Kafka, Schönberg, a Piano and the Question of Fear

No entry. © Charles Thibo

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.

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Intelligible music – To memorize means to understand

The other half. © Charles Thibo

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.

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Quoting Mozart, anticipating Schönberg

SchubertD46-2
Desolation. © Charles Thibo

Where to begin? With the incredibly sad introduction of the first movement? With the death of the composer’s mother? With the inexplicable lightness and dynamics of the last two movements, so diametrically opposed to the introduction? In March 1813, Franz Schubert wrote one of his very first string quartets, String Quartet No. 4 in C major, D.46. C major is often associated with a joyous or solemn mood, but this first movement has no joy and no solemnity, it exudes darkness, fear and heaviness, a broken soul, a wretched state of mind, the few glimmers of light appear like pure cynicism.

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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.

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