Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16

by Max Derrickson

Arnold Schoenberg     (Born: September 1874 in Vienna; died: July 1951 in Los Angeles, CA)

Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16
1. Vorgefühle (Premonitions)
2. Vergangenes (The Past)
3. Farben (Colors)
4. Perepetie (Perepeteia)
5. Das obligate Rezitativ (The Obbligato Recitative)

Western music, since the time of Bach (1685 – 1750), has gone through many changes, but one of its enduring tenets was held more or less sacrosanct – “harmony,” meaning pitch relationships, was considered essential to music being “music.”  The basic building blocks of “harmony” and thus “music” were made of consonant intervals: the octave, the 3rd and the 5th.  Pitches that traveled very far away from those basics were called dissonant and any chords that were created for harmony or for variety’s sake adhered to a golden rule: always resolve to the basic pitches.  Called “diatonic” (prevailing notes associated with a key) or tonal music, this method of composing held fast for several hundred years until around the dawn of the 20th Century.  At that moment in history, all traditions were breaking down considerably, but the last was tonality, and its vestiges were cracking.

Finally the edifice toppled, and Arnold Schoenberg was one of the pioneers leading to a new reality of atonal music whose goal was to imagine music without the traditional harmonic relationships.  As Schoenberg put it, he wanted to “liberate” pitch and by the by the 1920’s, he “discovered” a method to help composers write atonally, which became known as the 12-tone method.  A composer would choose a “row” of 12 separate pitches, being careful to avoid repetition of any note, or any intervals between the selected pitches that resembled traditional relationships, and use that row as the basic building block for a composition.  To many it seemed mechanical and devoid of beauty, and Schoenberg’s name became pseudonymous with ugly.  But just as two good composers can create two different masterpieces in the same key, so a good composer can create a masterpiece using atonal principles.

Schoenberg’s early atonal works and his 12-tone method have directly influenced nearly every composer to follow him for the next 100 years.  It seems inconceivable that this is so,
[. . .]
Five Pieces for Orchestra of 1909 is a superb example of how atonal music can be as moving and expressive as tonal music – from beauty to terror, chaos to melancholy, wistfulness to anxiety.

The first movement begins as if one has been dropped into the middle of an unknown scene – the listener is disoriented, as though in a dream, and it’s a troubling one.  This uncharted psychic exploration was important to Schoenberg.  He began by employing a host of exaggerated techniques: flutter tonguing on wind instruments, playing pitches in the very highest or lowest of registers, bowing in different places on the string (including bowing percussion instruments), and using extremely inventive combinations of instruments – all of which beckon the listener
[. . .]

The second movement is like reminiscence in a dark room, somewhat in the haze of brandy.  Ostinatos (repeated patterns of notes) float and collide in an atmospheric laziness.  Tonality seems to be hiding in the corner – we sometimes hear pitches resolving, only to hear them dissolving.  Schoenberg casts a spell of haunting memories, and its effect, like the changing colors of a sunset, is beautiful.

The third movement is completely enchanting.  Each pitch, Schoenberg felt, had its own valuable color, and he wanted to write music as if the human ear could discern changes of hue rather than changes of pitch.  He uses, and then continually recycles,
[. . .]

The last movement hints at tonal melodies – certainly much of the harmonization wanders close to it.
[. . .]
these short, but mighty, passages.

After looking at the score to Five Pieces for Orchestra, Richard Strauss decided that Schoenberg would make a better living shoveling snow.  Mahler couldn’t aurally imagine the work in his head, with apologies.  In 1909 it truly was music that was completely brand new.  It’s taken some time to hear music in this new way.  100 years later its impact is still resonating.