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Schoenberg: "Theme and Variations"

June 27, 2010

Schoenberg's "Theme and Variations, Op. 43a", a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, was featured today on Composers Datebook from American Public Media. Schoenberg intended the piece to be played by a high school ensemble or amateur group, but as anyone who has performed the piece can tell you, it is much too difficult for high school students. The piece is also unusual, in that Schoenberg had firmly entrenched himself in atonality at the time of composition. You can find the text from today's Composers Datebook with more information below as well as a link to the audio clip.

 

Schoenberg for Winds

 

According to Emerson, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Well, we're not sure if composer Arnold Schoenberg ever read Emerson, but we think the 20th-century Austrian composer must have in principle with the 19th-century American essayist. Just when many people had Schoenberg comfortably pigeon-holed as an "atonal" composer, he went and wrote a big tonal piece, all resolutely set in the key of G minor.

 

In the 1940's, Schoenberg's publisher asked him to write a piece for high school or amateur wind band. The only other specific request from the publisher was that the piece should contain "many different characters and moods."

 

The work Schoenberg finished during the summer of 1943 was entitled "Theme and Variations," and was described by its composer -- with his customary modesty -- as "one of those compositions which one writes in order to enjoy one's own virtuosity and . . . to give a certain group if music lovers something better to play."

 

Schoenberg's music proved a little too difficult for high school bands, however, so its first performance was given on today's date in 1946 by the Goldman Band, America's top wind ensemble of the day. This occured at a Central Park concert in New York City conducted by Richard Franko Goldman, an enthusiastic supporter of new works for band.

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