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Lake District countdown 1: Dan on Schoenberg

In the first of a series of posts on the music featured in our upcoming concert as part of the Lake District Summer Music festival, our viola player Dan shares his love of Schoenberg’s Johann Strauss arrangements.

I admit it: I’m a huge Schoenberg fan. I love his ravishingly beautiful early works, the inspired frenzy of the free atonal pieces, the hard-won rigour of the later serial music. I love his high-mindedness, his waspish way with fools and those foolish enough to rile him (and his less-publicised contrition and eagerness to make amends) and almost above everything, I love his contradictions and his many contradictory enthusiasms. Here is an artist who spent his days pondering hexachordal combinatoriality whilst attempting to finish an opera on the relation of man and his god, and his evenings playing tennis with Gershwin.

Perhaps surprisingly for a composer who famously declared that ‘if it’s art, it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people, it’s not art’, Schoenberg was a vociferous champion of his tennis partner’s music. He also demonstrated his catholic tastes in other ways.

Schoenberg made several arrangements of another ‘popular’ composer, Johann Strauss, for chamber ensembles, first in 1921 for a fundraising concert at his Society for Private Musical Performances where he and his pupil Webern performed on violin and cello respectively (they swapped during the course of the evening). Several years later he arranged the Kaiserwalzer for inclusion in a tour of his melodrama Pierrot Lunaire to Spain.

In all of the arrangements but particularly that of the Kaiserwalzer I love the way that Schoenberg shows such care and love for the originals; in what could have been in lesser hands a routine piece of hackwork, he completely and meticulously rethought the orchestrations for the smaller forces, with dazzling results. Popularly written off as an elitist (and some of his pricklier pronouncements admittedly don’t help his cause) these arrangements, borne of a love and respect for music very different to his own, add another layer of seeming contradictions to the great man. Put them alongside his delight in Gershwin’s music, tennis, jazz and Charlie Chaplin and he emerges as an even more more complex, remarkable and yes, loveable figure.