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Großes symphonisches Zwischenspiel

>>> text | sources

DURATION: ca. 45 Min.

Universal Edition
Belmont Music Publishers (USA, Kanada, Mexico)

"I must acknowledge the possibility that I may no longer be able to compose 'Jacob's Ladder' to its completion." As Arnold Schönberg, in a letter written to his former student Karl Rankl just a few weeks before his death (Friday, July 13th, 1951), spoke resignedly of giving up his compositional plans for "Jacob's Ladder", he marked the conclusion of a body of work reflective of his complex development, the beginning of which lay, at this point, four decades back. The genesis of "Jacob's Ladder", which is the central composition of Schönberg's "Weltanschauung"[worldview] music between 1908 (String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10, with the George-settings "Litanei" [Litany] and "Entrückung" [Rapture]) and 1923 (Serenade Op. 24, with the sonnet from Petrarca's Canzoniere) as an aesthetic of the basic questions of human existence and art-religion, can be traced almost completely with the help of autograph draft materials from the composer's estate, as well as extensive correspondence within Schönberg's Viennese circle of students and friends: the oratorio was preceded by plans for a largely-scaled symphony for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, with "Jacob's Ladder" as the last movement - a conceptual link to Mahler's 8th Symphony, with the implications of a musical discourse freed from the shackles of tonality. The symphony itself grew out of a plan for a setting of Honoré de Balzac's novel Seraphita (at any rate, its last chapter, "Seraphita's Ascension"), the German adaptation of which he had originally delegated to the Viennese doctor Marie Pappenheim, the librettist of his monodrama, "Erwartung" [Expectation], Op. 17 (1909) ("I'd much rather compose Seraphita, which Pappenheim is currently working on for me", letter to Alexander Zemlinsky of November 21st, 1913). Neither this nor a collaboration, initiated during the year before, with Richard Dehmel on an oratorio, were to be realized. Schönberg ended up writing the text himself.
The first extant document having to do with the material of "Jacob's Ladder" is a letter Schönberg wrote to his student Alban Berg in early 1911, a letter in which he talked of his plan to set to music the fragment "Jakob ringt" [Jacob wrestles] from August Strindberg's Legenden [Legends]. In Berlin, Schönberg's original idea for an oratorio began to crystallize into a concept for a monumental dramatic work for the stage. At the same time, Schönberg was busy with "Die glückliche Hand", Op. 18, a "drama with music", which represents the attempt to translate physical experiences into a visual, scenic and musical Gesamtkunstwerk. The correspondence with the poet, which was the upshot of Schönberg and Dehmel's having met each other personally in Hamburg in the autumn of 1912, bears eloquent witness to Schönberg's preoccupation with the oratorio, and his desire to bring Dehmel on board as its librettist. Dehmel, however, did think himself able to fulfill Schönberg's wish for a new libretto; as an alternative, he offered him a text that he had written earlier, entitled "Oratorium natale" ["Celebration of Creation"]. Due to the orchestration of "Glückliche Hand", as well as the composition of the Four Songs for Orchestra, Op. 22 (including "Seraphita", after Ernest Dowson/Stefan George), the outline of the oratorio had to be set aside until the end of 1914, at which time Schönberg once again went to work on the project, with a new concept for its form: a (programmatic) symphony, which would consist of the movements "Lebenswende" [Turning Point in Life], "Lebenslust" [Lust for Life], "Schöpfungsfeier" (Richard Dehmel), an interlude and a psalm in the first part, and the movements "Totentanz der Prinzipien" [Death Dance of the Principles] and "Glauben des Desillusionierten" [Faith of the Disillusioned One] (with bible quotations) in the second half.
In an unpublished article from Schönberg's estate, Schönberg provides us with this clue: "I had made plans for a great symphony of [which] the Jakobsleiter should be the last movement. I have sketched many themes, among them one for a scherzo which consisted of all the twelve tones." Immediately after having completed the poem "Totentanz der Prinzipien" on January 15th, 1915, Schönberg started on the text of "Jacob's Ladder" which, at this early stage of its genesis, was themed as "the union of sober, skeptical awareness of reality with faith" (this remark dated "18 Jan. 1915"). The musical sketches, begun on May 4th, 1915, indicate that Schönberg had, at that point in time, already thought of a separation of the material into an instrumental symphony and a vocal work based on the "Jacob's Ladder" text. In the fall of 1915, Schönberg returned to Vienna and, in December, was dispatched to the imperial regiment "Hoch- und Deutschmeister" No. 4. After his discharge from military service, and renewed work on the Op. 22 orchestral songs, he once again turned, in early 1917, to the "Jacob's Ladder" text, the first clean copy of which is dated May 26th, 1917. Anton Webern, finally, wrote the following to his teacher: "How I am looking forward to "Jacob's Ladder". How quickly you completed this poem. […] I know, that of it which I am in a position to understand will allow me to see everything in this world in a new light" (letter of July 13th, 1917).
After further musical sketches in early July, 1917, Schönberg made corrections to the poem and continued on July 19th with the short score of the composition, which had now been separated from the fragmentary symphony. At this point, he was already considering a stage production, for which he wanted to have Adolf Loos as the stage designer. By September, 1917 (apart from other sketches also dated 19 September, there is the entry, "reported for military duty" above Gabriel's text "So ist dein Ich gelöscht" [thus is my Self extinguished]), a large part of the fragment (measures 1 - 601) had been drafted in short score: "[Erwin] Stein wrote me that you're working a lot. So that Jacob's Ladder will be done by judgment day. It seems a miracle to me. All these worries, and you're capable of that!" (Webern to Schönberg, September 12th, 1917). In the fall, Universal Edition published the text of Jacob's Ladder in two editions ("normal" and "handmade" editions). Anton Webern wrote on October 5th: "After the awful things of the last few weeks, these words are my salvation! […] Because of your work, it had become crystal-clear to me, just what the fate of man is." Schönberg's brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky also waxed ecstatic on his former pupil's new work: "The two great speeches of Gabriel are, at first reading, the most beautiful! What also amazes me: the formal structure: unheard-of brevity of expression, and then once again the beauty of language." (October, 1917) Musical sketches from early December, 1917, contain handwritten mention of Schönberg's renewed exemption from military service, which was granted due to his poor physical constitution. On December 20th, he wrote Zemlinsky about his difficulties in coming back to the composition where he had left off: "Such an interruption is so unnatural, that I find it difficult to get back on track." Further sketches came to be in January, 1918, before "Jacob's Ladder" had to be set aside for a long period of time due to Schönberg's teaching obligations at the "Schwarzwald'schen Schulanstalten" [Schwarzwald School]. After a reading of the "Jacob's Ladder" text by Wilhelm Klitsch at the club, Schönberg resumed work on his creation with sketches of the second part.
More intensive work took place in early 1922, when he worked on the closing chorale, and on the choral and orchestral scoring, and with the conception of new principles of form, which culminated in his " Method of Composition with twelve tones relating only to one another", which simultaneously ushered in a new epoch in the history of 20th century music. To what extent the interruption in Schönberg's work on the "Jacob's Ladder" oratorio (further sketches are dated April, as well as July, 1922) was connected to the "Mattsee Event" the year before (an anti-Semitic pogrom set in Salzburg's summer vacation season, which resulted in the expulsion of Jewish guests, including Schönberg), must necessarily remain a matter of speculation. What is known, is that the strident thematization of Jewish identity, brought about by the social and historical context, brought to an end his period of theosophical and esoteric reflection on an aesthetic level, which would only later, after his emigration from Austria, experience a new artistic sublimation in his magnum opus "Moses und Aron" [Moses and Aaron], as well as in the Zionistic drama "Der biblische Weg" [The Biblical Way]. Schönberg did acknowledge his view of the material of "Jacob's Ladder" as being an allegory for modern man's wrestling with faith and, as such, emblematic of a current crisis: "Perhaps the worst thing indeed was the overthrowing of all that, in which one had believed earlier. […] What I mean, could best be explained to you by "Jacob's Ladder" (an oratorio): I mean religion - even without all it's organizational shackles. During these years, it was my only support. Let me have said it here for the first time." (letter to Wassily Kandinsky of July 20th, 1922) When Alexander Zemlinsky invited Schönberg to a reading of the libretto at Prague's "Verein für musiklische Privataufführungen", Schönberg declined, the reason being that he did not want to risk any more interruptions of his work since, for him, "getting off track can be perilous (see Jacobs Ladder)."
Schönberg, who lived in American exile after 1933, made a next-to-last attempt in January of 1945, when he applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant to complete "Jacob's Ladder", "Moses and Aaron" and textbooks - he estimated he would need 1 ½ to 2 years to finish the oratorio. The application, however, was rejected. Later, as Hermann Scherchen who, alongside being a conductor, presided over the publishing house Ars Viva in Zürich, which he had founded, came to Schönberg looking for new compositions, he planned to transcribe at least part of the short score of "Jacob's Ladder" into a full score which, in light of his worsening vision problems, was a task of no small difficulty. Only after Schönberg's death did his former pupil Winfried Zillig, at the request of Schönberg's widow Gertrud, make a full score from the autograph sources. The concertante premiere of the "Jacob's Ladder" fragment took place on June 16th, 1961 under Rafael Kubelik in the Vienna Konzerthaus. The staged premiere took place on August 14th, 1968 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Therese Muxeneder
© Wiener Staatsoper


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