Schoenberg: Fünf Stücke, op. 23

performed by Roland Pöntinen, or below by Eduard Steuermann

(cover image by h-e-n-g-s-t-r-e-a-m)

It may sound like a cliche, but Schoenberg’s earlier (by a little over a decade) opus 11 really was a watershed moment for the composer in dealing with systems outside of standard tonality.

The op. 12, which we also discussed, specifically the arrival at that final movement, some would say, marked the threshold, stepping over into what some would call true atonality.

We have today a similar milestone, with the opus 23 piano pieces, started as early as 1920, with the first two and part of the fourth being composed in that year. The rest of the work was completed in 1923. By the beginning of the composition of the final movement (composed last, I think), work had already begun on his op. 25. The work’s five pieces are as follows:

  1. Sehr langsam
  2. Sehr rasch
  3. Langsam
  4. Schwungvoll
  5. Waltzer

What’s so exciting, so challenging, so paradigm-shifting (for at least the average listener, to whom I aspire to write) is that while this piece (and a few to follow this week and next) seem truly to be so far beyond, so outside the realm of anything standard or traditional or conventional in classical music, there are some qualities that make these pieces really very much all of those things, although that aspect of them is often obscured by what appears to be (and really is, to be honest) a wildly modern, unconventional approach.

So… for a very simple refresher, Schoenberg’s historic op. 11 (also for piano) was a work in which the basis of the musical material was no longer a major or minor key, or any key at all (depending on who you ask) but rather an idea based on a kind of signature, or shape, to the music.

For example, in chess, the knight (the horse one) makes an L-shape move of one square-then-two or two-squares than one, at a right angle, in any direction. This is the shape the knight works with. Similar to that (at least in my head) is the contour of a melodic phrase in Schoenberg’s op. 11. The starting point may be different, but how far up or down do we go before we go up or down again?

In more formal terms, you’ll see this discussed as set classes (like 0-1-4, zero being the starting note, then 1 half-step in a direction, followed by 4 half steps, either melodically, or harmonically) or pitch content, but the idea is that we have these intervals and contours that constantly reappear, and this actually kind of…. settles into the ear so that we can begin to identify them after a while.

But that was only a step in Schoenberg’s quest to compose “with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” We’re getting there.

The first of these pieces, marked ‘very slow,’ makes use of this idea of developing variation, that things are constantly changing while yet staying the same. For example, the pitches themselves (whether you refer to them as C, D, E, or do-re-mi) are ‘the same’ but change octaves (that’s another point: if your 0 in the set class above is C, it can be any C on the piano. Octaves are irrelevant), so the shape of the contours has changed, but material stays the same. The composer is ‘using pitch, not rhythms or melodic shapes,’ which I have in double quotes in my notes but can’t find the source for (seems to be John Palmer at AllMusic).

The second, ‘very quickly’ (?) gives us more variation procedures, “although some analysts have uncovered a sonata form structure.” I think that’s such an easy thing to claim… especially with someone who couldn’t defend a position to the contrary. In any case, at least in Pöntinen’s recording (and likely most others), this is the shortest of the five, and has a memorable, angular storminess to it.

The third, ‘slow,’ is “sometimes referred to as a fugue,” for the “alternating entrances at the beginning.” Listen to a Bach fugue for the idea of how one of those works (basically a melody intertwining with itself), and then try following what happens here.

The fourth movement, ‘full of vitality’ displays “rhythmic freedom,” and has the kind of languid tone and color that I would (again) ascribe to Scriabin, maybe, and within this two-minute piece, there are contrasts of all kinds, of density, volume, speed, register… and I’m sure there’s more to discuss here, but… for me, it’s an example of the kind of richness you can attain by using more than just the given notes in a key.

Again, though, it’s not until the ‘waltz’ that we reach a fully 12-tone approach, but it may not surprise you to know that as Schoenberg’s serialist works go, many consider it to be rather rudimentary. It’s the first time where this approach is used, so it shouldn’t be surprising. Of it, John Palmer says:

Everything that happens in this piece, both vertically and horizontally, is derived from the same series of pitches appearing in the same order. This is Schoenberg’s most transparent and straightforward usage of these techniques.

But does it sound like a waltz?

All the traditional things in this music, like variation, fugue, whatever semblance there may be of a waltz, may not be terribly obvious (at all), but it’s a bit like unraveling an onion. It might burn your eyes a little, but there are layers here.

This is just a warm-up for what’s coming tomorrow, so please stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.


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