Freeing the dissonance, breaking new ground

Arnold Schönberg painted by Arnold Schönberg.

Chamber music is chamber music, but then again it is not. Nothing is like it appears, especially not if Arnold Schönberg is involved. In 1906 he wrote a fascinating piece he called “Chamber symphony for 15 solo instruments”. It is futile to discuss, whether this title makes any sense if you care to listen to the recording of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Sir Simon Rattle. Two things will happen then. Upon the first bars you will be tempted to ask: What, this is Schönberg? Of course. And you will concur with me that this piece is exceptional.

Fusion of melody and harmony

For Schönberg it was exceptional too. Op. 9 marks a turning point in his compositional thinking. The piece sounds like he still feels bound to the 19th century principles of harmony and tonality, but as a matter of fact he discards the “official” key – E major – already at the introduction of the thematic material. The composer himself saw this work as the culminating point of his first stylistic period and highlights what makes this piece exceptional for him: He succeeded in “totally fusing melody and harmony”. His ultimate goal was the “emancipation of dissonance”. He had been looking for “a way out of the confusing problems in which young composers like me had become entangled through Richard Wagner’s harmonic, formal, orchestral and emotional innovations.” With this piece Schönberg was convinced to have found that way out.

A five-part sonata form

The piece is written in five parts; I hesitate to speak about five movements because the five parts are the building blocks of one single long sonata movement: exposition of the thematic material, inserted scherzo, development of the thematic material, inserted adagio and finally the recapitulation of the thematic material. Schönberg’s idea was to have uninterrupted melodic, harmonic and contrapuntally variations of the two main themes.

The composer of the “Chamber Symphony” intended to write a reduction to the essence of sound, a very dense piece. That is the reason he had a small ensemble of  performers in mind: violin, viola, cello and double-bass, flute, oboe, English horn, two horns, three clarinets, one bassoon and one contra-bassoon.  He also had a precise idea about the seating of the performers: the strings left and right of the conductor, the woods in the middle row, the two horns centered in the back row. Later, in 1922, he had misgivings about the weak position of the strings in the light of the dominance of the winds. Thus he wrote a second version for a full symphonic orchestra and a final version in 1935.

Schönberg’s work is a symphony and a piece of chamber music at the same time, but, what is more important, it is a successful music experiment. It charms the ear despite the composer’s ambition to let dissonance roam freely across the piece.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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