I did a series of posts on Schoenberg back in January of 2013. Have a look at this one and click on the others in the sidebar. Indeed, I am fairly familiar with early Schoenberg and even used to have the Six Piano Pieces, op. 19 (in guitar transcription) in my repertoire. But late Schoenberg I have hardly explored at all. So let's have a look at the Violin Concerto, op. 36, written in 1936 when he was living in California and teaching at UCLA.
I don't do in-depth analysis on this blog for a couple of reasons: it is tedious to read and extremely time-consuming to execute. But I have gotten into the habit of giving a little glimpse into how a piece is structured by looking at the opening. It is often a structural and aesthetic practice of composers to foreshadow or lay out or frame a piece of music, or a movement, with the opening measures. The paradigm for this is pretty much anything written by the Viennese classicists, but the most prominent example is probably the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven where those opening four notes on two pitches really define the whole symphony:
"Organic unity" became the standard practice of composers even though few were able to achieve the focus and intensity of Haydn or Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, managed to write wonderfully structured movements that seem to overflow with a profusion of themes, but still hang together. As Schoenberg was, to some extent, following some of the basic principles of the Viennese classicists, though without traditional harmony, we should be able to gather something from the opening of his concerto. Here is the first page:
As I said I am not going to do a real analysis. But let's see what we can see from just looking at the score. The violin part uses just one motif at the beginning, the rising semitone A to B flat is repeated in the rising semitone C to D flat and inverted in the falling semitone D to C sharp and B to B flat. This passage, occupying eight measures, is the first phrase. Also, the first movement ends with the same notes it began with:
As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that theorists seem rather at odds as to the form of this movement. The Wikipedia article says that some feel it is in sonata form and others in large ternary with a coda. Personally I don't think you can say an atonal piece is in "sonata" form as that kind of structure is based on tonal relationships. At best you are mimicking a tonal form.
The first phrase of the movement, measures 1 to 8 above, is very tightly written for the violin with two rising and two falling semitones. According to Wikipedia the 12 tone row is A–B♭–E♭–B–E–F♯–C–C♯–G–A♭–D–F with the accompanying instruments providing the notes not present in the violin. For example, the violin states A B flat, then we have D sharp (same as E flat) and B in the viola and cello followed by E and F sharp. Then the violin states the next two notes and so on. For a 12 tone composer this the equivalent of Mozart stating the key by outlining the tonic and dominant chords as he does at the beginning of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:
But the difference here is that nearly all listeners are not able to absorb the structure of a 12-tone row on first hearing (or many hearings, for that matter) so the structural significance of this is pretty much lost. After many, many listenings the music will start to feel familiar, but I wonder if most listeners will still be hearing any of the structure?
Still, Schoenberg is following the basic aesthetic principles of music, so why is the music so difficult to absorb? In a sense, it is as if he took what the Viennese classicists might have done and took away every element that made it easy for the listener. These "listener-friendly" elements would include things like clear tonal structure with melodies that outline clear harmonies and equally important, I would suggest, the rhythmic gestures that present them to us: repeated notes tying everything together, rhythmic symmetry in the phrase, dance-like rhythms and making important notes arrive on important beats. Of course the Viennese classicists played with this all the time, setting up and defeating expectations in all these regards, but this only worked because there was a normal expectation. Here, it is as if Schoenberg is trying to prevent us from having any easy access to what is going on in the music. I think this fits with his general attitude throughout his career.
Just for fun, let me see if I can re-write that opening phrase, putting back those traditional gestures that make the music easily accessible. Please don't misunderstand: this is nothing more than a five-minute exercise in music theory and the only point is to say that there MIGHT be, lurking in the far background, some of the bones of the Viennese classical style.
This sounds horribly trite which might mean nothing more than it is much harder to write in the Viennese classical style than you might think. This is not meant to be a parody or satire on Schoenberg either! I'm just suggesting that what Schoenberg seems to have done is taken out every element of Classical style that is familiar, and replaced it with the unfamiliar both tonally and rhythmically. What is this called when Brecht did it in the theater? Verfremdungseffekt, which can be translated as distancing or defamiliarization effect. All I have done, by the way, is taken the bare bones of the violin melody, made them diatonic rather than chromatic and put them into more familiar kinds of rhythms. Underneath I put a simple accompaniment related to traditional harmony, changing the actual notes to ones that work in the key, which I am postulating is B flat. Trivial and trite, yes, of course.
After all that, we really need to hear what Schoenberg actually did!
Some have called this "neo-classical", but I think I have shown that the very elements that would make it "neo-classical" are precisely those Schoenberg eliminated. Stravinsky took traditional harmonies and rhythms and made them "neo" by distorting them and orchestrating them in interesting ways. But Schoenberg here is using none of those kinds of strategies that I can hear.
More to come...