moon!” but as it occurs within the text, alongside mention of the moon, it certainly seems suitable. So what emotional portrait is being painted? Despite the more cacophonous-sounding passages, really chaotic intensity, there are moments of surprising tenderness and even sorrow.

That may surprise you, but if you’ve listened to some of the composer’s other early work (or even the late stuff, honestly) this sensitivity may not surprise you. We do get some passages without the soprano, but they are far and few between. But ultimately, how do you end a piece like this? Well, Voigt gave us a bit of a spoiler, but remember, we are hearing one second’s worth of emotion and thought, as if frozen in time momentarily, and the last utterances of the orchestra are of that moment evaporating, disintegrating away into nothingness, leaving more questions maybe than answers.

This piece is likely a challenge for many listeners, and while it fascinates me, I can understand why it’s a tougher listen. But we mentioned Bluebeard’s Castle above as the piece that this work is sometimes performed alongside, and in some ways they’re opposites, at least from the standpoint of the most literal, straightforward stories they’re telling.

In any case, something I’m very interested in with these works is the engineering of an experience, the presentation not just of an idea, but of emotions and questions and thoughts that cling to you long after you’ve left the performance space. I’ll talk at least a little bit more about that in Thursday’s article, so please stay tuned, and thank you, as always, for reading.


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