Arnold Schoenberg is undoubtedly one of the most well-known, gap-bridging composers between the 19th and 20th century. His invention and use of serialism, atonality, and the twelve-tone technique have helped inspire some of the great minds of his generation and beyond. His teachings and writings were not only influential to his well-known and respected composition students, but to other composers and musicians worldwide. Without Arnold’s unique perspective in theory and composition, music may have never evolved into what it is today.
Arnold Schoenberg was born in September of 1874. As an Austrian composer, Schoenberg was well-associated with the expressionist movement in both German poetry and art. He was also the founder and leader of the Second Viennese School. Throughout his life, Schoenberg was known as an important musical theorist, a painter, and of course, an influential teacher in composition. Once moving to the United States around 1933, Arnold taught at several well-respected schools, and held students such as John Cage, Lou Harrison, and H. Owen Reed.
Schoenberg also experienced triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13); it may have been his superstitious nature that killed him. Regardless, Arnold Schoenberg passed shortly before midnight on Friday the 13th in July of 1951 at the age of 76 (7 + 6 = 13).
Schoenberg is often highly associated with the expressionist movement. “Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.”
As mentioned earlier, Schoenberg was one of the founders of the Second Viennese School, along with Anton Webern and Alban Berg. These three members wrote pieces that were described as Expressionist. This style was different from others claiming to write “expressive music”, due to the use of atonality, which was supposed to “free” their pieces from traditional tonality, making them more self-consciously expressive.
Earlier in his career around 1909, Arnold composed Fünf Orchesterstücke (Five Pieces for Orchestra) Op. 16. “The title of the piece’s movements, which were reluctantly added by the composer after the work’s completion upon the publisher’s request, are:
“Vorgefühle”, Sehr rasch. (“Premonitions”, very fast.)
“Vergangenes”, Mäßige Viertel. (“The Past”, moderate.)
“Farben”, Mäßige Viertel. (“Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord-Colors”, moderate.)
“Peripetie”, Sehr rasch. (“Peripetia”, very fast.)
“Das obligate Rezitativ”, Bewegte Achtel. (“The Obbligato Recitative”, with movement.)”
In this paper, we’ll be taking a closer look at the first movement, “Vorgefühle”, and examine Schoenberg’s unique writing style and architecture using serialism and atonality. This analysis will be explained by using pitch class sets and forte numbers as a reference to particular motives and themes.
The initial exposition, which happens between measures 1 and 26, houses the two main themes that we will examine throughout the movement. To begin with, we identify the first melody and pitch class set within the first 3 measures. The clearest example, which happens in the Violoncellos, is as follows:
Figure 1: m. 1-3; mvt. 1 (Vorgefuhle) op. 16 Schoenberg
This figure is consistently restated throughout the movement in several different transpositions and instruments. Together with the clarinets and horns repeating a similar melody in measures 4-6, prime sets such as (015), (016) and (024)) are found. As this is in response to the Violoncello melody found in measures 1-3, we label these all together as “Theme 1”, with a prime form of (0156); which in its entirety can be found in measures 1-6 of the first movement.
“Theme 2” is stated shortly after in the following measures of 7-9 in the double bass as seen below:
Figure 2: m.7-9; mvt. 1 (Vorgefuhle) op. 16 Schoenberg
While this second theme is not very prominent in the initial exposition, it makes a larger appearance later on in the movement after the development.
As Schoenberg introduces both of these themes, he uses special techniques to alter and develop them, to create the direction of the movement moving forward. One of the most common techniques at work is the Klangfarbenmelodie. In short, this musical technique is used to distribute a melodic element or motive throughout several instruments rather than one, therefore adding timbre and texture to the main motive.
As we transition out of the exposition (m. 20-26), we begin the development section. From here on out, an (015) pedal tone is consistently heard until the end of the movement. During the development section there isn’t much that happens in relation to (0157). This section is primarily used as a development for (0156). While fragments of both themes appear quickly, they disappear just as fast. At measure 57, we meet a large percussion hit, which triggers an even thicker ostinato in the strings. Beyond this punctuating moment, there isn’t anything truly significant to the development section regarding the themes until the end, where fragments of theme 1 (0156) are heard as we begin to transition into the third section of the movement. The end of the development is marked by a flutter tongue heard in the bassoons, horns, and low brass.
The third section of the piece (measures 79 – 112) uses a different technique not yet seen until this point. While this section still remains partially developmental to (0157) with no real regard to (0156), Schoenberg uses a musical technique called a prolation cannon. “A prolation canon or mensuration canon is a type of canon, a musical composition wherein the main melody is accompanied by one or more imitations of that melody in other voices. Not only do the voices sing or play the same melody, they do so at different speeds.” Schoenberg uses this technique in measures 94-103 as an inversion of theme 2 (0157) as seen below:
Figure 3: Strings inversion of Theme 2 (0157) during the prolation canon. m. 100-103; mvt. 1 (Vorgefuhle) op. 16 Schoenberg
With this technique and figure being the main element of this section, section three is ended by another re-statement of (0157) in its original form in the double bass found in measures 110-112. This helps move the movement on from section three to the fourth and final section beginning at measure 113. Continuing with an (015) pedal now found in the trombones, the harp also enters with a very unique ostinato.
This last section is spilt in half. Just like the original exposition (m. 1-26), the fourth section begins with variations and restatements of Theme 1 (0156). This continues on until measure 120, where a sudden but expected switch is made to Theme 2 (0157). Again, these final eight measures are filled with variations and restatements of Theme 2 (0157) until the end of the movement (m. 128).
At measure 124, the ostinato that was found in the harp switches to violoncello and the double bass. This gains intensity through the last few measures to end the movement. Just like the end of the development, this fourth and final section is also ended with a flutter tongue in the last two measures, found in the (015) pedal tone in the low brass.
It is very clear that this movement not only has structure, but also a unique contextual form. Schoenberg’s style of writing was nothing short of brilliant and concise. Combining pitch class sets with rhythmic and motivic elements such as musical prose and stratification is a very different style of writing, but takes just as much time and technique as Mozart writing a symphony, which makes it equally as brilliant.