Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

Edit Template

Air of another planet

Anniversary Programme V

Programme notes

Was aber da für ein Triumphieren im Geiste gewesen, kann ich nicht schreiben oder reden; es lässt sich auch mit nichts vergleichen, als nur mit dem, wo mitten im Tode das Leben geboren wird, und vergleicht sich mit der Auferstehung der Toten. In diesem Lichte hat mein Geist alsbald durch alles gesehen und an allen Kreaturen, selbst an Kraut und Grass, Gott erkannt, wer er sei und wie er sei, und was sein Wille ist.

Jacob Boehme

Early music?
Now that we are living in the twenty-first century, our attitude toward the twentieth century is identical to the one that, until recently, we held in relation to the nineteenth century. Just as a concert of works by Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven would have been considered the most natural thing in the world during the last one hundred years, it would stand to reason that this should also be the case today with a programme such as this one. Schoenberg, Webern and Berg are, after all, classical if not “early” composers by now, certainly if one bears in mind that, throughout the centuries, the notion of “early music” has been interpreted in different ways. Consider, for instance, the society “Concerts of ancient music,” which came into being in eighteenth-century England. All music written more than twenty years prior was invariably considered early music. According to this standard, key works such as Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Berio’s Sinfonia, as well as the complete works of Bernd Alois Zimmermann would fall into this category as a matter of course, while the resounding legacies of the four Viennese masters (including Zemlinsky) would be laid to rest in the mausoleum of “prehistoric music”! Consequently, one could safely characterise the fifth programme as quite classic and furthermore, unequivocally Romantic. At this juncture, we should point out that a composer’s use of a particular compositional technique-in the case of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the dodecaphonic or twelve-tone technique-says nothing about the intrinsic emotional value of the music. If a composition must be legitimised beforehand through analysis, then something is seriously wrong. In the case of a masterwork, however, the listener might have questions regarding the whys and wherefores of the piece. More important, though, is the understanding that, regardless of their mutual similarities and differences, Schoenberg and his disciples availed themselves of the same vocabulary as their Viennese predecessors-be it Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss or Mahler. The three masters did everything within their power to underscore their deep devotion to tradition. Ultimately in fact, tradition constituted such a substantial factor in their work that one would be perfectly justified in interpreting their collective œuvre as a set of dialogues with tradition.

Any listener who can approach Webern’s Sechs Bagatellen, for instance, in this way will suddenly observe unexpected commonalities with the fragility heard in some of Schubert’s songs and quartets or with the vulnerable lyricism witnessed in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which Berg highly admired. Webern’s conception of time is, of course, completely different, although the composer himself did not at all experience his so-called aphoristic pieces as such. With regard to the Bagatellen, Schoenberg aptly observed: “Jeder Seufzer lässt sich zu einem Roman ausdehnen.” One might think in terms of a raindrop that mirrors the entire surrounding landscape, bearing in mind the alchemic credo of the macrocosm which is fully reflected in the microcosm (“As above, so below.”). The German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), held this same view and his words (see the motto above) served as the inspiration for one of Webern’s longest compositions, the one-movement String Quartet, written in 1905 and lasting approximately fifteen minutes. The core of this piece consists of three notes (which can be interpreted as representing the Holy Trinity). An extraordinarily rich and contrapuntal development emanates from these, finally culminating in a sober and resigned E major. In the String Quartet, the listener is struck by the way material is compressed into a complex fabric of voices; this process anticipates Webern’s Passacaglia, Opus 1 for large orchestra, which he completed in 1908.

Second nature
A characteristic typical of Romanticism is the incorporation of the autobiographical in music. This is the case in Schoenberg’s String Trio, as well as in Berg’s Lyric Suite. In the String Trio, the musical embodiment of a near-death experience that the composer underwent serves as the creative stimulus, while in the Lyric Suite, it is Berg’s love affair with Franz Werfel’s sister, Hanna Fuchs-Robbetin. No matter how interesting this knowledge may be in itself, neither the inspiration for a particular piece of music nor the programme on which it is based makes that piece, by definition, a masterwork. It goes without saying, however, that both the String Trio and the Lyric Suite belong to this category. Both these works prove that music written in accordance with the rules of the twelve-tone technique can be just as spontaneous and dramatic as music written in C major, as the technique had completely become second nature to the composers employing it. The Lyric Suite consists of six movements, three of which are freely atonal and three that are strictly twelve-tone. A listener unaware of this fact will not notice this, however. “Strictly twelve-tone” is, perhaps, an overstatement, since Berg’s employment of the twelve-tone system is so versatile that he succeeds effortlessly in incorporating quotes from tonal compositions, such as Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (“Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen”) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as is witnessed in the both literally and figuratively desolate last movement. Although it is, strictly speaking, a twelve-tone composition, Schoenberg’s String Trio also teems with tonal references, though in contrast to the Berg, these are not literal quotes. It might be better at this point to speak of archetypes. This hallucinatory work possesses a highly Erlkönig-like quality and the listener is often reminded of Schubert’s deserted and etherealised expressivity in other ways as well. The balance that Schoenberg achieves between a strict employment of the twelve-tone technique and an unmistakably Romantic language of expressive gestures has captured Jan van Vlijmen’s imagination, the only composer in the Netherlands besides Kees van Baaren in whose music the legacy established by Schoenberg and his followers can be witnessed. Finally, Van Baaren, Van Vlijmen and Schoenberg are all deeply rooted in the Western art-music tradition.
In closing, a word about the audience-request concerts, which enjoyed great success in the 70s (the decade in which, incidentally, the Schoenberg Quartet was founded); up until now, the Quartet has never put the “audience-request principle” into practice. Now, however, audiences in Amsterdam and The Hague can choose to hear their favourite pieces by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern or Zemlinsky.

Maarten Brandt

Translations: Josh Dillon


Anton Webern (1883-1945)

String Quartet Op.posth. ‘Jacobus Boehme’ (1905)

Sechs Bagatellen, opus 9 (1911-13)

Leicht bewegt
Ziemlich fliessend
Sehr langsam
Äusserst langsam

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

String Trio Opus 45 (1946)


Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Lyrische Suite (1926)

Allegro gioviale
Andante amoroso
Allegro misterioso – trio estatico
Adagio appassionato
Presto delirando, tenebroso
Largo desolato

Schoenberg Quartet

13 May 2002, Utrecht 8:15pm

 Utrecht, Vredenburg Music Centre

16 May 2002, 8:15pm

 Enschede, Muziekcentrum

17 May 2002 , 8:15pm

 Maastricht, Theater aan het Vrijthof (bovenzaal)

18 May 2002, 8:15pm

 The Hague, Nieuwe Kerk (audience-request concert)

22 May 2002, 8:15pm

 Rotterdam, Theater De Lantaren/ Het Venster

25 May 2002, 8:15pm (audience-request concert)

 Amsterdam, Concertgebouw

(the concerts on 13,16 and 17 May are part of a series entitled ‘de Kunst van het Luisteren’ [the Art of Listening], and include a talk by Thea Derks)