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CD Review

Arnold Schoenberg

Choral Works

  • Three Satires, Op. 28 (1925)
  • Four Pieces for mixed choir, Op. 27 (1925)
  • Six Pieces for male choir, Op. 35 (1929/30)
  • Three Folk Songs, Op. 49 (1948)
  • Friede auf Erden, Op. 13 (1907)
  • Dreimal tausend Jahre, Op. 50a (1949)
  • Psalm 130 (De profundis), Op. 50b (1950)
South German Radio Choir, Stuttgart/Rupert Huber
Arte Nova 74321 27799 2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Amazing performances of great repertoire.

As the dates above show, Schoenberg wrote choral music throughout his career, in the process becoming – along with Ives, Holst, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Kodály, Poulenc, Tormis, and Ligeti – one of the finest choral composers of the century. The difficulty this music poses for choirs obscures its significance. Unlike instrumentalists, who have a very good idea where to place their fingers and how hard to set their lips to hit a certain pitch, most singers need the presence of a strong tonic. Any chromatic music – tonal or dodecaphonically serial – poses problems for choral singers just in terms of getting in the neighborhood of the correct pitch, let alone of keeping true intonation. Vaughan Williams reports as an ear-witness that during the late 19th century, singers of Wagner's operas, even in Bayreuth, often didn't come within a whole step of the proper pitch. In a music where tonicism becomes cloudy or even irrelevant – as in classic serialism – the singer often must adjust to thinking in terms of successive intervals rather than of the more comfortably familiar relationship to harmonic "home." Little wonder that most performances of Schoenberg's choral music present the music as "fuzzy" or mere note-spinning.

Arte Nova 74321 27799 2

One can hardly imagine more precisely-conceived choral sounds or a stronger grip on both "chordal" (vertical) texture and clarity of each vocal line (horizontal) than in Schoenberg's music for choir. Schoenberg works two basic choral veins: the Romantic textures of late Brahms, with its rich harmonies, and the contrapuntal choral music of Brahms, with its emphasis on canonic writing. Brahms himself very likely built his styles from Bach and from the homophonic Männerchor pieces of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Still, no matter how difficult the music gets, Schoenberg always works as a choral composer, rather than as an instrumental composer simply reassigning parts and adding words. That is, the texture always "sounds," and the flow of the individual parts is never arbitrary, as if one could simply strike a piano key. In this, he differs from even many chromatic tonal composers. Notes relate to one another almost harmonically, although the harmony comes from the super-chromaticism of the Late Romantic era. As one who has sung many of these works himself, I can say that while learning them I sensed, albeit dimly, relationships very similar to functional harmonic progressions. I felt, however, that the "modulations" were happening very fast. In the opening to the De profundis, for example, one hears the rising first notes of the row in the soprano – C-F#-F – as a dominant-to-tonic, C to F, with the F# as a chromatic passing tone, rather than as a sight-reading exercise in random solfeggio.

For Schoenberg, traditional imitative counterpoint like canon and fugue represented play. He dashed off at least a dozen choral canons not officially part of his catalogue as thank-you notes and birthday cards, one to George Bernard Shaw, who, long-retired from regular music criticism, nevertheless advocated Schoenberg's work. Most of these canons are Brahms-tonal, with a particularly affecting example on the birth of the composer's son Richard and its refrain of "Sleep, Richard, sleep./Dein Vater hat dich lieb." The Three Satires show the composer enjoying himself. The first, "Am Scheideweg ('Tonal oder Atonal')" – "The Fork in the Road ('Tonal or Atonal')" – lives up to its title. I haven't analyzed the score, but it could very well be serial with a row that begins emphasizing the most basic key relationship on the opening word "Tonal" – set to do-mi-sol – and then going "awry" on "oder Atonal." The subtitle's a question, by the way, and this canon for four voices reflects the instability, as it seems to slide in and out of harmony. However, it's also, I think, Schoenberg's way of saying, "Don't worry about it." It's a delightful, funny piece. The second section, "Vielseitigkeit ('Ja wer tommerlt denn da?')" – "Versatility ('Who prances about there?')" – is an even more involved canon (with one of the parts in augmentation), and seems to take a swipe at Stravinsky with, I think (texts are not provided), references to "Papa Bach." The last movement, "Der neue Klassizismus ('Nicht mehr romantisch bleib ich')" – "The New Classicism ('No longer will I stay Romantic')" – seems an elaborate afterthought, since it lasts four times longer than the first two combined and incorporates viola, cello, and piano. Again, Schoenberg directs his satire against neo-classicism. The work begins as a serial representation of late nineteenth-century chromaticism, moves to the heavy motor rhythms of Stravinsky and Hindemith, and finishes with a fusillade of canons and fugati. As with all really good satire, Schoenberg tries to better his targets while appropriating their methods. I wish Arte Nove had seen fit to provide texts, since much of the point of the music seems tied to textual meaning. Fortunately, I remember a lot of the texts and know a little bit of German, but the omission really does make listening harder for non-natives.

The Four Pieces for Mixed Choir anticipate the canonic vein of the Satires, at least for the first two. The last two differ quite a bit from what has gone on so far. "Mond und Menschen" ("Moon and Men") is Schoenberg's serial take on the late Romantic choral nocturne, quietly beautiful. "Der Wunsch des Liebhabers" ("The Lover's Wish") adds an enchanting instrumental accompaniment of mandolin, clarinet, violin, and cello to the chorus.

By the "Six Pieces for Men's Chorus," Schoenberg had felt secure enough in his new method of composition to leave it occasionally. Some of the pieces may indeed be serial, some definitely not, but, again, who among us really cares about this or that one? The warm, yummy texture of the male choral sound is the real point, as it had been for Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner (Das Liebesmahl der Apostel), and Brahms. Schoenberg gives us six richly-scored works, settings of his own philosophical texts (one can detect adumbrations of his libretto for Moses und Aron), which raise the Romantic part-song to its height. The pieces are generally simpler in style than either the Four Pieces or the Satires, but even here Schoenberg brings off miracles of choral writing. The fifth number, "Landsknechte" ("Troopers"), for example, is in eight parts, which, if we consider the restricted range of a men's chorus, represents quite a feat. My favorite number, however, is "Verbundenheit" ("Bonds" or "Ties"), with its gorgeous and ear-stretching opening harmonies.

The Three Folksongs are Schoenberg's penultimate opus, and they are pure nineteenth-century. Brahms could have written them, and indeed the style is pure Brahms. But it takes brains and talent to write like (and as well as) Brahms. These are beautiful and fresh as wildflowers. I had not heard them before, and they've become favorites. The Stuttgart chorus sings well, but I can imagine better performances. Huber seems to have trained his choir for difficult repertoire, which they have mastered. However, a conductor like Huber often falls into the trap posed by simpler music. Once he clears the technical hurdles, he seems to find himself with nothing more to do. Consequently, the music unfairly strikes the listener as just a bit too slight. Nevertheless, the interpretation, not the music, is wanting.

The CD saves the meat for last with three masterpieces – one early, two late. I first heard Friede auf Erden ("Peace on Earth") on a Robert Shaw Chorale LP. Originally for a cappella choir, Schoenberg added a woodwind accompaniment so singers could keep pitch during its considerably rough harmonic weather. The Shaw Chorale recorded this version. However, choral standards have risen so since 1907, that the accompaniment isn't really necessary. Plenty of reasons remain to keep the accompaniment, since it's beautiful in itself, and I think of the work as two separate pieces – one with and one without – like the string quartet and the string orchestra versions of Barber's Adagio. The South German Radio Choir of Stuttgart give the best a cappella performance of this work I've ever heard. It replaces the Gregg Smith recording for the CBS Schoenberg edition as my favorite by quite a bit. The choral tone and intonation are superb. Beyond that, however, Huber's phrasing and superb control over balance and dynamics reveal the work in all its glory, from its warm featherbed of an opening, to its increasingly agitated and exalted cries for peace – including, toward the end, a ringing phrase for high tenor on the "Credo" motive from Beethoven's Missa solemnis, which, not coincidentally at all, relates to Schoenberg's principal musical idea. An orchestra, with its greater color contrasts, would have trouble keeping all the strands distinct. Huber and his singers have mastered the work to such an extent, one forgets the problems and soars with the music.

Schoenberg planned to release his opus 50 in three parts but died before completing the third ("a Modern Psalm"). Like many of Schoenberg's opera, this is a collection of related pieces separately conceived, rather than something planned as a unity from the beginning. As we have seen, for example, in the Three Satires, the forces change, despite the billing for a cappella choir. The same thing goes on here, with "a Modern Psalm" adding an instrumental ensemble to the choir, a cappella through the first two pieces. However, the pieces do exhibit a philosophical relationship – namely, Schoenberg's approach to Judaism and to religion in general. Dreimal tausend Jahre ("Thrice a Thousand Years") sets a text by Schoenberg's publisher on the return of Jews to Palestine. It's not a particularly great poem, and Richard Hoffmann, Schoenberg's last secretary, has suggested that the composer may have wanted to keep on his publisher's good side. Nevertheless, it's a gravely beautiful piece, in which the Romantic part-song has become something psychologically deeper. "Thrice a thousand years since I have seen you, temple in Jerusalem, temple of my sorrows." The composer and poet, far from rejoicing, are grim and contained. Even the choral texture becomes sparer than elsewhere in Schoenberg's output, and the music lies low in the voices for a darker color. It reminds me a lot of Bach's "Passion" chorales in its feeling.

For me, De profundis is the highest peak of Schoenberg's choral music, and it should be clear by now that I regard this genre in his output as a mountain range. Schoenberg wrote it for an enterprising Israeli choral conductor, in the heady early days of modern Israel. In fact, I believe it was published first by an Israeli house. Schoenberg sets the Hebrew psalm 130 (I've seen editions of the score with the text in Hebrew characters). It's a masterpiece of serialism, not only beautifully worked out at the levels of craft and intellect, but it's highly poetic as well. Throughout most of it, in marked contrast to the "normal" Schoenberg choral sound, voices enter singly or in twos. There's also rhythmically chanted text (Sprechstimme), which sounds like Orthodox Jews praying. The notes could be the song of the cantor. At the end, where "My soul waits for the Lord," we move to a richly-scored hymn. Here, I quibble with Huber's tempo as way too fast, almost half again faster than the metronome marking. The chord spacings are so lush, you want them to linger. In fact, the entire piece seems slightly rushed, but this remains my sole disappointment in the CD.

The Stuttgart choir has the intonation problems absolutely licked. I can't imagine a clearer texture, mostly due to the tightness of the rhythmic ensemble. They phrase together; their rubati are absolutely together, which means that Huber "plays" them as a single instrument. So any glitches of interpretation, as in the De profundis, we must lay on his doorstep. However, the singers don't aggressively attack consonants, and this mushes up their diction. Still, they're no worse than most professional groups. It just surprises me, since they do everything else as well as it can be done.

Schoenberg's music has suffered miserable performances in the past – not surprising, since it's conceptually difficult as well as hard to play – and this state of affairs has kept away many who might like his highly Romantic music. Yet I believe at last performers have begun to find the handle, since I've noticed several outstanding releases during the past decade. This is definitely one of them.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz