Originally published on June 4, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
The diagram above is from my well-worn (revised edition) paperback copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Structural Functions of Harmony. It was meant to illustrate one of the fundamental principles of the book:
The concept of regions is a logical consequence of the principle of monotonality. According to this principle, every digression from the tonic is considered to be still within the tonality, whether directly or indirectly, closely or remotely related. In other words, there is only one tonality in a piece, and every segment formerly considered as another tonality is only a region, a harmonic contrast within that tonality.
For example, if the first theme of a sonata movement is in C major and it is followed by a second theme that, on the surface, appears to be in A minor, then that new theme involves a change of region from the center of the outlined cross to the left-hand arm of that cross. That chart, as a whole, also provides a representation of Schoenberg’s understanding of “closely or remotely related.” If one were to make only horizontal or vertical “moves” to adjacent regions, then the “distance” between any two regions could be defined as the number of moves one would have to make. Traditionally, these adjacent moves were regarded as the most “acceptable,” while “leaping around the chart” could be dismissed as outrageous.
I can think of no better way to introduce Franz Schubert, particularly during the final year of his life, than through Schoenberg’s framework. Schubert is well represented by examples in Schoenberg’s book; but Schoenberg does not dwell on some of his most daring “leaps” or the turn-on-a-dime rapidity with which he could make them. It is through this challenge of the traditional approach to Schoenberg’s framework that we can appreciate Schubert at his most innovative, and it is through this post hoc connection to Schoenberg that we may begin to appreciate why Alban Berg is such a suitable companion for Schubert in the San Francisco Symphony Dawn to Twilight concerts.
Last night’s event was entitled A Schubert/Berg Journey; and the full extent of that journey included the pre-concert recital of two of Schubert’s four-hand piano works as well as the concert itself. As Paul Hersh demonstrated back in March, Schubert’s final year was a good one for that four-hand repertoire; and it was particularly interesting that last night began with the D. 951 A major four-hand rondo from that final year. On the surface this is an innocuously engaging rondo movement, performed sociably by Michael Tilson Thomas and Yefim Bronfman; but beneath the surface Schubert has taken one of the oldest of musical forms as a point of departure for pushing the harmonic envelope. The same can be said for the other final-year work on the program, the song “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (D. 965) in which the piano accompanies what amounts to a duet for soprano and clarinet. In this case, however, the harmonic swings are complemented with mood swings (due in some part to a text that was “cobbled together from two disparate poems,” as James Keller put it in the program book). Soprano Laura Aikin dealt with these moods as agilely as with Schubert’s music, while Carey Bell’s clarinet was equally at home with the meditatively lyric and the virtuoso gymnastic. Serving as accompanist Thomas provided the solid foundation upon which both Aikin and Bell could bring full expressiveness to their parts.
The shift from Schubert’s pastoral to Berg’s orchestral excerpts from his Lulu opera might strike some as incongruous (at least among those polite enough to remain in Davies after having applauded Schubert with so much vigor). However, this suite is a product of Berg’s final year and thus perfectly complemented D. 951 and D. 965. Furthermore, in the spirit of D. 965, the suite provides its own “journey” through a complex spectrum of moods, two of which were rendered as texts sung by Aikin. From a musical point of view, if the Schubert compositions involved previously unattempted leaps around Schoenberg’s regions, Lulu stands as one of the most extended efforts towards what Schoenberg called “the emancipation of the dissonance,” drawing upon, but not slavishly following, the serial rigor of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory. Berg prepared this suite before completing the opera as a means of preparing listeners for the “new sounds” of this work. The five movements of the suite (one of which was performed before the intermission, the remainder concluding the evening) continue to do that in the hope that opera-goers will one day be as eager to spend an evening with Lulu as they would currently spend with Aida.
Last week I wrote about the gap between the early songs that Berg composed between 1905 and 1908 and his Opus 6 orchestral pieces, completed in 1915. That gap was filled in a logically meaningful manner during last night’s “journey.” Yefim Bronfman performed the Opus 1 piano sonata from 1908, and Laura Aikin sang the Opus 4 orchestral songs that Berg composed in 1912 on texts by Peter Altenberg. Dissonance has not yet been totally emancipated in the sonata; but it is clear that Berg is seeking his orientation from some source other than a map of harmonic regions (or, for that matter, the structural traditions of the sonata itself). What begins to emerge is a new sense of syntax, according to which “primary text” can be distinguished from “embellishing passages.” Thus, Bronfman’s performance followed guidelines similar to those Pierre Boulez has discussed in his conducting Mahler, the need, as James Oestreich recently reported Boulez as saying in The New York Times, “to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.” The climaxes of this Berg sonata are rhetorically no different from those of a late piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; and Bronfman brought to Berg the same sense of “climax management” that we would expect of any good Beethoven performance.
Dissonance is far more emancipated in Opus 4; and each of these songs is so brief that they provide palatable foretastes of the more extended dissonances that Berg would explore in Opus 6 (and subsequently scale up to his Wozzeck opera). The Altenberg texts were, themselves, brief because each was composed on the back of a picture postcard. Presumably those texts reflect, at least in part, on the pictures on the cards; but it seems to be the case that the cards themselves have been lost. For that matter it is unclear whether Berg ever saw the cards themselves. However, if Altenberg’s texts reflected on images, then Berg’s settings offer rich reflections on Altenberg’s reflections. Indeed, Berg’s ability to conjure up connotations of the natural forces of snowstorms and thunderstorms was subsequently exploited on a larger scale in his scene-setting music in Wozzeck. This is highly stimulating music, far more than an academic exercise through which we may cultivate our understanding of how to listen to Berg. From this point of view, it is both surprising and disappointing that this was the first San Francisco Symphony performance of these songs. Hopefully, the wait for the next performance will not be quite as long.
Finally, Schubert was represented by more than his final year. Julia Fischer performed his 1816 rondo in A major for violin and strings (D. 438). This is more “traditional” Schubert; and grace was the key operative element in Fisher’s performance. To this end she was well supported by Thomas’ decision to conduct a highly-reduced string ensemble. The positive energy between Fisher and this group was particularly emphasized by her attention equally divided between Thomas on the podium and Alexander Barantschik in the concertmaster’s chair. A similar spirit of intimacy emerged in the second rondo that Thomas performed with Bronfman in the pre-concert recital, D. 608 in D major from 1818.
This was, indeed, a journey well worth taking whose only problem is that tonight will be the sole opportunity to take it for those who missed last night!