Saturday, 3 March 2012

Schoenberg at the spinning wheel

Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande caught the attention of four of the greatest composers of his time - Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, whose styles, in their own distinct way, would have seemed tailor-made for its half-lights, and Jean Sibelius and the young Arnold Schoenberg, whose styles would perhaps have been expected to fit far less comfortably. Because Sibelius was a master of modal writing, as much as the two Frenchmen, he pulled off the job as admirably as Fauré. Debussy's achievement is in a realm of its own. His opera is a supreme masterpiece (especially the first three acts). What though of the Schoenberg?

Schoenberg's take is a huge slab of a symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisandecompleted in 1903. It dates from after his famous and frequently-performed Verklärte Nacht but is much less well known. It carries on that work's ultra-Romanticism, extending Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. Out go the half-lights and subtleties of Debussy (which was being composed as Schoenberg was composing his piece) and in comes a no-holds-barred, passionate (over-heated?) account of the story. 

The structure follows that of a standard symphony, except that the usual sections (first movement, scherzo, slow movement and finale) are all merged into a single movement. However, there's also a strong strain of late-Wagnerian polyphony wound around leitmotifs representing characters, places, etc. That polyphony - personalised, abstracted and made more complex - was to become an enduring component of the composer's mature style. 

The 'introduction' evokes the forest and introduces a theme for 'fate'. The 'first movement' introduces the main characters - Melisande on oboe and cor anglais (falling phrases), Golaud on three horns (courtly) and Pelleas on strings (romantic surges, lots of rising thirds). The 'scherzo' covers the scenes by the well, the tower and the vaults and brings in music evoking love's awakening. The processes of ongoing development keep on going and going here and the love themes are ready to blossom in the 'slow movement' where Schoenberg gives his strings and harps full sway. The 'finale' seems like a symphonic recapitulation - though much of the work from the 'scherzo' section on might seem to be mostly recapitulation!

Undoubtedly prolix, Pelleas und Melisande could do with a good pruning, as it is over-long and overindulgent. It almost hits the heights in its love scene, but nothing in the score can compare with the finest stretches of Verklärte Nacht. Still, its sweep and sheer gorgeousness of sound carries me a long way and, hopefully, will bear you along too. 

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