Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Landmarks (33)

Arnold Schoenberg: String Trio (for Violin, Viola and Cello) op. 45 (1946)

Like all of Schoenberg's strongest works, the String Trio was written in an brief and intense period of time; several of these pieces were composed at times associated with dramatic personal events, in this case a medical crisis (see here).

Schoenberg named his book of collected essays Style and Idea; the contrast between the intuitive and expressive, even precognitive, qualities implied by the term style and the formal, mental, conscious qualities carried by the term idea is ever-present in Schoenberg's music. These qualities are inevitably in tension, but in his best works that tension becomes both a propulsive and cohesive force.

I find that Schoenberg's least convincing pieces are those in which technique is speaking louder than style; this is frankly true of some of the twelve-tone works, with the Wind Quintet an especially labored example. But in the late Trio (as well as the violin and piano Phantasy and A Survivor from Warsaw), the composer found a balance between his native musical language, a heightened Wiener Espressivo, and the rigor of the twelve-tone method.

That is not to say that the work is an easy one: Schoenberg's expressionist style is, for many listeners and musicians, more off-putting than his technique (which, in principal, is abstract and can be composed-out in a variety of styles, some of them altogether different from expressionism). And although a kind of free tonal expressionism has become widely familar (at least as a fixed trope in film music) it remains a style that is as uneasy now as it ever was, and was never intended to be anything other than uneasy.

Although Schoenberg would later explain (to Thomas Mann, as reported in The Story of a Novel) that the Trio was a reflection of his psychological and physical state at the time, the work is carried by a formal structure that is ultimately independent of any simple biographical narrative. It is program music, but the more substantial narrative is musical not literal. The three parts separated by episodes of the single movement work may or may not correspond directly to autobiographical episodes, but this is inessential; what is important is that the musical continuity, the musical narrative, is gripping and convincing on its own terms.

As heightened as the expression may be, the Trio is never heavy-handed with its emotions; its tone is often clinical, and the pain and fear are observed, not pushed on the listener. Central to the tone is Schoenberg's command of string writing (he was a string player himself) and the timbral possibilities of the instruments are used brilliantly everywhere to both project the intensity of the musical narrative and to spring out of any constraints the rigorous tonal structure might suggest. The tone of the strings here is subtle, sensitive, exposed and -- especially when agitated and loud -- vulnerable, suggesting that the composer needed to use the instruments he knew most intimately to handle that vulnerability, that fragility.

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