Arnold Schoenberg composed these six pieces, all very short, in 1911. They were first performed in Berlin by Louis Closson on February 4, 1912. They were then published in 1913. Schoenberg wrote the first five in a single day. This is one of his first serialistic compositions, a compositional movement that he started as what he considered to be a natural response to the late-Romantic era, which contained works of very heavy chromaticism and were highly dramatic.
In a letter to Ferruccio Busoni in 1909, Schoenberg explained his serialistic inclinations thus:
My goal: complete liberation from form and symbols, context and logic. […]
Away with motivic work! […]
Away with harmony as the cement of my architecture! […]
Away with pathos! […]
And the result is, I hope, without stylized and sterilized drawn-out sentiment. […]
It should be an expression of feeling, as if really were the feeling, full of unconscious connections, not some perception of “conscious logic.”
Now I have said it, and they may burn me.
The six movements are thus:
I. Leicht, Zart
The first movement begins very quietly with simple phrases in the right hand. The left hand has a gesture of four 32nd notes, which repeats again in bar 2. Because of the serialistic pitch content, the gestures of both hands have very detailed dynamic and articulation instructions which give the piece character. At 17 bars, it is the longest of the six movements.
The second movement is very short, with a harmonic third of G and B played using a staccato articulation as the principal motive (seen in the picture below). This would be analyzed as a pitch-class set [0,4] in set theory, and the right hand figures are also heavily influenced by this tertiary relationship.
III. Sehr langame
The third movement begins with the right hand being forte and the left hand pianissimo. The left hand plays in octaves as the piece gradually gets quieter, ending with a pianississimo dynamic.
IV. Rasch, aber leicht
The fourth movement contains very short rhythmic durations, which result in a bunch of rushed notes in succession with very detailed articulation for each note. Bar 10 is the best example of this:
The serialistic influence influence on the pitch content results in a line that sounds very disjunct, perhaps giving the impression of a processing computer.
V. Etwas rasch
The fifth music returns to tertiary relationships, though the piece does not sound at all consonant. While most of the piece is legato, the thirds are often written staccato to provide a contrast.
VI. Sehr Langsam
The sixth movement is perhaps the most sparse along with the second movement. This movement features three note chords held over through multiple bars, giving it an ambience not found in the other movements. Quartal harmonies are more favored, opposite of the tertiary harmony of some of the earlier movements. It is speculated that this piece was somewhat of a tribute to Mahler, who died shortly before it was completed.
Publishers of Schoenberg’s music include:
- Belmont Music Publishers
- Universal Edition
- G. Schirmer
Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:
- Maurizio Pollini
- Glenn Gould
- Michel Béroff
Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:
Schoenberg is perhaps the least approachable amongst very famous composers. Especially to laypeople, but even to music scholars young and old, it is difficult to know how to listen to his serialistic music. The ear, so accustomed to tonal music, cannot help but try to fit the music into a tonal sense. If one is able to just listen for new sounds, Schoenberg can become increasingly interesting, which is why the Captain believes his chamber and orchestral work is more intriguing – the clash of multiple timbres is more interesting than solo piano. However, if any young listeners out there wanted to explore Schoenberg piano music, this is a great work to begin with because the pieces are so short. Get out the score and follow along!