Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1930)

By Joseph H. Auner, State University of new York at Stonybrook

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Film music for a nonexistent film. Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op. 34, was conceived independently of any specific film or scenario, beyond the sparse programmatic outline, “threatening danger, fear, catastrophe,” indicated in the subtitle. The absence of a film has posed a problem since its completion in 1930. A Dresden critic wrote of one of the first performances, “I kept asking myself for several painful minutes, what sort of film, in heaven’s name, is supposed to go with this abstract music?” Even Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg commented circumspectly on the lack of a film, “of course it is a complete work or art, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be heard synchronically (or whatever it is called) with a film created by you?”—a suggestion Berg may have recalled when he included a film sequence in his own opera, Lulu, left unfinished at his death in 1935. In recent decades several attempts have been made to provide the missing film, employing either silent films of the twenties or creating new productions specifically to accompany the music.

Yet it is precisely this independence from any one film, the invitation to see what can only be imagined, the substitution of a communal spectacle with a private, internal drama, and the creation of functional music that eludes its function, that are most characteristic of Schoenberg’s complex and confrontational relationship to artistic and cultural developments in Weimar Germany. When he wrote the piece during the fall and winter months of 1929-1930 Schoenberg was a professor of composition at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, a prestigious position which he held from 1926 to his departure from Europe in 1933. In contrast to the common view of Schoenberg as standing aloof from the contemporary scene, his works from these years illustrate his engagement with the social and technological changes that were bringing about a new mass culture, as well as his insistence on approaching these developments on his own terms.

The work was premiered under Otto Klemperer on November 6, 1930 in a symphony concert at the Kroll Opera in Berlin (preceded a few months earlier by a radio broadcast with the Frankfurt Symphony under the direction of Hans Rosbaud). Though not without protests, the work was generally well received in these and other performances, a fact that caused Schoenberg some concern, as he wrote to his pupil Heinrich Jalowetz who had conducted it in 1931: “What you told me about the performance pleases me very much. … People do seem to like the piece: ought I to draw any conclusions from that as to its quality? I mean: the public apparently likes it.”

Schoenberg’s irony here reflects a funDamental conflict he felt between the Weimar ideal of art serving the public and his sense of the moral and spiritual mission of the artist-a tension that is dramatized in his opera Moses und Aron which occupied him precisely at this time. This conflict is evident in every aspect of the Accompaniment to a Film Scene. On a practical level, the attractions of the marketplace must have played a role in his accepting the commission to contribute to a special series for the Heinrichshofen publishing house, which specialized in scores for the thriving German silent film industry. Yet while the relatively small orchestra, expanded percussion section, and stripped-down textures reflect the practices of silent film scoring, the work’s complexity, and dissonant, twelve-tone language would have prohibited its performance in a theater.

This should not be thought a miscalculation, but rather, as some critics of the time noted, as a challenge to the new medium. Schoenberg had seen in moving pictures a danger for opera and theater, and he protested against the vulgarity of the majority of films. But, as with many of his contemporaries, he also had high hopes for the possibilities film offered. In 1927, the year of the first full length talking film, The Jazz Singer, he envisioned film “as a completely new and independent instrument for innovative artistic expression.” Rejecting “marketability of wide mass appeal” as the sole factor determining production, and concentrating on “true and deep ideas and emotions,” Schoenberg believed film in Germany could rise to the level of its poetry and music.

Schoenberg’s particular interest in film can be linked to his strong visual imagination and the important role that movement, light, and color played in many of his works. The most obvious evidence of this was his talent as a painter, but even his instrumental works often have a visual component, in particular programmatic pieces like the “Colors” movement of his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, or the vivid imagery of the winter night in the Richard Dehmel poem that is represented programmatically in Transfigured Night, Op. 4. The most striking work in this regard is the opera Die glueckliche Hand (an untranslatable title, meaning literally “The Lucky Hand.”) In a 1928 lecture, Schoenberg explained the opera’s elaborate colored lighting and complex staging in terms of his vision of a new form of theater that he called “making music with the media of the stage.” As he was finishing the score in 1913 Schoenberg wrote to his publisher about the possibility of a film realization, with scenes to be designed by Kokoschka, Kandinsky, or Alfred Roller. He wrote that he was interested in film not only because it offered technical solutions to the problems of staging, but because of its potential to create “the utmost unreality … the opposite of what the cinema generally aspires to.”

The whole thing should have the effect (not of a dream) but of chords. Of music. It must never suggest symbols, or meaning, or thoughts, but simply the play of colors and forms. Just as music never drags a meaning around with it… so too this should simply be like sounds for the eye, and so far as I am concerned everyone is free to think or feel something similar to what he thinks or feels while hearing music.

If this imagined film was to be “sounds for the eye,” the Accompaniment to a Film Scene might be thought of “sights for the ear,” with the absent film as the best guarantee of “the utmost unreality.”

The eight-minute long film music is in three continuous sections following the programmatic subtitle, “threatening danger, fear, catastrophe,” (though significantly, the precise locations are not indicated in the score, and commentators disagree on where the third part begins.) Strings tremolo softly to begin the opening section. Fragmentary motives in the wind instruments coalesce into a regularly shaped melody in the oboe against a nervous string accompaniment. This theme is the first linear statement of the twelve tone row, which in various transformations makes up all the melodies and harmonies of the piece. A series of increasingly distorted variations on this melody make up the remainDer of the two minute long first section, with the idea of “threatening danger” suggested by the melody’s struggles to maintain its identity as the orchestra builds to a climax.

Beginning the approximately three minute second part, “Fear,” the melody dissolves entirely into complex repetitive figures moving at a much faster tempo. These figures gradually splinter into sharp gestures that surge through the orchestra, interrupted by powerful brass chords. As if to recapture the comparative calm of the first part, a variant of the opening melody reemerges in a strange dance-like passage, creating something of the effect of “whistling in the dark.” But this suggestion of stability dissolves, as the prominent piano part leads a massive crescendo to the shattering climax of the work.

The moment of “catastrophe” slowly subsides into the desolate third section as a variant of the melody asserts itself in the low strings against a solemn wind chorale. The mood of resignation in this most stylistically retrospective part of the piece is underscored by this melody’s resemblance to the “Muss es sein?” [“Must it be?”] theme of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet, Op. 135. As the melody unfolds, the motive is presented in various transformations, mirroring what occurs in the Beethoven work. (Notably, Schoenberg discussed Op. 135 as a prototypical twelve-tone piece in his 1941 essay on “Composition with Twelve Tones.”) But whereas the Beethoven answers the question “Muss es sein?” with joyful affirmation, the Accompaniment to a Film Scene presents no such positive solution. Instead the work concludes with a distorted recollection of the opening measures, eerie timbral effects intensifying the mood of profound disquiet.