Monday, April 02, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg's "Pelleas und Melisande" takes "chromaticism" to the ultimate

Last night, I followed up on previous discussion of Arnold Schoenberg by playing my 1974 by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic of Schoenberg’s “Pelleas und Melisande” (a DG CD in ADD format). 

The tone poem is structured rather like a huge one movement sonata structure but follows the story of Maeterlinck’s play  (“Pelleas and Melisande”) with a tragic love triangle between Golaud, his brother Pelleas, and Melisande.  Fratricidal rivalry for women doesn’t sound like an idea that applies today, but it fascinated composers and playwrights in the 19th Century.

Schoenberg’s compositional style follows that of “Gurre-Lieder” (this blog, Feb. 22, 2012), which he had already started.  The tone poem was completed in 1902, when Schoenberg was a virile 28. It takes chromaticism (mainly associated with Liszt and Wagner but really starting with late Mozart) to its ultimate limits.  There was no place to go after this but outright atonality. There is a yearning, constantly modulating love theme (more or less a second subject in Sonata talk) in track four. The music constantly moves among adjacent tonalities, such as C#-Minor, D#-Minor, and the central D Minor.  One of the most stunning passages, a descending figure harmonized in a way to sound just plain strange, occurs in the next to the last track. There's lots of snarling in the brass, an effect learned from Mahler but encapsulated into the rest of the orchestra.  

Last night, having listened to this, I dreamed about “the last day of the world”, bringing in elements of Lars van Trier’s film “Melancholia”.  This music would have fit as well as Wagner’s “Tristan”.

Schoenberg was not aware of Debussy’s opera  (“Pelleas et Melisande”) composed about the same time, as with this clip here.  Schoenberg actually used 9th and 11th chords and whole tone effects himself, but the effect is totally different, sounding much more challenging. Debussy's music on this material, by comparison, sounds rather gentle.  

The CD contains the string orchestra version of three of the pieces from Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite”. I think the original version for string quartet of all six movements works much better.

Here’s a 5-minute YouTube tutorial on Schoenberg’s 12-tone system.  Some of his music composed in this technique, like the Piano Concerto, sounds amazingly lush:

I used to say that "modern music" begins with the first movement of the Mahler Ninth.  That may be a stretch (how about "The Rite of Spring"?)   But one could make that claim about this 1902 tone poem of Schoenberg. 

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