The works by Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Beethoven (1770–1827) in this concert share such strong parallels that it’s worth considering them together before describing individual details. Although using the different instrumentations of string trio and string quartet, both pieces were inspired by the composers’ near-death experiences brought on by illness, and were written during their respective convalescences.
Beethoven completed his String Quartet in A minor (later published as Op. 132) with its “Heiliger Dankgesang” third movement, in July 1825, after having been delayed a month by a serious ailment. Schoenberg had only sketched the outline of his String Trio, a commission from Harvard University’s music department, when in August 1946, he suffered a major heart attack, his survival of which enabled him to finish the piece.
These trials of life and death stimulated both composers to push their technical and creative abilities, resulting in these startlingly original works. Musically, the pieces convey the fractured experience of illness—that is, the delirium of hanging on to one’s life in the balance—through a similar design: the juxtaposition of two seemingly irreconcilable sonic worlds, which are introduced and worked out through a five-part structure.
While Schoenberg did not publish the details about how his Trio was influenced by his illness, he had told colleagues, students, and friends about their clear connection. According to the composer’s one-time assistant Leonard Stein, Schoenberg explained the “many juxtapositions of unlike material in the Trio as reflections of the delirium which he had suffered,” that is, “the experience of time and events as perceived from a semiconscious or highly sedated state” (translation by Walter Bailey). The musical material thus evokes the “alternate phases of ‘pain and suffering’ and ‘peace and repose’” through the arrangement of extreme contrasts throughout the work.
The first two parts of the trio, marked “Part 1” and “First Episode” in the score, evoke this dichotomy while presenting the basic thematic material of the work. In Part 1, pain and confusion is reflected in Schoenberg’s use of 12-tone technique, amplified by harsh dissonances and sound effects, rapidly changing musical motifs, and extreme shifts in register. This jumble of organized chaos then gives way to the relative calm of the First Episode, where lyricism and hints of sweet tonality hold sway. Midway through, fragments of a waltz emerge—a memorial reference to Schoenberg’s native city of Vienna, from where he had left permanently for the United States in the 1930s. All these materials are further developed in Part 2 and the Second Episode, reaching a climactic moment in the latter on a 12-note statement played in unison. Part 3 recapitulates parts of the first half of the piece, a kind of summary reflection on what happened before. At the end, the work drifts off on the waltz fragments.
Extreme contrast also characterizes Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” movement. Two radically different section of music are twice presented in turn, with a final segment that attempts to reconcile them. The first of these, which Beethoven labelled the “Holy Song of Thanks to the Godhead form a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” introduces a very simple hymn-like tune, moving mostly in step-wise fashion, with gradually shifting harmonizations. The pace of their procession is almost achingly slow, and the tension experienced by the musicians to sustain this hymn magnifies its otherworldly aura. This rarified evocation of the world beyond is suddenly interrupted by a return to the “ordinary”. Marked in the score as “feeling new strength” and in the key of D major, the style of this section is completely what the other is not—dance-like phrases, sparkling trills, delicate counterpoint, and bouncy bass lines…an exhilarating vision of life returned or renewed. In the final section, only the first phrase of the hymn is brought back, which each of the instruments take up in turn in complex counterpoint. After culminating in an intense climax, the tension is released through final statements of the hymn phrase. At the end, we, as listeners, feel an ineffable sense that we’ve been profoundly changed.
Sandwiched between the works by Schoenberg and Beethoven is the Movement for String Trio by American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004). Perkinson had a wide-ranging career as a composer and conductor that spanned the genres of classical music, popular music, jazz, and film and television music. Among his many accomplishments, he was co-founder of the Symphony of the New World in New York, and director for the Center for Black Music Research and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble at Columbia College in Chicago.
Movement for String Trio was Perkinson’s final composition, written in February and March 2004, just before he died from cancer on March 9. In the style of a Baroque opera lament but with 20th-century dissonances, the movement features an elegiac melody, set as a duet between violin and viola, over a repeated descending chromatic line, in plucked and bowed variants by the cello.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley