The story behind Arnold Schoenberg's 1908 masterwork, his String Quartet No. 2, is as dark and brooding as the music. I thought I would share a bit about the background of this piece and my relationship to it, taken from my own observations as well as the writings of Alex Ross in his fascinating book on 20th century classical music called "The Rest is Noise."
In 1907, Schoenberg befriended the "brutal expressionist" painter Richard Gerstl, painting his famous self portrait under Gerstl's tutelage, and in May of 1908, Schoenberg discovered that his wife Mathilde was having an affair with his painting teacher. Mathilde and Gerstl ran away together and after a time Mathilde returned to Schoenberg, after which Gerstl staged a dramatic suicide on the night of a concert of Schoenberg's music that he had not been invited to. Schoenberg finished his String Quartet No. 2 the following summer.
The first two movements seem to "hesitate at a crossroads, contemplating various paths forking in front of him." Then he turns to the poetry of German Symbolist Stefan George and includes a soprano for the last two movements titled Litanei (Litany) and Entrückung (Transcendence). The text comes from a large poem cycle George wrote in memory of a 16 yr-old boy who died of tuberculosis and whose death left the poet in "spams of grief." Litanei explores the pain of loss ("Kill the longing, close the wound!") as the soprano weaves with the quartet in surges of pain and confusion. Entrückung begins with alienation, with all that is familiar turning away from the poet, but ends in transfiguration ("I am but a spark of holy fire. I am but a roaring of the holy voice."). The piece is dedicated, you will note, "To my wife."
This is Schoenberg on the brink of atonality, but still very much rooted harmonically and extending from the music of Mahler and Strauss. He moves through harmonic progressions quickly, so at times it seems like there is no harmonic center, but always we have chords and connections to harmony for our ears to hang onto, even if they are strange and less familiar. This quickly moving harmony only adds to the feelings of loss, confusion, and pain that Schoenberg (and George) are expressing.
I first learned this piece for a performance at Tanglewood July of 2017. It had been on my list of pieces to learn for years, so I was so happy to have the space and opportunity to tackle such a challenging and stretching piece of music working with the great soprano Dawn Upshaw (an longtime mentor of mine) and cellist Norman Fischer (who coincidentally I had worked with as a young string player in NH). What I was most surprised by was how remarkably tonal it was, not in a "tuneful" way, but in a way that my ear could connect my melodic line as it reached and dipped with the string parts. The piece is a masterwork for many reasons, but mostly I'm struck by how innovative the string writing is. Schoenberg seems to capture the full range of grief in the colors, rhythms, textures, and articulations he chooses, and of course the harmony.
In performance, this piece is truly a transforming experience both for the musicians and the audience. It is a journey of the soul in pain. After my first performance of it, I felt like I was still in another world for another couple hours after the concert was over -- it had that dramatic affect on me, particularly the experience of sitting on stage and listening to the first two movements searching and reaching before standing to sing my two contributions.
The Aizuri Quartet is an incredible group of passionate, deeply feeling people and players, and they are truly a dream group to work with on any project, but particularly a piece of such magnitude and and depth. It is a great honor to bring Schoenberg's Quartet no. 2 to life with them and to share it with our Scrag audiences in Vermont.