Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

Edit Template

Air of another planet

25 years of programming by the Schoenberg Quartet

Fighting tirelessly for a high-minded artistic morality

Maarten Brandt

Happy New Ears

Sieuwert Verster, director of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, once noted that in no other country in the world was the amount of publicly offered music as great as it is in the Netherlands. After all, he said, where else could one find more outstanding musicians, ensembles and orchestras within the confines of such a small area than in this country-notwithstanding all of the cutbacks made with respect to cultural funding? Verster’s observation is, of course, accurate, in so far as it relates solely to the aspect of quantity. The fact is, the amount of publicly offered music has no bearing on the quality of that music, let alone on the context in which it is presented. The quality of the context-and by this, I mean programming-is a deciding factor in the reception of any kind of repertoire. Programming is a form of composing. The word “compose” literally means “putting together,” and for good reason. I would personally like to go one step further and define programming-not only a skill, but an art-as a kind of alchemy or “esoteric chemistry,” of which the main objective constitutes arranging the elements so that they reinforce instead of undermine each other, preferably in a way that is conducive to a process of continual calibration. In this manner, a new piece is given the chance to gain exposure; simultaneously, the presumably familiar aspect will take on unexpected characteristics (resulting from the perspective in which it is placed) for the listener. Good programmers have a broad perspective. They are constantly in search of current relevance in the music of all periods and, in this undertaking, do not allow themselves to be swayed by the passing fancies of the day, nor by those of a unilaterally imposed performance practice. In theory, they are open to anything that leads to intriguing combinations-“intriguing” in the sense of confrontational in a positive way-and aim to present the listener with “Happy New Ears!”, as John Cage called them, to both familiar and unfamiliar repertoire.

A healthy fish swims against the stream

The aforementioned requirements should not be underestimated, as is evident from the fact that an overwhelming majority of the public performances heard in the Netherlands are inadequately supported by what I would call a high-minded artistic morality. How else can one explain why compositions by Dmitri Shostakovich, Giya Kantcheli, Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, Louis Andriessen, Mauricio Kagel and György Kurtág enjoy greater popularity with the average concert-going public than most of the works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg or Anton Webern? By this, it is not my intention to make a value judgement about the first group of composers. Does this mean that the resounding legacy of the Second Viennese School is never heard? No, but because of disproportionately limited exposure to audiences, this legacy makes little or no lasting impression. Recently on the Schoenberg Ensemble Anniversary Concert (From 1976 to 1989, this group served as home base to the Schoenberg Quartet; for more information on this, see Niek Nelissen’s essay.), two compositions by Webern appeared like two limp leaves of lettuce stuck in the middle of a greasy Russian sandwich; consequently, the entire music press utterly ignored these two pieces, which leads me to doubt the effect that Webern had on the audience present that evening.
Fortunately, there are always favourable exceptions that prove the rule. One of these exceptions is the Schoenberg Quartet, which has unceasingly promoted the legacy of the Second Viennese School for a quarter of a century now, in addition to approximately 130 other compositions. The quartet has frequently had to swim against the stream in doing so, it being a healthy fish (and these swim against the stream, after all!). A single example illustrates this point. It is sufficiently revealing that the members of the Schoenberg Quartet once invested no less than 20,000 guilders of their own money to realise a project involving Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, as not a single government body was willing to lend them its financial support! This project subsequently resulted in fourteen concerts in three countries (of which the first performance was given at the Holland Festival, followed by performances in London and Lucerne), was recorded for Dutch television, broadcast as part of the celebration of Remembrance Day and released on CD. In any case, the collective œuvre of the four Viennese masters (The Schoenberg Quartet consistently includes Alexander Zemlinsky in this group, which I wholeheartedly endorse.) constitutes the core repertoire to which it repeatedly returns. The often punishingly difficult works of these masters-among these, less accessible works which, unfortunately, are rarely programmed by other groups as a result-are presented by the Schoenberg Quartet with the same ease that the Melos, Borodin or Vermeer Quartets would present works by Haydn, Beethoven or Mozart. And by this, I do not limit the discussion simply to Schoenberg’s “No. 1 Hit,” Verklärte Nacht; on the contrary, I make reference to compositions like his deeply probing, hallucinatory String Trio, as well as his enthralling Fourth String Quartet, both of which the Schoenberg Quartet has so often played over the last twenty-five years. To be precise, no fewer than 47 (!) and 38 times, which, as regards the String Trio, is considerably more often than even Verklärte Nacht (39 times). Pieces like Webern’s Fünf Sätze (51 times!), Sechs Bagatellen (32 times) and even the String Quartet, Op. 28 (17 times) also get high marks, which can likewise be said for both of Berg’s quartets (the String Quartet, Op. 3, 26 times to date and the Lyric Suite, 32 times). It goes without saying that so many performances have ultimately led to an extremely high level of performance-one can, in fact, speak of the evolution of a performance-practice tradition. This is best evidenced not only by the countless concerts both in the Netherlands and abroad given by the Schoenberg Quartet, but also by a recent gigantic CD production, which comprises the complete works for strings by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky, recorded on the British label, Chandos. Because it includes several interesting phonographic firsts, this is a unique project, which can be seen as supplementing earlier recordings such as the legendary interpretations of the Juilliard Quartet and the LaSalle Quartet, for instance. These include arrangements for string quartet or alternatively string quintet of Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke and his Wind Quintet arranged by Guittart; the song Hier ist Friede from the Altenberglieder, originally scored for soprano and large orchestra and transcribed by Berg for violin, cello, piano and harmonium; and Guittart’s arrangement for viola and piano of Berg’s Vier Stücke, Op. 5. Additionally, the listener encounters compositions in this monumental release that are missing in the recordings made by the Juilliard and LaSalle Quartets: the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, arranged by Webern, and Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, as well as the duos like Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano, Webern’s Opus 7 for violin and piano and his Sonata and Opus 11 for cello and piano.


Although the point here is not simply to recite a laundry list, the high-minded artistic and moral position of the Schoenberg Quartet has, judging from the above, been made sufficiently clear; furthermore, the “zeal” (and I mean this only in a positive sense) that the group’s members possess is undeniable. Through concertising, the quartet hopes to dispel once and for all such notions as “new,” “modern” and “contemporary,” which often still accompany the music of the turn of the twentieth century in general, and the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky in particular. The quartet also hopes that the general concert-going public will realise that this music now in fact belongs to the canon of standard concert repertoire-in other words, that it has become “classical music.” In actuality, however, the listener’s opportunity to hear the music of the Second Viennese School in Dutch concert halls is, unfortunately, not at all a matter of course. With the occasional exception, most of the symphony orchestras generally go out of their way to avoid this music and without the efforts of the Schoenberg Quartet, the names Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky would, on the whole, be conspicuously absent from chamber-music series. All of this because the concert-hall and chamber-music society directors and programmers simply do not view the lack of this extremely important music as a loss. On the contrary, some halls purposefully continue to hold this repertoire (and its advocates) at bay, a stark contrast to their stocking up on quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich-preferably by the cartload and all in one go-, Antonín Dvorák, Bedrich Smetana and even Béla Bartók. The choice of Bartók here is highly peculiar, as the musical language of this Hungarian master is considerably grimmer and more dissonant than that of the Second Viennese School (Webern’s response to Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet: “I find it too cacophonous.”).
As for its aforementioned “zeal,” the Schoenberg Quartet has always practised what it preaches. I hereby call the reader’s attention to the numerous thematic series both in the Netherlands and abroad (in Los Angeles, Rome and Padua, among others) which the quartet has launched. During the last three seasons, the quartet has successively presented Schoenberg’s complete works for strings, the complete works for strings by Zemlinsky, Berg and Webern, as well as-in collaboration with the Mondriaan Quartet-the six string quartets of Bartók in connection with predecessors, contemporaries and successors. The misunderstanding of the music of the “new” Viennese has everything to do, of course, with its bizarre mythicisation for which programmers, composers, performing musicians (and, unfortunately, concert-going audiences accordingly) are responsible in relation to the twelve-tone technique and to serialism, its direct result, after the Second World War. I might add that certain Dutch composers exhibit a greater need than their foreign colleagues do to prove that they were “right” by asserting a neo-Romantic or neo-tonal position, thereby opposing serialism.


Schoenberg’s music is, in fact, just as accessible or inaccessible as that of Beethoven, Bartók, Bach or Boulez, for instance. This degree of accessibility cannot merely be chalked up to a compositional method, but rather is rooted in the intrinsic, universal value and the enduring importance of their music. The work ethic of the Schoenberg Quartet is founded in the consciousness of this knowledge; the ensemble hereby operates in accordance with the ideals of its eponym. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Schoenberg himself was convinced that his music constituted not so much a break with tradition as a logical consequence of tradition; the same applies to Berg and particularly to Webern, mutatis mutandis. If one must speak of a break with tradition, then-to paraphrase Pierre Boulez freely-one should not look to the turn of the twentieth century, but rather to Beethoven’s late string quartets. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that these quartets formed essential elements of Schoenberg’s analysis and composition lessons, nor that, during a period of its development, the Schoenberg Quartet combined works like the String Trio and the First and Fourth Quartets with Beethoven’s Opuses 132 and 135. Particularly in Opus 135 during the opening of the first movement, an almost “athematic” division of melodic material over the four parts is heard, foreshadowing an approach that would become customary in twelve-tone treatment. In any case, the analogy between Beethoven and Schoenberg is unmistakably obvious. If I may presume to offer the fêted string quartet my opinion-it is, therefore, unfortunate that Beethoven is no longer part of the Schoenberg Quartet’s repertoire. This can be attributed to the frictions that this music provokes among the musicians of the quartet. Moreover, they believe that so many other quartets have already rendered these works in an exemplary manner. I should like to counter by pointing out that it is precisely those frictions that are typical of Beethoven’s late quartets, just as they are also characteristic in a different way of Schoenberg’s work. Elements in Beethoven’s music can, on the contrary, be uncovered through juxtaposition with Schoenberg’s, something other quartets do not achieve with their often polished interpretations. Most importantly, one must keep in mind Schoenberg’s belief that art was to serve truth, not so much beauty. It would certainly prove interesting, should an ensemble such as the Schoenberg Quartet-after having performed so much twentieth-century music for such a long time-go back to Beethoven, particularly to the aforementioned string quartets and, if I may be so bold as to express a most heartfelt wish, Opus 131-perhaps the most innovative piece of music Beethoven ever wrote for four string instruments. It constitutes a lone monument in the chamber-music repertoire which I would be only too delighted to hear rendered by the Schoenberg Quartet.


What is it, in fact, that makes the Schoenberg Quartet’s programming so captivating? Foremost, the unmistakable versatility that enables the quartet to incorporate compositions from various fashionable circles into its repertoire without hesitation-with the understanding that this takes place in such a way that a chemical reaction is induced by means of calibration and association within the framework of programming, thereby negating any “fashionable” element that once may have been present. Who, after all, would have conceived of pairing Shostakovich with Vermeulen or Van Vlijmen on the same concert? Or Louis Andriessen with Berg, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Webern or Schoenberg? Another example of such rock-solid programming is the foursome Pijper-Webern-Zemlinsky-Schumann. If Pijper is even programmed in the Netherlands at all, it is generally in combination with Dutch contemporaries who were closely related to him, ensuring that the outcome is, at best, of documentary value. While this may be justifiable from an “historical” perspective, one is hardly acting in the interests of Pijper’s music. Conversely, Pijper’s compatibility with Webern is much more overt, not only in view of the fact that it was Pijper of all people who discovered Webern for the Netherlands. This was the same Pijper who, although highly critical of the twelve-tone technique, was the first and only Dutchman to recognise the importance of Webern (and of Schoenberg and Berg!) nonetheless, feeling no need at all to oppose these masters. All of this goes to show that the Schoenberg Quartet certainly has more than one string in its bow. This is indisputably evidenced by the 165 compositions it has performed over the last twenty-five years-and, naturally, by its colourful discography. No fewer than seventeen world premieres and twenty-seven Dutch premieres: something to be proud of. The first category comprises several early works by Schoenberg, among which Scherzo and Trio and the Presto, but also two interesting mature compositions by Zemlinsky, as well as the aforementioned, widely talked-about arrangement of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet (internationally, the least performed of his works). The group also performs a good deal of Dutch music, particularly that which is rarely, if ever, performed by other musicians. Some of the first to spring to mind are Topos Teleios by the recently deceased Jos Kunst and the Quintetto per archi by Van Vlijmen, whose Trimurti the Schoenberg Quartet has also given unforgettable performances of, as can be witnessed from its CD recording. Among the Dutch premieres the group has given are Zemlinsky’s First and Second Quartets, some four pieces by Erwin Schulhoff-including his magnificent Sextet-, works by Bruno Maderna, Leon Kirchner, Schoenberg (Die Eiserne Brigade and Ein Stelldichein), Hindemith and Conlon Nancarrow. Furthermore, within the framework of its programming, the group strives to achieve the best balance possible between the different components of its repertoire; in addition to Beethoven, the Schoenberg Quartet has focused its attention on Schumann (Second String Quartet, Piano Quintet), Brahms (Clarinet Quintet) and Reger (Clarinet Quintet). French music is also well represented: in addition to the quartets of César Franck, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and the Concerto for Piano, Violin and String Quartet by Ernest Chausson, the Schoenberg Quartet has befriended Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (to the sheer delight of the composer himself). Additionally, it contributed to the recording of the complete chamber music of Albert Roussel, whose work also receives insufficient international attention. These facts indisputably reveal that the Schoenberg Quartet enjoys frequent collaboration with other musicians-to be precise, in no less than half of the concerts it gives.

Optimum dissemination of culture

Interestingly, relatively late in its development-that is, well after Shostakovich had been heralded as the champion of twentieth-century music on the Dutch music scene-, the Schoenberg Quartet decided to play three of this composer’s late string quartets. Not as a reason to avoid performing any truly innovative twentieth-century music; on the contrary, to be able to combine these works coherently and in a well-conceived manner with works like the airtight String Quartet by Vermeulen or the Quintetto per archi of Van Vlijmen, for instance. Or, certainly surprising, with Louis Andriessen’s Facing Death and Berg’s Lyric Suite, or with Webern’s Fünf Sätze, George Crumb’s Black Angels and Cage’s Dream, Music for the Dance. Additionally, their rendering of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth String Quartet has led to many collaborative performances with the Groep van Steen in an exceptional choreography. Such creative and highly uncustomary combinations are more often the rule than the exception when it comes to the Schoenberg Quartet. The result is a performance of Shostakovich’s music, which, despite the overkill observed among Dutch chamber-music and orchestra series with respect to this music (I call the reader’s attention in particular to the Robeco Summer Concerts and the season pamphlet of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.), is anything but redundant. The Shostakovich that the quartet produces is unadorned and “filtered” by a performance practice shaped by the Second Viennese School and by other leading twentieth-century composers. Consequently, the listener might qualify this Shostakovich as more modern and more “naked” in comparison with most other interpretations. Whoever thinks that such performances can be heard only in the Randstad is sorely mistaken. The Schoenberg Quartet cannot be charged with “performance-venue discrimination.” A programme consisting of works by Shostakovich, Vermeulen and Van Vlijmen could just as conceivably be heard at Kunsthuis 13 in Velp or the Muziekkring in Heerhugowaard as it could in the Recital Hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or at the Almeida Festival in London.
Wherein lies the essence of the attitude held by the members of the Schoenberg Quartet toward the music resting before them on their stands? In the great responsibility with which they critically tend to the legacy. All of this is rooted in an ethic inspired by Schoenberg, which can be witnessed particularly in the group’s minute attention to every detail in the score. The number of misprints and inaccuracies (roughly 600, among which were very serious omissions!) that they found in Ravel’s String Quartet alone would certainly justify a newly annotated edition of this work. Scholarship, however, does not constitute a goal for the Schoenberg Quartet but, instead, represents a kind of elixir for the performance-practice tradition of which it is a part. This elixir can offer music eternal youth, lending a newness to every performance for the listener. This brings us to the crux of what constitutes the honoured Quartet’s programming objective: bringing the “eternally new” to the surface-something entirely different from indulging in passing fancies, which is more prevalent in contemporary Dutch musical life than ever before.


All in all, the Schoenberg Quartet can look back on the last twenty-five years with gratitude and a sense of satisfaction. They have achieved much and for this reason, other chamber-music ensembles will-and should be!-envious of this group. Although conceit generally abounds in such spheres, this cannot be said of the Schoenberg Quartet. Having said this, I do hope and trust that the group will substantially expand its repertoire in the coming years. The string quartets of the American composer Elliott Carter come to mind, for instance, whose music, I believe, seems to have been written for this group in view of its rich Schoenbergian complexity and expressivity. Furthermore, these compositions lend themselves admirably to the Schoenberg Quartet’s diverse and widely varied programmatic formulas. Additionally, I eagerly look forward to its interpretations of Hans Werner Henze’s quartets, the Second String Quartet of Charles Ives, A Way a Lone by Toru Takemitsu and finally Boulez’s Livre pour cordes, which, despite its status as a “work in progress,” is certainly performable and can be programmed in an intriguing way. I would also be delighted to hear Witold Lutoslawski’s dramatic String Quartet, together with György Ligeti’s Second String Quartet, the most impressive continuation of Bartók’s string quartets. And why not Gottfried Michael Koenig’s untouched, wrathful but also mysteriously obsessive Streichquartett? Or Michael von Biel’s quartet? In addition, there are composers both in the Netherlands and abroad who could be commissioned to write pieces for the group. All of this perhaps in combination with more classical work (Fortunately, the string quintets of Bruckner and Brahms with two violas are also some of the quartet’s most sincere aspirations-talk about Viennese!), which, it is hoped, will assist the quartet in its attempts to “conquer” some of the more traditionally oriented performance venues. Perhaps as an alternative to. De klap op de vuurpijl by Willem Breuker, whose octet has resulted in a combined commission by the Schoenberg and Mondriaan Quartets, the Schoenberg Quartet might consider organising a series of whimsical New Year’s Day concerts. If only to demonstrate that the music of Johann Strauss and his peers does not differ so substantially in its vocabulary from that of Schoenberg, Brahms, Berg, Webern, Bruckner, Schubert or Mahler (By this, I am not referring to compositional techniques.). No matter how accessible or esoteric, the Schoenberg Quartet has, for the last quarter of a century, fought tirelessly for a high-minded artistic morality; in its pursuit, it has set an example for many ensembles and orchestras during a period in which the effects of cultural decay cannot be overemphasised. It is this author’s fervent hope that the group will continue on this path for many years to come to the greater glory of both Dutch music and musical life at the international level.

Muse Translations: Josh Dillon