The Kennedy Center

Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16

About the Work

Arnold Schoenberg Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
© Thomas May

Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16


Born September 13, 1874, in Vienna

Died July 13, 1951, in Los Angeles


This centenary of the beginning of a catastrophe has prompted many to reflect on the dramatic upheavals caused by the Great War. But it's also worthwhile to recall how many signs of radical change were already in place in the years leading up to it. The year 1905 saw the publication of Einstein's special theory of relativity, unsettling the stable assumptions of the Newtonian universe. And in Vienna, the great city of music in which Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born and raised, Sigmund Freud was already effecting a comparable revolution in human self-understanding with his investigations into the psyche and the unconscious.


And in 1909, just a few months after the premiere of Elektra - the opera in which Richard Strauss pressed as far as he would ever go in the direction of atonality - Schoenberg (only a decade younger than Strauss) composed his epochal Five Pieces for Orchestra. This stunningly innovative music expresses the sense of crisis and breakthrough that mark this period.


Arguably this was likewise the most experimentally far-reaching phase of Schoenberg's career as well. The crisis we intuit here is multilayered: most obviously in terms of musical language itself, of course, but also emotionally and spiritually. While the scandal-provoking music of Strauss may have suggested psychological imbalance to some, he had cocooned himself in a family life that was ostensibly stable and comfortably "bourgeois." Schoenberg, on the other hand, seems to confront his demons in both his music and his remarkable paintings of these years (work admired by no less than Wassily Kandinsky).


As with the Romantics of the previous century, it's tempting to draw connections between the art and episodes of personal upheaval, even while acknowledging the dangers of presuming any cause-and-effect relationship. At the same time, it's not irrelevant that Schoenberg's family life was in distress: the year before Five Pieces, his first wife Mathilde ran off with another painter for a brief period, though she was persuaded to return. Her lover committed suicide shortly thereafter. (Arnold and Mathilde remained married until the latter's death in 1923.)


Some years before this episode, the composer had written to Mahler (whom he came to idolize, after initial resistance): "Please forgive me, I do not have medium feelings, it is either-or!"


The stereotypical view imagines Schoenberg as an ultra-"brainy" composer bent on overthrowing traditional Western musical coordinates with a complex new system in which all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are arranged according to special rules. Yet the feverish outburst of creativity that led to his earliest full-fledged experiments with "atonality" - a term he intensely disliked, preferring "pantonality" - produced a series of works of gripping, immediate power in the years before World War One. The pianist, scholar, and eminent Schoenberg champion Charles Rosen even declared that "the emotion can often seem all too intense to the point of hysteria."


The breakdown of the old tonal system distinguishing between consonance and dissonance also dissolved familiar reference points of formal organization and even orchestration. One fascinating aspect of Five Pieces is how it reconstructs these elements in a tour de force of fantasy and invention. Only later would Schoenberg devise his "twelve-tone system" in an attempt to impose another kind of external order on his creative impulses. During this earlier period, when he followed his creative intuitions with a freer, more Expressionist intensity, Schoenberg was also involved in painting haunting self-portraits. Kandinsky referred to his gift for rendering inner visions expressible through an external form - a characterization that applies just as well to Five Pieces.


Schoenberg first introduced the Five Pieces (premiered in 1912, three years after their composition) without any programmatic titles. As Allen Shawn points out in Arnold Schoenberg's Journey (a wonderfully sympathetic survey of the artist and his world), many of his other experimentations in these crucial years involved texts that to some extent determined the musical shape (e.g., Pierrot Lunaire); of his compositions of the time without texts, Five Pieces "are unique in approaching traditional concert length." 


However, Schoenberg was later reluctantly persuaded by his publisher to provide brief titles. "Premonitions" (No. 1) ushers in the language of unrelenting tension and continual development that the composer was at this point following instinctively. "Things Past" (No. 2), with its more-readily recognizable motif of yearning and hint of a key (D minor), looks back to the cultural and personal past (the celesta's filigree later in the piece conjures the innocence of childhood) - but with sober melancholy. Schoenberg balances a kind of stasis against subtly shifting movement in "Colors" (No. 3), foregrounding timbre itself as the essential parameter and blending instrumental colors like a painter.


The violent motion of "Premonitions" returns in the incessant variety of "Peripeteia" (No. 4) - classical Greek for the "point of no return" in ancient tragedy, which here perhaps signifies Schoenberg's awareness of the significance of his musical experiments. Enigmatically titled, "The Obbligato Recitative" (No. 5) suggests the interplay between "leading voice" and accompaniment that characterizes Schoenberg's intense style of polyphony.


Shawn offers a reading of notions of temporality underlying this teeming variety: "If movement 2 represents ‘The Past,' perhaps it is possible to think of movements 1 and 4 as the active ‘Present' and 3 as ‘Eternity' or ‘Timelessness.' In this interpretation, movement 5 addresses ‘The Future.'"