Israel Philharmonic Gives Arnold Schoenberg a Fair Hearing With New Live Performance

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s decision to play Arnold Schoenberg’s 'Five Pieces for Orchestra' live is a welcome move.

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How frightening could music written over a hundred years ago by a composer born in the 19th century be? Quite frightening, as it turns out.

At the time, the early 1910s, Jewish-Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was forced to hold a series of private concerts to perform his works. He invited audiences that he knew would not react with violence or derision to his music, which was the response of the general public and music critics of the time.

Today, no one responds to his works with violence; people just don’t come to hear them, assuming any orchestra would dare perform them live.

That's why the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra deserves a pat on the back for deciding to perform Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16” (1909) on Wednesday and Thursday at the Haifa Auditorium, conducted by Zubin Mehta (8.30 P.M.).

True, it’s somewhat absurd to admire the courage of an orchestra that dares to play a 104-year-old work, when it is expected to update its repertoire with modern, contemporary music that will expand the worldview of its subscribers and show them what’s current.

But practically speaking, the reality of modern symphony orchestras is such that “Five Pieces” is indeed a refreshing innovation.

What was it about Schoenberg’s beautiful work that turned audiences off? It was the change in hierarchy that characterized his music of that period.

He abandoned the chief components of the music that prevailed at that time – most noticeably its pitch – and organized his works using a tonal system that created catchy melodies and harmonies with a directional syntax that favored components that had always been deemed secondary in the classic-romantic musical style, led by tonal variation.

To many listeners, the results seemed chaotic, dissonant and formless; raw material that offered no tonal or rhythmic aid to help a listener grasp it. The music is aggressive and explosive one minute, soft the next – as if it’s being thrown into the hall without a guiding hand.

Invisible hand

In light of the history of art of the same period, which coincided with early modernism and the rise of the big “-isms,” it’s possible to decipher the radical stylistic change introduced by Schoenberg.

It was the midst of the period of Expressionism, which had also abandoned art’s main guiding elements – perspective, a realistic imitation of reality, characters and images with clear lines – and based its artistic expression on color, aiming for abstraction.

At the root of this new aesthetic idea was a process that was the opposite of traditional. It wasn’t a view of the outside world that was expressed through painting, but a look inward, into one’s consciousness, an expression of what was happening there.

At the center of this approach was a new scientific theory – that of subconscious perception, promulgated by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who, like Schoenberg, lived and worked in Vienna.

“Five Pieces for Orchestra,” composed in close proximity to other works in the same style such as “Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21” “Expectation, Op. 17” and “Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11,” clearly reflects this relationship between Expressionism and the subconscious.

These works emerged, as Schoenberg himself admitted, without his understanding how; without knowing what invisible hand had directed them and arranged the notes as they were organized.

By his testimony, these works were created in him like "in a dream,” and is there anything more closely associated with Freud than dreams?

In an article that appeared in his book “Style and Idea,” Schoenberg wrote, “The desire for the conscious control of new means and forms will arise in every artist’s mind; and he [and here Schoenberg meant himself] will wish to know consciously the laws and rules which govern the works he has conceived, ‘as in a dream.’

"Strongly convincing as this dream may have been," he continued, "the conviction that these new sounds obey the laws of nature and of our manner of thinking – the conviction – that order, logic, comprehensibility and form cannot be present without obedience to such laws – forces the composer [again, referring to himself] along the road of exploration. He must find, if not laws or rules, at least ways to justify the dissonant character of these harmonies and their successions.”

Given this, we can be a bit more forgiving of the audiences in Schoenberg’s time, and even of the contemporary audience. If the composer himself felt that he had no conscious control of the tonal material – that he was composing in a dream, that this dream is wonderful and “strongly convincing” but lacks rules and regulations, and is, in fact, chaotic – what is the audience supposed to say?

Schoenberg himself was also an Expressionist painter and a member of the Blue Rider movement led by Wassily Kandinsky, an artist whose paintings also look chaotic – with no images and no rules – arising, like Schoenberg’s music, directly from the subconscious, ostensibly circumventing the control of rational mechanisms or filters of consciousness.

The heart of Schoenberg’s exciting work, the third of the five pieces, is called “Colors,” and it seeks to unequivocally position what in classical music is a secondary component – orchestration – as the primary element of the work.

Schoenberg spoke at the time of “tone-color melody,” meaning a tune that is not made up of a sequence of sounds in different pitches, but from sounds with different timbres, achieved by splitting a musical line between different instruments.

Apparently – and this was applied by Schoenberg’s friend and pupil, Anton Webern, carefully and with even greater accuracy – one can play a single sound or a single chord throughout an entire work, and the “melody” will be the various timbres coloring that chord. In the work “Colors,” one can hear the musical dream itself, and almost dream with it.

Arnold Schoenberg's "Blue Self-Portrait" (February 1910).Credit: AP
Arnold SchoenbergCredit: AP

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