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String Trio, Op 45

'Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinů: String Trios' (CDA67429)
Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinů: String Trios
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Movement 1: Part 1
Movement 2: First Episode
Movement 3: Part 2
Movement 4: Second Episode
Movement 5: Part 3

String Trio, Op 45
Schoenberg’s String Trio, Op 45, is a late work, composed in 1946 and the last in a significant body of chamber music for strings which had encompassed five string quartets and the string sextet Verklärte Nacht. It simultaneously offers the most extreme writing, both technically and emotionally, that he called for in any of these works, and the ultimate refinement and distillation of his musical language, which had been developing for half a century through traditional tonality, free chromaticism, and his ‘method of composition with twelve tones related only to one another’. Since 1936 Schoenberg had been living, an exile from the Nazi tyranny in Germany, in Hollywood, where he taught at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). On 2 August 1946, at his home in Brentwood Park, he suffered a violent heart attack that nearly killed him. His heartbeat and pulse ceased, and he was only revived from this death-like state by a hypodermic injection directly into his heart. Although he recovered to some extent, the last years of his life were those of an invalid. Not, however, a musical invalid: for less than three weeks after the attack he began composing the String Trio, a work of masterly concentration, and one which in some measure reflects that traumatic experience.

The novelist Thomas Mann records (in The Genesis of a Novel) a conversation he had with Schoenberg about the new Trio in October 1946:

He told me about the new Trio he had just completed, and about the experiences he had secretly woven into the composition – experiences of which the work was a kind of fruit. He had even, he said, represented his illness and medical treatment in the music, including even the male nurses and all the other oddities of American hospitals. The work was extremely difficult to play, he said, in fact almost impossible, or at best only for three players of virtuoso rank; but, on the other hand, the music was very rewarding because of its extraordinary tonal effects.

(Echoes of this conversation may be found in Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, whose composer– hero Adrian Leverkühn is shown as composing a similarly ‘unplayable, but rewarding’ String Trio.) It would be misguided, even so, to regard the Trio as too exclusively a ‘fruit’ of Schoenberg’s near-death experience (he had, in fact, begun sketching it two months before the attack). Indeed, although he told his former pupil Adolph Weiss that he had even depicted the entry of the hypodermic needle, there seems no point in hunting out and pinning down such details. It is enough to know that the music reflects an experience of extreme physical and mental disorientation – and reflects it brilliantly, in violent dissonance and rhythmic disruption, extraordinary tonal effects and, above all, the fragmentation of melodic material. The freedom of form and expression is of an order Schoenberg had scarcely approached since the emotional outpouring of his Expressionist music-drama Erwartung.

Schoenberg seems to have been impelled to produce a creative statement that would sum up, in the most concentrated form, the essential aspects of his art. It is, therefore, not only the most adventurous piece he ever wrote, stylistically, structurally and in its application of the twelve-note method; it also enshrines the deepest contrasts. For every nightmarish passage of hammered chords, clicking col legno bowing, or glassy harmonics, there is one of profound peace or reflective tenderness. This duality is manifest in the way that the furious opening is stilled by the calmly yearning, rising line that begins the second section; and it is these assuaging elements, eventually, which are left unchallenged at the end. Though the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of the Trio have claimed most of the attention of commentators, it is the work’s expressive totality that is the most impressive thing about it.

The Trio’s single movement comprises five spans, three ‘Parts’ divided by two ‘Episodes’. Part 1 and the First Episode together comprise what may loosely be termed the ‘exposition’. But we cannot think in terms of first and second subjects: motifs there are in plenty, but they are short, and uncompromisingly juxtaposed – it is their manner of presentation, most of all, which characterizes these first two sections. Part 1 plunges us into a fantastic world in which we seem to have lost our bearings completely. Trills, tremolandos, harmonics, rhythmic figures, snatches of melody, motivic blocks – graphic images and outbursts of frightening intensity – are flung, apparently at random, upon the listener. We seem to be at the centre of a psychological storm. But when Episode 1 begins we are confronted with something familiar, even comforting – the serene rising phrase on the violin is in a clear A major. The Episode continues with further calm, pacifying material – though it is some time before an extended melodic statement appears.

Part 2 and the Second Episode can be viewed as a ‘development’. Part 2 attempts to continue the tranquil moods of the First Episode, and for the most part succeeds. Given its serial nature the warmth and gentleness of much of this music is remarkable: its soundworld seems almost to approach that of the late Beethoven quartets. (Indeed, considering the circumstances of its composition, it is not wholly fanciful to see in certain exalted passages a Schoenbergian equivalent of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from Beethoven’s Op 132.) In the Second Episode, however, the frenzied, disruptive music regains the upper hand, and explodes with new force at the outset of Part 3. This final section begins as a drastically compressed recapitulation of Part 1 and the First Episode – concentrating on the most striking images of the earlier music rather than its literal repetition. But a final fury of the ‘psychological storm’ gives way to one of Schoenberg’s most consolatory codas. A lyrical melody that first emerged in Part 2 is heard cantabile in the violin’s highest register, shining through a halo of harmonics from viola and cello, before in a sublimated waltz-tempo the work descends, light as thistledown, to a quiet, undemonstrative close of profound calm.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2005

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