Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is often accused of having chased away the audience with his zest for innovation. His twelve-tone system broke away the foundation underneath the tonal system, which had provided a safe haven for centuries. Deprived of his footing the listener supposedly turned his back on contemporary music. Nonsense, because not only did Schoenberg write several fantastic works, but he continues to inspire composers to date.
On Thursday 18th May, Asko|Schoenberg honours him with a concert around his Chamber Symphony No. 1. Schoenberg composed this ground-breaking piece in 1906, and it’s a key work of modern music. In it, he summed up the possibilities of classical tonality before leaving it behind forever. Moreover the line-up of ten winds and five strings – a pocket-sized symphony orchestra – laid the foundation for a thriving ensemble-culture. With its length of 20 minutes it has the form of a mini symphony.
A hundred years later, the concentrated and compressed Chamber Symphony is still fresh and overwhelming. The music balances on the borderline between tonal nineteenth-century romanticism and atonal twentieth-century expressionism. It continuously seems to burst out of its joints. Extreme dynamics, nervously interacting motifs and raw exclamations from the brass make your skin crawl. – In his startling score Schoenberg already seems to depict the impending horrors of the First World War. An impressive classic.
In 1992, the American John Adams (1947) was inspired by this iconic work in his Chamber Symphony. In his stirring piece he pairs a chromatic sound world to cartoonesque film music. He said the idea for this piece arose when he was studying the score of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. ‘Meanwhile, my seven-year-old son Sam was watching cartoons in the adjacent room. The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my mind with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive. Suddenly, I realized how much these two traditions had in common.’
Even younger generations still find inspiration in Schoenberg. For instance Jan-Peter de Graaff, born in 1992, the year in which Adams composed his Chamber Symphony. For this concert he wrote a new piece, Rimpelingen (Ripples), for cello and ensemble. The title refers to musical codes that sound like pebble stones falling on a smooth water surface. These launch a game of action and reaction between the soloist and the other musicians.
In Rimpelingen, De Graaff incorporates both Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music and the virtuoso rhythmic drive of Adams. All of this seasoned with, in the composer’s own words, ‘a pinch of jazz and a pleasant Stravinskian pepper, embedded in a hushed impressionist landscape.’
Odd man out
The Piano Quartet Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) composed in 1876 may seem the odd man out in this programme of modern music. But there is indeed a strong connection with Schoenberg. ‘I do not understand your music, but you are right, because I’m old you are young,’ Mahler said to his experimental colleague. He fervently defended him in public, and once rebuked a visitor for hissing at a concert with Schoenberg’s music. ‘I also hiss at your music,’ the culprit answered.
Schoenberg initially considered Mahler’s music to be uninteresting old hat, but gradually learnt to appreciate it. He even made very successful edits of his song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde. And here we come full circle. Mahler’s highly romantic Piano Quartet perfectly illustrates the decadent Viennese fin-de-siècle atmosphere Schoenberg said goodbye to in his Chamber Symphony.