Exhausted by Harmony, Schoenberg Found Atonality


The soprano Dawn Upshaw with the Brentano String Quartet (from left, the violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, the violist Misha Amory and the cellist Nina Lee) at the 92nd Street Y.

Michael Preist

What’s most fascinating, and even moving, about the experimental works Arnold Schoenberg wrote in his mid-30s is how you hear a pioneering composer treading an uncertain path. Born in 1874, Schoenberg eventually concluded that the late Germanic Romanticism of his youth, with its hold on tonal (that is, major- and minor-key) harmony, had become an exhausted language. In several crucial pieces, starting around 1908, he slowly tried to find a new, atonal language.

On Sunday afternoon, the Upper East Side became a haven for these searching atonal compositions. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the conductor Leon Botstein discussed Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (“Expectation”), a one-act monodrama for soprano and orchestra, written in 1909, and led the Orchestra Now, an ensemble from the conservatory at Bard College (where Mr. Botstein is the president), and the soprano Kirsten Chambers in excerpts from the piece to illustrate his points.

A little later that afternoon, the superb Brentano String Quartet played a typically adventurous program at the 92nd Street Y, culminating with a rare performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, a daring 1908 work. The last two of its four movements are musical settings for soprano and quartet of two poems by Stefan George, sung at the Y compellingly by Dawn Upshaw.

Alas, the programs overlapped. After Mr. Botstein’s talk, rather than staying for the entirety of “Erwartung,” I dashed to the Y to catch the Brentano performance. But I was happy I made it to his lecture first. Mr. Botstein began by describing both “Erwartung” and the paintings of Munch (the subject of a major exhibition at the museum’s Met Breuer space) as works of Expressionism. The Expressionists rejected conventional reality, he said, believing that individuals, including artists, create their own.

Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (audio and score) Video by tomekkobialka

For Schoenberg, the system of tonality was the equivalent of the Expressionists’ conventional reality. So he set about composing in a language unbounded by the traditional expectation that music would hew to consonant points of grounding; he said he “emancipated dissonance.” “Erwartung” was a statement of purpose.

The libretto is by the writer and physician Marie Pappenheim. The sole character, called simply the Woman, wanders through a dark forest at night searching for her missing lover. She thinks she sees a body, but it turns out to be a tree trunk. Going deeper, she comes upon her dead lover. Though horrified, she speaks to him as if he were alive but finally, delirious, just walks away. Where to? We don’t find out.

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