Perpetual postponement – such was the fate of this post. It just never seemed right, the muse took more than two years to come up with an idea. Today is the day, no, tonight is the night to write something about Arnold Schönberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23. A special piece requiring a special mood, and perhaps I first had to write that post about Schubert’s String Quartet in C major and its link to Mozart’s “Dissonant Quartet” before I could write anything about this work.
Are we back in the realm of dissonance now? Yes and no. Yes for the newcomers here, who may take a step back when listening to Schönberg’s piano pieces and ask: What the…? No for the old hands who by now know that I usually find harmony and beauty in works apparently dissonant. True, Op. 23, written between 1920 and 1923, illustrates Schönberg’s passage from tradition to 12-tone-serialism*, but the careful construction of the five pieces reveals pattern and tonal segments. What is more important is the fact that the five pieces have a distinct, individual emotional expressiveness that I find hard to describe. All I can do is recommend the recordings either by Grete Sultan or by Hardy Rittner listen to the five pieces at least three times and see, feel what the do with your mind, your emotions. These pieces are truly individual experiences, changing over time.
Schönberg was aware of the challenge that problems that complex musical structures without an obvious melody pose to the audience and he looked for other parameters to make the music intelligible, the musicologist Hartmut Krones writes. Schönberg was convinced that to memorize or to recognize meant a step forward to a better understanding. Repetitive elements were part of his solutions to give his pieces coherence, so were the clear separation between different themes.
The Five Piano Pieces illustrate this technique rather well and will let you feel the suggestive power of Schönberg’s music, provided you listen to the pieces several times. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1951 – he had the firm conviction (music history had proved him right, hat music without a tonal center – what others called atonality, a term that Schönberg rejected – had finally become intelligible and a way to transport a message.
© Charles Thibo