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SCHOENBERG: VARIATIONS FOR ORCHESTRA, OP.

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TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 6

In the West-Eastern Divan the universal metaphysical language of music becomes the link that
these young people have with each other; it is a language of continuous dialogue. Music is the
common framework; it is an abstract language of harmony. In music, nothing is independent. It
requires a perfect balance between intellect, emotion and temperament.
Daniel Barenboim
(in a speech in Brussels in January 2007 in the “Discourses on Europe” series)

On 2 December 1928, Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for orchestra received their first performance in Berlin, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
Furtwängler was the most high-profile conductor to take charge of a Schoenberg premiere: it
was not a success. Wind the clock on to the summer of 1954 and an eleven-year-old boy of Russian-Jewish descent, born and raised in Buenos Aires, played the piano to Furtwängler in Salzburg: it moved and impressed the conductor enormously. The boy’s name was Daniel Barenboim. Wind the clock on yet again, to the summer of 2007, and Barenboim, now one of the
world’s leading conductors and pianists, was touring that same Schoenberg work with an orchestra he’d formed with his friend, the writer and teacher Edward Said. The West-Eastern Divan
Orchestra is an ensemble that, uniquely, sits young Jewish players alongside those from Arab
countries.
This programme is criss-crossed with connections and associations: an homage to Furtwängler
perhaps, but also to the father of a new musical language, one with which, even all these years
later, we’re still coming to terms: Arnold Schoenberg.
It’s a celebration too of music’s power to transcend political divides and unite traditional enemies. And, in Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, it’s a celebration of tonality – which Schoenberg
was so fascinated with dismantling – in its glorious, autumnal richness. And as such it’s a celebration of pure emotion: the “Pathétique” can’t fail to connect and leave you both moved and
changed.
Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna, at the time possibly the most intellectually vibrant city
in the world, and, with his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, he became for music what his
fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler were for psychoanalysis, what Secession artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and others were for painting and design, or what Stefan Zweig, Josef Roth, Franz Kafka,
Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Peter Altenberg were
for literature. It was a city where no-one looked back.
At much the same time as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, musical language
had, Schoenberg felt, reached an impasse. Wagner, in Tristan und Isolde, and Schoenberg himself in his epic oratorio Gurrelieder, had pushed expression as far as it could go within the limitations of the traditional scale-based system. For Schoenberg, the twelve notes of the traditional
scale (on a piano, all the keys – both black and white – from C up to the next C) could operate
on an equal footing. The traditional “pull” of the scale’s “home key” could be dispensed with,
and the music could achieve a new freedom, a freedom where heart, perhaps, surrendered to

the Tchaikovsky speaks from the heart and. The point is worth noting when confronted with a performance like the West-Eastern Divan’s. one created by the still-unresolved mystery surrounding the composer’s death on 6 November 1893. There’s no denying the “Pathétique”’s power and emotional pull. indeed was his death intentional. or is the work conceived on a larger. the “Pathétique” assumed its autobiographical status. Suicide to avoid the scandal of a homosexual liaison is a theory that has been advanced. 31 were his first large-scale work written under the security of a job that greatly improved his quality of life. almost allow melody to bubble up and break the surface. His theory – and practice – was called dodecaphony. which took place just nine days after he conducted the work’s premiere. presents something of an enigma. The work comprises an introduction and original theme. caught live here in only their eighth anniversary season. I wept frequently”. like Variations 3 and 8. of Director of a masterclass in composition at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and the Variations op. like Variations 4 and 5. but gradually his theories attracted both respect and a small but powerful following. laughed off the risks. but succumbed to its deathly power very quickly. more elemental scale? What we do know is that he drank a glass of unpurified water during a cholera epidemic. together. and the “melodies”. Schoenberg opined that his Op. leaves us shattered but uplifted. At its next performance. cleverly achieved by “solo” instruments plucking particular notes from the tone-row (and this is how the motto B-A-C-H emerges).head. 31 was “not excessively difficult in terms of ensemble playing”. both bear witness to the remarkable achievement of the young West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. nine variations and a finale. and it flowed easily from his pen. Dismantling centuries of musical wisdom and practice was never going to be easy. He showed immense pride in the finished work. the twelve-tone system or serialism. last less than a minute and some. known as the “Pathétique”. It is a work that swings dramatically between introspective gloom (the outer movements) and devil-may-care triumphalism (the third movement Allegro molto vivace). one it has never shrugged off. because these young players achieve their extraordinarily high standards of playing during an intensive period that lasts just a few weeks each year. In 1926 Schoenberg took up the post. Yet it’s the gloom that audiences respond to and which. vacated by Busoni’s death. But Tchaikovsky had apparently been in high spirits as he wrote the symphony. in a great performance. comprised of the twelve notes of the scale. and Schoenberg’s music met with strong resistance. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. James Jolly 4/2011 . were called tone-rows. it has a power that still elicits a strong emotional response: Schoenberg’s ear for orchestral colour was remarkably fine. If the Schoenberg speaks from the head. but he did comment that “while composing it in my mind. Did he know he was going to die. and despite the rigid adherence to the twelve-tone system. Thereafter each variation is distinct. In fact it’s hard to resist assigning emotions to the rather beautiful theme as it unfolds in the first section. though he did qualify the comment by pointing out that “the individual parts are by and large very difficult – so the quality of the performance will depend on how well the parts are learned”. Some. now shrouded in memorial garb.