A musical revolutionary gets a closer hearing

One of the more interesting aspects of the past New York Philharmonic season was a mini-Schonberg festival. Why Arnold Schonberg? He looms on the face of musical history as a revolutionary figure. The founder of the so-called New Vienna School (along with his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern) devised the 12-tone compositional technique, which, for better or for worse, has dominated the contemporary music scene until very recently. Yet even his most accessible masterworks pop up on symphony programs very infrequently (as does the music of Webern and Berg).

Our symphonic groups have encouraged a resistance to this music by rarely scheduling it. We have had more than half a century of benign neglect; the listener has not had a chance to become accustomed to the unusual musical language and thus learn to appreciate the merits of the best of it.

Yet Schonberg communicated in a way his imitators did not. He tended toward the overly intellectual in later years, and his last compositions are rigorous almost beyond endurance. But while he still felt his way through his scores, his music was remarkably engaging, and proved beyond doubt that even his very systematic approach to composition need not sound calculated when composed for the purpose of expressivity.

It was Schonberg's contention that strictly tonal music had gone just about as far as it could go. The performing forces required to make these musical statements had been expanded beyond reasonable limits: Could things get much larger than a Mahlerian orchestra, or, more to the point, that the orchestra needed for Schonberg's own gargantuan post-Romantic ''Gurre-Lieder''?

In the course of his compositional explorations through atonality, chromaticism, multiple tonality, and whatnot, he realized he would have to devise a system that would allow him to compose long stretches of music. Earlier on, he had to think through every rule he was breaking, whereas with a new system he would create the rules.

He chose to use the tone row - all 12 notes of the chromatic scale ordered for that composition or movement in arbitrary fashion by the composer. Once the row was set, one could do just about anything to it, but one had to use all the notes in the row in their designated order before starting again.

Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta scheduled six of Schonberg's pieces. Through them it was possible to chronicle this peculiar musical pilgrim's progress down the 12-tone road to the land of tone row. In all six works, German Expressionism is the primary influence - the capturing of subjective, sometimes hidden emotions.

His first orchestral work was ''Pelleas und Melisande,'' based on the Maeterlinck play that Debussy was using for his opera of the same title. ''Pelleas'' is a dark, disturbed, smoldering passion piece for large orchestra, requiring nearly 45 minutes to complete, with compulsive shifts of mood. It recounts the tragic tale of the two ill-fated lovers.

''Gurre-Lieder'' is a colossal undertaking (it took 10 years to compose), involving an ultra-large orchestra, huge chorus, five vocalists, and narrator. It unfolds in mighty perorations of vocal-orchestral sound, enveloping the listener in a total sonic experience that finds its film counterpart in the erstwhile Cinerama technique. With ''Gurre-Lieder,'' Schonberg knew he'd gone as far as he could with the massiveness of post-Romanticism.

The next step in his progress was the ''Chamber Symphony'' (Op. 9). Though the piece was written with adherence to the principles of harmonic relationships , he was already entranced with the ideas of dissonance, ambivalent tonality, and all the various asides that would force him to devise his new language for optimum usage. It is not an easily accessible piece - Schonberg's intellect was heartily at work, making all the rules work to his dissonant advantage, but his musical heart is nowhere to be heard.

One can view his ''Five Pieces for Orchestra'' (Op. 17) as a further exploration of what has been dubbed atonality, or as a work that further convinced the composer that the only way he was going to bring order into this new order was to create a new system. His very next work, the monodrama ''Erwartung'' (''Expectation'') (Op. 17), is unlike anything else he ever composed. It is the morbid outpouring of a woman (solo soprano) who may or may not have murdered her sweetheart and discovered her deed.

It is Schonberg's most intense score, and his most complex and most passionate as well. He never again exposed emotions as vividly, even rawly. He sets every word to music in a slithery, excitable, nightmarish sound-picture, encompassing every conceivable mood, sensation, thought, and even hints of specific locale. Since Schonberg was one of the finest orchestrators of the century, his imaginative use of instrumental combinations makes the score even more astonishing.

From the unstable world of ''Erwartung,'' Schonberg moved toward his revolutionary theory of tone-row composition. The first orchestral work to come from those explorations was the ''Variations'' (Op. 31). Again, it is scored for large orchestra, though now he was also intrigued by the use of less sustained massiveness to make his points. It is an angular piece, highly theatrical, and, again, a superb showcase for virtuoso conductor and orchestra.

Ideally, the pieces should have been played in close proximity so all Philharmonic regulars could have really appreciated the transformations. That said, the performances ranged from inelegant (a blowsy ''Pelleas'') to spectacular (the ''Erwartung,'' with a searing performance from Hildegard Behrens, and Mehta and the Philharmonic in top form).

''Gurre-Lieder'' was not settled at the first performance (and soprano Jessye Norman had had to cancel). The Philharmonic was in top form for the ''Five Pieces,'' though somehow the ''Chamber Symphony'' seemed more of a read-through than an actual performance. (I missed the ''Variations'' altogether.)

There are excellent recordings of all the works mentioned above. A superb four-record box on DG with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan offers the major works of the three ''New Viennese'' composers - Schonberg, Berg , Webern. The ''Variations'' and ''Pelleas'' receive spectacular performances; both works are available on separately released disks. Sir Georg Solti's ''Variations,'' performed by the Chicago Symphony, is brutally exciting (London CS 6984). ''Erwartung'' has been handsomely put to vinyl with Anja Silja and the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Christoph von Dohnanyi (London digital LDR - 71015).

The Chamber Symphony can be had on Nonesuch digital D-79001 (with a chamber version of the ''Five Pieces'' on the flip), with Gerard Schwartz conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Giuseppe Sinopoli has recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG digital 2532 023). I suppose the best ''Five Pieces'' is the one led by Pierre Boulez, with the BBC Symphony (CBS C-35882.)

The finest ''Gurre-Lieder'' is currently unavailable, with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, chorus, and soloists (if you find it, grab it!). The Ozawa on Philips (6769 038) is a serious compromise: fine orchestra (Boston Symphony) and soloists, enigmatic conducting, and dry, dry recorded sound.

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