1. Satz: Ouverture. Fuga

2. Satz: Adagio

3. Satz: Menuett. Trio

4. Satz: Gavotte

5. Satz: Gigue

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DURATION: ca. 29 Min.

PUBLISHER: G. Schirmer (Music Sales Classical)

Schönberg wrote his Suite during the final quarter of 1934, i.e. during the time when the emigrant composer was just beginning to establish himself on the American West Coast; it was his first extensive tonal work after a quarter-century of involvement with atonality and twelve-tone technique. He had published no major-minor tonal work since the Second String Quartet in 1908 – but that fact must not deceive us into assuming that he had not continued to deal with tonality in occasional works, arrangements of others’ compositions and several uncompleted pieces. Schönberg spoke of a “longing to return to the old style” which was “always powerful” in him. “So sometimes I compose tonal music,” he continued; “stylistic differences of this kind have no special importance for me.”
However, he did feel it important to emphasize that returning to the major-minor tonal system did not constitute a concession to the taste of American audiences. In a foreword to the Suite written in early 1945, Schönberg defended himself against the critics, from whom he expected the malicious cry that he had renounced his twelve-tone creations with this composition, and he especially underlined his work’s claim to pedagogical significance. In fact, he had written the Suite at the suggestion of the musician Martin Bernstein of New York University, who was ambitiously pursuing his activity as the conductor of a student orchestra.  With that in mind, Schönberg called his work “an object lesson” for “the progress possible within tonality if one is a real musician and knows his handiwork: a true preparation, not only from the standpoint of harmony, but also in terms of melody, counterpoint and technique […],” adding (not without irony), “Without exposing students to injury from the ‘poison of atonality’ for the time being, [this piece] should be a preparation for modern playing technique, within a harmonic system which leads toward modern sentiments.” Accordingly, the work’s musical techniques thoroughly correspond in their variety and workmanlike use to the procedures which Schönberg was attempting to teach in his own classes on masterworks of the “classical” tradition at the time.
With its predominating fugal elements, the Overture highlights Schönberg’s contrapuntal skill, whereas the Minuet and the Gavotte dance movements evince a particularly artistic balance of irregular rhythm and meter usage. The Adagio and the final, highly effective Gigue especially focus on the rich formative possibilities of motivic-thematic treatment.
On another occasion, Schönberg underlined that he had also “planned” [the Suite] as a teaching piece for his composition students,” although this is not evident until one examines the actual dimension of the claim he asserted, viz. to create a didactic bridge between musical tradition and an emphatic commitment to “the Modern.”
The dotted rhythm of the Largo which begins the Overture, the gracefulness of the Gavotte, the bourdon of the Musette and the 12/8 meter of the Gigue can only be considered superficial indications of Schönberg’s orientation to musical tradition; he does not wish to imitate handed-down custom or parody it in an alienating manner. On the contrary, he sees himself as borne by a tradition which he feels is still living, a line descending through “German music” from Bach and Mozart, and he is attempting in a composition of his own to express what he has learned from the past in a contemporary idiom. As he said himself, he wished to trace a “novelty” that “never fades away” with “object lessons” like his Suite.

Matthias Schmidt
© Arnold Schönberg Center


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