Arnold Schoenberg is often seen as a composer strictly concerned with pitch; however, his interests in timbre and sonority are omnipresent in all five of his completed piano works. Of prime interest to pianists is the most striking feature of his piano writing, that is, the importance given to specific attacks, articulations, and phrasings. These characteristics can be found also in the 17 fragments left by the composer. The fragments span the years of the published piano works; the first fragment was written around the year 1900 and the last after 1933. A close examination of the 17 fragments illustrates the composer’s preoccupation with and research into expressivity and color in his piano music.
In the first four fragments, the influence of Brahmsian piano writing is evident. The first fragment is even labeled by the composer with the term “Scherzo” on the top of the manuscript. Likewise, the second and the third fragments also show a Brahmsian quality. On the bottom right hand of this third fragment’s manuscript, Schoenberg wrote down some phrases that demonstrated his agony at not being able to carry on this musical idea and to finish the piece. The English translation of his comments is as follows: “will continuation follow . . .? If I only knew, how the continuation will be! — Twice I was already mistaken therein. Now I dare nothing more to hope to continue but still fear if I could continue. — is the continuation follows?” The fourth fragment, written possibly around 1905-06, becomes much more chromatic in harmony. However, some Brahmsian quality is still maintained. The fragment shows the evolved style of Schoenberg’s beautiful chromaticism.
The next four fragments are all considered to have been written around the year 1909, which is the year of Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke Op. 11. In the fifth fragment, one of overall characteristics of his Op. 11 — counterpoint writing — is already present. Schoenberg’s harmonic language becomes atonal and his exploration into color is evidenced by his dynamic use of the wide keyboard range. This exploration of the register becomes the main subject in the seventh fragment. The notes are placed in different registers in every measure. Additionally, one of Schoenberg’s preoccupations with specific articulations appears in bar 1, where the last D has a staccato sign. In the third movement of Op. 11, his direction on the specific articulation is seen on almost every note and becomes ever more demanding.
By the time he wrote this ninth fragment, Schoenberg had already completed the two klavierstücke Op. 11 and 19. Schoenberg’s demand for articulation became ever more obsessive. These meticulous directions better serve string writing, for example, than piano. However, these points demonstrate that Schoenberg was profoundly concerned with the search for a particular color produced on the piano.
In addition, the use of dynamics is more varied in this ninth fragment as well as in the tenth. In both fragments, Schoenberg frequently applies piano-pianissimo dynamics. In the tenth fragment, this 10-measure excerpt is mainly based on the piano dynamics, while certain notes are stressed quietly with tenuto signs, such as thosez in bars 1-3. Again, Schoenberg applies crescendo/decrescendo signs on two notes. The sonority searched for in the tenth fragment was particularly sophisticated. This preoccupation seems to become Schoenberg’s principal subject in the eleventh fragment.
In his completed klavierstücke Op. 23 and Op. 25, written shortly after these fragments, the preoccupation with such meticulous articulations and color had brought Schoenberg to provide this famous preface to the scores; Schoenberg explained the 13 accents that he created in the piece and the upward and downward directions on the arpeggio signs.
However, the twelfth fragment, which seems to stand between his Op. 25 and his last klavierstücke Op. 33, contains a character dissimilar to the previous pieces and fragments. The harmonic language is rather tonal and in the vein of the music of Prokofiev. Some accents and dynamics are employed; however, they are used as those seen in traditional tonal music, and not to produce the personal color that Schoenberg searched for in the previous fragments and pieces.
In the next fragment, No. 13, Schoenberg comes back to his coloristic research again. The next three fragments, No. 13 to 16, were written during the period of his Op. 33. The fragment rarely uses a pedal, and Schoenberg’s articulation signs are quite diverse; they include tenuto, three kinds of accents, staccato, and staccato with accent, as seen in the green circles. Schoenberg’s direction on expression becomes further fastidious by his having added crescendo and decrescendo on a single note.
In the fourteenth fragment, Schoenberg seems to have explored vigorous expression by adopting these octave writings. Though he did not finish this excerpt, Schoenberg might have used the octave writing to serve as the fundamental idea for the massive chordal writing found in the last complete klavierstücke, Op. 33 a and b.
However, the fifteenth fragment shows that Schoenberg was still looking for lyrical phrasing and expressive melody in his piano music. After the first two bars, Schoenberg kept composing this melodious line and worked on the phrase markings. In fact, this fragment reveals that Schoenberg’s preoccupation, and his priority, was the expressivity of his music in the creative process; this contradicts the often misinterpreted view of his music as a product of mathematical organization and therefore as lacking expressivity. On the contrary, this fragment has the expressive quality for which Schoenberg always searched.
This expressivity becomes Schoenberg’s main concern in the last two fragments: the sixteenth and seventeenth. Only three bars of this sixteenth fragment do not contain much compositional dimensions such as dynamics, articulations, and pedals. However, as he did in the previous fragment, Schoenberg wrote the phrasing signs on both lines, and this fragment sounds very lyrical in nature. In the seventeenth fragment, Schoenberg wrote “cantabile.” This last fragment again does not contain many compositional elements such as dynamics; however, his articulation signs are as precise as in the previous fragments. Also, both lines have melodious contours. According to the scholar and editor of the critical edition of Schoenberg, Reinhold Brinkmann, the fragment is composed in dodecaphony. However, Schoenberg’s phrasing and articulations are added to produce rather traditional musical expressivity. This fragment reveals that his musical and lyrical thinking seems to be always the center of his compositional process, and the atonal harmonic language did not deprive his works of their expressivity; on the contrary, it enhanced the expressivity and sonority through the extraordinary color produced by the atonality.
The examination of the 17 fragments indicates that Schoenberg seems to have had extremely precise ideas about sonority: he assigned a crescendo and decrescendo on just one note; he created new attack and articulation signs; and, he often required more independence in each line because of the use of various dynamics. Contemporary pianists should effectively demonstrate the musical and expressive universe of piano color created by Arnold Schoenberg.
This Album is a re-edition of my first Album “Schoenberg Piano Music and His 17 Fragments” released by Phoenix Records in 2005.
— Yoko Hirota
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