A. Schoenberg Kammersinfonie Op. 9

June 7, Popper Auditorium, Schoenberg Music Building, UCLA

Kammersinfonie, Op. 9 (1906)
Arnold Schoenberg, composer (1874-1951)
Premiere: February 8, 1907
Length: c. 20 minutes

UCLA Flux Ensemble

Vanessa Lopez, Flute/Piccolo
Eli Stefanacci, Oboe
Will Stevens, English Horn
Jacob Freiman, E-flat Clarinet
Tyler Bailie, Clarinet
Pedro Gomez, Bass Clarinet
Anjali Pillai, Bassoon
Miles Mateus, Contrabassoon
Max Paulus, Horn 1
Annabel Park, Horn 2
Joyce Kwak, Violin 1
Elvin Hsieh, Violin 2
Leo Santi, Viola
Caleb Yang, Cello
Aaron Blick, Double Bass
Euan Shields, Conductor

It is ironic that Arnold Schoenberg, the venerated pioneer of the avant-garde and the dismantler of tonality, considered himself the heir to some of the most “classic” compositional forms and techniques practiced by Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, and all the way back to J.S. Bach. Schoenberg’s break down of harmony was a rather a painful process that lasted over two decades. While Schoenberg’s contemporaries such as Debussy and Ives were easily liberating themselves from the constraints of diatonicism, Schoenberg clung to traditional harmony, exploring its extremes and testing its limits. An author of the Harmonielehre, a comprehensive tome and a must-read for any serious student of composition, Schoenberg described his departure from traditional harmony with a grim metaphor: “Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling waters, and not knowing how to swim or get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best I could.”
Kammersinfonie, Op. 9 bridges Schoenberg’s lush early works like Verklarte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande to his later atonal works, such as Pierrot lunaire and Erwartung. In contrast to his youthful works that often require hundreds of musicians, Schoenberg distills his forces in Op. 9 to fifteen solo instruments, and compresses the classical four-movement symphony into a single-movement. He makes a revolutionary attempt to reconcile two anti-tonal musical materials — the stacked 4ths chord and the whole-tone scale — within the context of harmonic inevitability.
Although the piece is performed without a break, it comprises five main parts. Part 1 is the equivalent of a sonata exposition, where the thematic materials are introduced. Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg counted a total of twenty-three themes in the entire work (a significant increase from Haydn’s two-theme formula), and a good number of them appear in the first few minutes in the disguise of Straussian heroism and Brahmsian lyricism. Part 2 serves as the scherzo, immediately recognizable for its obsessively dance-like character and frenetic energy. The playful trio is preceded by a massive crescendo of the entire ensemble in upward chromatic motion. When the music of the returning scherzo comes to a grinding halt, we enter part 3, which functions as a development section for the sonata form begun in the first part, but interrupted by the scherzo. The themes from the exposition appear in every possible permutation imaginable, in rapid succession. Toward the end there is a long build-up that leads to the climax of the piece as Schoenberg “works out” the fourths and the whole-steps: a nuclear fusion of sorts. Part 4 quietly emerges from the orchestral debris: a deeply heartfelt Adagio. Part 5 serves the dual purpose of a symphonic finale as well as a sonata recapitulation. The bitonally elaborated triumphant chords in the ending is unmistakably E major. Does the ending represent Schoenberg’s overwhelming affirmation of harmony’s place in modernism, or the agonizing scream of tonality in the face of annihilation? The listener must decide.

Program note by:
Euan Shields

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