Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1906/1923) by Arnold Schoenberg
for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano

[Arranged by Anton von Webern (1906/1923).]

Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, was completed in the summer of 1906 and was originally composed for 15 musicians. He later arranged the work for full orchestra. This evening’s performance is of Anton Webern’s 1923 arrangement of the piece for "Pierrot" ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano). Webern’s arrangement is a searingly insightful rendering of a dense and complex work.

The First Chamber Symphony represents both the culmination of Schoenberg’s early tonal compositions and anticipates his post-tonal compositional technique and aesthetic. It is a terse, intricately thematic work in a single movement with a remarkably sophisticated formal design. Even though it is a single-movement work, it can be heard to be in five distinct sections that move seamlessly from one to the next: I Sonata-Allegro; II Scherzo; III Development; IV Adagio; V Recapitulation and Finale. With this design, Schönberg integrates multi-movement symphonic form into a single-movement sonata-allegro scheme. He achieves this, quite ingeniously, through the tonal and thematic relationships of a single movement sonata form, and the tempo relationships of a multi-movement symphonic structure.

The piece, ostensibly in E major, opens with a with a short, slow introduction that obscures the tonality of the piece by articulating a six-note chord built of fourths (G, C, F, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat) that then resolves by step to an F major triad. The Allegro then commences with an almost martial rising horn figure (scored for cello in Webern’s arrangement) of fourths starting on D and ascending up to an F. From this point the piece takes off through sharply articulated, rhythmically aggressive dotted rhythms arpeggiating augmented triads, which provide an almost breathless sense of constantly lunging forward as the principal themes of the piece are subsequently articulated. While the work employs extended triadic, whole-tone, and quartal harmonies—and though there are passages of suspended tonality—Schoenberg inevitably resolves these sonorities, even if only in the most fleeting fashion, to triads.

In this sense, the work anticipates his so-called atonal music. The persistent use of the appoggiatura, the whole tone sonorities, chords constructed of fourths rather than thirds, and temporally displaced resolutions inevitably point to his subsequent harmonic language where these dissonances no longer need to resolve. Likewise, the constant thematic and motivic development that is intricately woven throughout the work paves the way for his chromatic music where non-triadic harmonies are a necessary result of his counterpoint.

From start to finish, the First Chamber Symphony is a relentless and engaging work, given a particular clarity in its intimacy with Webern’s arrangement. After the brief, opaque introduction (and a bit of a respite with the Adagio) it is a breathless drive up until the final fortississimo cadence in E major. Hold on to your seats and enjoy the ride.

— B. B.    

[from program for February 4, 2013 concert]