Arnold Schoenberg ‘String Quartet #2’: A Fond Farewell to Common Conventions

This morning as I was trawling my collection of pocket scores to find a basis for this blog I came across my copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet. Schoenberg has always been an interesting composer for me because in one sense I don’t enjoy much of his music, with the exception of a few pieces. However, I find his contribution to classical music an incredibly important one as he provided new ground to push the boundaries even further within the slowly dying genre. His second string quartet is my favourite quartet (out of the four) that he wrote in his lifetime as it encompasses not only brain-melting chamber writing, but also the addition of a soprano voice in the last two movements.

Born into a lower-middle class Jewish family in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg was a mostly self-taught composer. He learnt counterpoint with one of my favourite composers, Alexander Von Zemlinsky and was also taken under the wing by Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg is perhaps most famous for his innovative twelve-tone technique, which at the time was a  massive milestone for classical music. Schoenberg also worked a lot on atonality (pieces with no tonal centre) as well as developing variation without returning to the centralised melodic ideas. Schoenberg is a very hit and miss composer for a lot of people, some on one hand have extended his thought processes and carried on his legacy, whereas others refuted his new ideas which were too ‘out there’ for the common man.

The second string quartet was written in 1908 and is a four-movement piece chamber work which sees Schoenberg’s use of chromatic colouring (especially in movement’s 1 and 2) but also his experimental side with both the third and fourth movements being subject to atonality in some way. At the time of writing this work, Schoenberg was caught in a rather unsavoury dilemma as he found out that his wife, Mathilde was having an affair with their neighbour in Vienna, Richard Gerstl. Schoenberg must have felt this betrayal two-fold due to he being the one who introduced Gerstl into their lives, due to him being an expressionist painter. After Mathilde going to and fro between the two men, she settled back down with Schoenberg, only for Gerstl to commit suicide over his depression over losing Mathilde. While all of this was happening, Schoenberg was still writing music, and some of the more radical choices that were made about this work can be seen as a bridge between his life and his music.

The quartet was said to have been a revolutionary piece within composition as it really pushed musical boundaries. The first movement, marked moderato, is foundationally in F# minor. The quiet opening provides a slightly reserved feel until the slightly faster quaver movement emerges from the second violin. I always find the extremities in range that Schoenberg writes is incredible, with the first violin and the cello playing in very high but also very low octaves. Looking at the score it looks like an awash of notes with an incredible amount of accidentals (which enhance his use of chromatic harmony) however, the music itself is incredibly mature due to it somehow locking together to create a rather exciting contrast of light and dark shading. Opposing rhythms and multiple themes makes the moments of togetherness all the more emphasised. There are many direction changes within this movement, with it leaving it very open as to where it will go next, which is partly my like for Schoenberg’s music.

The second movement begins with an interesting cello solo which Schoenberg then subsequently layers the other parts on top of. This movement is in D minor, which creates a moody, yet energetic atmosphere. Within this movement a quasi-humorous quotation to the children’s song “O du lieber Augustin – alles ist hin” (Oh my dear Augustin, all is at an end) is made, which has sent musicologists and Schoenberg listeners into a complete tailspin. The quotation is heard when Schoenberg modulates to F# minor and the start of the new section begins with harsh ff pizzicato from all parts bar the first violin which plays a descending chromatic theme. This then leads into the quotation and this part of the movement feels slightly calmer due to the ‘poco rit’ direction Schoenberg writes in. I find this movement incredibly exciting, especially by the finale ‘presto’ where all parts are in complete unison playing a dramatic and very demanding conclusion to the movement. In the penultimate bar the cello returns with the initial solo on D, which is a huge contrast in texture from full instrumentation to just one. The ending is intriguing as all parts end on a D marked pp and are marked pizzicato. I think this movement is probably my favourite due to the thrilling writing and Schoenberg’s ability to make 4 instruments sound so big.

The third and fourth movements are seen as controversial, as Schoenberg introduces a female soprano into the chamber group. The voice sings two poems by Stefan George, the first being ‘Litany’ and the second being ‘Entrueckung.’ It has been said that the poems represents Schoenberg’s tonal methods and how he handles his new musical ideas. I’m partial to agree with this as its a solid interpretation of the subtle changes Schoenberg is making to classical music harmony and tonality. The relationship between the solo voice and the strings is so complex in both movements and really requires the utmost musical ability to perform it well. The third movement is set in Eb minor, however the bridge between the last two movements represents the change in Schoenberg’s ear, as the fourth movement has no key and is atonal. I absolutely love the third movement as it encompasses themes from previous movements (albeit in very tangled and varied ways) while also creating a heart-wrenching melancholy feel that is bound to make you feel a few tingles. The end of the fourth movement is just fantastic with a chorale like theme emerging which heads towards a touching diminuendo ending.

Schoenberg is not a composer who I listen to all that often, however this quartet I find completely mesmerizing at points, with a lot of the writing being incredibly complex and technically demanding. I’d heartily recommend this quartet to anybody who is unsure about Schoenberg or is interested in listening to some of his works!

Recommended recordings:

New Vienna String Quartet – 1999