Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16

performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, or below with the London Symphony under Robert Craft

The conductor need not try to polish sounds which seem unbalanced, but watch that every instrumentalist plays accurately the prescribed dynamic, according to the nature of his instrument. There are no motives in this piece which have to be brought to the fore.

Schoenberg, in the notes to his op. 16

(cover image by Robert Tudor)

Schoenberg’s op. 16 can be thought of, perhaps, as an orchestral followup to his op. 11, as far as the development of “total chromaticism” (use of modern, non-traditional harmonies). The works were composed the same year, and as Wiki says, the op. 16 was:

composed during a time of intense personal and artistic crisis for the composer, this being reflected in the tensions and, at times, extreme violence of the score, mirroring the expressionist movement of the time, in particular its preoccupation with the subconscious and burgeoning madness.

The work was premiered, of all places, at a Proms concert on September 3, 1912. It was also the piece with which the composer made his conducting debut in England, on January 17, 1914.

The original 1909 version of the work is scored for a huge orchestra, Mahlerian, really, with piccolo, 3 each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoons, with various doublings for those folks on second piccolo, contrabass clarinet, as well as English horn, D clarinet, and contrabassoon, as well as six horns, three trumpets, four trombones, tuba, harp, strings, and oodles of percussion. A 1949 version, published posthumously but prepared by the composer, sees Schoenberg “giving up the contrabass clarinet, as well as the four-fold scoring of the other woodwinds and two of the six horns.”

If you are curious enough to go find a copy of the score and read the composer’s full notes for the conductor that accompany it, you’ll notice he really drives home the point that there is no melody, and to follow exactly and proportionally the dynamic markings for every instrument. So we’re not really thinking here about any development, any melodic line, anything aside from just pure…. sound, color, texture, either the most absolute or abstract of music.

The work is in five movements, each with a subtitle that the composer reluctantly added before publication, as follows:

  1. “Vorgefühle”, Sehr rasch (“Premonitions”, very fast)
  2. “Vergangenes”, Mäßige Viertel (“The Past”, moderate crotchets)
  3. “Farben”, Mäßige Viertel (“Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord-Colors”, moderate crotchets)
  4. “Peripetie”, Sehr rasch (“Peripeteia”, very fast)
  5. “Das obligate Rezitativ”, Bewegte Achtel (“The Obbligato Recitative”, busy quavers)

The piece lasts a total of about fifteen minutes, with the longest movement (or piece, really) being just shy of the five-minute mark, at least in Boulez’s recording.

Listen to this music with Schoenberg’s quote in mind. I love how it reminds us that everything in this is precise. As chaotic as it may seem, or disorganized, haphazard, it’s really anything but. The colors and textures and sounds, the (apparent lack of?) balance, are exactly what the composer wanted, so instead of questioning his vision or aesthetic or skill, why not try to find what he may be trying to say or accomplish?

Remember the starfield screensaver from oh so long ago, the one with white dots that move ‘past you’ to look like your traveling through space?

Can we just close our eyes and listen to the music, and pretend it’s moving past us, and think of what you’re ‘seeing,’ how the colors and emotional landscape and entire sense of the music changes turn after turn?

There are elements in the first piece of the five that sound quite ominous, like aggressive bowing in low strings, growly brass, but the opening is quite colorful. As you’ll hear, though, things appear and disappear with surprising swiftness, and the entire landscape can change without notice. The piece climaxes with bombast, accentuated by percussion, and ends with an echo from strings of their previous forcefulness.

The second and longest of the five pieces is a more delicate chapter, something you might expect to hear as a slow movement in a more traditional work, with melancholy strings, at least some muted, sort of a languid, sleepless night feeling, maybe lost in the woods, the smell of leaves and dirt, a sense of magical beauty, but also mild fear in the disorienting darkness. This movement more than any other perhaps exemplifies Schoenberg’s exquisite talent and touch for texture and sensitivity. It’s really a captivating little quiet journey.

The third is perhaps the most famous, most discussed of the set, for the use of ‘klangfarbenmelodie‘ or ‘sound-color melody,’ which we may have discussed ages ago. It’s also sometimes referred to as pointillism, and this can give us a better idea of the technique. In essence, as Wiki says, it’s where a melodic line, instead of being given to one instrument to play, is broken up among a number of instruments, like ten different people each saying the next word in a sentence. The effect is that it may seem broken up, like individual points in an image, but they actually form a cohesive whole. The music here, no matter how you interpret it emotionally, is one big color palette, with all the instruments on sort of a level playing field. In fact, as Wiki tells us:

According to Robert Erickson, “harmonic and melodic motion is curtailed, in order to focus attention on timbral and textural elements.”[2] Blair Johnston claims that this movement is actually titled “Chord-Colors”, that Schoenberg “removes all traditional motivic associations” from this piece, that it is generated from a single harmony: C-G-B-E-A (the Farben chord), found in a number of chromatically altered derivatives, and is scored for “a kaleidoscopically rotating array of instrumental colors”.

So that’s interesting, isn’t it?

The fourth piece, at least in Boulez’s reading, is almost exactly the same length as the first, making these two the shortest, and I’d say the emotional impact is similar. It’s perhaps less ominous, but still proves to be a roiling, colorful, unpredictable little ride with an explosive climax.

The final recitative, with its busy quavers, is the second longest of the set, and by now, or maybe after a few listens, you have in mind the kind of flavors and textures that Schoenberg was going for. Hopefully you aren’t looking specifically for a memorable melody, something to stick to your mental wall and hum later. Rather, the effect is more like having a very small experience. Some may liken it to abstract art, or film music for the less academic listeners, but I’d say that’s a perfectly valid analogy here, especially if you’re not keen on a pedantic analysis.

What it ultimately comes down to is that this fifteen minutes of music is kind of like… the essential oil of emotion or feeling in music, concentrated, distilled, raw… the pure stuff, unadulterated. There’s a lot packed in here, depending on how you look at it. If you’re looking for something to saunter down the street with, this may not be your cup of tea, but for a compact little world of stimulating, even provocative sounds, then this is a fantastic piece to enjoy. Can it be challenging? Sure, but it’s also not nearly as difficult to appreciate as conservative music folk may suggest.

This is obviously a few steps forward from what we heard Mahler write in his ninth symphony, but some of the same sound qualities, the same fabric seems to appear, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s just further along in the trajectory. What we’ll hear tomorrow, though, is even more Mahlerian in nature, while stemming from Schoenberg. Please stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.

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