Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Arnold Schoenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

The crowning glory of Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” period is Pierrot Lunaire.  In terms of its importance and influence on the literate music of the twentieth century, Pierrot Lunaire stands second only to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky completed six months after Schoenberg (1874-1951) finished Pierrot.  1912 was, truly, a miraculous year for Western literate music. Pierrot Lunaire is a set of twenty-one songs for female voice and five instrumentalists playing piano, violin doubling on viola, cello, flute doubling on piccolo, and clarinet doubling on bass clarinet.  Inspired by Pierrot Lunaire, this ensemble became so standard during the twentieth century that it is now simply referred to as a “Pierrot Ensemble.” Pierrot Lunaire was commissioned by a Viennese actress named Albertine Zehme (1857-1946), who asked Schoenberg to compose a work she could recite to a musical accompaniment.  Schoenberg created a vocal part using a technique drawn from German cabaret music called Sprechstimme or “speech voice.”  Sprechstimme is a sing-songy recitation technique in which the notated pitches are only momentarily touched upon, even as the rhythms, dynamics, and phrasing are performed as written.   This is the first key to understanding, appreciating, and even enjoying Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire:  […]

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Music History Monday: Mathilde Made Him Do It!

A few, necessary words before moving on to today’s post. Our hearts bleed for the events currently playing out in Israel and Gaza. Frankly, there are no words. Today is also the 14th anniversary of my wife Diane’s death; she died at the age of 35 on October 16, 2009. Again, there are no words. Our grief notwithstanding, we soldier on – as we must – doing what we can to make our individual “worlds” a better place. For me, here on Patreon, that means publishing my blogs and podcasts, and thus – hopefully – allowing us to observe the best of the human spirit through our music. That’s my gig, inadequate though it feels on days like today. We mark the premiere on Wednesday, October 16, 1912 – 111 years ago today – of Arnold Schoenberg’s dazzling, controversial, and in all ways extraordinary work Pierrot Lunaire, at Berlin’s Choralion–saal. The premiere was preceded by a mind-blowing forty rehearsals! (For our information: chamber music premieres typically receive 3 to 5 rehearsals, max. It’s never enough, but that’s just how it is. Forty rehearsals for Pierrot Lunaire? Unheard of!) Happy Coincidences! As those of you who follow me on Patreon are […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw

At its highest and ideal level, the purpose of art is to crystallize, summarize, epitomize and portray human experience in a manner universal and transcendent of its time and place of creation.  Some art is aesthetically beautiful and as such transports us to a “better” place, beyond this vale of tears that is our everyday existence. Some art resonates with our own experience, and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly even as it inspires us to go on and fight the good fight that is our lives. And some art delves into very dark places, places most “normal people” generally prefer not to go. We consume such art not because it entertains us; not because it is “attractive” in a traditional aesthetic sense but because it cuts to the bone of its subject matter and reveals truths – sometimes terrible truths – that are otherwise impossible to fathom or even describe.  Admittedly, such “dark art” forces us to feel and to comprehend – at a nonverbal, gut level – things that we might very well not want to have to feel or comprehend. But dreadfully trying though such art might be, we cannot turn away […]

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Music History Monday: All Too Soon: The Death of Mendelssohn

On November 4, 1847 – 172 years ago today – Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn died in the Saxon/German city of Leipzig. He died all too soon; at the time of his death Mendelssohn was just 38 years old.

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Music History Monday: Transfigured Night

On March 18, 1902 – 117 years ago today – Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (meaning Transfigured Night) for string sextet received its premiere in his native city of Vienna. Considered today to be Schoenberg’s first “major” work, the music prompted what are euphemistically called “disruptions” (meaning catcalls and hisses) and even some fisticuffs among the audience, though it evoked respect and admiration as well.  About those disruptions and fisticuffs. In fact, Transfigured Night is a fastball down the middle of the late-Romantic era musical plate. Typical of so much nineteenth century music, it is a piece of “program music”: an instrumental work that “describes” a literary story. Typical of so much late-nineteenth century German music, it employs an advanced harmonic language based on that of Wagner and Brahms. So why all the fuss at the premiere of Transfigured Night? I would suggest that much more than the music itself, that disapproval had to do with the ethnicity of its composer and the political atmosphere in Vienna in 1902. And therein lies our story. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874 in the Leopoldstadt ghetto (or the “2nd district”) of Vienna, into a poor Jewish family of Hungarian […]

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Music History Monday: Pierrot Lunaire

There are certain first performances that we celebrate as being among the seminal events in music history. For example (and we would do well to memorize these dates!), the first performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s groundbreaking opera Orfeo occurred at Florence’s Pitti Palace on Friday, February 24, 1607. Handel’s Messiah was first performed on Tuesday, April 13, 1742 at Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin; the performance began at 12 noon. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony received its premiere at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater on Friday, May 7, 1824, in a concert that began at 7 PM. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs Elysée on May 29, 1913; the performance began at 8:30 PM. To this über-impressive list of premieres we must now add that of Arnold Schoenberg’s dazzling, controversial, and in all ways extraordinary Pierrot Lunaire, which received it’s premiere 105 years ago today, on Wednesday, October 16, 1912, at Berlin’s Choralion-saal after having received a mind-blowing forty rehearsals! Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) believed himself to be a compositional traditionalist, and in many ways he was. He believed that the role of the composer was to express himself and the role of music was therefore to […]

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Music History Monday: Can’t We Be Friends?

On February 6, 1944 – 73 years ago today – Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto received its premiere. It was performed by the pianist Eduard Steuermann and the NBC Symphony conducted by Leopold Stokowski. In his book “Fundamentals of Musical Composition” Schoenberg advised that when working on even the simplest of compositional exercises: “the student should never fail to keep in mind a special character. A poem, a story, a play or moving picture may provide the stimulus to express definite moods.” In his Piano Concerto Schoenberg took his own advice; he described its four linked movements with this modest four-line poem: Life was so easy [When] suddenly hatred broke out; A grave situation was created, But life goes on. Schoenberg’s quatrain refers to World War Two, which was in its darkest days at the time the concerto was composed in 1942. The concerto is a powerful, lyric, concise, hauntingly beautiful piece. Yes, beautiful: a twentieth century masterwork. It is also a product of Arnold Schoenberg’s maturity, written using his own “12-Tone Method”. As such it poses certain aesthetic challenges, all easily overcome if we take the concerto for what it is: a work of Romantic era expressive content, phrase structure, […]

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