Arnold Schönberg himself considered the work as a turning-point not in his career, but in his conception of music. It was the beginning of new era, the emancipation from the Austro-German Romantic tradition and its musical language. Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major (op. 7) respects the formal layout inherited from Brahms – four movements – and also the “structural cogency and clarity” of Brahms’ chamber music, as Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths and George Perle write in their reference work “The New Grove – Second Viennese School”. What is new, the authors note, is the fact that Schönberg casts the work as a pure work of expressivity, held together rather by a line of thought, an emotional consecutiveness, than by a set of formal laws.
Though Schönberg remembered this work with a certain pride and certainly with fondness, it seems to have been a burden while he wrote it. In 1904/05 he was pushed to transgress borders he had hitherto respected. He felt according to Griffith a certain reluctance to move towards atonality, caught between the inner pressure that dictated the direction to take and the apprehension of having no guidance on how to go on once he had penetrated this new realm. The quartet is the beginning of a musical evolution of which Schönberg would later say: “Personally I had the feeling to have fallen into an ocean of boiling water […] It burnt not only my skin, but internally [too]”.
As one would expect, the Viennese audience strongly reacted at the premiere in 1907 by the Rosé-Quartett. Paul Stefan, a writer belonging to Schönberg’s entourage, reported that many thought the work quite impossible and left the concert hall, one through the emergency exit. When people started to hiss, Gustav Mahler, who was among the audience, walked up to one of the troublemakers and said: “You must not hiss!” “I also hiss at your symphonies”, the man angrily replied according to Stefan. Today, I guess we can consider Schönberg’s work as rather tame if we compare it with contemporary classical music, which strikes me as much more daring.
Rebellion, defiance, desperation, fighting will, secret joy, return of harmony – those are the keywords that Schönberg noted in his sketchbook about his first string quartet. The composer later said that such emotions may explain the genesis of his works, but not there aesthetical content. I find this hard to believe and I think that Schönberg became the victim of a self-delusion. I found all these emotions in the different segments of the work and so will you. He may have wished to distance himself from explicit Programmmusik as it was the fashion at the turn of the century, but his music nevertheless has an extraordinary expressivity.
Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 1 has been recorded by the Leipziger Streichquartett.
© Charles Thibo