String Quartet No. 4
Driven from Europe in 1933 as a consequence of the radical antisemitism of the new Nazi regime in Germany, first to France, then the East Coast of the United States, Schoenberg found himself and his family, in the autumn of 1934, as “Exiles in Paradise” a.k.a., Los Angeles. The move to the West Coast resulted from overwork at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston and the fluctuating climate changes of the East Coast.
By 1935, Schoenberg had obtained a post as Professor of Composition at USC. He then joined the faculty at UCLA in the autumn of 1936; a year which turned out to be interesting and fruitful for the composer. He became a friend and tennis partner of George Gershwin, and, more importantly for our purposes, 1936 was the year that Schoenberg composed his first serious works in the United States: the Violin Concerto, Op. 36, and the String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37.
The String Quartet No. 4 is a product of the serial or 12-tone technique of composition Schoenberg developed during the teens and ’20s of the last century, in which an entire work (or single movement) is based on an arrangement of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale into a melodic/motivic/harmonic generating source or series. In the case of the String Quartet No. 4, all four movements are based on a single series. Along with the Violin Concerto, it proved to be the culminating work of what is recognized as his third compositional period.
In this String Quartet, the absolute freedom with which Schoenberg controls rhythmic fluency and clear, delineated polyphony is masterful. Though perhaps not as recognizable as in, say, a Mozart symphony or string quartet, Schoenberg nonetheless utilizes classical forms convincingly, evoking sonata form in the first movement, a scherzo in the second, and a rondo in the fourth. Emotive melody reigns supreme, most notably in the third movement Largo, in which a recitative-like passage, sung in unison by all four instruments at the beginning and again halfway through the movement, is of a near-Romantic intensity.