Schoenberg’s Piano Music
Paul Bekker once remarked that the piano had been Beethoven’s instrument of choice for his pioneering works. On it he first tested the compositional procedures and characters that he subsequently transferred to chamber ensembles and the orchestra. Throughout the entire history of later music it was the piano that composers felt most closely attached to, probably on account of the physical contact afforded by it, the immediate controllability of ideas conceived with the piano in mind. At the piano they followed their fancy in the absence of inhibition by elaborate apparatuses that were not immediately accessible to it, and yet in thereby saying what was as yet unsaid, they were not merely talking to themselves, so to speak. If Forkel’s eyewitness account is to be believed, even Bach may have already behaved in this way at the clavichord. Chopin unquestionably behaved in this way, as did the young Schumann and the Brahms of the piano sonatas; and Schoenberg also falls within the scope of this tradition. Accordingly, each of the five sets of piano pieces that he wrote defines not merely a stage of his development but rather a specific type of composition of the new music, a type that invariably reaffirmed that music. More fully than anything else, these sets in their unprecedentedness allow the listener to appreciate the necessity of those types. Precisely because every musical person can at least work something out on the piano without exerting too much effort, they are especially well-suited to introducing people to the new music.
The Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 (1908), are doubtless not the first atonal composition as their opus number would lead one to suppose. At least a few of the George Lieder, op. 15, which were likewise written without key signatures and which no longer draw the customary distinction between consonance and dissonance, originated earlier, in 1907. Nevertheless, the Three Piano Pieces are rightly regarded as the beginning of the new music. In them something that is much more decisive than the admittedly interrelated phenomenon of the emancipation of harmony takes place: the emancipation of structure. By comparison with theirs, the compositional framework, the fabric, of the George lieder is still conventional; they are the first of Schoenberg’s compositions that dissolve the well-rounded, cohesive sonic façade. Contrasts like the one in the principal theme of the first piece, where in the absence of any transition a slow, accompanied melody is preceded by a jerky passage in thirty-second notes, are absolutely unprecedented. The piece’s remnants of the ternary lied form are of scarcely any significance whatsoever when weighed against such innovations. Of equal importance is the simplicity of the second piece, the simplicity of a long adagio with two principal themes—a second simplicity. This simplicity consists in omission infinitely differentiated in expression via concealment. But the third piece is the prototype of a completely unfettered musique informelle purged of all memory of predetermined architecture, a music engrossed by a liberty of imagination controlled by nothing but the composer’s eavesdropping ear, a music that even Schoenberg entrusted himself to only one more time, in the monodrama Erwartung. Even today the potential of this more than fifty-year-old piece remains unrealized.
The Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19, are famous: their brevity, which was once shocking, has by the same token facilitated their reception. Expressionistic miniatures, they are most closely akin to those visions, those “plaintive faces” which Schoenberg was painting during the same period and a few of which are reproduced in Josef Rufer’s bibliography of Schoenberg.1 The power of deviation in them is extraordinary: a color, a sound, gets stuck in place, refuses to allow itself to be wiped away, and pushes the piece in its own direction; these are tears over which the visage has no control. Of all of Schoenberg’s works, op. 19 is closest to Anton Webern’s approach, which was admittedly already formulated much earlier, in the penultimate song of Schoenberg’s George Lieder. Nevertheless, even the expressionistic moments musicaux are not devoid of constructive traits: the rapid final part of the fourth is a rhythmic diminution and variation of the beginning that is completely explicable in arithmetical terms; the continuation of the first piece after the rest in its second measure is already a retrograde (albeit not a note-for-note one) of the first motif, and the gossamer-thin last piece is composed over a leading chord. The first piece ends conclusively as a result of the fact that the coda commences with a mezzoforte that unmistakably falls on the right beat.
The Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, which originated after Schoenberg’s seven-year creative pause, capture a felicitous moment: the moment when he is already working with rows, “basic shapes,” but has not yet committed himself to a count of twelve notes per row. Liberty and construction are rarely more perfectly integrated elsewhere in his work. The first piece is a three-part invention whose second theme, accompanied by a soft succession of chords, reshapes the long beginning theme; the central passage and coda are then melted into each other. The brief second piece hearkens back to the scherzo form but rejuvenates it via the idea of having its violent outbursts gradually die away until in the coda a quasi-consolingly quiescent line in the lowest register is all that remains. The third piece, which has the heft of an adagio, is essentially a passacaglia over a five-note theme that enters solo like the first subject of a fugue; its brevity conditions each and every one of its closely interwoven yet sharply characterized variations. The repetition of a phrase from the beginning approximates the effect of a recapitulation. The fourth piece, on the other hand, is quite freely composed, prose-like after the manner of the third piece from op. 11; nevertheless, in outline it is by no means jagged but rather lyrically expansive and sweeping, like the exhalation of a single breath. The final piece, the waltz, is the first twelve-tone composition that Schoenberg ever published; it is based on the row spelled out by C-sharp, A, B, G, A flat, F sharp, A sharp, D, E, E flat, C, and F. The ingenuousness with which the new approach unveils itself is almost awkward, in that everything that happens in the piece is derived directly from the original untransposed form of the row. Schoenberg was always capable of forgetting and re-forgetting what he knew how to do. In spite of the primitiveness of its row-technique the waltz is exceedingly rich in musical profiles. It is the first piece that again makes use of symmetries, rhythmic sequences.
The op. 25 Suite is the first fairly extensive work that from its first row to its last is fashioned out of a single twelve-tone row: E-F-G-D flat-G flat-E flat-A flat-D-B-C-A- B flat. The row is now also employed in inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. In most of its movements the expressive moment recedes. Four of them—the gavotte, the musette, the minuet, and the gigue, are genuinely and unrecognizably derived from the treasury of old forms; the gavotte is repeated note for note after the musette, the minuet after the trio, an elaborate canon in two voices. The entire work, as dazzling as a suite of steel furniture from the Bauhaus, converges with neoclassicism from its opposite pole. Strikingly in evidence at the beginning of the prelude is Schoenberg’s directness, his immersion in the middle of things from the first note, the epitome of his objectivity. Expressiveness returns in the intermezzo, where constantly alternating melodic voices are accompanied by a ticking ostinato system; this accompaniment is interrupted by violent outbursts and moments of restrained lyricism. The gigue, an exceedingly brilliant virtuoso piece, playfully out-Stravinskys Stravinsky in its rhythmic acrobatics but remains dynamic in compositional structure; distinct, self-sufficient figures of contrast are introduced. Throughout the suite the rigidity of early twelve-tone technique is elevated to a process of stylization.
Finally, the Two Piano Pieces, op. 33, publicized in far-flung locales, show Schoenberg in sovereign possession of that technique. The rigidity has been softened; he moves about in the new medium with that self-evidence and liberty that yielded something like a second expressionist phase at the end of his life. But in both pieces the coherence of the autonomous form maintains its preeminence. The first is sonata-like in spirit, with two sharply dichotomous principal figures and a development-like middle section. After a general rest the recapitulation, the melodic resolution of the opening chord, is varied so extensively that in its effect it is less like a recapitulation than like a consequence of the movement of the development. The second piece is songlike, cantabile in essence, distinctively ternary yet imbued with vestiges of sonata-like dualism; a figure in six-eight time that also returns in the recapitulation approximates the second theme. The piece’s exceptionally fluid mode of composition already points ahead to Schoenberg’s much later piano concerto.
Else C. Kraus, to whom we owe this recording,* is one of those pianists who unerringly recognized Schoenberg’s quality and was interpreting him long before he was banished to the realm of the modern classicists. She performed Schoenberg’s complete piano works even before 1933, in the Frankfurt Music Studio. Listeners would be ill-advised to play entire cycles in succession. That could only cause confusion and the obliteration of that claim to the incommensurable staked by each and every one of the cycles. They would do better to play each cycle, and if possible each of the more difficult pieces within it, repeatedly until the musical experience has taken possession of them. Especially worthy of such sustained listening are No. 3 of op. 11, No. 4—and perhaps also No. 3—of op. 23, and the intermezzo from the Suite, op. 25.
1. Josef Rufer, Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs. Bärenreiter: Kassel, 1959.
*See BM 20 L 1503; the present essay was written as an introduction to this recording.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2020 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 18, pp. 422 ff.