Sixty years after his death, Arnold Schoenberg remains one of the greatest and yet most difficult composers ever, difficult both in terms of performing his music and in understanding it, but he is being well served in Boston lately. I might have gone to Symphony Hall to hear A Survivor from Warsaw at the same hour, but I chose instead to hear an all-Schoenberg program by the Ludovico Ensemble at the Boston Conservatory (familiarly, BoCo) on the Fenway. The audience of about 40 in the small Seully Hall on November 21 was well rewarded. This concert was fine testimony to the excellence of young professional performers who work seriously at some of the toughest music there is, and with conspicuous success.
Jennifer Ashe, soprano, and Karolina Rojahn, piano, gave us Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, op. 15, fifteen poems from the 31 short, erotically charged texts of Stefan George. This is one of Schoenberg’s tipping-point works, from 1908-1909, when he was moving from contrapuntally dense tonal chromaticism to harmonically complex post-tonal chromaticism. It was a gradual process, and there are plenty of triadic references in these short pieces, but they do not belong to any key nor even any succession of keys; they are suspended in tonal space, so to speak. The individual songs are shaped autonomously, with short melodic or harmonic motives, and a number of them are characterized by Bogenform or arch form, with the same prominent (or sometimes concealed) motive at the end as at the beginning of the song. I was sitting right there in the hall with the score before me, and I could not have imagined a better performance; it was expertly conceived, finely expressive, and beautifully executed. The balance between piano and voice was just right; the vocal color and intonation flawless; and overall mature and intelligent, in a way that Schoenberg himself always hoped for and seldom got. “Today I realize that I cannot be understood, and am content to make do with respect,” he wrote to a colleague in the 1920s. This performance was fully respectful and fully understanding of the music, which inevitably meant that it sounded well.
Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, op. 10, which followed, is an even more difficult work. The gradual process I mentioned above was continued to the point where, in the fourth movement, tonality breaks down altogether for long stretches, where Schoenberg, again using George’s text in the part for added soprano, “feels the air of another planet.” The nominal key is F-sharp minor, but the chromaticism constantly pushes the tonal envelope, with occasional triadic rescue points. The scherzo movement contains the famous quote of “Ach, du lieber Augustin” that provoked the original audience to guffaws; in the light of the century that followed the premiere, we can regard it as a sardonic commentary on the collapse of civilization, just as the original Augustin must have felt while waking up, hung over, in a wagon full of plague victims. Even after the tonal wall is breached entirely, in the fourth movement, Schoenberg felt compelled to bring back a dissonant but strong F-sharp minor at the very end.
This wasn’t a pitch-perfect performance of what is an immensely complex work; but it was close to it nearly all the time. One can certainly blame Schoenberg for some of the intonational infelicities; a string player himself, he ought not to have written G, G sharp, and G flat all in the same measure, nor A sharp and B flat at the same time between second violin and cello. (Maybe there really was no way around this.) But very little of the tuning problem bothered me when I heard such an intelligent, expressive, and well-considered rendition as these expert performers gave: Gabriela Diaz and Shaw Pong Liu, violins; Mark Berger, viola; Benjamin Schwartz, cello; and Aliana de la Guardia, soprano (in the last two movements). One can barely imagine the effort that went into this excellent collaboration; when Schoenberg’s First String Quartet was first performed, which is nearly twice as long but rather less chromatically crabbed, the Rosé Quartet needed forty rehearsals.
This was a concert that ought to be repeated many times in different venues. The younger generation needs to hear more of this music and more often. The Ludovico group proved that that same generation is fully capable of realizing Schoenberg’s music on his terms and with full comprehension. I’ve been listening to these songs, and to this string quartet, since before any of these young musicians were born, and I never heard performances better than these. Hats off to them.
See related article here.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony. His website is here.