Five Orchestra Pieces 100 years later

While his prediction that cab drivers would some day whistle his tunes has yet to be borne out, nevertheless after 100 years it’s clear that Arnold Schoenberg’s music is a direct outgrowth and an important aspect of German art music. It’s also difficult now to appreciate how upsetting this was to Viennese tastes of the time.

September 3, 1912 saw the debut of the Five Orchestra Pieces, op. 16 (written in 1909 by Schoenberg). It was not even performed in Vienna, but premiered in London in the Queen’s Hall by Sir Henry Wood. Wood, now known mainly for his invention of the annual Proms, is hardly the man you would have expected to have championed this music. But he must have seen what we now can clearly hear. Despite highly chromatic parts, the music is shimmering with very few chordal changes. It is hardly atonal. Frankly, fifty years after Tristan it is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it is quite introspective; not what you would expect from music labelled expressionistic. Perhaps with longer or slower climaxes, it would even be compared favorably by traditional audiences with Debussy.

Wood’s 1912 and 1913 Proms were filled with modernists. The notoriously conservative British audiences were not appreciative however. While they did not break out in full riot like the Parisians at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, they allowed themselves to hiss the Five Orchesta Pieces, a reaction that was approved by the British Press.

The first three of the pieces performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle:

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