Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/5/16: Schoenberg's Second String Quartet

German music is one of the supreme glories of human creation. It's not only music, but literature, philosophy, and its own form of mathematics. It was an unbroken two-hundred year line from Bach to Schoenberg that belongs not to Germany but us all, and was killed not by atonality but by the violent forces that made atonality so vivid.
There was a psychic fluid which emanated from Arnold Schoenberg's pen. People find his music overly intellectual, but it is precisely the opposite. His music communicates things so emotional, so intimate, so expressive, so erotic, so visceral, so graphic, that it requires an entirely new level of musical discipline to bring it into focus. Occasionally, his music petered into overabstraction, but that's only a very small part of his output. Atonality is no great evil that misses the essence of what music does, it was a very cogent response to the world as it was at the precipice of World Wars.
Schoenberg's music not only seems to show the tremors of approaching war, but also the very incursions into space that followed the wars. Schoenberg always identified strongly with Moses, the prophet spurned by his people for idolatry. His comparing himself to a great prophet was part self-aggrandizement, but when you realize how vividly into the future Schoenberg seemed to see, you can find yourself momentarily wondering if perhaps there was something mystical about his genius. A later composer, Pierre Boulez, said that with Schoenberg, music left the Age of Newton and stepped into the Age of Einstein.
1908 was the year Schoenberg went took the bold step. It was a heartrending year in his life. His wife, Mathilde, left him for his upstairs neighbor and painting teacher, Richard Gerstl. When Mathilde returned to Arnold, Gerstl committed suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself - a particularly graphic ending even for Vienna, where suicide is considered something of an art.
In his second String Quartet, which he wrote during this emotional crisis, you feel Schoenberg backed into his emotional corner. The first movement is simply mournful, the second rages like a meth addict. Suddenly, unbidden and shockingly, a soprano enters for the final two movements. Let's just let the text speak for them:
III. Litany:
Deep is the sadness that gloomily comes over me,
Again I step, Lord, in your house.
Long was the journey, my limbs are weary,
The shrines are empty, only anguish is full.
My thirsty tongue desires wine.
The battle was hard, my arm is stiff.
Grudge peace to my staggering steps,
for my hungry gums break your bread!
Weak is my breath, calling the dream,
my hands are hollow, my mouth fevers.
Lend your coolness, douse the fires,
rub out hope, send the light!
Fires in my heart still glow, open,
inside my heart a cry wakes.
Kill the longing, close the wound!
Take my love away, give me your joy!
IV. Rapture:
I feel air from another planet.
I faintly through the darkness see faces
Friendly even now, turning toward me.
And trees and paths that I loved fade
So I can scarcely know them and you bright
Beloved shadow—summoner of my anguish--
Are only extinguished completely in a deep glowing
In the frenzy of the fight
With a pious show of reason.
I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,
With unfathomable thanks and unnamed praise,
Bereft of desire, I surrender myself to the great breath.
A violent wind passes over me
In the thrill of consecration where ardent cries
In dust flung by women on the ground:
Then I see a filmy mist rising
In a sun-filled, open expanse
That includes only the farthest mountain hatches.
The land looks white and smooth like whey,
I climb over enormous canyons.
I feel as if above the last cloud
Swimming in a sea of crystal radiance--
I am only a spark of the holy fire
I am only a whisper of the holy voice.
And by that final movement, we feel the air from another planet. Schoenberg has stepped into the great unknown of tonal chaos, a world so unfamiliar, so without foundation or support that it must speak to a near future in which the world was about to upheave.

No comments:

Post a Comment