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Name of Work

Schoenberg, Arnold (1874-1951)
String Trio, Op. 45

Part 1/Episode 1
Part 2/Episode 2
Part 3


May 11, 2008

Jasmine Lin, Violin
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Clancy Newman, Cello

May 12, 2008

Jasmine Lin, Violin
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Clancy Newman, Cello

SCHOENBERG-String Trio, Op. 45

Composed in 1946


Although physical disease plays a major role in quite a few opera plots, like La Traviata and La Bohème, its depiction in instrumental music is relatively rare. The most potent contemporary example is John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, subtitled Of Rage and Remembrance, composed as a memorial to friends and colleagues lost to AIDS. Marin Marais, a composer of the French Baroque, wrote an unusual chamber work called Tableau de l'operation de la taille, an account of a gall-bladder operation (or possibly the removal of a kidney stone), which may have been a personal-experience ordeal. And a movement of Beethoven's Op. 132 string quartet makes reference in its section and tempo headings to an unspecified malady, thankfulness for recovery, and the joy of feeling strength return.

From the mid-20th century, a quite direct diary of acute illness is presented in Schoenberg's String Trio, composed in 1946 on commission from Harvard University and premiered there the following year. The composer affirmed this aspect of the trio in conversations with his former student Hanns Eisler, novelist Thomas Mann, and Leonard Stein of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles. He declared that the piece contained representations of the pain of a near-fatal heart attack, the injections of hypodermic needles, and even the facial expressions of his care-givers. He'd already started work on the trio when he fell ill, and completed it during the enforced leisure of his convalescence.

In his lifetime, Schoenberg witnessed many of the political, cultural, and artistic upheavals of the first half of the 20th century. His early works were influenced by the late-Romantic sound familiar to us through the works of Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner. From this young Schoenberg came a gorgeously harmonized and fervently emotional string sextet, Transfigured Night, which remains his most often-performed work. It was also the era of the powerful choral epic called Gurrelieder.

A major change in his style and thinking emerged about 1910, bringing about a period variously described as atonal, pantonal, or Expressionist -- the latter term borrowed from the world of painting; Schoenberg painted as well as composed during these years. Musically, his abandonment of tonality with nothing concrete to replace it resulted in works full of intense emotion and contrasting, experimental sound-worlds: Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartung, the Five Pieces for Orchestra.

By 1920 he had formulated the serial method of composition based on the 12 notes of the chromatic scale with equal weight assigned to each. In tonal music, the tonic note -- say, middle C, C Major -- and the dominant, five notes higher, in this case G -- take precedence over the other tones by virtue of tonality's key-organization principle. Beethoven's procedure, in the C Minor String Trio and virtually all his other instrumental works, is based on the conflict and resolution implied by starting in the tonic key, modulation either to the dominant or to the relative major (as in the trio), then bringing everything back together to end in the tonic. Brahms employed the same techniques, though slightly differently from Beethoven, as we'll hear in the Sextet. In serialism, the arbitrarily-arranged 12-tone row, a different pattern for each composition, is the basis for the work's thematic permutations.

Though the row is "there," in the composer's mind at any rate, it's not intended to be heard. To help clarify and organize his procedures, Schoenberg turned back to structural forms and genres prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries: suites, rondos, quartets, quintets, and a set of orchestral variations. His strictly serial period can be seen as lasting until the mid-1930s; then the works of his final period show elements of both serialism and tonality.

Schoenberg biographer Oliver Neighbour has made a number of interesting comments about the composer's philosophy regarding composition and the advent of serialism: "[Schoenberg] was convinced that the recent developments in his style, although reached intuitively, were a logical outcome of tradition, and that, while taking no account of rules, they observed fundamental laws which would eventually prove definable."

Although Schoenberg mostly stuck to traditional forms even when his musical language was serialist, the String Trio abandons multi-movement structure in favor of an unusual kind of compositional freedom. An innovator of our own time, George Rochberg, has described its "discontinuity of aborted gestures, some purely timbral, some powerfully visceral, some unbelievably lyric. What is being projected," Rochberg goes on, "is an aural mosaic of astonishingly vivid, sharply differentiated musical images that follow each other in a totally unpredictable pattern of succession." The result is a piece full of highly expressive emotions and jarring contrasts, accentuated by the presence of numerous auditory special effects: tremolo, pizzicato, "col legno battuto" (the bow stick hitting the strings), "col legno tratto" (the stick drawn across the strings), and "sul ponticello" (drawing the bow in the usual way, but close to or on top of the instrument's bridge).

Schoenberg labels the sections of the trio simply as Parts One, Two, and Three, with intervening Episodes. Part One is built out of a succession of short motives drawn from the basic tone row, all climaxing in a striking series of chords. Episode One introduces a slower tempo; once again the thematic material is fragmentary, and there are numerous punctuations -- short cadenza-like sections, passages resembling operatic recitatives, and a Viennese-style waltz.

In Part Two lyricism dominates, although there's still that sense of discontinuity. It's even more apparent in Episode Two, dominated by wide dynamic ranges and unsettled, evanescent motives, leading to a unison statement and a soft ending.

Part Three recapitulates Part One and Episode One, unifying the work in a quasi-literal, quasi-traditional way. The conclusion then repeats one of the main motives of Part Two, and the trio dies away in a contemplative mood sharply divergent from the agitation of what has come before. The peacefulness of recovery has succeeded the agonies of illness, though there is perhaps a note of resignation too.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance date: May 11 & 12, 2008

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