A little thought of no importance about Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet

(from my listening diary, and not fact-checked)

December 31, 1936 (“I was hoping we could finish by 10:00 PM…”)

Hollywood, CA; private recording produced by Alfred Newman

Kolisch String Quartet: Schoenberg – Second String Quartet in F# minor, Op. 10

Tonight it strikes me that this is by a wide margin the most accessible piece Schoenberg ever wrote. The runner-ups would be Verklarte Nacht and Gurrelieder, which is kind of cheating as they are among his earliest published compositions. Speaking of the latter, as of August 2015, I have still neither heard nor looked at Gurrelieder!!! I know, shocking. I guess it’s like Mahler 2,3, or 8, Missa Solemnis, Deutsches Requiem, opera – just not the kind of thing I listen to at home.

The whole piece goes down so easy. The tunes of the 2nd Quartet are memorable, there’s vamps, pedal tones, hooks galore, vivid episodes. It has that clumsy, eye-rolling “joke” in the second moment, the ach du lieber augstine or whatever. People should like that, right? It never gets really dense and strident, like some of Op. 16. It’s not as introverted and hermetic as Op, 11 or The Book of the Hanging Garden. It’s not shrieky, and not super difficult to play. The movements are short, and it has at least a likeness to the classical four-movement, sonata-informed quartet. You get a bonus lyric soprano, the novelty factor, if not quite on par with the chorus in the 9th Symphony. There’s a non-morbid text that could help the listener take that step into non-hierarchic tonality, or whatever you want to call it – atonality, pantonality. I know, let’s call it Schoenberg tonality.

It seems apart from S’s other string quartets, as well as the 2nd Quartet’s equally path-breaking contemporaries: Op. 11, 16, and the George lieder. Although I admit, all of these pieces have a many elements that reach out to the listener, that announce themselves, that have dramatic flourishes, rhetorical gestures, what have you. He really knew how to write a piece of music! But much as I love Das obligatto recitative, I don’t see people whistling it on the street. In the 2nd Quartet, all of the movements are listener-friendly, and diverse but unified.

The Second Quartet should have been Schoenberg’s big hit. It should have made him a living. It should have caught on, been the piece that soft-pedaled atonality. It should have become a cliché, like Le Sacre, or The Waste Land. After Monteux repeated Le Sacre, it might have still ruffled feathers here and there, and it was a long time before orchestras were basically comfortable with it, but in general it was an acknowledged success. After Verklarte Nacht, I don’t think S ever had another hit. Gurrelieder had a big success at its belated premiere, but it’s never been much performed or recorded. He was performed and talked about, championed and derided, but there wasn’t a hit, like Prelude après midi d’un faun, Strauss’s tone poems, or Wozzeck. Pierrot Lunaire was more of a success d’estime, and remains so to this day.

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