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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHOENBERG, A.: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (arr. A. Webern) / Suite, Op. 29 (Zahir Ensemble, Garcia Rodriguez)
Always among the most innovative of composers, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) wrote several works that deliberately blur the distinction between chamber orchestra and chamber ensemble. Among these, the First Chamber Symphony compresses the classical symphonic format into a tensile single movement scored for only fifteen players, while the Suite draws its seven instruments into a maelstrom of vitality whose inspiration lies in the dance styles that were popular during the 1920s. The Zahir Ensemble is one of Spain’s most exciting modern music groups, whose passion and technical accomplishment have gained them an ardent following.
By Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)
Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 • Suite, Op. 29
Largely self-taught as a composer, Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna on 13th September 1874. In a lifetime that encompassed many innovations, his first significant achievement was to unite the abstract and programmatic tendencies of Brahms and Wagner in the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (1899). The cantata Gurrelieder, begun in 1900 but completed in 1911, and the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) are apotheoses of late-Romantic vastness, after which the First String Quartet (1905) and First Chamber Symphony (1906) pursue a more controlled expressive intensity. Personal crisis and the tendency of his music to become more chromatic in manner led to the abandonment of tonality in parts of his Second String Quartet (1908) and the song-cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1909). Highlights from this period of free expressionism include the Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) and the monodrama Erwartung (1909).
After the darkly penetrating irony of the melodrama Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg worked for several years on the vast unfinished oratorio Der Jakobsleiter (1917), also working towards a new equality between the notes of the chromatic scale. The twelve-note method of composition, first employed in the Five Piano Pieces and the Serenade (both 1923) was to have profound consequences for composition over the next half-century. After writing the classically poised Third String Quartet (1927) and the scintillating Variations for Orchestra (1928), Schoenberg employed the technique on a large-scale in his opera Moses und Aron (1932), which was left unfinished. Emigrating to the United States in 1933, he wrote the powerful Violin Concerto (1936) and the Fourth String Quartet (1937), before making ingenious use of more tonal elements in the Ode to Napoleon (1941) and the Piano Concerto (1942). Highlights of his last years include a String Trio (1946) and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947); the latter as much a testament to his humanity as the unfinished Modern Psalm (1950) eloquently enshrines his religious beliefs. Schoenberg died in Los Angeles on 13th July 1951.
Of the two pieces here, the First Chamber Symphony has long been regarded as one of Schoenberg’s most significant works. Like Pelleas und Melisande and the First String Quartet which both preceded it, it draws the movements of a Classical symphony into a continuous whole. Here, however, the musical discourse is compressed into little more than twenty minutes, and the lavish orchestral forces reduced to a mere fifteen instruments (comprising eight woodwind, two horns and string quintet). Although not the first such work of its kind (the long-forgotten Paul Juon produced his own Kammersymphonie a year earlier for only nine instruments), Schoenberg’s was to attract by far the most attention—not least through difficulties that were encountered in performance of balancing its complement of wind and strings so that the music’s often intricately-worked textures can readily be perceived. The composer himself attempted to remedy this with full orchestral versions of 1922 and 1935, yet its essential character can only be appreciated in a chamber context. Something Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern bore in mind when he made his highly effective transcription for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano during 1922–3.
Formally the work is among Schoenberg’s most radical conceptions, its single movement unfolding both as a sonata-form and also as several interrelated sections that coalesce into a symphonic whole. First, an aspiring introduction leads to an exposition that also functions as a first movement, its lively main theme interrupted by two more relaxed ideas and an expressive melody that serves as the ‘second subject’, capped by a resolute codetta. Next an expectant transition into a scherzo, its lithe energy hardly offset by a nimble ‘trio’ section, followed by increasingly heated development of ideas from preceding sections. This collapses into a slow movement that begins by restating the introduction, soon opening into a highly expressive discourse. What acts as a finale draws on aspects from the first and fourth sections, the music gaining in impetus until spilling over into a headlong coda.
Written during 1924–6 as a wedding present for Schoenberg’s second wife Gertrud, the Suite is often referred to as ‘Septet’ on account of its being scored for seven instruments (three clarinets, violin, viola, cello and piano). One of several chamber works that Schoenberg wrote in the mid-1920s, it returns to some of the problems in instrumental balance associated with the First Chamber Symphony, namely the integration of wind and strings in which the piano is both a conciliator and a master of ceremonies. The piece itself abounds in rhythmic vitality, with the dance character of its themes reflecting its origins in the popular music of its era. Although Schoenberg clearly intended it to be performed as chamber music, the difficulties of coordination while also ensuring a flexibility of ensemble are considerable—so that the majority of performances have tended to opt for a conductor.
The first movement, Overture, resembles a sonata movement in which the expected development is replaced by a Ländler (an Austrian rural forerunner of the Viennese waltz). The brusque opening propels the music through a hectic interplay between the instruments, a more hesitant idea is then begun by the strings before being taken up by piano and woodwind. After a terse codetta, the Ländler section opens with an elegant theme that ensures a more equable discourse. The initial energy is only gradually recovered, leading to a full but continually varied reprise and, after a sly recall of the Ländler, a decisive coda.
The second movement, Tanzschritte (Dance-steps), is a forceful and ironic take on the polka, its trenchant rhythm persisting through all manner of unlikely instrumental combinations and textural ingenuity. A calmer and more thoughtful central section provides temporary contrast, but the initial activity is developed at length, leading to a transformed reprise of material previously heard. The music seems intent on maintaining this acerbic manner to the last, which makes the more surprising its sudden relaxation into a calmer and more inward coda before the final flourish.
The third movement, Theme with Variations, takes up the melody Ännchen von Tharau by Friedrich Silcher (1789–1860), heard initially on clarinet, as the basis for four variations which, while never straying far from its melodic profile, are highly contrasted in themselves. The first variation is a brisk rendition of its rhythmic profile, and the second an investigation of the theme’s harmonic potential in the guise of a piano cadenza. The third is the longest, the theme unfolding as a leisurely dialogue for the clarinets against pizzicato strings, before the fourth variation wraps up matters by restoring most of its initial poise.
The final movement, Gigue, draws not only on the dance-type of that name but also on elements of fugue and sonata-form in music where the rhythmic impetuousness is at its greatest. There is the expected sequence of main theme, initially allotted to the clarinets, and several contrasting episodes in which the strings come to the fore, with the piano varying its role accordingly. This ongoing and unflagging energy is only brought to heel by a direct and touching recollection of the third variation from the preceding movement; a moment of some inwardness that inevitably has to make way for the ebullient coda.
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SCHOENBERG, A.: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (arr...