The best way to explore the music of an unfamiliar composer is to immerse oneself in it. This is particularly true for difficult and demanding music, such as the works of the 20th Century composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 -- 1951) whose music still provokes a broad spectrum of critical reactions. With the advent of budget priced CDs, it is relatively easy for anyone with the time and desire to do so to hear and try to respond to Schoenberg's music.
Robert Craft is a conductor and scholar of note who has deep knowledge of Schoenberg's music as well as that of Stravinsky's. Over the years, he has recorded Schoenberg's music extensively, and the results of his efforts, together with that of supporting artists, have been made available on the budget-priced Naxos label. The five CD's in this set also are available individually, which encourages listening to each CD and work in detail. I supplemented my listening by reading Craft's extensive program notes on each work together with Malcolm MacDonald's book "Schoenberg" written as part of the Master Musicians series.
In approaching Schoenberg, it is worth remembering that all music speaks to the heart and the emotions. Schoenberg was a modernist who found a need to expand the language of musical expression. It does Schoenberg a disservice to regard him as a "cerebral" or "intellectual" composer. Similarly, in hearing the 12 tone pieces for which Schoenberg has become notorious, it is best to try simply to hear and respond to the music rather than to try to pick out the details of the tone row. Schoenberg developed his musical language as a tool for expression rather than as an academic exercise.
Each of the five CDs in this set includes a variety of types of works by Schoenberg. Thus the compilation gives a sense of the depth and breadth of Schoenberg's musical vision. I offer some comments as a guide to the types of works included in this set.
Throughout his life, Schoenberg was involved with transcribing the music of earlier composers. These works, in which Schoenberg combines another idiom with his own, present a way of making the composer accessible and showing his relationship with his predecessors. Thus this set offers the opportunity to hear Schoenberg's famous transcription of Brahms' piano quartet, opus 25, for orchestra together with his orchestral transcription of three Bach works for organ. Schoenberg also transcribed a Handel concerto into a highly difficult work for orchestra and string quartet and a harpsichord concerto by the early classical composer Monn into a cello concerto intended for Pablo Casals. All four of these works are included here.
Schoenberg's early music is sometimes described by the term "expressivist" and it follows heavily on late romanticism with elements of Mahler, Wagner, and Brahms. The instrumental compositions from this period include the Chamber Symphony no. 2, a remarkable work which Schoenberg completed late in his life, together with the five pieces for orchestra, opus 16. Vocal compositions from this "expressivist" period include the song-cycle "The Book of Hanging Gardens" setting poems by Stephan George, one of my favorities in this collection, the short opera "Die gluckliche Hand", and a transcription for chamber orchestra of an aria from Schoenberg's massive early work "Gurrelieder."
I want to turn to the music using in whole or in part the twelve tone method of composition. The Serenade for seven instruments and bass soloist makes use of twelve tones in one of its seven movements. Thus this work offers a good transition into hearing this music. The suite for piano opus 25 is Schoenberg's first complete work in 12 tones, and it helps to listen to it with the Baroque dance models in mind which inspired the piece. The wind quintet opus 26 remains a difficult and dense piece. And the two instrumental masterworks in 12 tones in this set are the Variations for Orchestra, opus 31, in which Schoenberg uses the notes for the name of Bach (B, A,C, B-flat) and the thornily romantic violin concerto.
Some of Schoenberg's late masterworks combining 12 tone with other techniques were impassioned vocal pieces. In particular "A Survivor from Warsaw" gives a grim portrayal of the Holocaust while Schoenberg's setting of Byron's poem "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte" attack tyranny in all its guises. Other late vocal works, including the setting of Psalm 130 and the Prelude to Genesis reflect the religious character of Schoenberg's vision and his growing attachment in later life to Judaism.
With patience and effort, I have found this music rewarding. I am looking forward to hearing the successor volumes of Schoenberg and Craft on Naxos. For those readers who are interested, I am attaching links to each individual volume included in this set.
More than 50 years after his death, the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) remains difficult and controversial. There is no other great composer whose works provoke such a broad range of reactions from listeners. Schoenberg's music developed markedly during his life. It deserves patience and careful hearing. A series of recordings on the budget-priced Naxos label by scholar and conductor Robert Craft offer an excellent point of entry for adventurous music lovers willing to engage with Schoenberg. Many of the Craft recordings are reissues of earlier releases on the Koch label while others are new. Craft's recordings are available in both single CDs and in box sets. There are two box sets of Craft's Schoenberg available, the first of which includes five CDs and a broad cross-section of Schoenberg's music. The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. 1 The second box set, which I am reviewing here, includes six CDs and a further broad sampling of Schoenberg. The works range in date of composition from 1895 to 1948. The earlier set focuses more on Schoenberg's later, 12 tone compositions while the current set includes more of Schoenberg's pivotal earlier works dating from roughly 1906 - 1911. The following paragraphs offer a brief summary of the highlights of this compilation.
Schoenberg's pivotal works begin with the Chamber Symphony No. 1, opus 9 (1906). Scored for ten winds and five strings, the Chamber Symphony is a taut work in a single movement in which Schoenberg combines the late romantic style of Wagner and Strauss with a musical modernism featuring the use of the whole-tone scale as well as of atonality. The second transitional work in this set is Schoenberg's second string quartet, opus 10 (1908) which followed the Chamber Symphony. The quartet is a tragic, difficult work which moves into atonality in its second, third, and fourth movements. The two final movements set poems of Stephan George, (1868 - 1933) The Fred Sherry String Quartet and soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge perform this seminal work. The third of Schoenberg's critical transitional works included in the set is the monodrama "Erwartung" opus 17 (1909) set for solo soprano and large orchestra. Erwartung is romantic in theme and modernist in its musical language. It is a work of about 28 minutes in which the singer wanders through the forest declaiming and mourning for her lost lover whom she has killed in a jealous rage. Rarely performed, Erwartung is stream-of-conscious and disturbing music.
Schoenberg's earlier compositions were late romantic in character. Several of these works presented in this set show their connections and differences from his subsequent compositions. In 1902, Schoenberg composed his massive orchestral work, Pelleas und Melissande, based upon the same play by Maeterlink that Debussy used for his opera. Schoenberg's Pelleas is a large-scale, Straussian rendering of the story. Earlier, in 1901, Schoenberg had begun work on his massive Gurre-Lieder for large orchestra, soloists, and chorus. He did not complete the orchestration until 1911. This work is a story of passion and adultery which sets a text by the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. Craft conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in this outsize, 2CD work which also features the Simon Joly Chorale and a case of outstanding, if relatively little-known soloists. A little known but fine example of early Schoenberg included in this set is a collection of six songs for soprano and orchestra, opus8, dating from 1903-1904.
The later Schoenberg begins on this compilation with his famous work in Sprectstimme (speaking-singing) style Pierrot Lunaire, opus 21 (1912). This is romantically decadent music in a cabaret style that is also Schoenberg's first venture into full atonality. It is performed here by Anja Silja. Other works from this period include the Four Orchestral Songs opus 22 (1916) sung by Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers.
Schoenberg's late twelve-tone method of composition is shown in this compilation by the selections from his opera Moses und Aron (1932) and from his idiosyncratic setting of the Jewish prayer, Kol Nidre, opus 39 (1939). Both these works also show Schoenberg's return to the Judaism of his birth, in 1931-1932. Schoenberg also continued to write relatively more conservative music during his twelve tone years. Some of these works, such as the suite in G for String Orchestra (1934) and the Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses (1928, 1948) are included in this compilation and offer a good entry to the composer's more difficult styles.
This set is invaluable for listeners wanting to learn about Schoenberg and about Twentieth Century music. For those interested, links to the individual CDs in the set are provided below.