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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande: symphonic poem for orchestra after the play by Maurice Maeterlinck op.5 (1902-3) [37:01]
Erwartung, op.17, monodrama in one act for soprano and orchestra (1909) [30:23]
Sara Jakubiak (soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2019, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

I have noted with interest the conversation on the MusicWeb International message board about Arnold Schoenberg and Sergei Rachmaninov. I declined to comment as I am an admirer of both these composers. I can equally enjoy and appreciate the former’s Variations for orchestra and the latter’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. I guess that with me it is a matter of mood but perhaps it depends in whether my head, or my heart, is in the ascendency.

The rule of thumb for enjoying (or at least appreciating) Arnold Schoenberg’s music is to recall that his entire output conveniently falls (or can be forced into) into three discrete periods. First, is Late Romantic where his inspirations were Wagner and Brahms. Works produced at the time include the ‘popular’ Verklärte Nacht, the massive cantata Gurre-Lieder and the present Pelleas. This music was ostensibly tonal, but subject to intense chromaticism. The second period showed increasing tendencies towards the complete abandonment of key towards atonality and the loosening of some formal conventions. Then followed the development of serialism or dodecaphony which involved tone rows created from the 12 notes of the octave and manipulated in a strict manner. Towards the end of his life, Schoenberg appeared to create a synthesis between serialism, tonality, and neo-classicism.

The story of Pelleas and Melisande is well-known. Briefly, it is a tragic love triangle: Golaud discovers the mysterious Melisande in the forest. He takes her back his castle and marries her. Along comes his half-brother Pelleas who immediately falls in love with her. There is a fountain scene with Pelleas where Melisande loses her wedding ring. Golaud is jealous and his suspicions eventually lead him to murder Pelleas and wound Melisande. She dies in childbirth, revealing that she loved Pelleas ‘innocently.’ Golaud is tormented by nagging doubts. That’s it!

There have been several attempts at musically representing Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande. I guess that the best known is Debussy’s one and only completed opera, premiered in 1902. Gabriel Fauré wrote his incidental music in 1898 followed by a derived suite. This has remained popular with the ‘Sicilienne’ being oft-recorded separately. Enthusiasts of Jean Sibelius will recall that he composed incidental music for the play in 1905 and that same year he extracted an orchestral suite from this music. Several recordings have been made of the latter, but I understand there is only a single edition of the complete incidental music.

Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande was written between 1902 and 1903 and premiered in Vienna on 26 January 1905. It is a long work, lasting for nearly three quarters of an hour. Despite its designation as a ‘symphonic poem’ most commentators (following Alban Berg) have suggested that in ‘the four principal sections of this work we can even identify clearly the four movements of a symphony’. This is exemplified by the opening movement in sonata form, a ‘minuet and trio’ creating what could be a ‘scherzo’, a broad ‘adagio’ followed by a finale that establishes a reprise of what has passed rather than a ‘traditional’ rondo. Onto this four-part formal construction, the composer has overlain the various programmatic events derived from Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. The symphonic poem largely follows the story outlined above.

Schoenberg’s Pelleas has been subject to much detailed analysis, both from a musical and a psychological perspective, including by Egon Wellesz and Alban Berg. On the other hand, the composer was keen to point out that the score was inspired directly by Maeterlinck’s drama. He wrote that he ‘tried to mirror every detail of it, with only a few omissions and slight changes of the order of the scenes.’ Schoenberg created some twenty thematic statements that could be termed Wagnerian leitmotifs but are used as part of the symphonic development.

What does Schoenberg’s Pelleas sound like? It is a powerful synthesis of Wagner and Brahms with input from Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Basically, it is a post-Tristan tone poem.

Finally, it is important to recall that when Schoenberg began this score, he was unaware that Claude Debussy was writing his opera, which was premiered in 1902.

Erwartung (Expectation), op.17 was composed rapidly between 27 August and 12 September 1909, with the orchestral score complete by 4 October. Schoenberg created his own monodrama text from a libretto devised for him by Marie Pappenheim. This work had to wait for several years before being premiered in Prague on 9 June 1924 during that year’s Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music.

The rather gruesome ‘plot’ is straightforward. A woman wanders through a dark forest. She is trying to find her deceitful lover. Perversely, she suddenly stumbles across his murdered corpse. Did she murder him? That is not affirmed or denied explicitly. Erwartung can be interpreted as a hysterical dream or nightmare (aka Freud) rather than a ‘realistic story.’ Pappenheim was a psychiatrist. The impetus for this tale of love and jealousy may have been anchored in ‘history’. Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde had an affair with the artist Richard Gerstl, who was later to commit suicide by hanging himself and self-stabbing. Schoenberg was distraught until Mathilde returned to him.

The ethos of Schoenberg’s interpretation is well summed up in his own words: ‘the slow representation of things that go through the mind in a moment of great anxiety.’ The progress of the work involves the woman’s singing ‘interleav[ing] straight description with interpretation’.

Artistically, this music defies all convention. It is mono-thematic; in other words, there is no repetition of themes, subjects, motives of harmonic sequences. It is ‘stream of consciousness’ music, although some musicologists have identified certain themes giving continuity.

The performance of these two diverse works is stunning. I especially enjoyed soprano Sara Jakubiak’s dramatic and often moving rendition of Erwartung. She brilliantly communicates the intensely varied emotional responses required in this ghastly monologue which include ‘fear, horror, loathing and compassion, all balanced with some rationality and the inevitable madness.'  Equally important in this work is the orchestral ‘accompaniment’ with its ever-creative resources of ‘colourful voices’ involved in ‘multifarious entanglement[s]’. Erwartung is one of the three great Germanic songfests which also included Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.

On the other hand, Pelleas presents all the challenges of a huge Romantic symphonic tone poem. Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra succeeded in giving structure to this massive work. The recording of both works is ideal.

I appreciated the liner notes by Paul Griffiths for their succinctness. It would be so easy to write a long, learned and ultimately obscure essay on this music. Both works are supported by a detailed analysis and contextualisation, but they never demand a degree in the Second Viennese School of Music for their utility. I was surprised that an English text of Erwartung was not included; I think that must be copyright reasons. My German is not quite up to understanding and appreciating the complex literary notions in Marie Pappenheim libretto. The booklet contains lots of photographs of the performers, one of the composer and Mathilde and none of Maeterlinck or Pappenheim. I was a bit disappointed with the cover design, which seems remarkably boring but I concede that it represents a wood or a forest which is the locus of both these masterpieces.

Listening to these two works back-to-back, it is hard to imagine that they were composed by the same person and only four or five years apart. Pelleas und Melisande is often regarded as the last major high point of Romanticism but also subtly pointing to the future development of music and Erwartung is one of the great icons of musical expressionism. Not everyone will agree with this assessment, but it might be a fair starting point for an appreciation and assessment of these two works.

John France

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