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Schoenberg’s 1908 Breakout From Tonality


The year 1908 was important for Arnold Schoenberg. Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) and The String Quartet No. 2 were both composed in that year. Both also were set to poetry of Stefan George. The Ludovico Ensemble will be presenting a program entirely devoted to these two works of Schoenberg at Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall on November 21.

“It is in these two works that Schoenberg took his decisive leap into atonality, though without entirely abandoning at least traces of triadic harmony,  BMInt reviewer, musicologist  Mark DeVoto explained. “Stefan George was one of Germany’s best poets in his time, possibly the most widely appreciated after Rilke, who died slightly earlier. There were originally thirty-one poems in Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten. Schoenberg’s fifteen settings, op. 15, are 1908-1909; they are all short, and musically as richly expressive as their texts.

“The String Quartet No. 2 (1907-08) is perhaps a simplification of Schoenberg’s quartet language after the String Quartet No. 1 (1904-05), which though nominally in d-minor is of immense tonal and formal complexity and lasts nearly an hour; No. 2 is contrapuntally just as intricate, at least in its first two movements, but not as thematically intricate and is palpably shorter. The first movement is very chromatic but the f-minor is still strong. The second movement is an apparent scherzo, and is famous for its quotation of ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’ which provoked roars of laughter at the premiere; Schoenberg was miffed by this, because he thought it should have provoked only ‘a knowing smile.’ One can say that the use of that melody, which in the folksong has the text ‘alles ist hin’ (all is gone), is Schoenberg’s nod to the idea that tonality is disappearing as, in the fourth movement, it does, almost entirely. The third movement, with Stefan George’s sung text, ‘Tief ist die Trauer die mich umdüstert’ (Deep is the sadness that glooms around me), has been associated not only with Schoenberg’s decision to force the tonal issue, but also with the crisis in Schoenberg’s domestic life, when his wife ran off with the painter Richard Gerstl; she was persuaded to return, and Gerstl committed suicide, as Schoenberg later admitted he had himself considered. The fourth movement has the often-quoted text beginning ‘Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten’ (I feel the air of another planet), meaning, presumably, atonality. Even at that, there are what I call paratonal references in this movement, that is, strongly tonal intervals like the perfect fifth, which project here and there even amid the densest chromaticism; you find the same things in the Five Pieces for orchestra op. 16 (1909) and Erwartung (same year). f-sharp minor does return at the very end of the four movement, so one can say the break with tonality isn’t yet absolutely complete.”

Some may remember “The Ludovico Treatment” from Anthony Burgess’s (and Stanley Kubrick’s) A Clockwork Orange as an aversion therapy that leaves its subject unresponsive to violent impulses, with the unintended side effect of rendering him immune to the enjoyment of Beethoven. Since the players of the Ludovico Ensemble have remained studiously nonviolent on stage and have never programmed any work of the master, one wonders whether they underwent the treatment before their founding the group in 2002. The players on November 21 will be Aliana de la Guardia, soprano; Gabriela Diaz, violin; Shaw Pong Liu, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Benjamin Schwartz, cello, Jennifer Ashe, soprano; and Karolina Rojahn, piano.

$10-15  (FREE to students with valid ID)  A link to the program is here.

BMInt’s review is here

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