Thursday, November 29

an idea heard

The contradictions that are found in opus 23 reappear in the Serenade for clarinet, basset-horn, mandoline, guitar, violin, viola, violoncello, and a deep male voice, opus 24. Here the fourth movement, a setting of Petrarch's Sonnet no. 217, may be called strict twelve-tone. The singer repeats the same twelve notes twelve times; but since a line of Petrarch has only eleven syllables, each successive verse begins one note earlier in the twelve-note series and has a different melodic configuration. The series is therefore not a melody but a premelodic idea, used to furnish the stuff of melody. This is not new: both Beethoven and Brahms used motifs this way, but neither had conceived of a set of pitches as entirely divorced from their rhythmic and harmonic implications. The motif, which has always a specific contour, a profile, in becoming a series loses this attribute of shape. The series is not a musical idea in the normal sense of that phrase. It is not properly speaking something heard, either imaginatively or practically; it is transmuted into something heard.

The motif, on the other hand, is an idea heard, and Schoenberg's development of motivic material in other pieces of the Serenade is remarkably sophisticated, particularly when compared with the simple-minded, obsessive repetitions of the Petrarch sonnet. In most of the Serenade, this complex motivic elaboration and an atonal language are put to work in the re-creation of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century phrasing. The evocation of the elegant surface of the past was by 1923 as much a part of Schoenberg's music as of Strauss's (in Ariadne auf Naxos) or Stravinsky's (in Pulcinella and L'Histoire d'un soldat). A high price was set on charm. The ostensibly light character of the Serenade, opus 24, is still a stumbling block in appreciating its merit; its high gloss can awaken resentment. There is no contradiction, however, between its highly experimental character—its technical adventurousness, in fact—and the bland efficiency with which it turns back to the past. The experiments are designed to recapture the security of a vanished classicism; the smoothness of surface is a measure of their success.

-- Charles Rosen arnold schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg: Serenade op. 24 (Excerpts)