Monday, February 04, 2013

Three "Classical" Composers

Clementi, Brahms, and Schoenberg

"I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words." - Arnold Schoenberg 
"All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it." - Jean Cocteau 

Today as I was listening to recordings of piano sonatas by Muzio Clementi and three piano trios by Johannes Brahms I was  reminded of the arc of classicism that stretched from Clementi through to Brahms and in turn was evidenced even in the twentieth century in the work of Arnold Schoenberg who, as a young student of composition, was influenced by the work of Brahms.  What follows are brief comments about each composer whose combined lifetimes spanned almost two hundred years.

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a child prodigy in an era that produced Mozart among others.  By the age of seven he was receiving organ lessons, and in open competition with adults was appointed the local church organist. At the age of 14 he went to study in England, after the Englishman Peter Beckford heard him play and was impressed enough to become his patron. Clementi made his first London appearance in 1775. In 1779 he published his six Piano sonatas Opus 2; these established the piano sonata as distinct from the harpsichord sonata and made Clementi's reputation.  His 1781 trip to Europe allowed him to engage in public competition with other pianists, including the famous "piano duel" with Mozart, in which each player improvised upon his own compositions. Neither was declared outright winner: Mozart considered Clementi "a Charlatan - like all Italians", while Clementi was more gracious about Mozart's gifts.
Clementi continued his travels in Europe and wrote more sonatas (his final tally was over 100).  He innovated by adding a third movement to the two that were typical of the Italian style, and in doing so Clementi brought the sonata to a new level of development. He settled in London in spring 1785 and remained there for the next 20 years, re-establishing old links with the Hanover Concert series and enjoying rising status as a soloist and conductor. He turned his attentions to composing symphonies, but his works suffered from comparison with those of the hugely revered Haydn, who visited London in 1791 and probably contributed to Clementi's lack of success. None of his own efforts was published during his lifetime.

The year after Clementi died Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born.  He would go on to create Classical musical structures in a Romantic age. His writing is notable for its rich textures resulting from a dense fabric of interwoven melodies. It gives his music an emotional depth quite different from the passionate intensity of Tchaikovsky, for example; in the Clarinet quintet he beautifully conveys a sense of autumnal melancholy.  His influence was wide but one young student who admired him would found a "Second Viennese School" of classical music and revolutionize the way music would be composed in the twentieth century.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna and, after his father's death, he was obliged to work in a bank from 1891 to 1895, but found time to pursue his musical development through amateur chamber music performance and composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The early String quartet in D from 1897 shows the influence of Dvorak and Brahms, and was performed with success. But his next work initiated the controversy that was to dog Schoenberg throughout his career. The string sextet Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured night) — whose Romantic character and impassioned richness of harmony and colour are reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss - was turned down by the Vienna Music Association because of some unacceptably dissonant chords.  Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister in 1901 and moved to Berlin, where he subsidized composition of the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande by orchestrating operettas in a cabaret theatre. He was rescued from such drudgery when on Richard Strauss's recommendation he was appointed to teach at Berlin's Stern Academy. This was the beginning of Schoenberg's long career as a great teacher. In 1903 he returned to Vienna to teach privately. Alb an Berg and Anton Webern — who would, along with Schoenberg, form the "Second Viennese School" — became his pupils the following year.  This atmosphere of creative stimulation produced bold and rapid developments in Schoenberg's style, with the First chamber symphony pushing and the Second string quartet breaking the limits of tonality ( the traditional method of composing a piece of music in one particular key). The soprano that Schoenberg added to the quartet sings words that appear symbolic and significant: "I breathe the air from another planet."

Schoenberg returned to Berlin in 1912 to conduct the premiere of Pierrot lunaire, a setting of 21 poems for speaker and chamber ensemble. In this piece, a key work of the twentieth century, the composer drew on the surrealist poems of Albert Giraud, which express the worlds of subconscious violence, madness, and desperate nostalgia that were implicit in the musical worlds Schoenberg was exploring. The work makes a feature of Sprechgesang, a type of vocal production between singing and speech. Schoenberg's compositional experiments culminated in the technique of serialism, an atonal method where the 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used with equal emphasis. His first works in this style date from 1923, two early examples being the Piano suite and the Suite for eight instruments.
Schoenberg's arrangement of the vigorous Piano Quartet, Op. 25 by Brahms (1937) has often been criticized for unidiomatic touches, such as the chromatic writing for brass (a style of orchestral thinking which never became a part of Brahms' musical vocabulary although it became technically possible even before he wrote his First Symphony). Purists object to the uncharacteristic use of coloristic percussion, such as xylophones, in the final movement.  These criticisms lose sight of the main issue, which is that the orchestrated work brilliantly presents in new garb a major chamber work which too few people would otherwise get to know. The overall orchestral sound, moreover, has the burnished richness and thickness we would expect from Brahms -- never mind that Schoenberg achieves it by use of heavier reliance on brass doublings than Brahms would have used.  The composition is a vigorous and attractive version that does carry Brahms' message very well into a new medium.  

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
Clementi, His Life And Music by Leon Plantinga. Da Capo Press, 1977
Arnold Schoenberg's Journey by Allen Shawn. Farrar, Strus, & Giroux, 2002.

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