Transcending Tonality and Harmony

"Musica atonale" is the name the Vienna based painter Monika Seelig gave this picture. © Charles Thibo
“Musica atonale” is the name the Vienna based painter Monika Seelig gave this picture. © Charles Thibo

Schönberg. Schönberg was the composer who managed to keep me away from contemporary classical music for decades. A concert in Weimar (Germany) that went wrong, at least in my ears. The prejudice, that Schönberg is not for me. The extrapolation that contemporary classical music is nothing for me. It’s all history by now.

In 1907/08, Arnold Schönberg wrote String Quartet No. 2 featuring not only string instruments but also a soprano voice. While the structure and the overall style of the quartet is anchored in the tradition of the 19th century, some elements announce already the future: The composer abandons at least partly triadic harmony and tonality and adds a soprano voice.

As an introduction to Schönberg’s work this piece seems ideal to me. It has new elements, but it is not yet revolutionary enough to turn away an audience whose ears are familiar with the sound of the 18th and 19th century. At least, I hope so. When the piece was performed for the first time in 1908 in Vienna, the audience started to laugh at the second movement and shout. The banter would only die down with the fourth movement. Old listening habits die hard…

Learning by doing

Schönberg was of Jewish-Hungarian origin, his father sold shoes. The family was poor, Schönberg had to drop out of school to work as a clerk in a small bank. He had learned to play the cello with the help of friends, he had played in an amateur chamber music ensemble and, again with the help of a friend, he made himself familiar with basic elements of composition. By playing chamber music himself, he learned to identify structures and harmonical sets and proceeded to write his own quartets. It was only when he met the composer  Alexander von Zemlinsky, that he did got formal musical instruction.

He began writing the quartet the same year that he took up painting. Both decisions – to take up painting and to transcend harmony and tonality – illustrate Schönberg’s need for additional means of expression. The soprano voice sets in with the third movement and is present in the fourth movement too. Both movements are poems set to music by Schönberg written by the poet Stefan George: “Litanei” (Litany) and “Entrückung” (Entrancment). Impressive. Really.

The Arnold Schönberg Center in Austria has published interesting background material on the String quartet No. 2. The recording I have has been made by the Leipziger Streichquartett, the soprano part is sung by Christiane Oelze.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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