Imagine a late summer afternoon in the hills of Nussdorf, in the vineyard north-west of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century. The countryside is peaceful, it is warm, the birds are silent, few people are to be seen, and all you can hear is the light breeze ruffling the leaves of the vines. In a few days, the winegrowers and their workers will start the harvest. A silent tension lies in the air, at the same time the green rolling hills exude comfort. Can you picture that? Good.
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.
Not so long ago I visited the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. The exhibition follows a transparent concept, it provides the geographical context of both Kafka’s life and his novels through audio-visual installations, historic pictures and reproductions of original documents i.e. Kafka’s letters, guide-lines he wrote for the insurance company that employed him, first editions of his novels. Two elements stand out: the scale model of the torture instrument in “The Penal Colony” and a video-installation about the novel “The Castle”. This short and scary black-and-white movie, accompanied by equally scary piano music send a couple of shivers down my spine. A castle with high walls, hostile looking people, a menacing isolated figure in a tavern… fear. I felt the inspiration for a post coming, focused on the subject of fear.
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.