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Music in the Making

Music In The Making: Back To (Second Viennese) School

Grab your pencils, notebooks, and binders and head back to school with Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Ernst Krenek, and Alban Berg.


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Back to School with Arnold Schoenberg
Anya Wilkening
Back to School with Arnold Schoenberg

As the academic year begins, Music in the Making returns to the classroom, exploring music from composers involved in the Second Viennese School. Characterized by their interest in atonality (removing functional harmony as an organizational element) and dodecaphony (using all twelve tones of the chromatic scale equally and without a hierarchy of importance), these composers pushed musical boundaries further than ever.

Arnold Schoenberg: Phantasy, Op. 47
Kristen Yon, violin; Timothy Hester, piano
Moores Opera House

The early 20th century saw the advent of the Second Viennese School, comprised most famously by Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who saw themselves as the inheritors of the Viennese musical legacy. Best known for the "emancipation of dissonance" and the creation of the twelve-tone method, Schoenberg was an influential teacher to many. Webern later described Schoenberg's pedagogy fondly, saying "Schoenberg demands, above all, that what the pupil writes for his lessons should not consist of any old notes written down to fill out an academic form, but should be something achieved as the result of his need for self expression...With the utmost energy, he tracks down the pupil's personality, seeking to deepen it, to help it break through."

A Very Studious Webern
Anya Wilkening
A Very Studious Webern

Anton Webern: Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1
Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra
Larry Rachleff, conductor
Stude Concert Hall

Anton Webern began studying with composer Arnold Schoenberg in the fall of 1904, on the recommendation of none other than Gustav Mahler. The Passacaglia for Orchestra was the culmination of four years of study with Schoenberg, and the first piece that Webern publicly avowed. Webern turned to an old form—the passacaglia, a set of variations composed over a ground bass—to shape his composition. The bass line is presented alone first before receding to the background of the 23 variations that follow.

Alban Berg: Sonata, Op. 1
Markus Groh, Piano
Moores Opera House

Alban Berg joined Webern as a student of Arnold Schoenberg in October of 1904. Prior to this point, Berg had received no formal music education. He was apparently a quick study; his opus 1, a Piano Sonata, was completed only four years later. A single-movement work, the piece amalgamates the traditional sonata form (with a clearly demarcated exposition, development, and recapitulation), with Schoenberg's concept of "developing variation." The opening measures thus present the majority of the melodic, harmonic, and intervallic material that Berg utilizes throughout the remainder of the work. Though the harmonic language is complex and filled with dense chromaticism, the lyricism of the music prevails and the work eventually resolves, returning to the same B-minor chord with which it opened.

Ernst Krenek: Piano Sonata No. 5, op. 121
Scott Cuellar, piano
Wiener Konzerthaus

Though he never studied directly with Schoenberg, Austrian composer Ernst Krenek clearly felt his influence. A generation younger than Schoenberg's disciples, Webern and Berg, Krenek nevertheless became friends with both, and studied their scores. The impact of the Second Viennese School is evident in Krenek's music composed after 1930, when he delved into the twelve-tone technique. His fifth piano sonata, composed in 1950, utilizes dodecaphony in an impressive show of virtuosity. Of the last movement, pianist Scott Cuellar describes:

Krenek uses an amicable and simple rondo theme, that is, a theme that returns several times throughout the movement, as a bookend for significantly more complex and dramatic music in the episodes between the rondo theme—the more dramatic the episodes become, the more stark the contrast is between the dramatic episode material and the simplicity of the rondo tune—each time, growing more naïve and faint; eventually the dramatic music of the episode reaches a boiling point, bursting into a wash of sound, with glissandos bathing an echo of the music heard in the introduction as the temperature cools. One final flourish brings the piece to a splashy close.

Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano
April 2014
Jordan Koransky, violin; Kyung-A Yoo, piano
Duncan Recital Hall

"It is always all over before it starts," remarked Anton Webern's father after hearing "Four Pieces for Violin and Piano" performed in June of 1912. Remarkable in their brevity, these pieces total only 62 bars of music, and yet plumb the depths of expression, using effects such as pizzicato, muted sound, ponticello, angular melodies, and extreme dynamic range. Freely atonal, their succinct nature serves to highlight Webern's aphoristic compositional craft.

Alban Berg (left) and Maurice Corneil de Thoran (right) ponder "Wozeck"
Alban Berg (left) and Maurice Corneil de Thoran (right) ponder “Wozeck”

Alban Berg: Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano
Richie Hawley, clarinet; Brian Connelly, piano
Duncan Recital Hall

Impressed by the abilities of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and his fellow pupil Anton Webern, Alban Berg also ventured into the genre of musical miniatures. Though known more for the sweeping lyricism of his Violin Concerto or other large-scale works such as the six-movement string quartet titled Lyric Suite, Berg adapted this form to suit his own needs. They remain more Romantic in character than those of Webern, with lush textures and timbres and expressive gestures.

This episode originally aired Sunday, August 28th, 2016. Catch Music in the Making every Sunday at 7:06 PM on Classical.