November 2006

Arnold Schoenberg: A Portrait
presented by Art of Time Ensemble
November 9, 2006Harbourfront Centre TheatreToronto
Schoenberg’s Portrait: Incomplete?
by Joyce Corbett
After an interesting preamble by Andrew Burashko, pianist and artistic director of the Art of Time Ensemble and some critical writings effectively read by Richard Greenblatt, Arnold Schoenberg: A Portrait, opened with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, essentially a rant set to chamber music. The words of Lord Byron’s tirade against tyranny were rhythmically recited by actor Ted Dykstra, who tossed the spent pages onto the floor as he went. The preamble and readings had warned us of the sometimes violent dissonance and jagged edges of the music but the most violent aspect of the piece to some may have been Dykstra’s tone of voice and the cutting words. Maybe this chamber group played down the dissonance but the fact is that most modern ears are habituated to a certain amount of dissonance, which is not uncommon in either modern classical or popular music. From conversations during intermission, I don’t believe the audience found this opus objectionably dissonant. We had been prepared to accept more.
Of course, the Ode to Napoleon is certainly not a piece of sweet beauty or pompous glory, it is an expression of anger and a good choice to illustrate the importance of emotion in Schoenberg’s work. Many people shy away from Schoenberg, believing him to be overly intellectual, difficult to comprehend and therefore to enjoy, but Schoenberg was an Expressionist composer who believed the experience of music was more important than the theory behind it. The artist, he believed, created out of necessity. The artwork, sparked by inspiration, grew organically out of the artist and was not constructed out of intellect. Just as his twelve-tone system uses the totality of tonality (existing in Western music at that time) and is not restricted to a set of notes centering on a key, the artist uses the whole person; emotions and intellect. Unlike the scientist who is obliged to explore all possibilities and logical consequences of a concept, the musician uses only what he needs to communicate his musical idea. The work of art is perceived in its totality through the senses and although intellectual analysis may bring further appreciation of the work, the intuitive comprehension of a piece of music or a painting is primordial.

Written in 1942, the Ode to Napoleon comes from a period during which many of Schoenberg’s compositions shifted closer to classicism and although they were still composed within a serial framework, migrated closer to a tonal centre. Of course he received some criticism for not adhering more rigorously to his own theory, but Schoenberg had long asserted that theory must not dictate how to compose, that in the end the artist must use whatever material is necessary to create his work. Theory, he believed, is an attempt to explain how music works after the fact and although it can aid in composition, it is not theory that makes a composition work.

Another piece titled after an Emperor was next on the program, Schoenberg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz or Kaiser Waltzer. Originally virulently resisted by the upper classes as a base and dangerously stirring dance, the waltz was becoming socially acceptable in most circles of society by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1888, when the Emperor Waltz was written for the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s first visit to meet German Kaiser Wilhelm II, the waltz had swept even the royal court.

Schoenberg wrote his arrangement of the Emperor Waltz for string quartet, flute, clarinet and piano in 1925. By that time he had already created truly atonal works and published his revolutionary Twelve Note System of Composition. As with the Ode to Napoleon, this is a piece that seems out of step with the general thrust of Schoenberg’s work — a waltz of all things! But, he liked this waltz and found the “working out of it” interesting, plus there is the stirring, emotional nature of the waltz. This one starts in march time and progresses into a series of waltzes with changes of tempo, time and intensity. Just when you think it is drawing to a closing crescendo, it pauses and moves on. It would not be the easiest waltz to dance to, yet it was immensely popular. Especially in Schoenberg’s playful arrangement, it is more a waltz to listen to. Richard Greenblatt read from the writings of Schoenberg that no artist can create art to please, that art for all cannot be, but that sometimes art can resonate with popular taste.

The last piece of the evening, Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht), Op. 4 was one of Schoenberg’s early pieces, written in 1899 and based on a pre-Expressionist poem by Richard Dehmel. Richard Greenblatt preceded the playing of the piece with an excellent reading of the highly romantic poem. Although the music was considered shocking and hideous by many when it was first presented, actually sparking arguments that ended in fisticuffs, the piece is still late romantic in style, pushing the limits of its tonal centre without entirely breaking out. It is deeply emotional, cinematic, luminous, dark and beautiful. To a modern audience, it is difficult to imagine that Transfigured Night, now one of Schoenberg’s “greatest hits”, could have caused such commotion.

Arnold Schoenberg: A Portrait, in the artistry and quality of its presentation was impressive. Andrew Burashko’s introduction was just right; thoughtful and informative without being pedantic and Richard Greenblatt’s readings from the works of Schoenberg were both outstandingly well recited and well-chosen for the insights they offered into Schoenberg’s thinking. Ted Dykstra’s rhythmic recital was in tune with the music and the music was expertly rendered by a superb group of musicians.

It was a pleasant evening of three emotional pieces of music chosen to counter the notion that Schoenberg’s work is difficult to appreciate, but were they representative of his work? Did they clearly illustrate Schoenberg’s contribution to Western art music? I would have liked to hear something a little more atonal, more dissonant, included in the program. In the end, I did not feel that I was presented with the essential Arnold Schoenberg. Nonetheless, the music and its presentation were enjoyable and thought-provoking; a combination that always makes for a worthwhile experience.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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