Although Arnold Schoenberg initiated the composition of his String Trio, Opus 45, as early as June 1946, unforeseen catastrophic circumstances would delay his progress and, ultimately, decisively influence the Trio's formal and expressive qualities. A heart attack, which nearly killed the then seventy-two-year-old elder statesman of Austro-Germanic music, would, in two-and-a-half weeks' time, weave itself into the Trio, for upon the terminaton of that short period Schoenberg resumed his compositional process and thus, perhaps, offered to the world his last great testament in the domain of chamber music for bowed strings.
The greater part of this twilight masterpiece the composer would commit to manuscript paper between August 20th and September 23rd, 1946. One may say without exaggeration that the technical prowess and psychological intensity of this work remain almost unsurpassed, even in an age such as ours that, needless to say, drowns in artistic artifacts of the vastest variety.
While a highly personal work, Schoenberg embarked upon composing this Trio in fulfillment of a commission from Harvard University's Department of Music, at the time planning a Musical Criticism Symposium scheduled for spring 1947. Indeed, the Trio premiered as one of several commissioned works from a variety of leading lights in contemporary musical composition, ranging from the German neoclassicist Paul Hindemith to the Italian "athematicist" Gian Francesco Malipiero, from the American populist Aaron Copland to the eclectic Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.
None of these contemporary luminaries, one must observe, possessed quite the reputation of Arnold Schoenberg, no matter how unjustified this notoriety. For all the noise from the establishment insisting on the totally revolutionary and iconoclastic character of Schoenberg's contributions to musical composition and theory, we speak of a composer who believed it his duty to carry on the sacred tradition of European art music, whose own politics were in opposition to revolution and even in favor of monarchical restoration, whose earlier commitment to free atonality was in obedience to the inner tensions of his musical tradition unfolding and whose development of the twelve-tone language embodied his preference for order over anarchy.
Hence, on May 1st, 1947, in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, the composer whose Gurre-Lieder decades earlier resounded in the gilded halls of the Musikverein to the ovation of the Viennese public must now content himself with the premiere of a work of more intimate proportions, of more esoteric but no less communicative language, to an audience skewed more distinctly in the direction of the academic.
The members of the Walden String Quartet, presenting this work for a set already predisposed to some sympathy with it despite its difficulties both technical and emotional, gave what may be the last relatively major debut of an exclusively-instrumental Schoenberg composition during the composer's lifetime, besides the Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment (Opus 47) premiered about two years afterward. The Trio, approximately 20 minutes in run time and divided into five distinct sections, surely constitutes the more substantial of the two works.
Clear parallels exist between this Trio and certain instrumental works of his early period, particularly the String Sextet "Verklärte Nacht" (Opus 4), the First String Quartet (Opus 7), the symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" (Opus 5), and the First Chamber Symphony (Opus 9). In common with these better-known, more frequently programmed works of his chromatically-hypertrophied yet unambiguously tonal Late Romantic stage of compositional development, Schoenberg's dodecaphonic Trio collapses a traditional multi-movement structure into a single movement comprised of distinct yet interrelated sections flowing seamlessly into one another. Thus he replicates the ordering of a sonata form's individual movements (sonata-allegro/scherzo/slow movement/finale) within a single movement, while treating these integrated submovements as if they were the sections of a complete sonata-allegro movement (exposition, development, recapitulation).
As, in this Trio, the composer substitutes the tonic-dominant polarity integral to sonata-allegro forms of common-practice-era tonality with the organizing principles of dodecaphony (the twelve-tone system that he innovated in the 1920s), motivic unity and coherence emerge in this work through the generation and consequent continuous development of melodic and harmonic material from foundational motivic cells, themselves derived from the twelve-tone row and its permutations. Essentially, the twelve-tone row itself serves as a tonic emanating distinct intervallic relationships, hierarchies, and polarities imbuing the work with an ineluctable sense of order.
Ingeniously, Schoenberg juxtaposes two "episodes" between three "parts," yet this does not obscure the Trio's formal adherence to classical sonata-allegro principles. Part One and the First "Episode" adhere to what analysts of sonata-allegro structure term the "exposition," in which the movement's contrasting thematic ideas proceed in succession. One may perceive the "exposition" as the composer's groundwork-laying for the dialectical intensification that characterizes the ensuing development.
The first thematic group, naturally established in Part One, employs extended techniques in a kaleidoscopic and even violent soundscape. Natural and artificial harmonics, striking the strings with the wood of the bow (col legno battuto), rapidly alternating between different pitches (tremolo), wide leaps, plucking the strings directly (pizzicato), bowing on the bridge (sul ponticello), bowing with the wood of the bow (col legno tratto); almost no extended technique known at the time does Schoenberg neglect here. The effect is wild, the affect is psychologically troubled. This is an exposition beginning "in medias res." Ethereal timbres find themselves within a context of unforgiving fury, while thematic ideas rush headlong into one another in a vertiginous, cyclonic, even atemporal musical realm. (But soon enough all shall make sense.)
Part One comes rapidly to a close, and Episode One emerges out of the ether, revealing that Schoenberg's tone row contains within it the nostalgic reminiscence of (major) tonality. Recall that at this period of his career Schoenberg had, much to the astonishment of his colleagues, already embarked upon a partial return to tonality without rejecting his dodecaphonic system. Hence the violin's mellifluous phantasm of A major tonality rests well within the compass of his musical activity as a German emigre in the United States of America. Indeed, we now hear something of the Schoenberg of the 1939 Second Chamber Symphony (Opus 38), the 1938 Kol Nidre (Opus 39), the 1941 Variations on a Recitative for Organ (Opus 40), the partly-tonal Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte of 1942 (Opus 41), and the resolutely accessible Theme and Variations of 1943 (Opus 43), not to mention Suite in G Major for String Orchestra composed shortly after his arrival in the United States of America in 1934 but not assigned an opus number.
The placid, melodious second thematic group of Episode One, seeming to waver between a familiar Romantic tonality and the dodecaphony of Schoenberg's full musical maturity, concludes with a seamless transition into the largely tranquil Part Two. Besides constituting the contrasting first and second thematic groups of a sonata-allegro's exposition, Part One and Episode One partake of the model of the faster initial sonata-allegro movement and consequent slower aria movement of a multi-movement sonata.
TO BE CONTINUED ...