- The Early Works of Arnold Schoenberg, 1893–1908
In a 1937 lecture poignantly entitled “How One Becomes Lonely,” Arnold Schoenberg pointed to a song cycle he had written more than thirty years earlier as a key to understanding his atonal and twelve-tone works. 1 Schoenberg’s reference to Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre, 1901), perhaps the most lushly textured, tonal, “romantic” work of his early period, as an explanation for the more difficult atonal works—music for which there is no reigning key, no hierarchy of pitches—seems deliberately provocative. Yet it is because this connection should be taken seriously that Schoenberg can be seen to exemplify the typically modernist contradiction of “conservative revolutionary.” 2
For in his early works no less than his later ones, Schoenberg aimed to advance what was to him the inevitable progression of music history. Although his pieces before 1908 came to be seen as conservative because they ultimately adhere to a tonal center, they were conceived as fundamentally modern. Works such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured night, 1899), the orchestral tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903), and the First String Quartet (1905) display unprecedented complexity of motivic development and ambitious reshapings of sonata forms, at the same time drawing upon nineteenth-century traditions of “program music.” Other early works set poetic texts, most astonishingly the Second String Quartet, in which Schoenberg reinvents the genre by adding a soprano part.
This crucial phase of Schoenberg’s development had been unaccountably neglected by music scholars; Walter Frisch’s new book aims to fill the gap. The author clearly states his goal in the book’s epigraph, which quotes Schoenberg’s advice to his former pupil, the composer Alban Berg: “my biography as such is highly uninteresting . . . A few place names, dates of composition, there’s really nothing more to say. . . . It would be interesting to outline my development through the music” (vii). The author has taken Schoenberg’s words to heart and has written a book that one could imagine Berg or Rudolf Kolish (a violinist and close friend of the composer) having written. As Frisch concedes, he is concerned most of all with “close, detailed musical analysis of selected works” (xiv).
Frisch wisely chooses to treat only the most significant early works of the several hundred available, including the first songs of 1893 (when the composer was nineteen) on through the path-breaking Second String Quartet of 1906–1908, in which Schoenberg approached atonality for the first time. Frisch’s close readings, illuminated by plentiful and beautifully printed musical examples, nonetheless require the scores in hand for full comprehension. He writes for musicians, especially those who know and love the works as he does. His analytical tools are derived from—and in my opinion limited by—the writings of Schoenberg and his circle. I have my doubts whether Frisch’s empirical, ad hoc approach is powerful enough to explain central problems of late romantic tonal music (for example, the relationship between chromatic and diatonic “worlds,” the issue of how much dominant harmony is needed to achieve closure, or the extent to which thematic development can influence harmonic structure). At [End Page 199] least Frisch is not afraid to grapple with some of the bigger questions of tonal structure raised by these intriguing works.
In trying to follow Schoenberg’s exhortation to treat only the music, however, Frisch seems reluctant to explore these works’ intimate relationship to ideas and texts. For in addition to absorbing Brahmsian models of instrumental music (which Frisch correctly takes as one of Schoenberg’s primary goals during these years), Schoenberg was equally preoccupied with the expressive possibilities of music: specifically, with the range of denotative, allusive, and suggestive ways that music can represent ideas outside itself. These concerns are revealed most directly in his numerous songs, for which Schoenberg’s encounter with the poetry was a central aspect of his musical realization. In addition, most of the large-scale instrumental works written during these years are based on texts as well (excepting only the two Chamber...