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.