Works performed by Earplay:

Chamber Symphony, Op. 9
Pierrot Lunaire
Ein Stelldichein
String Trio, Op. 45

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna, Austria in 1874 into a middle-class Jewish family. In his youth, he played cello and was passionate about Viennese musical culture. Though he had no formal training in composition, according to his own admission, he did receive tutoring in counterpoint from his close friend and future brother-in-law Alexander von Zemlinsky (who had studied at the Vienna Conservatory with Fuchs and Bruckner).

In his earliest works, Schoenberg wrote in a sophisticated, almost hyper-romantic style, a fusion of intricate Brahmsian thematicism and rich Wagnarian chromaticism. From very early in his career, he was a controversial figure. His tone poem Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 for string sextet (1899) was dismissed from a composition contest by the conservative judges of the Viennese musical establishment for having an invalid chord (an inverted ninth chord), which we now understand to be simply the result of his evolving countrapuntal techniques. Schoenberg’s compositional technique of constant motivic development and variation would eventually lead him to move beyond 19th-century tonality into a completely chromatic harmonic language, referred to by his critics as atonality.

His works Op. 11 and on eschew traditional tonality for total chromaticism. He would refer to this move in his substantial book on harmonic theory, Harmonielehre (1922), as the emancipation of the dissonance—the notion that those intervals that where previously considered dissonant are only more remote consonances in the overtone series.

One of the more challenging aspects of Schoenberg’s music is not simply its move from diatonicism to chromaticism, but also his rhythmic evolution from common periodic phrase structures to aperiodic phrase structures as well as overlapping polyphonic phrasing. One of his star students, Alban Berg, explores this question in his 1924 essay, "Why is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?" Berg contends that it is the constant development of the thematic and motivic material that necessarily leads to these complex rhythmic structures, and that music without much literal repetition and rhythmic regularity is inevitably challenging to most adherents to Viennese Classicism, and yet those willing to make the extra effort to engage this music will be richly rewarded.

— B. B.

[from program for May 20, 2013 concert]