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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHOENBERG, A.: Pelleas und Melisande / Erwartung (Craft) (Schoenberg, Vol. 9)
Schoenberg’s polyphonic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande is often compared to Debussy’s opera based on the same text by Maurice Maeterlinck. According to the composer, “The first performance, 1905, in Vienna, under my own direction, provoked riots among the audience and even the critics. Reviews were unusually violent and one of the critics suggested putting me in an asylum and keeping music paper out of my reach. Only six years later, under Oscar Fried’s direction, it became a great success, and since that time has not caused the anger of the audience”. The most innovative features of Erwartung, a “monodrama for soprano and large orchestra”, are the continual variation of orchestral textures, and the constantly changing tempi. Not only are the instrumental combinations new, but the instruments themselves are required to produce new sounds.
The challenges of Schoenberg present no difficulties in this recording; the evocative Pelleas und Melisande contrasts well with the tension-filled Erwartung.
By David Denton
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande
Schoenberg began the composition of his polyphonic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande in Berlin in 1902 and completed it in Vienna the following year. According to the composer, “The first performance, 1905, in Vienna, under my own direction, provoked riots among the audience and even the critics. Reviews were unusually violent and one of the critics suggested putting me in an asylum and keeping music paper out of my reach. Only six years later, under Oscar Fried’s direction, it became a great success, and since that time has not caused the anger of the audience”. However, the piece was highly praised when performed in Prague in February 1912, in Amsterdam in November, and in St Petersburg in December. Stravinsky, who had just met the Viennese composer in Berlin, wrote to musician friends in his native city extolling the genius of Schoenberg, though he himself had not yet heard Pelleas und Melisande.
The music is often compared to Debussy’s opera based on the same text by Maurice Maeterlinck, and the distinction has been widely accepted that Schoenberg succeeded in elevating the same material from the particular to the general. Thus he does not attempt to evoke the sounds and atmosphere of the first scene in the forest in Brittany, in which Golaud and his future wife, Melisande, find each other, but instead mixes motives in sombre harmonies and instrumental colours that unmistakably convey a sense of tragic fate. The deep bass register and the dense harmony at the beginning are followed by a solo oboe playing a tender theme beginning on a high note and characterizing Melisande. This theme is developed polyphonically, as are all of the other themes. Neither before nor since has any music for large orchestra offered so many layers of intertwined counterpoint. The scene in the death chamber of Melisande coincidentally employs the whole-tone scale for the first time in the world of German music, whether or not Schoenberg borrowed it from Debussy. This most gorgeous quiet climax in the work is made beatific by the funereal brass-instrument chorale in the middle and lower ranges of the orchestra.
Monodrama for Soprano and Large Orchestra
The text of Erwartung, by Marie Pappenheim, is the interior monologue of a woman who has killed the lover with whom, nevertheless, she is expecting a tryst. The action, perhaps dreamed, or composed on a psychiatrist’s couch, takes place between twilight and dawn near and in a forest. It consists of her search for him, the discovery of his still-bleeding corpse, and finally her realisation that “light will dawn for all others, but I am all alone in my darkness”, a line set to the only tonal music in the work (borrowed from one of Schoenberg’s early songs). At the end of the first of the four scenes, the Woman overcomes her fears and enters the forest on a path. Two sharp timpani notes demarcate the beginning of the almost equally short second scene, in which she feels lost at first, then remembers that her lover had been in the same place, the first clue to her guilt as his murderess. The second clue is her mistaking a tree stump for a body. In the still shorter third scene she reveals that something black is dancing in the moonlight, wondering if it is her lover’s body—the third clue—but quickly deciding that it is only a shadow. The musical tension increases from quiet agitation to a peak of orchestral volume, during which she calls hysterically for her lover’s help. The scene changes again during an ostinato, one of the most prominent in the opus, partly because the Woman is offstage and silent, her only significant rest in the entire work. The speed of the ostinato increases, then decreases, suggesting the chugging of a train as it approaches and recedes. It is constructed by the repetition of a whole-step figure at different pitches simultaneously, and in the same even-note rhythm, of the five string sections, and by the bassoons repeating a dotted-note minor-third figure, and the flutes an eleven-note figure in octaves in A minor. The principal motive, in a piercingly high register, octave-doubled, suggesting the screech of a night bird, surmounts this orchestral accompaniment.
At the beginning of Scene Four, the Woman emerges onto a road, from which, in the background, a house with a balcony becomes visible in the moonlight. The music is quiet and virtually motionless, a chord sustained by seven instruments, the vocal part imitating the Woman’s weary trudging. As she remarks on the “empty, bloodless moon and cloudless sky”, a motive in octaves, bassoon and contra-bassoon, a hauntingly hollow sound, introduces an ostinato—tone-painting of exquisite subtlety, formed by bandying five-note chords played in harmonics by combinations of solo strings, and by a muted violin and celesta alternately playing a quintuplet figure.
The Woman sees a bench and a man’s body lying on the ground next to it, glazed eyes staring lifelessly, blood dripping from a chest wound. She touches the face, hair, mouth, and, placing one of its cold hands on her breast, recognizes the corpse as her lover’s. In the “stream-of-consciousness” text that follows from here to the end we learn that the lover had promised to meet her here tonight, but he has been less attentive of late, has not visited her at all in the last three days, but may have been seeing another woman, whose “white arms” the Woman imagines having seen extended toward him from the balcony of a house near the edge of the forest. Again and again she speaks of the depths of her love for him, begging him to “Wake up, wake up. I love you so”, but these expressions of tenderness and fervid passion are mixed with reproaches. Why, she wonders, have “they” killed him?, though it is already clear, since she has returned magnetically to the scene of the crime, that she herself, in a fit of jealousy, is the murderess. The music confirms that jealousy was the motive simply by octave-doubling the melody of her phrase, “die Frau mit den weissen Armen”, in the orchestra, which makes it stand out more than any other passage in the remainder of the piece (though octaves are by no means rare within the orchestra).
Dawn breaks at the end, and the nightmare, as Schoenberg called it, dissolves in a single, miraculous bar of music. After the Woman’s last words, “Oh, are you there?” (shrieked out over the full orchestra in her minor-third leitmotiv), followed by “I’m waiting” (quietly sung in an ambiguous diminished fifth over the pianissimo orchestra, which then evaporates). This ending is produced by chromatic scales upward in the higher woodwinds (fluttertonguing) and strings, playing in different rhythms, articulations, and sonorities (muted violas and cellos, ponticello, tremolando). Balancing the ascent, the lower brass, trombones and tuba (muted and fluttertonguing) play downward chromatic scales, while the middle and upper brass, horns and trumpets (also muted and fluttertonguing) provide a stationary element, entering only in the latter half of the bar, and in the middle register, which by this time has been vacated. The leading orchestral line is that of the contrabasses (and contrabassoon), which also enter on the second half of the bar, and in distinction from all the other instruments, play a descending whole-tone scale pizzicato, which increases its distinctness. Further, the notation—doublets, triplets, sextuplets, double sextuplets, and a 48-note four-octave upward glissando in the celesta—increases in speed by subdivision throughout the bar, whereas the tempo (pulsation) remains steady. The progressively higher and lower lines extending the pitch spectrum from the beginning of a single note that begins the piece to the highest and lowest notes heard at the very end create the effect of broadening the musical space. The change of colour with each subdivision of the beat is complex beyond human aural analysis, but might be compared in the visual sense to a dense flurry of confetti.
The most innovative features of Erwartung are the continual variation of orchestral textures, and the constantly changing tempi. Not only are the instrumental combinations new, but the instruments themselves are required to produce new sounds. The string players tap with the wood of their bows, play on or near the bridge, and perform novel glissandos (the cellos begin one of them on a high harmonic and slide rapidly down the length of their D strings). All of the wind instruments fluttertongue and explore registral extremes (the bassoon’s sustained high D sharp at  – ). The harpist inserts tissue paper between the strings at one point, and near the end of the piece is asked to play “where possible” a three-note ostinato figure an octave lower than where written. The percussion section is small and sparingly used, but contributes new effects, one of them by scraping the rim of a cymbal with the bow of a string bass.
The orchestra evokes sounds of nature—the rustling of the forest, the noises of its denizens (a celesta figure suggests a cricket’s mating song to the Woman)—but the creation of atmosphere, moonlit shadows and such, is less important than the role of the instruments in expressing the Woman’s emotions, her anxieties, yearnings, desperations, morbid fear and hatred of her rival, “white arms,” and especially her always trancelike mental state. It might be noted that Schoenberg borrows her cry for help, high B to low C sharp, from Kundry’s music in Parsifal.
The formal structure of Erwartung depends on the use of ostinati—repeated figures and sustained “pedal” notes—and melodic motives. Not many of the latter are repeated, but one of them, identified as much by rhythm as by intervallic structure, is especially memorable. It consists of three notes, a longer first and third, usually at the same pitch, with the second a small interval apart, primarily a minor-second, above or below. The motive is heard more frequently at B flat – A – B flat than at other pitches, but, lacking a tonal context, without conveying any tonality. Since it is heard at the final climax of the piece, where, to make the rhythm clearer in the high register of the violins intoning it, Schoenberg extends the interval to and from the second note to a minor third, it seems to take precedence as the Woman’s leitmotif. He increases its menacing character by converting the middle note to an upper minor second and giving it an upper appoggiatura. This is most prominent at bars 101, 112, 352, and 375 (without appoggiatura). The same motive, in other guises, is recognizable in the first three notes of the vocal part; in the tonal (A sharp) flute melody in bar 9; in the flute and horn in bars 12–13 (in which the second note is longer than its neighbours). It should also be mentioned that a falling minor-third, most conspicuously C sharp – A sharp, is associated with the Woman from the beginning. It appears in the oboe melody in the first full bar of the piece, but becomes an identifying device in the vocal part in bar 10, where the Woman’s phrase concludes with it, and in bars 19, 23, 28, 38–39, 47–48, as well as in the first words of Scene Two, where many of her phrases begin with it. The same interval is emphasized countless times later in the piece.
As for the almost constantly changing tempi, it must be noted that in a work of only 427 bars, the metronome markings shift 111 times, and that between times instructions are given for more than eighty additional tempo controls, fermatas, ritenuti, accelerandi, etwas drängend, etwas beschleunigen, etwas zurückhaltend, etc. Rarely does the beat remain constant for more than a few bars and, at times, different metronomic numbers are assigned to several bars in succession. Still more fluctuations of tempo are indicated within the speed of the orchestra as a whole. Near the beginning of the fourth scene, for example, a fast figure that moves from woodwinds to strings to brass must be played still faster than the general beat of the orchestra (i.e. out of tempo), and at another place in the same scene each bass player is required to play pizzicato at his own fastest-possible individual speed (i.e., not together). Obviously no recorded, and probably no unrecorded, performance, has as yet realised most of these tempo nuances.
Incredibly, the present recording is the first to include the viola solo at bars 252–253. It is not found in any set of the orchestra parts, an error going back to 1924.
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SCHOENBERG, A.: Pelleas und Melisande / Erwartung ...