Introduction to Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony
We are celebrating Schoenberg’s eightieth birthday with a performance of a work that is still heard quite rarely in Germany, his Second Chamber Symphony. I can scarcely imagine any other work better suited to this celebration. It unites qualities of the most pellucid impressiveness with those specific, semi-occult structural qualities that have secured Schoenberg his stature as a composer for the ages. Generally speaking, knowledge of the history of a great work of music’s origins affords little insight into the work itself. But even in this respect the Second Chamber Symphony may be an exception. Its moment of conception dates back almost fifty years; it was begun at the same time as the First Chamber Symphony, and work on the two scores overlapped. But the Second Chamber Symphony met the fate of many of Schoenberg’s other drafts; it remained unfinished, probably because the indescribably steep, escalatory pace of the master’s development in the decisive years just before the First World War snatched him away from projects that knew themselves to be still closely bound to the traditional material of tonality. All the same, by the time of its abandonment, the Second Chamber Symphony already amounted to quite a substantial torso. I recall that in 1925, Alban Berg, Schoenberg’s pupil and my own teacher, told me of the wonders contained in its great E flat-minor adagio, which he regarded as the most beautiful thing by far that Schoenberg had yet written. It is to the great credit of the conductor Fritz Stiedry, one of Schoenberg’s most loyal friends, that many years later in America he spurred him on to complete the work. Stiedry subsequently also conducted the world premiere of the work at a concert given by the New Friends of Music in New York. His efforts gelled with Schoenberg’s inclination not only to revisit older, unfinished projects, as in the case of the Gurrelieder, but also and above all to apply his latterly acquired sovereign mastery of new methods to old ones and to prove that from the perspective of the most progressive school of composition something new could be said even by means of those old methods.
The Second Chamber Symphony is extremely dissimilar to the first. Its overall tone is not fiery and tempestuous but tragic; from the outset it was conceived as being played by a small orchestra rather than by a group of soloists, and it was intended to be a work consisting of several movements rather than just one. In the course of its subsequent composition, its schema became more concentrated: the work was confined to two movements; although these contrast starkly with each other, they are tightly interconnected and together comprise a supremely self-contained whole.
We are dealing here with a creation in which the spontaneity and originality of Schoenberg’s youth are united with the unsurpassed masterliness of his mature style. For the sake of the unity of the whole, the second movement was executed as a tonal piece like the first, but it is also suffused with a compositional artistry stored up in the experience of twelve-tone music; it is a tonal piece with a twelve-tone spirit, an integrated composition in which there is no longer a single contingent or non-thematic note and yet in which the composer’s immediate musical impulse has not been compromised in the slightest. Listening to this movement makes one feel as though tonality itself in its entirety were nothing but a special means of composing with twelve tones. But what makes the work unmistakably unique in the context of Schoenberg’s total oeuvre is its unification of its technical construction with what used to be called the poetic idea. No other of Schoenberg’s instrumental works—apart, perhaps, from the Second String Quartet—realizes such a poetic idea so strikingly. Only upon hearing the Second Chamber Symphony can one fully understand Schoenberg’s superficially imperceptible yet unsurpassably profound love of Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies are similarly stratified as spiritual tonalities. The very technical modus operandi of the Second Chamber Symphony prescribes the path pursued by its expressive content.
The first movement is that famous E flat-minor adagio, full of the noblest themes, but signalized above all by its harmonic wealth, that abundance of scale-degrees that assigns to almost every note its own autonomous chord and hence its invariably contributory position in the work’s overall structure and thereby achieves perspectival effects of the most extraordinary kind. In its basic character this movement is very highly yet reservedly serious, lyrical and yet symphonic and expansive. The second movement offers a surprise. It starts in an extremely light, gracious, serenade-like tone initially reminiscent of Hugo Wolf. But thanks to the contrapuntal artistry that reigns supreme here in contrast to the prevailingly homophonic first movement, the symphonic knot is gradually drawn taut. The fabric keeps getting richer, more suffused with interrelations, and thanks to the intensity of its construction it also keeps getting expressively darker, until this darkness explodes into full-blown tragedy and disembogues into a coda that harks back to the first movement, a coda that now elevates the sadness of the beginning to a lugubrious monumentality. The second movement ends in the first, but it is as if it is only here that the emotional state from which the former emerged is at last being fully objectified.
Sometimes it almost seems to me as if the resistance Schoenberg is met with today no longer has any objective basis whatsoever but is rather merely a product of public opinion, which has accumulated so many clichés about his work that listeners now listen out for these clichés and no longer listen to the music. The Second Chamber Symphony is capable of enfranchising it from this fate. If you simply focus your mind on the inner narrative that runs through the work and then abandon yourself to it without reflecting on it too much, you will be able to follow along effortlessly and immediately perceive everything that I have verbally imparted to you only so that your attention will be directed towards what is essential from the outset. You will be hearing nothing less than one of the of the richest, most beautiful, and most concentrated pieces of symphonic music ever composed, and you will also come to trust that a man who knew how to say something so new with trusted means had the right to free himself from those means and in so doing yielded to a necessity that was even greater than the great tradition from which he derived his strength.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 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, p. 627ff.