Sunday, December 10, 2017

Schoenberg Insights from Telegraph Quartet

1903 photograph of Arnold Schoenberg (photographer unknown, from Wikipedia, public domain)

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Telegraph Quartet gave their first recital in their capacity as SFCM Quartet-in-Residence. The members are still those who founded the ensemble in 2013, violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. All but Shaw are SFCM alumni from the Class of 2012. The program was divided between Ludwig van Beethoven and Arnold Schoenberg. Chin played first violin in all selections, and Maile provided useful commentary regarding the Schoenberg selections.

The most ambitious work on the program was Schoenberg’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor. This piece was completed in 1905 at a time when Schoenberg was still pushing the limits of how he could express himself within the grammatical confines of tonal harmony. The quartet is in four movements played without interruption, and the duration is about 50 minutes.

This piece has a long-standing reputation as a major challenge for even the most dedicated serious listeners. Fortunately, in 1936 Schoenberg wrote an extended essay of “notes” on all four of his string quartets. He recalled that Opus 7 was originally imagined as a piece of program music, possibly modeled on the longer tone poems of Richard Strauss. He quickly abandoned this idea in favor of a more conventional approach to quartet structure. Schoenberg’s notes then offer a fascinating personal statement:
Alexander von Zemlinsky told me that Brahms had said that every time he faced difficult problems he would consult a significant work of Bach and one of Beethoven, both of which he always used to keep near his standing-desk (Stehpult).
So it was that, as Schoenberg began his work on this quartet, Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major (the composer’s first work of a significantly extended duration) was very much on his mind.

While last night’s program sheet referred to the quartet’s four movements only by their tempo markings, all in the German language, Schoenberg provided more descriptive headings in his notes. He seems to have taken it for granted that the first movement followed the traditional “sonata form” framework. He then described the second movement as “Scherzo and Trio,” the third as “Adagio,” and the last as “Rondo.” In his own comments last night, Maile avoided referring to such categories, preferring instead to offer excerpts of three themes that distinguish the first three movements of the piece, then explaining that the final movement amounted to an assembly of all preceding thematic material.

Having those excerpts played provided the attentive listener with a set of guideposts far more informative than any prose description. (Those excerpts can be found in Schoenberg’s own notes, along with several others.) Nevertheless, it is important to recognize than none of these themes was confined to its own “movement boundaries.” Indeed, Schoenberg’s imaginative approaches to “boundary-crossing” provided the listener with preparation for that “final assembly” in the fourth movement.

Mind you, the quartet is still a major challenge in its complexity. Indeed, that complexity is so rich that even the most attentive listener is unlikely to get “the big picture” from any recording of this quartet. Schoenberg packed too much into it for even the best audio technology to capture at the necessary level of fidelity. However, when in the presence of the performers themselves (not to mention many of the visual cues revealed through that presence), the attentive listener can begin to derive a certain satisfaction of growing familiarity with what Schoenberg was saying and how he chose to say it.

That familiarity was further cultivated by preceding the quartet with a much shorter composition that prepared the lister for Schoenberg’s “assembly techniques.” This was his 1921 “Weinachtsmusik” (Christmas music), composed for two violins, cello, harmonium (played by Lin), and piano (SFCM student Syon Kim). This piece offered a later example of Schoenberg following Zemlinsky’s advice. However, rather than consulting the score of a Beethoven symphony, Schoenberg turned instead to the chorale preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Unlike Bach, however, he chose to weave two Christmas carols into a single composition. The two sources were the anonymous tune “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (a rose has sprung up) and Franz Xaver Gruber’s “Silent Night.” As might be imagined, Schoenberg’s elaboration on these sources went beyond the conventional techniques of embellishment that Bach had engaged. Knowing that the themes were recognizable, Schoenberg could depart from them with impunity. This entailed transforming them, rather than just embellishing them; and transformations could involve rhythmic alterations and truncations. Eventually, however, there was the time-honored quodlibet technique of superposition, with the piano part weaving its way in and out of “Silent Night” while the other four players twisted and turned their paths around “Es ist ein Ros.”

Schoenberg was still living in Europe in 1921. Most likely he had never heard of Charles Ives. Yet there was something decidedly Ives-like in how Schoenberg had taken two all-too-familiar threads and woven an astonishingly provocative fabric from them. (Schoenberg would eventually encounter Ives’ music when he moved to the United States, probably through the Evenings on the Roof concerts in Los Angeles. We know Schoenberg was favorably and deeply impressed through a brief text on a sheet of paper that his widow found after his death and passed to Henry and Sidney Cowell while they were working on their Ives book.)

The program began with the fifth (in A major) of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets. This piece was completed in 1801, meaning that the gap between the Beethoven quartet and the Schoenberg quartet was only a few years more than a century. One might almost say that the Beethoven quartet gave Schoenberg his point of departure, but little more than that. Rhetorically, the entire Opus 18 collection offers numerous examples of Beethoven’s capacity for wit. Many of them are evident in the A major quartet, and the Telegraph clearly appreciated all of that good nature.

Nevertheless, it was clear that they were also seeking out their own paths of expressiveness. Particularly notable was a certain attention to what might be called the “punctuation marks” of the score. Beethoven often turned to silence as a powerful rhetorical device. Telegraph took many of Beethoven’s briefer full-ensemble pauses and extended them ever so slightly, almost in an attempt to keep the listener from settling comfortably into a steady rhythmic flow. This approach to interpretation could be perceived as either provocation or wit; and I, for one, am happy to go with the latter, since it would be consistent with the other witty devices Beethoven had contrived so skillfully.

The result, of course, was yet another reminder that well-conceived execution can still bring freshness to music that is now well over two centuries old.

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