String Trio, Op. 45 (1946) by Arnold Schoenberg
for violin, viola, and cello

The music department of Harvard University commissioned the String Trio and the Walden String Quartet premiered it in 1947. Schoenberg composed most of the piece a few weeks after suffering a severe heart attack. He was seventy-one at the time; he died five years later.

It is said that this Trio reflects the pain of the attack itself and Schoenberg’s repose during his recovery. This could be said to be the program of the Trio, though the composer resisted programmatic interpretations of his works. On a higher level of abstraction, the work is about the struggle between life and death.

Using intense expressionistic gestures, neoclassical references, and a virtuosic deployment of his twelve-tone method of composing, Schoenberg piles up musical ideas, disrupts their continuity, displaces or disallows musical consequences, and breaks off stabilities of phrase, color, range and rhythm (see M. Cherlin’s Memory and Rhetorical Trope in Schoenberg’s String Trio). His use of a large palette of string techniques is particularly prominent: plucking the strings (pizzicato), striking them with the bow, playing close to the bridge or the fingerboard of the instrument, using the wooden part of the bow, playing on more than one string simultaneously, sliding a finger along a string to change the pitch smoothly, lightly touching the strings to make them play high glassy pitches, rapidly moving the bow back and forth (tremolo) or alternating between two pitches, and employing large intervals and extreme shifts of loudness. Using these and other techniques, Schoenberg fills the piece with extreme contrasts and non sequiturs.

The piece consists of five sections that flow together into one large form. It has been characterized as a sort of sonata form. After a couple of minutes, the loud frenetic material of the opening leads to quiet tremolos followed by an isolated high pizzicato and the end of the opening material. The slow, quiet, almost tonal material that comes next can be heard as a secondary theme. Development follows and after about fifteen minutes one hears a modified recapitulation of the opening themes, including the tremolos and the high pizzicato. The piece lasts nearly twenty minutes before it quietly fades away with a few beautiful tone rows.

By presenting phrases that never find closure and implying harmonies that never resolve, by using forms that distort the usual proportions, by contrasting waltz rhythms and short song-like melodies with jagged distortions of the sound material, and by making oblique allusions to extra-musical realities such as dance history or the techniques of Beethoven’s late works, the Trio "insists on its own imperfection, and therein lies its greatest triumph" (Cherlin). Schoenberg avoids the closure and perfection that symbolize death itself.

— R. W. M. & B. B.    

[program note for video premiered September 6, 2021]