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“Do you really believe it’s any use knowing it? I can’t quite imagine so. I can’t repeat often enough: my works are 12-tone compositions not 12-tone compositions.” This was Arnold Schoenberg’s answer to Rudolf Kolisch, first violinist of the Kolisch Quartet, which premiered the Third Quartet, on his discovery of the composer’s tone row in that piece.

With that in mind, here is not an analysis of the piece but a short introduction to listening to this masterpiece and understanding some of the forces behind its creation.

Vienna, until WWI, had enjoyed a peaceful 50-year period of political stability which allowed great triumphs in all the arts. Music reached its height of elaborate expression with the music of Gustav Mahler. Tonality had gone as far as it could go. Mahler’s Ninth and Tenth symphonies point in the direction of atonality.

In the early decades of the 20th century after the devastation of WWI there was a great change in the philosophy of the arts from one of elaborate embellishment to a lack of ornament and a new age of reason. This would bring into focus what was essential in the arts. The change can be seen architecturally in the buildings of the Bauhaus School, in painting the works of Munch and Klimt, even Schoenberg himself, and in music, in Schoenberg’s use of atonality and the 12-tone method of composition.

This music challenges what Schoenberg called a “philosophy of comfort with its pursuit of ‘the least possible commotion’ and that only activity, movement is productive.” The 12-tone method was Schoenberg’s response to what he called Blumenreich Romantik (loosely meaning, oh so flowery romanticism). It is an adversarial stance to bourgeois culture.

The 12-tone system was a new way of relating tones or notes to one another. He had proven his command of tonality with Verklärte Nacht and Gurre-Lieder and of atonality with Pierrot Lunaire, and was searching for a new means of expression of the inner spirit. After years of private, secret thought, Schoenberg introduced the new language in this piece. The basic rule of this new ordering of tones is that all 12 notes in the chromatic scale must be used before being repeated. Schoenberg used this language in the structures of tonal music (i.e. sonata form, etc.) and the four essential methods of composition, a theme, its inversion, its retrograde, and its retrograde inversion, to give variation. But for Schoenberg, understanding the method was not important for the listener or the performer to appreciate the work.

Yet, there is so much that is recognizable and understandable in this quartet.

This music has character, passion, humor, virtuosity, moments of great tension and tenderness. There is an interplay of voices and communication between players that will be very familiar, along with the expressive use of “accompanying” figures, so much like Schubert. I urge you to listen with open ears, mind and your heart and enjoy the sonorities and textures produced by this master.

The quartet is in four movements that are loosely based upon standard musical structures. Each movement is about seven minutes long.

The first movement is basically in sonata form. Dominated by continuous eighth notes introduced in the first bars by the second violin and the viola, they remind us of similar figures that we are used to hearing in Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Around these eighth notes, which get traded off between all voices, are woven very expressive melodies. Schoenberg writes that “[The] tones, intervals, and rhythm of this figure undergo innumerable changes often for mere variety or for a change of mood or character, or because additional countermelodies are demanding it, but also in order to produce as many contrasts as the present situation requests.” Although the sonata structure is not overt, it does hold the movement together. What is recognizable is the power of expression and the virtuosic trading and expansion of ideas from one instrument to another.

The second is the most intimate and poignant movement. It has aspects both of theme and variations, as well as rondo forms. It begins with a slow, plaintive three-bar violin duet theme with a commentary by the viola, then the cello. Listen for the theme, which recurs after sections of variation or development. After a final strident development, the movement ends with the viola and cello stating the theme to begin a haunting and questioning coda.

The Intermezzo third movement resembles the form of a minuet and trio. The viola starts with a theme in 9/8, which sounds like a 3/4-time slow waltz. The tune is tossed to all the instruments and is accompanied by a typical lilting figure. The slower but boisterous Trio section ends abruptly as the original faster tempo returns and the waltz is stated in the cello as the minuet is replayed.

The fourth movement Rondo is the most playful. Light-hearted and happy, it is easy to hear the main tune recurring after each middle section. Towards the end the movement gets faster and faster and louder and louder until the last seven bars, which are suddenly quite. The viola calmly states the theme and then the piece devolves into accompanying eighth-note figures recalling the way the first movement began, a nod to the importance of the “accompanying” figure.

— Mitchell Newman