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Arnold Schoenberg: The most important composer of the 20th century?

Moses und Aron was the last – and greatest – of four forays the Austrian made into the art form.

By Rachel Beaumont (Content Producer (Web Copy))

24 July 2014 at 12.58pm | Comment on this article

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) is a strong candidate for the title of most significant composer of the 20th century. In 1908 he shook the world of Western music by becoming the first composer to write atonally (though he himself preferred the more democratic term 'pantonal'). Then he shook it again when in 1920 he invented (or discovered, as he would have it) serialism – a compositional technique based on permutations of a 'tone row' (a specific ordering of all 12 notes of the musical scale). Each development transformed the course of music.

Schoenberg didn't consider himself a revolutionary. He believed his ideas were essential progressions in Western music – like the innovations introduced by Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. He also believed that, given the right preparation, an audience would enjoy and appreciate his music. In this, he was wrong. For almost the entirety of his career Schoenberg's works met with virulent hostility, despite the championing of such luminaries as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Gershwin. The nay-sayers’ legacy lingers to this day, making performances such as Welsh National Opera's new production of Moses und Aron rare treats indeed.

Schoenberg's first opera, Erwartung ('Expectation'), was written in just 17 days in 1909 and was first performed in 1924. The young doctor Marie Pappenheim prepared a monologue libretto detailing a woman's emotional response to a traumatic event, in which the influence of Freud's theories is obvious. There is only one dramatic event – the nameless woman stumbles across the bloody corpse of her cheating lover – and it comes less than ten minutes from the start. The main material of the 30-minute opera tracks the woman's fear and grief, her jealousy and anger, her reminiscences of love. Schoenberg described it as revealing in slow motion everything a psyche undergoes in a second of great psychological stress. It is a deeply engrossing and sympathetic work, and a great showcase for a dramatic soprano.

Schoenberg wrote the libretto for Die glückliche Hand ('The fortunate hand') immediately after finishing Erwartung, but he would not finish the music until 1913. This was at the height of Schoenberg's activity as a painter, and his relationship with Kandinsky is evident in the score's exacting directions for the use of coloured lighting. Die glückliche Hand is a much more elaborate work than Erwartung, calling for a chorus, a group of miming actors and a fantastical monster, which sits on the back of the baritone protagonist as a visual metaphor for his pursuit of a happiness he knows he can never attain. It's a deeply pessimistic work, no doubt influenced by turbulence in Schoenberg's family life; in 1908 his wife Mathilde had temporarily left him for the painter Richard Gerstl, who shortly afterwards committed suicide. The 1924 premiere in Vienna was well received, but Schoenberg, disgruntled at the poor treatment he had earlier received from the Viennese public, refused to acknowledge the applause.

It wasn't until the late 1920s that Schoenberg would return to opera, with the light-hearted but serious-minded Von heute auf morgen ('From one day to the next'). He felt sure he had a hit on his hands – so sure that he turned down a lucrative publishing contract to publish it himself, at, ultimately, a tremendous loss. The opera was written in response to the success young composers such as Krenek, Hindemith and Weill were having with Zeitopern (operas of the time). While it has many Zeitoper trappings, Von heute auf morgen is a clear rebuke of what Schoenberg considered the modish decadence of this new generation. Musically it is an astonishing testament to the dramatic potential of serialism. Keeping to absolutely serialist rules, Schoenberg is still able to craft waltzes and burlesques, make delightful use of leitmotifs – and even insert playful quotations from Wagner's Ring cycle.

Moses und Aron is unquestionably Schoenberg's masterpiece – but look further with this masterful composer and you're unlikely to be disappointed.

Welsh National Opera performs Moses und Aron on the Royal Opera House's main stage 25–26 July 2014. Tickets are still available.

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