Subscription Concert No.871 B Series

Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, op.36

Ⅰ Poco allegro
Ⅱ Andante grazioso
Ⅲ Finale: Allegro

Arnold Schoenberg: Born in Vienna, September 13, 1874; died in Brentwood Park (a district of western Los Angeles), July 13, 1951

We’ve all heard stories of works, especially concertos, that were declared “unplayable” just after they were written, only to become audience favorites with time. Barber’s Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Waltonʼs Viola Concerto, and the lead role in Strauss’s opera Salome come readily to mind. Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto ranks right up there with these. Presumably it was written for Jascha Heifetz, who, upon seeing the manuscript, declared that a violinist would need six fingers on his left hand to get through it. Critic Henry Pleasants, after hearing the first performance on December 6, 1940, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and Louis Krasner soloist, asserted that a listener would need four ears to absorb the work’s complexities. But times change, and Schoenberg’s Concerto has been proven to be quite playable by five-fingered violinists and listenable by two-eared concertgoers.

Nevertheless, the Violin Concerto retains a deserved reputation for being extraordinarily difficult for both soloist and audience. The violinist is almost constantly engaged in dealing with harmonics (lightly touching, rather than pressing, a string, resulting in a high-pitched, flute-like tone), multiple stops (two, three and four notes produced simultaneously), arpeggios, flying leaps from one register to another, tremolos, and pizzicatos. Many members of the audience will almost certainly find the music highly dissonant, but in fact an interval or chord is dissonant only in hierarchical relation to other pitches in the tonal system. In Schoenberg’s twelve-tone (atonal) organizational principle, there is no dissonance, since all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are of equal importance. Instead of “themes” or “melodies,” a work is constructed from a tone row consisting of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale presented in random order (a kind of musical DNA, if you like), then subjected to an almost endless variety of manipulations: played backwards, upside down (mirror imaging), upside down and backward together, in transposition (same sequence of intervals but starting on a higher or lower note), or any combination of these, either in whole or in fragments. Is the listener really expected to be able to follow all this? No. But innate unity is achieved through the pervasive presence of the tone row in its kaleidoscopic permutations. Mapped onto the technical apparatus are the same kinds of expressive gestures we find in popular romantic concertos, the same dialogue between soloist and orchestra, the same dance impulses, the same diversity of articulations, moods, dynamics, rhythms, meters, and instrumental combinations like the passage in the first movement where the soloist is accompanied by the hard, brittle sounds of xylophone, flute, and pizzicato violins; or the chatty duet for oboe and bassoon just moments into the third movement; or, soon thereafter, the dialogue for solo violin and military drum.

As in most concertos in the standard repertory, Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is in three movements, with the central one somewhat slower and more lyrical than the outer ones. There are extended cadenzas in the first and third movements (again, as found in the standard repertory). Each movement is a threepart structure, its divisions noted by the alert listener. This concerto will never be as popular as those by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. But to the concertgoer prepared to invest a little extra effort to the listening experience, Schoenberg’s concerto, in all its originality, offers its own world of rewards. Still bewildered? Take these words of Schoenberg to heart: “Is it not the duty of every artist to tell you what you do not know, what you never have heard before, what you never could find out, or discover, or express yourself?”

Bruckner: Symphony No.6 in A major, WAB106 (Nowak edition)

Ⅰ Majestoso
Ⅱ Adagio: Sehr feierlich
Ⅲ Scherzo: Nicht schnell
Ⅳ Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

Anton Bruckner: Born in Ansfelden, Austria, September 4, 1824; died in Vienna, October 11, 1896

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is special in a number of ways. Give or take a minute or two, it is the shortest of this composer’s mature symphonies (Nos. 3-9). Although the Sixth has its share of imposing climaxes, soaring grandeur and religious-inspired sentiment, it does not aspire to the level of the awesome visions most others do. Its very opening ̶ not in Bruckner’s traditional mood of hushed mystery, but in an animated rhythmic figure that will pervade the entire work in various ways ̶ tells us this will be no ordinary Bruckner symphony. The Adagio is, unusually for Bruckner, a fully worked out sonata-form movement. The Scherzo is, unlike its heavy-footed counterparts in other Bruckner symphonies, of almost Schubertian charm and Mendelssohnian lightness; the Trio too departs from the more traditional Ländler-like passages of the other symphonies. Even the symphony’s key ̶ A major ̶ is one traditionally associated with brightness, energy, radiance and a cheery disposition (think of Beethoven's Seventh, Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Schubert’s Trout Quintet). And finally, its harmonic adventures are such that Bruckner himself considered the Sixth to be his boldest symphony.

It is impossible to say, without a good deal of qualification, just what constituted the “first performance” of the Sixth. It was completed in 1881, when Bruckner was 57. Although he lived another 15 years, only the two inner movements were played in his lifetime, in February of 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic. In February of 1899, more than two years after Bruckner had died, the same orchestra under Gustav Mahler performed all four movements, but heavily cut and extensively reorchestrated. The first complete performance was given in Stuttgart in 1901, conducted by Karl Pohlig (later the second conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra), but still in its reorchestrated form. Later that year in Vienna, the symphony was finally heard for the first time complete, in Bruckner’s own scoring, conducted by August Göllerich.

The first movement contains three main themes: the first in the opening bars by the lower strings; the second (actually, a whole theme group) a warmly flowing, expansive contrapuntal complex for all the strings; and the third a massive, striding affair from the full orchestra. With these ideas, welded to the allimportant rhythmic motif that opened the symphony, Bruckner creates a magnificent tapestry of irresistible musical logic and cumulative power. The coda, beginning softly in the warm tones of the solo horn and building inexorably to a splendiferous climax, inspired Donald Francis Tovey to see it as passing “from key to key beneath a tumultuous surface sparkling like the Homeric seas.”

A devotional cast of mind pervades the slow movement, marked sehr feierlich (very solemnly). Two main themes are worked out, the first solemnly proclaimed by the massed strings in the opening bars, the second a soaring, almost ecstatic idea in the violins, one of Bruckner’s most appealing. Some of Bruckner’s richest counterpoint can be found in this movement, with at times up to six different lines interwoven in gorgeously colored harmony.

Bruckner takes care to mark the Scherzo nicht schnell (‘not fast”), an anomaly among his scherzos. Indeed, its playful character and relatively light scoring have inspired many listeners to visions of woodland mysteries and elfin banter.

The finale is structurally the most complex movement, with a profusion of themes locked in a harmonic struggle for assertion and re-assertion of the tonic key of A major. As Michael Steinberg puts it, this is “Bruckner’s most confidently argued finale next to that of the Eighth Symphony, and the drama is the more intense and compelling because the threats from the worlds of F and B-flat continue almost to the end.” The end, when it does finally arrive, blazes forth with great confidence, affirming not only the symphony’s home key of resplendent A major, but its original theme pounded out against the unifying rhythmic motif first encountered nearly an hour before.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Unauthorized copying and replication of the contents of this site, text and images are strictly prohibited. All Rights Reserved.