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Arnold Schoenberg, "Kammersymphonie No. 1," Op. 9

Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9

Arnold Schoenberg

Born: September 13, 1874, Vienna, Austria

Died: July 13, 1951, Los Angeles, California

Composed: 1906

Duration: 20 minutes

When Schoenberg completed the Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony) No. 1 in 1906, he told his friends: “Now I have established my style. Now I know how I have to compose.” He quickly realized this was not true: as he put it, he was “not destined” to continue in this post-Romantic manner. Looking back, he saw that the Chamber Symphony was only a way station—but an important one—on the road toward his goal, which was to master what he described as “a style of concision and brevity in which every technical or structural necessity was carried out without unnecessary extension, in which every single unit is supposed to be functional.” Within a few years, Schoenberg was composing an astoundingly dense, non-repetitive, richly detailed new music: the Stefan George song cycle Das Buch der hängende Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens); Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11; Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16; and the one character opera Erwartung (Expectation), all completed in 1909, had gone far away from the luxuriant Romanticism of the earlier Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder. Something that did not change was Schoenberg’s artistic personality and his temperament. From Verklärte Nacht to the last scores, passion is a constant, and the most immediate and ultimately overwhelming impression the Chamber Symphony No. 1 makes is that of urgent, ardent, even wild utterance.

The Chamber Symphony is in one movement; it is also in five movements. Schoenberg uses a formal device that had served him well in Pelleas und Melisande and the String Quartet No. 1: he combines the traditional four-movement plan—sonata allegro, scherzo, slow movement, finale—with that of a single sonata movement. Sections I, III, and V are characterized sharply enough to encourage you to hear five distinct movements; at the same time, their mutual connectedness is so clear that the symphony’s master plan as a single sonata movement with extended interludes on either side of the development is also readily audible.

The Chamber Symphony opens with a great pile-up of notes that coalesce into a luscious five-note chord, which resolves ever so suavely into a chord of F major. As soon as the very fast main tempo begins, Schoenberg has the horn rush impetuously up the steep slope of fourths from D below middle C to the F at the top of the treble staff. After the horn call, the cello plays an energetic, upward-rushing theme easily recognized by its persistent triplets as well as by its Debussyan whole-tone steps. This moves forward to an intense climax, which is followed by a new melody for violin and horn in a broad, singing style. The first movement presents a series of fervent, spirited, and variegated themes in rapid succession. The return of the energetic cello theme becomes a transition to the scherzo. The scherzo itself is even faster than the first movement; the ghostly Trio takes about twenty seconds. In the symphony’s main development section, the themes of the first movement are reconsidered, recombined, and recostumed with captivating energy. Rising fourths introduce the slow movement, but now they take on the form of incorporeal double-bass harmonics, delicate six-note woodwind chords, weightless clarinet arpeggios, a dreamy melody for the first violin, all pianissimo. The music that ensues is a feast of lyric inspiration. The finale recapitulates and sometimes further transforms earlier themes with great freedom in their order of appearance. The rising fourths and the excited theme from the beginning of the first movement return in the coda. The close, with exultant horns and emphatic assertions of E major against the chromatic current, is joyously exuberant.

- Program note by Michael Steinberg

Arnold Schoenberg, Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Richard Chailly, conductor

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