Meeting the Music of Arnold Schoenberg

By Ethan Ritz HMC ‘12Contributing Writer

The concert “Schoenberg and more...” was held on Feb. 13 at Pomona College’s Bridges Hall of Music. The concert featured work by Wadada Leo Smith, Alfred Schnittke and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was a pioneer of atonal music, which was the theme uniting all five of the pieces played. Schnittke and Smith’s pieces are presented as evolutions of the principals set down by Schoenberg about fifty years prior to their own.

To give you some aural reference points, atonal music sounds discordant and nauseous and screechy and jumpy. If the definition of tonal can be compressed to “each note is placed in a traditional, time-tested manner designed to enhance consonance and pleasure,” then atonal music is music where painstaking effort has been taking to ensure that the next note is not the note you want or expect to hear. It’s a system that initially appears chaotic but is governed by strict rules.

The first piece was Smith’s “String Quartet #4, ‘In the Diaspora: Earthquakes and Sunrise Mission.’” Smith is better known for his free jazz than his neoclassical, and there was significant improvisation in this performance. The piece opens with competing, erratic violin, which eventually sync up together in an off-key whine which serves as the backbone of the piece. Two violins play counterpoint and edge towards catharsis, but they are disrupted and the piece then descends into chaos. This descent is a common theme in the piece, and Smith resolves the piece with the whine theme held by all three violins. The rest of the piece is basically an exercise in “grating noises that stringed instruments can make” (including the first violin whamming his bow down on the strings like a hammer), and finishes up with a good minute of whine before each musician drops out one by one. What impressed me most about Smith’s piece was the use of a theme not based on a phrase, but on a single dissonant chord. It was minimalism at its finest.

The next piece was Schnittke’s “Piano Quintet,” which he wrote shortly after the death of his mother. The piece starts off with some devastated, hollow piano, which eventually gives way to a six note theme that Schnittke plays with throughout- stretching, compressing, adding chords and cutting notes, but still remaining true to form. Strings enter with a long, uneasy drone and the piano retreats to high register plinking. The second epoch is punctuated by some nauseous on-theme violin, and the piano migrates to a shortened three note theme and vicious striking. In the last section, the piano picks up yet a new theme, which is an inversion of the first and integrated with a melodic, tonal execution. The strings are stabbing, shrill, and at times overpower the piano, but the melody doesn’t quit. The piece as a whole acts as an insightful expression of grief and devastation, though the piece interestingly ends on a happy (or at least defiant) point.

After intermission, three Schoenberg pieces were played. The first, “Phantasy for Violin and Piano,” is a canonical twelve-tone composition. This approach requires each of the twelve notes on the chromatic scale to be played exactly the same number of times by the end of the piece. The piece is played by piano and one violin and involves a lot of staccato counterpoint. The violin moves to tremolo chords, and the piano is disgruntled and all over the place. The violin gets progressively furious, to the point where the threads of his bow started snapping.

The second piece, “Six Little Piano Pieces,” was comprised of minimalist, one to two minute long piano solos played in succession. “Six Little Piano Pieces” was one of Schoenberg’s first explorations of atonality, and it was readily apparent that he was putting forth effort to construct the most disjointed sounding piece he could while maintaining organizational rigor. Each piece winds around a theme consisting of three or four notes at most, inverting and compressing them seemingly at random.

The last Schoenberg piece was “Ode to Napoleon,” written in 1942 and released on the same day Goebbels publicly announced his “final solution to the Jewish question.” It was Schoenberg’s first political work, consisting of a string quartet and piano with a narration of Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon,” a poem decrying the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte (which can be read in the context of Hitler). The instruments played to reflect the words of the speech in a predictable fashion. In my opinion, this piece stands out more as a political statement than a work of music.

In the end, I found that I liked the non-Schoenberg pieces more than the ones by the headlining composer. However, I realize that it’s important to respect the works by Schoenberg as the impetus for the Smith and Schnittke pieces, and all works performed (except maybe “Ode”) were presented together effectively. The reverse-chronological order was clever, putting emphasis on the ‘de-evolution” theme. On the whole, a fine show, emotionally resonant in all the ways I wanted it to be.