Draft for "Ich darf nicht dankend," from the Schoenberg Center.
By my calcuations, this Monday, December 17, is the hundredth anniversary of atonality. Celebrate as you wish. On that date in 1907, Arnold Schoenberg sketched the song "Ich darf nicht dankend" ("I must not in gratitude [sink down before you]"), music in which conventional tonal harmonies grow exceedingly scarce. (You can listen on the Schoenberg Center Jukebox; scroll down to Op. 14.) The composer supplied no key signature in his draft, although he later added one (B minor) to the clean copy and published score. Debate among yourselves — Kyle Gann tells me he wrote a piece on this same topic back in 1985, on the centenary of Liszt's borderline Bagatalle sans tonalité — but for me this marks the true beginning of the adventure outside tonality. It may be no coincidence that Schoenberg wrote the song, a setting of Stefan George, just eight days after the departure for New York of Gustav Mahler, who had served as Schoenberg's protector when Viennese conservatives attacked. "You are the spiritual plain from which we rose" is the second line of George's poem. With Mahler gone, Schoenberg may have felt at once abandoned and liberated — free to become himself.
This is as good a time as any to take note of three new (or new-ish) contributions to the annals of Schoenbergiana. One is a recording entitled Dear Miss Silvers: Originaltonaufnahmen 1931-1951, available from the Supposé label. It collects various voice recordings that Schoenberg made on a Webster wire recorder during his American years (a gift from his pupil Clara Silvers), together with several German radio recordings from the early 1930s. Most of these can be heard already in the "Schoenberg spricht" section of the Schoenberg Center website, although the most assiduous Schoenberg completists will want the printed disc, with its elaborate German-language booklet. (I'd like to thank Lawrence Schoenberg for sending it to me.) Particularly delectable is this sitcom-like exchange that takes place at the outset of a 1950 interview:
JOHN CAMPBELL: We're picking up everything that's sounding in the room, including that chair moving out in the dining room.
SCHOENBERG: Ah ha! Trude dear, please don't make noises. They are recorded otherwise.
GERTRUD SCHOENBERG: What?
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: The noises which you make are recorded.
GERTRUD SCHOENBERG: [with a touch of sarcasm] Are they? I hope so!
Very moving is Schoenberg's tribute to George Gershwin: "There is no doubt that he was a great composer."
The second item is Severine Neff's new edition of the Second String Quartet, part of Norton's Critical Scores series. Neff, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, has produced not only an immaculate corrected score of the work itself but also fascinating documentation of the personal and public tumult that surrounded its creation: the crisis in the Schoenbergs' marriage, the peculiarly ghastly suicide of Mathilde Schoenberg's lover Richard Gerstl, and the riot that greeted the work at its premiere (where, it should be noted, Schoenberg's "excessively zealous devotees" — in the words of a friendly critic, Richard Specht — provoked the opposition). Neff also contributes a formidable sixty-page essay on the music. I was particularly interested in her contention that Schoenberg's quotation of the folksong "Ach, du lieber Augustin" in the second movement "may be linked to Mahler." At the end of his life, Mahler spoke to Sigmund Freud about his traumatic childhood associations with this very song: after fleeing a quarrel at his parents' house, he heard an organ-grinder playing the melody in the street. “From then on,” Freud is said to have concluded, “the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was inextricably fixed in [Mahler's] mind.” Did Mahler also relate that experience to Schoenberg? Did Schoenberg have it in mind when he wrote the quartet? Neff shies away from speculating further, but she points out that on November 24, 1907, Schoenberg attended Mahler's farewell performance of his own Second Symphony, in which singing voices rise out of an abstract instrumental form. The same happens in the quartet, on a more intimate scale.
Finally, some comments on a recording from the OgreOgress label, entitled Arnold Schoenberg: Early and Unknown String Works. OgreOgress, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, first came to my attention for several fine discs of previously unrecorded works of Morton Feldman: Violin and String Quartet, Early and Unknown Piano Works, and the complete music for violin and piano. The Schoenberg release, which was released last year, is available from the CD Baby outlet in either DVD Audio or MP3 format. The program follows Schoenberg's development from the very beginning to the very end of his career. The first part of the disc is given over to duets, trios, quartet pieces, and music for string ensemble in popular genres: polka, waltz, march, "song without words," and so on. They are hearty, pleasant, and generally unremarkable — though impressive in light of the fact that the composer may have been as young as eight when he wrote the first of them. The violinist Christine Fong, members of the Rangzen Quartet, and the Rangzen Strings play in a properly easygoing, almost folkish manner. In the Romance in D Minor (after 1882), the harmony takes a startlingly dissonant turn in places, though Viennese lyricism still predominates. Fragments of a D-minor quartet from 1901-1904 (distinct from the First Quartet in the same key) show Schoenberg well advanced in his harmonic quest, exploring ever more tangled contrapuntal thickets. Amid increasing complexity, it's a bit of a shock to hear the pure, suspended D major of a quintet sketch from 1905; it shares some of the magical atmosphere of the ending of Verklärte Nacht. It would seem that Schoenberg doubled back before moving ahead, perhaps not so conscious of the historical inevitability of his mission as his disciples would later claim.
The latter part of the disc contains not complete works but sketches and fragments by the mature Schoenberg: brief indications for a twelve-tone quartet from 1926, a quartet from the post-1927 period, and a Fifth String Quartet from 1949. (You can see much of the manuscript material on this page at the Schoenberg Center.) Again, the composer appears to grope forward rather than stride ahead. There is a tonal tinge to the 1926 material; this work would have begun in something very much like C minor, though it quickly spins away into ambiguous realms. The post-1927 fragment is in straight-ahead C major; it's so studiously simple that Schoenberg scholars initially dated it to the period around 1900. The 1949 sketches again skirt tonal regions at the outset before moving in a harsher, more expressionistic direction. One has to wonder how Schoenberg might have reacted to the more extreme developments of the 1950s avant-garde, particularly to the coming of Stockhausen and Boulez. This music seems to hint that the always contrary Schoenberg might have emphasized ever more strongly his "classical" inheritance.
Fong and the Rangzens are exemplary throughout; they render even the briefest snippets of music with expressive conviction, somehow suggesting the larger structures that Schoenberg never wrote down. There are highly informative notes by none other than Severine Neff.
Michael Jolkovski proposes that World Atonality Day also be called the Day of A-tonement (groan).