Schoenberg Violin Concerto, op. 36

performed by Hilary Hahn and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen

[It] is extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands. I am delighted to add another ‘unplayable’ work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.

Arnold Schoenberg

(cover image by Elena Ferrer)

This is no. 500, the 500th official music post, but more on that at the very bottom of the article if you’re interested. This comes kind of right in the middle of a series of chamber works with the violin as a feature, so this piece isn’t entirely out of place, and also fits into the chronology of the pieces we’ve been discussing.

History

At the time of this piece’s composition, Schoenberg had recently moved to America to avoid the Nazis and the horrors happening in Europe. (We’ve talked quite a bit about war in the past few weeks, and it will continue.) That was in 1933, and this concerto was finished in 1936, the same year as his fourth string quartet. He’d also recently begun teaching at UCLA.

Reference is made in reading material to Schoenberg’s brief return to tonality after having worked on (but never completing) his opera Moses und Aron (yes, with one A), the only one in his numbered output being the pieces for male voice, op. 35.

You might want to visit the unnumbered concerto for string quartet and orchestra, or his ‘suite in the old style’ for orchestra, both below:

Listen to at least the beginnings of these two pieces and just absorb how wildly different they are from what people expect to hear from Schoenberg’s pen, as he is now often demonized for ‘ruining music’ or something along those lines.

There’s lots of history to cover, but I won’t, from the atrocities Schoenberg escaped from in his homeland, to eventual homesickness in the States, and all sorts of musical history, but we can see here that he had a brief stint, a phase, even, of beautiful, clear “traditional” tonal writing, including that suite in G (second above) for educational purposes.

And it was perhaps with these baroque, very traditional forms in mind that he wrote the concerto. Of course, it’s wholly 12-tone, and just as challenging for the performer as it is for many first- (or fifth-)time listeners, but there’s something special about it. I believe I included the quote in my article on that work, but Lou Harrison, a student of Schoenberg, said of the piano concerto:

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.

These works are not all that distant in chronology from one another, and with all the challenges this work may present, I feel there’s a very simple and effective way to listen to and appreciate this concerto, and it has to do with the fact that there’s a soloist, but we’ll discuss that after a bit more of the nuts and bolts.

The Work

I won’t discuss the specific qualities of the tone row, and the potential for melodic interest and all the rest, but as discussed in my article about the composer’s piano concerto, this tone row, like that one, has a certain “softness” to it, with a focus on certain intervals that make it amiable to striking melodies. As the piano concerto makes use of thirds and fourths, this one emphasizes fourths and fifths. From Wikipedia, as below:

Again, discussing this in a more detailed way would quickly get us into music theory territory that I too am quite unprepared for, but suffice it to say, the series is not just a random organization of pitches, but has specific qualities the composer works from to achieve his desired effect.

So in a completely 12-tone (or “atonal”) work, where do references to baroque traditions fit in? Well, for one, as Wiki says:

its neoclassical form demanded a mimesis of tonal melody, and hence a renunciation of the motivic technique used in his earlier work in favour of a thematic structure

and

While the row is not necessary for understanding any good twelve-note piece, an awareness of it in this concerto is useful because the row is very much in the foreground…

Even things like the thinness of large parts of the work, clear distinction between soloist and orchestra, their ‘taking turns’ for significant portions of the piece, and perhaps even the structure of the first movement (which is somewhat in question) in some ways make it a straightforward, clean, clear piece, in contrast with the disturbed, troubled nature of the sound of the work.

Listening

Thankfully, though, as I mentioned above, we have something we can focus on throughout the piece: the soloist. The violin writing is breathtaking here, not only for its captivating melodic quality, but also its readily apparent difficulty. There are double and triple stops that probably aren’t written to be very ergonomic, as well as (what I assume is left-hand) pizzicato intertwined with the rest of the bowed solo part. Do your best to listen to it like you’d listen to Shostakovich, say, that dark, tragic voice, or even the way you’d approach baroque music, even if that may seem like a stretch. Just be open-minded and lean a bit into the dark, disturbed, yet incredibly heartfelt, passionate nature of this work.

As mentioned above, there’s some discussion about the actual structure of the first movement. Some state it’s in a sonata form, others only ternary, but whichever it is, or even neither, what we can say is that the clearly identifiable opening phrase from the violin reappears at the end of the movement, bookending everything else that happens in between, be it a second subject and development or just contrasting passage in ternary form.

And it typifies what I feel about this piece and the piano concerto, as mentioned above, that “you know when you are hearing a theme.” You might not be accustomed to Schoenberg’s harmonies, still centered around fourths and fifths but largely dissonant. You can think of them like brush strokes, one by one adding color and texture to an ever-growing canvas, and the first movement is just the beginning of a very vivid work.

You may have read my article on the composer’s Erwartung, his single-act ‘melodrama’ in which we hear vivid representations of the statements made in the text, and that vividness is here, too. Aside from the heart-rending sorrow and pain in the work, listen for the soloist’s interaction with not just the orchestra as a whole, but specific sections, like the woodwinds, or horns. The climax is undoubtedly the fearsome cadenza that ends the movement, which ultimately returns to the opening phrase.

In the second movement, the orchestra takes over, presenting new material. The violin floats like a cloud over the ocean of the orchestra, but they’re doing most of the work here at first. It might sound harshly atonal to your ears (it doesn’t to mine anymore), but this is quite soft, crystalline. Schoenberg’s orchestral writing shines here, with almost Debussy-like undulations from cello and other strings, like growing waves. This middle movement is the shortest, and we do get flashes of lightning here and there. Although I might not be able to point to it in the score, there’s a feeling that the orchestra is carving out, bit by bit, the series that this work is based upon, that every sound is an essential one. The violin’s role grows in prominence as the movement progresses, and be it form orchestra or soloist, there’s much music here that sticks with me, perhaps some of the most memorable of the entire work.

The finale reveals itself as a march of sorts. The violin begins with the presentation of another ‘sticky’ (memorable) theme, but quickly gives way to the orchestra, and the composer’s masterful clarity and precision show through yet again. The orchestra presents a theme that will stick through this movement, showing up most prominently at the very end in a statement by the soloist.

Wait for snare drum to enter, shortly after which the soloist decides to reappear. The addition of percussion instruments, the growing strength of the march and the passion of the soloist all make for an absolutely breathtaking finale, the power of which is ineffable. You just must listen. The latter half of the movement has sections that are largely soloist and percussion, a wild yet focused line. Do you hear the opening of the very first melody from the beginning of the work? The remainder of this concerto is dedicated to the soloist, who explores even further the content that’s been presented, ending the movement with near-transcendental musical statements.

I’d written an entire section of this article using an illustration about appreciating the taste of a pungent cheese, but that sounded too flippant. Instead, I’d liken this work to a sculpture or painting, something which at first has elements of the grotesque or even repulsive, but the more one stares, the more one sees painstaking detail, beauty, and precision, and how after a first look, one could easily become entranced by the haunting, arresting beauty in such detail. That is this work. It is all-encompassing in a way: light but dense, pristine yet violent, traditional yet modern, pared down yet extravagant, beautiful yet painful, expressive yet precise.

There’s a famous quote from pianist Krystian Zimerman:

I am not looking for a beautiful sound. I am looking for an appropriate sound.

That’s obviously important as a performer, of which Zimerman is of the highest order, but I think the sentiment holds for composers, that not everything is written to sound like Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto or a Chopin nocturne, and there are things that this work specifically communicates that couldn’t be expressed any other way.

I make no bones about knowing very little about the real hardcore music theory or compositional processes behind this work, but with a bit of background, the right mentality, and a desire to experience something new, you might just find yourself enraptured, entranced in the power of a masterpiece such as this.


There are a few different types of articles that I write here. Primarily, I write the ‘music posts,’ articles like this one sharing a piece of music. In the past, I’ve included a few pieces in the same article since they belong to the same opus number, like Haydn’s earliest published sets of quartets, but in the majority of cases, I separate them, like the works of Beethoven that have been divided up despite their shared opus number. In any case, as for music posts such as this one, today’s article marks no. 500.

We recently broke both the 800-article (overall) and one-million-word milestones, but 500 articles about pieces of music is a big deal. That says nothing of their quality, and I have indeed gone back and revisited some, those rewrites not counted in the total.

Here are the past hundreds:

100: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3
200: Scriabin’s Poem of Fire
300: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in Am
400: Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde

Even though that’s only four pieces, with 99 other works between each of them, it does show a bit of a progression in my musical interests, or at least what I enjoy in music. The first three were Russian. But anyway, here we are. (I’ve actually already got no. 600 in mind, and pretty much scheduled, and it seems like it’ll be happening sometime in the spring of ’18. Wow.)

So that’s that. I always feel like my articles end up being too diffuse when I’m too excited about a work and feel the pressure to express everything about a work that you really must just sit down and experience. Please do that, and thank you so much for reading. Here’s to 500 more.

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