Arnold Schönberg

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English - Kline


Schönberg and Petrarca

Although it wouldn’t seem that their poetic worlds would easily meet, Austrian musician Arnold Schönberg (1874-1950) set to music four sonnets of Petrarca in two crucial moments of his career. One of the masters of 20th century avant-garde, first composer to go boldly beyond the tonal system that had ruled Western music since Bach, and the creator of the revolutionary twelve-tone system also known as dodecaphony, Schönberg chose Sonnets 82 (Io non fu’ d’amar voi lassato unquancho), 116 (Pien di quella ineffabile dolcezza), and 279 (Se lamentar augelli, e verdi fronde) to complete his set of six orchestral songs Opus 8 (1904-1905). Almost ten years later, in 1923, he included Sonnet 256 (Far potess’io vendetta di colei) as the fourth movement of his Serenade Op. 24 for low male voice and seven instruments. In both cases he used Karl Förster’s German translation, published in Leipzig in the 19th century (the book bears no date of publication). Following Förster’s numeration, in the Serenade he called Sonett 256 “Sonett Nr. 217.”
    Schönberg’s  Sechs Lieder Op. 8 were first published in 1911 in a piano reduction arranged by Schönberg’s pupil Anton Webern. The orchestral premiere, with Wagnerian tenor Hans Winkelmann as leading voice, took place in Prague in January 1914. On that occasion Schönberg wrote to his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, who was the orchestra conductor, that the tenor was supposed to sing piano and legato, and above all not to “enunciate the text all too abrasively.” Schönberg was very pleased with Sonnets 116 and 279 (Op. 8 No. 5 and No. 6), but not particularly happy with the setting of Sonnet 82 (Op. 8 No. 4), which is in fact the weakest of the three and was omitted at the Prague concert.
    How piano could Winkelmann sing Opus 8 is open to question. The songs require a large orchestra and the musical texture is extremely dense. Schönberg’s genius as orchestrator is everywhere and the orchestra changes colors and intensity constantly. It is not the sheer volume of sound that makes the songs difficult to come across, but the hyper-Straussian élan which permeates some of them, probably more so than any other work of the early Schönberg—including the massive Gurrelieder. Indeed, Opus 8 marks the end of Schönberg’s late-romantic period. Less innovative than the previous String Quartet Op. 7 and the following Kammersymphonie Op. 9 (where Wagnerian chromaticism is replaced by the whole-tone scale and fourth-tone intervals, as a bridge to further leaps into atonality), the Six Songs have always been considered a transition work, where the boldest harmonic solutions are hard to discern and not all ideas are memorable. However, Sonnet 229 (Wenn Vöglein klagen und in grünen Zweigen in Förster’s translation) is one of the finest orchestral songs Schönberg ever penned, and the one where the melodic lines and orchestration are perhaps closer to the semantic of the text than in the rest of the cycle. The simple but captivating flute theme we hear at the beginning (the Leitmotiv of the whole song) provides the aural equivalent of the birds lamenting. While the climax is reached at the words “Nicht klag’ um mich” (di me non pianger tu, “do not mourn for me”), the sensuous, Straussian postlude extends the complex juxtaposition articulated in the last tercet (closing our eyes in the world to open them up in the eternal life), giving the listener the time that is needed to absorb it.
    Between the String Quartet No. 2 Op. 10 (1908) and the four orchestral songs Op. 22 (1914), Schönberg explored the sea of atonal music, but soon he began looking for a new haven. The absence of tonality could give the composer an unprecedented freedom but did not allow for long and articulated musical structures. In the next ten years Schönberg did not complete any new work, and yet he was hardly inactive. In fact he was slowly belaboring a new musical architecture that he tentatively introduced in two movements of the Five Piano Pieces Op. 23 (1923) and the Serenade Op. 24 (1923), which was premiered in Vienna in May 1924. In Schönberg’s new twelve-tone system the musical composition is not based on a melody but on a series of twelve notes encompassing the whole chromatic space (no note can be repeated until the series is complete). The series is not a theme (the listener will not recognize it) but it is the material for all the themes, permutations, contrapuntal alterations and transpositions that will take place in the composition.
    OP. 23 and 24 are not entirely dodecaphonic. Mostly, they are based on tone rows of less than twelve notes. Only theWalzer Op. 23 No. 5 and the Serenade’s fourth section can be thought as full-scale twelve-tone pieces. Considering the contrapuntal sophistication that the twelve-tone system was going to achieve in Schönberg’s later works, Op. 23 No. 5 and Op. 24 No. 4 are still rudimentary. In the piano Walzer the series moves between the right and left hand almost without permutations. Only the changes in rhythm, dynamics, and pitch conceal that the series is constantly returning. Schönberg applies the same pattern to the fourth movement of his Serenade, which is set on Petrarca’s Sonnet 256 (Sonett Nr. 217, as we said, in Förster’s numeration). Again, the changes in the dynamics make it impossible to recognize the return of the series the way one would recognize a traditional melody. The presence of the text, however, makes the piece a more interesting experiment. Förster’s translation is set to a strictly syllabic treatment: every syllable corresponds to a note, and one can clearly hear the series on which the composition is based by listening closely to the voice singing the first twelve syllables of the poem. However, since Förster’s text, following the original, uses eleven-syllable lines, the series begins again with the second syllable of the second line, then with the third syllable of the third line, and so on. The series is therefore repeated in its entirety thirteen times, leaving a fragment of the series to complete the song. 
Regardless of the relative crudeness of its technique, Schönberg’s Sonett Nr. 217 marks a new direction in the history of sung music. Gone the late-romantic emphasis of the Songs Op. 8, Petrarca’s poem has been submitted to a cubist reshaping. The tone is direct, unsentimental, and even vehement. The unusual instrumental color (the male voice is accompanied by clarinet, bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, and cello) adds a sharp edge to the geometric aggressiveness of the vocal line, matching perfectly the abstract vengeance invoked in the first line. The more the music refuses to be expressive, the more it achieves clarity of expression and precision in communicating the meaning of the text, in a way that the lush settings of the previous songs could not achieve.

(Alessandro Carrera, University of Houston)



LEIBOWITZ, René, Schoenberg (Paris: Seuil, 1980).
MacDONALD, Malcolm. Schoenberg (London: Dent, 1976).
MANZONI, Giacomo. Arnold Schönberg. L’uomo, l’opera, i testi musicati (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1975).
ROGNONI, Luigi, La scuola musicale di Vienna (Turin: Einaudi, 1966).
ROSEN, Charles, Schoenberg (New York: Viking Press, 1975).
STUCKENSCHMIDT, Hans-Heinz. Schönberg. Leben, Umwelt, Werk (Zürich: Atlantis, 1974).


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