Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909; rev. 1949)

By Richard Hoffman, Oberlin Conservatory

Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Despite — or because of — a series of bitter disappointments during the years 1908 and 1909, both in his personal life and in his artistic endeavors, Schoenberg experienced a creative frenzy which he never again equaled. This period culminated in the composition of Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16, (summer of 1909) and the monodrama Erwartung, Opus 17 (written in the short space of a fortnight at the end of the year).

In these two years, Schoenberg’s musical language underwent a gradual change from extended tonality to atonality (Schoenberg initially abhorred the negative connotation of atonality and preferred to consider his middle, expressionist period as pan tonal) leading to the abandonment of traditional tonality or, ultimately, as he called it: “the emancipation of the dissonance.” Prior to Opus 16, the non-tonal, quasi-stream-of-consciousness intuitive compositional process was found only sporadically in certain movements or sections of a work, e.g., the Second String Quartet, Opus 10, the last movement; the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, also the final movement; several songs from the Book of the Hanging Gardens, Opus 15…all intimate chamber music intended for a knowledgeable public. For the first time, the full force of a new musical language was unleashed on a less sophisticated audience by an augmented orchestra, in all of its five movements. And what an audience it must have been at the first performance of Opus 16 on September 3, 1912, at one of the Promenade Concerts in London; Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra!1

A critique of this first performance appeared in the London Times of September 4,1912: “It was like a poem in Tibetan; not one single soul could possibly have understood it at first hearing. We can, after all, only progress from the known to the unknown; and as the program writer, who had every reason to know, said, there was not a single consonance from beginning to end. At the conclusion, half the audience hissed. That seems a too-decisive judgment, for after all, they may turn out to be wrong; the other half applauded more vehemently than the case warranted, for it could hardly have been from understanding.”

Edward Newman, the eminent music critic, wrote in The Nation: “It is not often that an English audience hisses the music it does not like; but a good third of the people the other day permitted themselves that luxury after the first performance of the five orchestra pieces of Schoenberg. Another third of the audience was not hissing because it was laughing, and the remaining third seemed too puzzled either to laugh or to hiss … May it not be that the new composer sees a logic in certain tonal relations that to the rest of us seem chaotic at present, but the coherence of which may be clear enough to us all some day?”

There exist more versions and transcriptions of Opus 16 than of any other work by Schoenberg. The original score, published by C.F. Peters in 1912, without titles; the revised version of 1922 with titles and with several changes, especially in tempo markings; a reduction for chamber ensemble, 1920; and the New Version, revised and reduced to normal size orchestra, September 1949 and revised in 1973. (Beside these authentic versions there is Anton Webern’s reduction for two pianos, 1912 – based on the first edition, but with titles – and a chamber ensemble version by Felix Greissle.)

The first piece, “Premonitions,” is based on essentially three elements: a short, fanfare-like motive, often outlining anaugmented triad; a trichord D, A-sharp, C-sharp virtually omnipresent; and a relentless multiphasic ostinato. The ostinato dominates the middle section (tutti orchestration and varied rates of speed) while the trichord triumphs at the close (low brass, flutter-tongue, crescendo) over the ostinato (cello and double-bass, diminuendo) and the descending modified fanfare motive in the low woodwinds.

The second movement, “Yesteryears,” is cast in a tripartite form and is tonally colored (opening in D-minor) with unusually pungent woodwind combinations. The middle section employs oblique chromatics. The return of the contracted initial section is like a flashback and projects the mood of nostalgia: of deja vu. The surface content of the Impressionists and Debussy’s favorite expression marking, “tristo e monotono” comes to mind.

The third piece, “Summer Morning by a Lake” (“Colors” in the 1949 version; “Farben” in the 1922 revision and in the Webern piano reduction; “Der Wechselnde Akkord” in Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble reduction of 1920), was quite literally a “watershed” piece, serving as a prototype for many post-Second-World-War serial composers in its Pointillistic use of instrumental colors. Overlapping timbral changes of a tive-note chord, each of the voices moving up a semitone and down a whole tone – at its own speed arrive at the initial pentachord a semitone lower. The entire process is reversed in the reprise, where the motion is a semitone down; and a whole tone upward. during the stretto of the three-note cell there occurs a palindromic progression of the kaleidoscopic heterogeneous timbral mixtures. The gentle oscillation of the “changing chord” reflects (according to Schoenberg) the play of light on the waves of the Traunsee as well as the rocking of the row-board on the calm surface of the lake. To complete this impressionist painting – Klangfarbenmelodie – there appears a quite realistic interference motive (predominantly in the harp and celesta) to depict fish jumping out of the water in an attempt to catch insects.

The fourth movement, “Peripetia” (the sudden turning point in the plot of the Greek drama, which assure the inevitable tragedy), is the shortest and most explosive piece of the set. The last eight bars are a crescendo (staggered entrances) ending in an overwhelming climax with a composed echo of 2-1/2 measures!

The fifth and final piece bear the title “The Obligatory Recitative.” Its richly polyphonic texture belies the fact that a single melodic line runs, uninterruptedly, from beginning to end. The “recitative” is passed through the entire orchestra as a strand of seamless fragments. The consistency of the lilting Landler-like (3/8 time) qualities results in a lyrical bucolic mood with, perhaps, a touch of bittersweet resignation so characteristic of the Austrian psyche. The apocalypse with a happy ending!

1.Actually first performed in Berlin, February 4,1912 in a two-piano, eight-hand version by Erwin Stein.

2 Arnold Schoenberg: Berlin diary, edited by Josef Rufer: The wonderful thing about music is that it allows you to express everything so the initiates will understand, but, without betraying your inmost secrets – the secrets you don’t confess even to yourself. But titles betray you after all: Moreover, the music already expresses the ideas that are important – so why use words? If words were necessary you would use them in the first place, whereas in art you can express more than in words. Anyway, the titles I might use betray no secrets, because they are either very cryptic or very technical. Thus: I. Premonitions (everyone has them), II. The Past (everyone has one of those, too), III. Chord-Colors (just technical) IV. Peripetia (vague enough, I suppose) V. The Obligato (or perhaps “fully-developed” or endless”) Recitative. But there should be a note to say that these titles were added as a necessity of publication and not to provide “poetic” atmosphere.

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Especially in its formidable E-minor outer movements, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony presents a gruff exterior to its listeners. As such, it has never been as popular with the general public as the first two symphonies (or even perhaps the understated, underperformed Third). Even as he was completing the piece in the summer of 1885 in the resort town of Murzzuschlag southwest of Vienna, Brahms himself seems to have anticipated its reception. Writing at the beginning of September to ask if Hans von Bülow might make his renowned court orchestra of Meiningen available for the premiere (which Bülow of course eagerly did), Brahms wondered whether the work would find a wider public: “I am really afraid that its taste will be affected by the climate here: the cherries never ripen here, and you wouldn’t eat them!”

Shortly before this, Brahms had sent the first movement off to his trusted musical confidante, Elisabet von Herzogenberg, who normally gushed very perceptively about each new Brahms work she received. In this case, however, an initial enthusiasm led to some doubts about the symphony’s accessibility. After analyzing some of the movement’s intricate structural features, she confessed, “I have the feeling that this work of your brain is designed too much with a view to microscopic inspection, just as if its beauties were not there for every simple music-lover to see.” “The symphony is too cerebral”, Elisabeth said; “it makes the listener or score reader work too hard: We feel we should like to fold our hands and shut our eyes and be stupid for once, leaning on the composer to rest, instead of his driving us so relentlessly afield.”

Brahms’s immediate circle in Vienna seems to have had a similar reaction. In early October, an august group assembled informally to hear Brahms and another composer, Ignaz Brüll, play through the two-piano arrangement (to be heard on tonight’s program). On this occasion Eduard Hanslick and Hans Richter, respectively the most eminent critic and conductor in Vienna, were the page-turners; among the listeners were the surgeon Theodor Billroth, the critic Gustav Dimpke, and the musicologist C. F. Pohl. The scene was described by Brahms’s biographer Max Kalbeck:

After the wonderful Allegro.. .I expected that one of those present would break out at least in a loud “Bravo.” wouldn’t allow my humble self to upstage in that way the master’s older and more competent friends. Richter murmured something into his blond beard that from afar could be taken as an expression of approval. Brüll cleared his throat and slid diffidently and embarrassedly back and forth on his piano stool. The others remained persistently silent, and since Brahms also said nothing, a rather painful silence prevailed. Finally Brahms grumbled, “So, let’s go on!” and gave a sign to continue; whereupon Hanslick heaved a sigh and quickly exploded, as if he had to relieve his mind and yet feared speaking too late: “For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.” Everyone laughed, and the two players continued.

Despite all the hemming and hawing among Brahms’s initiates, the premiere of the Fourth at Meiningen on October 25, as well as most of its subsequent performances around Germany in the winter of 1885-86 were a great success for the already revered composer. But the fact remains that the Fourth is not a work that unlocks its secrets easily; it is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems indeed to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted.

In its instrumentation, in its basic outline of four movements in the order fast-slow-scherzo-finale, and in other outward respects, the Fourth has the trappings of a conventional classic-romantic symphony in the mold of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven (before the Ninth), Schubert, and Schumann. But inside the walls, so to speak, the Fourth captures better than any work of Brahms a profoundly original dialectic lying at the center of his musical language. Nowhere is the creative tension between past and future, between tradition and innovation, more apparent than in this remarkable symphony.

The basic theme of the first movement, for example, is one of the most proleptic of the nineteenth century. It is built almost entirely from a chain of descending thirds (the notes B-G-E-C-A-F-d-sharp-B), which are, however, cast into the form of a lyrical melody. It is not surprising that this piece was roundly attacked by Hugo Wolf, the composer who was active as a critic in Vienna at the time of the symphony’s premiere, and who fumed that in the Fourth Brahms “has mastered the art of composing without ideas.” What the arch-romantic Wolf saw as lack of invention or inspiration was later seen as a virtue by one of the first modernists, Arnold Schoenberg; in his famous essay “Brahms the Progressive.”

Schoenberg openly admired Brahms’ss ability in the Fourth to build an entire melody from the replication of a single interval. In this, Brahms anticipated the stripped-down motivic economy of much twentieth-century music, including Schoenberg’s own.

The dual or Janus-like nature of the Fourth is most apparent in the famous finale, for which Brahms reaches back well past his classical forebears to the distant baroque period. This movement, fully late romantic in its harmonic language and in its means of thematic development, is cast in the ancient form of a passacaglia, or a set of thirty variations on a terse theme. As in the baroque form-and unlike its classical-romantic variations-the theme is not varied as a melody, but is rather a constant presence (or “ostinato”) in some part of the texture. The basic impulses of economy and restriction manifested by Brahms in this movement are much the same as in the single-interval theme of the first movement, which is in fact combined with the passacaglia theme at the end of the finale.

No composer before Brahms had thought to revive this archaic form in a symphonic work, although he himself had done this already in his Haydn Variations of 1873, whose finale is also a passacaglia. But in the Fourth, as with so much of his work, Brahms’s method was to have an impact on later composers. In 1897, the year of Brahms’s death, Alexander von Zemlinsky, a leading young Viennese composer and the teacher of Schoenberg, included a passacaglia as the finale of his own Symphony in B-flat. Just over a decade later, in 1908, Anton Webern would write an orchestral passacaglia as his op. 1, effectively his graduation piece from his own study with Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s other famous pupil, Alban Berg, took up the same form (treated more freely) in an atonal context in the last of his Orchestral Songs, op. 5, of 1912. The teacher of Berg and Webern himself began work on a twelve-tone Passacaglia for Orchestra in 1926; it remained incomplete, but evolved into the magnificent Variations for Orchestra op. 31.

Each of these works is directly indebted to the finale of Brahms’s Fourth. In each, the composers seek, like Brahms, to create a large, varied structure within severe self-imposed formal restraints. This aspect of Brahms’s work, his rather ascetic ideal of making the most out of the least, may have angered Hugo Wolf; but it was Brahms’s greatest legacy to the music of our century.

Botstein Focus on a Masterwork, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

This concert brings to the contemporary audience a reminiscence of a time in the history of music when the piano was the primary means of musical communication. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the spread of the piano was extraordinary. In part through the use of novel techniques of manufacture, sturdy pianos that could hold pitch were produced in a variety of sizes at a cost to the consumer that made the piano a nearly ubiquitous domestic object. It was the piano that fueled the enormous growth of the audience during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. It can be argued that the piano was used to some extent the way that radios and gramophones would be used later. It is not surprising, therefore, that the decline in piano sales coincided with the explosion of other means of musical reproduction, particularly the radio and the record player. An intermediary instrument was the player piano.

In the late nineteenth century, all varieties of music, from dance-hall music to opera and popular songs, became known through versions for piano. The piano could be taught (by means of fingering or playing by numbers) without the user having a sophisticated ear. Simplified as well as complex versions of the entire range of musical entertainment became available to households, making the piano the center for domestic entertainment. In this sense, musical literacy in the late nineteenth century was centered on the piano, its technological development–the increasing range, brightness, and power–paralleled the expansion of orchestral range and color during the late nineteenth century. Johannes Brahms, for example, was one of the first composers of international stature whose essential musical education was rooted in the piano. His predecessors, from Bach to Mendelssohn, had training and experience playing stringed instruments. Franz Schubert had been a boy soprano and was steeped in the choral tradition. But Brahms’s early development was essentially pianistic, and for the greater part of his career he felt insecure about matters of orchestration. In his early work he deferred to the advice of his close friend Joseph Joachim, the great violin virtuoso. But it was not Brahms’s predilection for the piano or his habit of thinking about orchestral sound in pianistic terms that led him to make piano versions of his orchestral music. In the 1870s and 1880s in Vienna the relative rarity of live orchestral performances made the performance of orchestral music on the piano an essential part of musical life. Most of the symphonic literature was known to the audience through versions for two hands, four hands, and two pianos. Brahms’s first presentation of the Fourth Symphony in this two-piano version was to a group of his close friends, whose judgment of the merits of the symphony was based on the piano version rather than on the orchestral realization. It therefore comes as no surprise that the symphonies by Brahms’s rival Bruckner were heard in concert form at the Bösendorfer Hall in Vienna also in two-piano versions. In short, piano versions of orchestral music in the late nineteenth century were created not merely for domestic use but also for semi-public, if not public, presentation–for listeners as well as for players.

The idea that the piano was a universal medium of musical communication appealed to the anti-romanticism of early twentieth century modernist rebels. Musicians of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern’s generation grew up in an atmosphere of lush, richly orchestrated concert and operatic music. In this new generation a suspicion developed that color and effect could mask the absence of essential musical content. Therefore, when The Society for Private Performances was created after World War I in Vienna by Alban Berg and other Schoenberg adherents, one of the stipulations was the performance of orchestral works and even chamber works on the piano so that connoisseurs and the public could confront the musical content, stripped of any distracting decoration and ornamentation. This conceit – this separation of coloration and decoration from structure – was crucial to the modernist credo of Arnold Schoenberg. Even though the Opus 16 orchestral version makes considerable, if not explicit, use of the notion of musical color, the need for a piano version was deemed essential since the greatness of the music did not lie in its outward effect but rather in the argument it made in unadorned musical terms. Webern’s version, therefore, not only fulfilled an aspiration to give Schoenberg’s novel work a greater distribution than it could possibly achieve through orchestral performance, but it also proved that the work had an essential merit as an essay on pitch and rhythmic invention. This two-piano version is consistent with Schoenberg’s own musical culture. He relished playing four-hand and two-piano versions of Mahler symphonies. He was from the era in which the knowledge of music history and the canon of musical greatness were based on learning music on the piano and not through either attending live performances or listening to recorded performances.

This concert, therefore, brings back the public and private worlds of music making of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also offers the audience an opportunity to think about the quality of musical imagination at the end of the nineteenth century; about how listeners could imagine orchestral sound without ever having heard it, much the way we hear voices when we read dialogue in a novel or picture landscapes as a result of an author’s use of language. The piano was like the text of a book that permitted the reader to spin a web of sound in her or his mind. This concert also is a test of the modernist proposition: that there are things to be learned from piano versions of the symphonic repertory, and that one can gain understanding of a piece through listening to and studying it in its piano version. These two masterpieces as works for piano are merely two in a great tradition, from Liszt to Zemlinsky, of piano versions of music made by great composers of their own work and of the work of others.

Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony

04/30/1993 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes