Schoenberg was a largely self-taught composer; yet he became the most influential teacher of his time. Among his earliest pupils, from the autumn of 1904, were Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both would remain close to their teacher long after their apprentice years were over, so much so that the three are known collectively as the 'Second Viennese School'
Despite the nutorious revolutionary nature of his own music, as a teacher Schoenberg instilled a deep respect for tradition. These apparently contradictory facets of Schoenberg's influence meet and fuse in the Sonata (1908) which Berg wrote towards the end of his four years of study, and which must rank as music history's most extraordinary Op. 1. Berg seems to have intended the work as a sort of graduation piece, as is apparent in the conscientious working out of ideas, or in the classical shape of its one-movement structure. Yet any sense of worthy student essay is swept aside in the titanic struggle between, on the one side, the new world, into which Schoenberg was moving, and the former ties of key and tonality to which the Sonata just, but only just, remains anchored. A microcosm of Berg's vision is the very first phrase, an angular rising motif or 'question', from which the music drifts, through a melodic sequence inflected by chromatic and wholetone harmonies, to find its answer in B minor, the nominal key of the Sonata. These initial ideas pervade almost every bar, in a lava-flow of inspiration, stemmed only by lyrical transitions of intense beauty. The music's passionate search for resolution proves elusive, however, until at the very end, in a sublime coda, Berg quietly but emphatically sides with tradition.
For Schoenberg, as for many twentieth-century composers, the piano was the medium for experiment, to which he turned at two key points in his development One came around 1909 when with the pace of change in his music threatening to become overwhelming, Schoenberg completed a series of works of extreme radicalism, the song-cycle Das Buch der hiingenden Garten, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op,16, and the monodrama Erwartung. This achievement was in spite of personal tragedy, the elopement of Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde, with his friend the painter Richard Gerstl, who subsequently committed suicide, and public incomprehension, as in the hostile reception in 1908 of the Second String Quartet, The Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, dating from February and August 1909, are often cited as marking Schoenberg's decisive break with tonality. In the first we can now hear vestiges of the past in the compressed, dramatic use of sonata form, or the rich Brahms-like chording; but the music's intense inner purpose is the perpetual transformation of a tiny motif or 'cell', heard in the opening three notes, which in some guise, transposed, expanded, played 'vertically' (as harmony), is ever present. The second piece is Schoenberg at his most speculative so fragmented, so hushed in its pianissimos, that the music might seem becalmed were it not for progress of the sombre two-note ostinato heard at the outset and finally welling up in stark grandeur. The final piece breaks through all constraints of traditional language or structure, cutting abruptly from extremes of eruptive power, as in the massively congested opening, to the most intense introspection. Perhaps Schoenberg had in mind Kandinsky, with whom he had close contacts, when he likened such music to developments in painting - without architecture� an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods.'
In the miniature world of Schoenberg's next set, the Six Little Piano Piece, Op.19, these forces come under microscopic scrutiny In the first, a capricious pre-echo of Pierrot Lunaire, tiny fragments flicker, strut, and dissolve, reforming into an eloquent line which, however, at once freezes into silence. The central pieces explore opposites a mechanical ticking crossed by a plunging melody, rich harmonies shadowed by pianissimo octaves, a jerky march savagely dismissed, an easy-going line troubled by an uneasy afterthought. The most withdrawn of the set is the last composed after Schoenberg had attended Mahler's funeral in May 1911, its bell-like chords disappearing in a scarcely audible whisper.
The silvery, weightless counterpoint of the first of the Five Piano Pieces, Op.23, opens a decisive new phase. This was the time (1921-3) when Schoenberg was evolving his twelve-note technique, a method of organizing his music around a central twelve-note row, or 'series'. The idea originated in the cell technique outlined earlier in the description of Op. 11, No. 1; and Schoenberg's rapid acceleration from manipulating small motifs towards a single all-embracing cell, one which encompasses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, can be charted as Op.23 unfolds, the set ending with the piece which is one of Schoenberg's first essays in serial technique (the very first being the Pr�ludium from the Suite, Op.25). From this distance in time the controversy over Schoenberg's method seems, thankfully, less important than the musical ends which it served. What one can say with some certainty is that Schoenberg's new-found technical confidence is reflected in the balance and fluency of the group of pieces as a whole, enhanced by a tendency towards stylisation. This is especially clear in the outer pieces, the first being a sort of three-part 'invention', the fifth a lilting Waltz which dissolves enigmatically in mysterious rustlings and tremblings. The most extended piece is the third, built on the five notes heard in isolation at its opening. This embryonic series becomes a sort of cantus firmus supporting intricate variations, and finally intertwining with itself in a gracefully balletic canon-by-inversion. The shorter second and fourth pieces contribute to the overall suggestion of symmetry being, in effect, a pair of scherzi, the former taut, compressed and explosive, its companion more whimsical, but still with an undercurrent of instability.
While the transitional Op.23 pieces are subtle and elusive, even impressionistic, in their piano writing, the Suite, Op.25 proclaims its new sureness of language and technique with sardonic glee. Any listener who anticipates from its eighteenth-century dance titles some well-manicured essay in neo-classicism is in for a shock. The Pr�ludium is no leisurely introduction but instead bristles with competing sources of energy. The Gavotte is similarly waspish, set off by its dancing, spirited central section, a Musette, which teases the ear as Schoenberg distorts the traditional bagpipe 'drone' from a perfect fifth to a tritone - and, since these are the notes (G to D flat) common to the two forms of the series used here by Schoenberg, all kinds of witty interplay ensue. Calm descends in the central Intermezzo, a spacious slow movement of considerable intensity. The poise of the Menuett, however, seems only skin deep, especially in the light of its Trio, a brusque exercise in canonic pedantry. Consistent to the last in turning every expectation on its head, the music of the famous Gigue is a tour-de-force of deception, a wild gallop strewn with false downbeats, and rhythmic thickets, complicated by myriad intricacies of touch the whole making one of the twentieth century's supremely exhilarating (and ferociously taxing) pianistic obstacle courses.
If the marvellous Suite makes a natural climax to Schoenberg's music for solo piano, the remaining two pieces, Op33A and 33B, add a substantial afterthought. In both a transformation is made In' A' an urbane neo-�classicism, complete with graceful secondary theme, slithers towards a troubled, even belligerent, conclusion. In '8' the opening, again genial, sets a lyrical line against a lively and ultimately disruptive counterpoint. Their pas-de-deux ends, however, with a serene rapprochement, unravelling unhurriedly as the lines ebb, flow and recede to the depths of the keyboard.
Schoenberg's celebrated dictum, 'My music is not modern, it is merely badly played' might equally have been said by Webern. For years the prevailing orthodoxy in Webern performance was to match the music's austere appearance on the page with playing that was rigorously impersonal. A contrary view was advocated by two former pupils of Webern who came to Britain as refugees in the late 1930s the pianist, Else Cross, who taught at the Royal Academy of Music, and the critic and pianist Peter Stadlen, who gave the first performance, in 1937, of the Variations, Op.27, Webern's only mature piano work. Both agreed that what Webern stressed to performers was that the music's structural intricacies must give rise to a profound expressiveness. The relationship between structure and expression may be illustrated by the second movement of the Variations. At first glance we see a single page of music, in binary form (the two halves being repeated) and in a very quick tempo Each tiny event consists of a pair (of single notes or chords), each half of the pair belonging to a different variant of the twelve-note series; these variants, however, are constructed so that when combined the same pairs constantly recur. This game of pairs is underlined by the distribution between the pianist's hands, with frequent hand-crossings, on which, despite one or two physical awkwardnesses, Webern was absolutely insistent. A final twist is that each pair is in effect a tiny mirror, since every note is equidistant (with its opposite in the pair) from a central pitch - the A above middle C - recognisable to the ear because Webem allows this A to form a pair with itself Small wonder that Webern stressed to Stadlen and Cross that the essence of the piece lay in its playfulness, likening it to the effervescent >finale, the Badinerie, from Bach's Orchestral Suite in B minor. By the same token Webem compared the first movement, with its fragile mirror forms, drifting in and out of waltz-time, to an Intermezzo by Brahms. These first two movements serve as characterful preludes to the last and longest of the three, in which the variations proper unfold. In each variation the pattern is to interweave an active constituent with a reflective one; the former appears to gain the upper hand in a display of trenchant syncopations, only for syncopations again (but of a different character) to guide the music to its final, muted distillation.
Peter Hill is one of the foremost exponents of the twentieth century piano repertoire Among his many recordings is a complete cycle of all Messiaen's piano music, made in collaboration with the composer, which has received superlative acclaim and has been described as 'one of the most impressive solo recording projects of recent years' (New York Times). Recordings for Naxos include a recital (with Benjamin Frith) of fourhand music by Stravinsky (Naxos 8.553386). Well known as a writer and broadcaster Peter Hill is a Professor in the Music Department of Sheffield University. Among his publications is a major study of Messiaen, The Messiaen Companion (Faber and Faber). He is at present writing a book on Stravinsky.
ReviewsHill's clear, expressive playing of all this superb music sets it clearly within the 'Viennese' tradition. - Raymond Chapman Smith, Herald Sun, October 1999