Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16

I. Vorgefühle II. Vergangenes III. Farben IV. Peripetie V. Das obligate Rezitativ


In 1912, Schoenberg briefly kept a diary. He attempted to make notes of all events he deemed important. In this diary we can read a few lines about the titles of his Five Orchestral Pieces written in 1909. The composer was none too enthusiastic for the idea. In music, he noted, “what is marvellous is that he that understands comprehends all and yet the creator’s secrets remain.” The titles, he felt, “blurt out” these secrets. “Those titles, which I will give, do not blurt out anything” he continues “because partly they are entirely obscure, partly they are technical only. Which is to say “Premonitions” – everyone has them; “Bygones” – same again; Chord Colours (technical), Climax (a pretty general term); the Obligatory recitative.” In the end, these titles were appended to the Peters edition, although the third piece was renamed “Colours” instead. We cannot add much to the first two. “Premonitions” is music that from the very beginning arouses fear and unease, and by its end has become a frightening vision. The musical image of “Bygones” is gentler and quieter.The middle movement has inspired reams of literature from musicologists.


What does Schoenberg mean by “Colour?” True, one obvious aspect of it is its varied orchestration. At the beginning, we hear the same five voice chord repeated in two different orchestrations. In the final chapter of his textbook on harmony completed in 1911, Schoenberg brought up the idea of “Klangfarbenmelodie”, which is to say that besides pitch and rhythm, he argued that perhaps sound colour should no longer be a secondary contributory element as it was in the past. Why should it not be possible to create musical forms with melodic value using changes of sound colour (the ultimate case would be a sequence of notes of the same pitch but each one having a different sound colour)? The middle movement of the Five Orchestral Pieces undoubtedly takes steps in this direction. By the same token, it is very consciously constructed polyphonic music: the progression of chords is strictly determined (each voice sooner or later moves up a minor second, and then down a major second). Much later, Schoenberg admitted that a summer experience inspired the composition. At dawn, he was on a boat on the smooth waters of the Traunsee and was overwhelmed by the play of the light – perhaps the small motives that dart around and above the chordal progressions should be taken as fish … After his move to the United States, Schoenberg revised the work and its title becomes more revealing: “Summer morning by a lake (Colours).”


After the relaxed “slow movement”, the fourth truly begins with an excited climax. The title of the last piece is the hardest to explain. It is essentially the unique continuation of one of Richard Wagner’s ideas. Wagner felt that the four and eight bar structure generally underlying all classical music was reminiscent of verse. He believed that artists of the Romantic era should liberate themselves from this stereotypical method and approach music with the freedom of prose. In this piece, Schoenberg takes Wagner’s concept (which Wagner never truly realised himself) to its logical conclusion. There is no periodic articulation, or any repetition that we can discern at first hearing. There is no “theme”, no “bridge”, just infinite musical discourse. It is as if a biblical prophet is relaying what the higher powers have whispered to him, not bothering whether anyone hears it or if they understand his words.