The Kennedy Center

Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9

About the Work

Arnold Schoenberg Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Despite the ferocious charges of malevolent modernity that were hurled at him, Arnold Schoenberg always insisted that he was, in his own words, an "evolutionary" rather than a "revolutionary composer"-that he was simply and logically carrying forward the great German musical tradition that extended back from Brahms and Reger, through Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, to Schütz and Lassus. Schoenberg's early works (Pelleas und Melisande, Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht) showed his thorough assimilation of the grandiloquent post-Romantic style, with its extended chromaticism, gigantic orchestras and hyper-emotional expression. After a number of scores (the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16; Pierrot Lunaire; Erwartung) in which traditional tonality was replaced by dependence on motivic cells to create formal unity, he formulated his doctrine of "Composing with Twelve Tones," which systematized the selection of each melodic and harmonic pitch. The development of his art was logical, clear and, so he held, inevitable, and there is no more fascinating study in all of music to demonstrate the awesome ability of the human intellect to draw order and concision out of the infinite choices facing the creative artist.

The Chamber Symphony No. 1 of 1906 represented a crucial step in Schoenberg's artistic development. He called it the last work of his early (i.e., post-Romantic) period, but it was also the first of his pieces to use a compositional technique that was to inform his music for the rest of his life. Schoenberg had largely evolved each of his preceding compositions, in the traditional manner, from themes that were presented in the opening sections of a movement. Beginning with the Chamber Symphony, however, he replaced distinct melodies with a small set of intervals that could be continuously unfolded in various permutations and transformations throughout the piece. (The procedure was hardly new. Beethoven did a very similar thing in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony.) The Chamber Symphony stretched traditional tonal harmony to (and sometimes beyond) the point at which keys could be clearly defined, thus forcing texture, melody, and sonority to carry greater importance as form-giving devices. The score's use of a small orchestra was evidence of Schoenberg's tendency during the period to move away from the gigantic instrumental forces of his earlier works to more intimate ensembles, though he did arrange the piece for large orchestra in 1935.

The premiere of the Chamber Symphony, given on February 8, 1907 by the Rosé Quartet and members of the Vienna Philharmonic, like that of most of Schoenberg's works written in Vienna, caused a near riot, with catcalls, whistles, chair-banging, and ostentatious departures by many of the audience. Gustav Mahler, the powerful director of the Vienna Court Opera and an early champion of Schoenberg, was at the performance, and he loudly admonished those who booed, though he later admitted privately a certain puzzlement at the bold new style of his young colleague's work. "Informed opinion" lashed out at the piece. The critic August Spanuth of the Berlin Signale suggested that the score should be retitled Schreckenkammersymphonie-"Chamber-of-Horrors Symphony." James Gibbons Huneker wrote inelegantly of the music's "sharp daggers, paring away tiny slices of the victim's flesh." Schoenberg, however, was prepared for the difficult struggle to have his music accepted, and for the slow public and critical realization that his style was not willfully aberrant but was rather a valid artistic expression-that he was indeed, as Aaron Copland once said of him, "emotionally still part of the 19th century." An interesting anecdote points up Schoenberg's attitude regarding what he was convinced was his life's mission. Toward the end of the First World War, he was conscripted (during the week of his 43rd birthday) into the Austro-Hungarian army. He tried to conceal his notoriety from his fellow soldiers, but one persisted in asking, "Aren't you that controversial modern composer?" "I must admit that I am," Schoenberg replied. "Somebody had to be, and since no one else wanted to, I took it upon myself."

Though the scoring of the Chamber Symphony was modest by orchestral standards - ten winds and five strings-it was too cumbersome (and expensive) for the chamber performances that Schoenberg had considerable success arranging as his reputation spread across Europe. The expressionistic song cycle Pierrot Lunaire for voice, piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, and cello was the focal point of many of those events, and that daring manifestation of musical modernism created a sensation when he presented it in various German and Austrian cities soon after its premiere, on October 16, 1912 in Berlin. Successful performances of Pierrot in Vienna in 1921 and in Prague the following year stoked Schoenberg's ambition for a more extensive tour, but to fill an entire concert he needed some additional music, so, at his request, his student and friend Anton Webern made an arrangement of the Chamber Symphony for violin, flute, clarinet, cello, and piano between November 1922 and January 1923. Webern's arrangement was premiered in Barcelona on April 29, 1925 under Schoenberg's direction.

The Chamber Symphony, concise in form and concentrated in expression, is a continuous musical span of some 22 minutes divided into several sections indebted to both the conventional four-movement symphony and the classical sonata form. After a few preludial chords comes the presentation of the exposition's main theme, a motive that shoots upward through successive leaps of the interval of a perfect fourth. Following the presentation of a contrasting group of lyrical figures, a transition leads without pause to an inserted "scherzo with trio." The sonata structure resumes with an elaborate, contrapuntal development of the motives from the exposition. An Adagio of rich texture and deep feeling is interpolated before earlier themes return in the recapitulation. The Chamber Symphony concludes with a brilliant and vigorous coda.