Simon Rattle presents Schoenberg’s sensuous side

07 Nov 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Evelyn Herlitzius

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompaniment to a Film Scene), op. 34 (10 min.)

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Erwartung (Expectation), monodrama, op. 17 (32 min.)

    Evelyn Herlitzius Soprano

  • Johannes Brahms
    Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, op. 25 (orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg) (47 min.)

  • free

    John Carewe talks about Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (Expectation) (18 min.)

Just like Bach, who he very much admired, Schoenberg is regarded primarily as a creator of “high-brow” music. There is, however – as with the Thomaskantor – also another, sensuous side to Schoenberg, full of emotion, richness of sound and even humour. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker invite you to immerse yourself in this often overlooked sphere of Schoenberg’s work.

The concert opens with the Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (“Music to a film scene”). Although the film in question was never made, it is easy to imagine the gloomy plot, partly from the extant cue titles: “Danger looms, Fear, Catastrophe” – but mostly because Schoenberg’s music knows how to create oppressive pictures for the listener’s inner eye. Yet more brutal, even psychotic, is the story behind the monodrama Erwartung: a young woman loses her way in the forest, finds a corpse and discovers to her horror that it is her lover. Evelyn Herlitzius, a highly sought-after dramatic soprano who has been acclaimed for her performances as Brünnhilde and Kundry at the Bayreuth Festival, makes her début as the soloist.

The concert closes with Schoenberg’s sumptuous orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1. The finale especially, entitled “Rondo alla zingarese” creates a high-spiritedness otherwise hardly associated with Schoenberg. The composer himself was highly satisfied with his arrangement of the piece, saying – half-jokingly, half seriously – that he had helped Brahms to no less than a Fifth Symphony.

Traditionally progressive

Works by Arnold Schoenberg and Johannes Brahms

“Am I to conform to a fad, like American movies, which have managed to overexploit and ruin a good thing in just two decades?” On 30 March 1931, Arnold Schoenberg posed this rhetorical question to the music critic Heinrich Strobel in a Berlin Radio interview given in conjunction with a broadcast of his Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszeneop. 34. Strobel asked about a possible context for performing this piece of musical accompaniment: “You undoubtedly had an application in mind when you were writing the work.” But in fact, images for Schoenberg’s “film music” had yet to be found: “When I think of motion pictures, I’m thinking about those of the future, which will necessarily be more artistic. And it’s those that my music will fit!”

Schoenberg received the commission in 1929 without any concrete cinematic context being specified: the publishing house of Heinrichshofen could not imagine persuading him to write the score for an existing film, which would entail subordinating himself to the requirements of the images. In his “Accompaniment to a Film Scene”, using a small orchestra with slightly augmented percussion, Schoenberg’s orientation was the silent film: in the score he supplies three terse indications of situations that “fit” his music – “threatening danger”, “fear”, “catastrophe”. His music, in the form of a compositional psychogram, depicts the straying thoughts, unsettling emotions and suspicions of an imaginary individual in a threatening situation. “Music can imitate how the individual feels inside, and in this sense programme music is possible,” wrote Schoenberg as early as 1917, thereby underscoring his intention of using music to represent the unutterable and the visionary, but not to retell a plot.

A close programmatic relationship exists between the Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene and Schoenberg’s first stage work, the 1909 monodrama Erwartungop. 17. Its text was the work of the Viennese physician and author Marie Pappenheim, who met with the composer in August 1909 and at his behest wrote the libretto for a one-act opera, completing it within three weeks time. The expressionistic dramatic text has only one character and a minimum of action: a woman enters a wood at night in search of her lover, eventually stumbling against his murdered body. In four scenes Pappenheim summons up from her protagonist a vast range of psychological states, kaleidoscopically alternating between uncertainty, hope, menace, fear, horror, passion, jealousy and loneliness.

Schoenberg produced his atonal setting in only 17 days, following precisely the sequence of mental processes described in the text and reaching its dynamic climax at the moment in which the woman becomes aware of her dead lover. Schoenberg shapes the catastrophe into a vocal line of effusively hysterical intensity, whose dramatic tension is made even greater when it is suddenly broken off by lyrical passages reflecting on the lovers’ relationship. Here the most delicate orchestral colours are created out of the combination of celesta, harp, flute and high strings.

Towards the end of the work, the main character’s extreme emotional situation is plumbed once more in a musically extravagant fashion as the woman’s jealousy is explored: her dead lover is still gazing with open eyes in the direction of the house in which his new love – and possible murderer – is living. Schoenberg juxtaposes the soprano voice’s highly expressive screaming with violently surging orchestral sonorities, including genuinely fierce attacks from the brass and percussion. The composer was probably dealing here with a personal family tragedy that had occurred shortly before the creation of his monodrama. A liaison had developed between the painter Richard Gerstl and Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde (née Zemlinsky), which came to a head when she went to live with Gerstl during the summer of 1908. Only with difficulty was she persuaded to return to her family, and in November 1908 Gerstl committed suicide. That Schoenberg’s break with tonality fell during this period of domestic crisis is probably only coincidental.

In 1925 Schoenberg was appointed director of the masterclass in composition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, which brought with it public acknowledgement of his significant position in cultural life. It was a bitter setback when the Nazi authorities, deeming him a “non-Aryan”, denied him his rootedness in the Austro-German musical tradition, driving him to emigrate in 1933 but also challenging him to demonstrate, both in lectures and in his music, who the rightful heirs of Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner really were.

In conjunction with the centenary of Johannes Brahms’s birth on 12 February 1933, Schoenberg gave a radio lecture, “Brahms, the Progressive”, in which he attempted to demonstrate a line of tradition linking himself to Beethoven and Brahms. He was fascinated, above all, with Brahms’s technique of motivic-thematic treatment (which Brahms had carried on from Beethoven), a process that Schoenberg termed “developing variation”. When – four years later, during his “exile” in California – Schoenberg was asked by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for a transcription, he chose Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor op. 25.

The G minor Quartet’s first movement struck Schoenberg as an especially good example of his admired composer’s “progressiveness”. To his contemporaries, on the other hand, it was still incomprehensible. Like Clara Schumann, who played the piano part at the work’s premiere in Hamburg on 16 November 1861, Brahms’s friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, criticized aspects of the opening movement that we now regard as innovative: “It seems to me to be markedly inferior in invention to the following movements, and some of its irregularities of rhythmic construction are not justified by their qualities.”

Schoenberg’s orchestral version of the work, which he jokingly referred to as “Brahms’s Fifth”, fully exploits the potential of a large, late Romantic orchestra in order to do justice to string parts that can easily be covered by the piano: “I wanted for once to hear everything, and I’ve achieved that.” Schoenberg’s tendency to take too literally Brahms’s predilection “for very low bass lines, for which the orchestra possessed only a small number of instruments”, often painting with too broad a brush, will disturb only those literally expecting to hear a “Fifth”.

Klaus Oehl

Translation: Richard Evidon

Evelyn Herlitzius studied at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg, winning the Meistersinger Competition in Nuremberg in 1993. She joined the Dresden State Opera in 1997, having previously appeared as Leonore in Fidelio at the 1996 Bregenz Festival and in Hans Werner Henze’s Venus und Adonis at the Bavarian State Opera in May 1997. Among the roles that Evelyn Herlitzius sang in Dresden were Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in the Ring, Kundry in Parsifal and the title roles in Jenůfa, Turandot, Salome and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She has appeared regularly with the Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Stuttgart State Opera, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, La Scala, Milan, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and the opera houses in Monte Carlo and Bilbao. Between 2002 and 2004 Evelyn Herlitzius sang Brünnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival, returning in 2006 and 2007 as Kundry. As a concert singer she has appeared both at home and abroad with the most prestigious orchestras and conductors. This is her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom she will also be performing Schoenberg’s Erwartung in mid-November in New York under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Evelyn Herlitzius is the recipient of the 1999 Christel Goltz Award. In 2002 she was appointed a Kammersängerin, and in 2006 she received the “Faust” German Theatre Award.

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