Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2


Born into a lower-middle class Jewish family in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg was a mostly self-taught composer. He learnt counterpoint with composer and pedagogue, Alexander Von Zemlinsky and was also taken under the wing by Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg is perhaps most famous for his innovative twelve-tone technique, which at the time was a  massive milestone for classical music. Schoenberg also worked a lot on atonality (pieces with no tonal centre), as well as developing variation without returning to the centralised melodic ideas. Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 was composed in 1908. It is comprised of four movements and is a prime example of Schoenberg’s transition into his experimental style.

Schoenberg’s compositional career can loosely be described in four periods. The first (1895-1908) comprises of largely tonal works, which begin to allude to the second period (1909-1914) which saw Schoenberg experimenting with atonality (works with no set key). The third period came between 1923-1933, after a hiatus from composing. This particular period is very important, as it is when he developed the twelve-tone technique. The final period is a culmination of all the periods, and sees Schoenberg going back to tonality at points.


The Music

At the time of composing the second string quartet, Schoeberg was transitioning into his second creative period. Also around the time of composition, Schoenberg was caught in a rather unsavoury dilemma as he found out that his wife, Mathilde was having an affair with their neighbour, Richard Gerstl. After Mathilde going to and fro between the two men, she settled back down with Schoenberg, only for Gerstl to commit suicide over his depression over losing Mathilde. Whilst all of this was happening, Schoenberg was still writing music, and some of the more radical choices that were made about this work can be seen as a bridge between his life and his music.

There is a real sense of transitioning within this work, which can largely be seen in Schoenberg’s use of tonality. The first three movements use a key signature, whereas the fourth does not. Moreover, Schoenberg’s highly chromatic writing throughout the movements, and his exploitation of augmented and non-harmonic chords lead to extreme dissonances. Below is an outline of the movements and their respective keys:


I. Mäßig (Moderate) in F# minor

II. Sehr rasch (Very Brisk) in D minor

III. ‘Litanei’, langsam (‘Litany’, slow) in Eb minor

IV. ‘Entrückung’, sehr langsam (‘Rapture’, very slow) with no key


The First Movement

The first movement, marked moderato, is fundamentally in F# minor and follows a sonata form structure. The quiet opening provides a slightly reserved feel until the faster quaver movement emerges from the second violin. The extremities in range that Schoenberg writes is incredibly effective, with the first violin and the cello playing in very high but also very low octaves. There is a sense of a melody, which is led by the top violin, but then passed around the ensemble.

Schoenberg’s persistent use of chromatic harmony is what pushes this movement away from functional harmony. His use of semitone cadences leaves you on edge and wanting more. Opposing rhythms and multiple themes makes the moments of togetherness all the more emphasised. There are many direction changes within this movement, with it leaving it very open as to where it will go next, making it an exciting movement of music.


The Second Movement 

This movement is essentially a scherzo and a trio movement, with the scherzo being divided into three sections: exposition, development and a closing section. This movement is framed with D at the tonal centre, with the key being D minor. Although this does not stay for long as Schoenberg does not support the harmony with functional movement. Rather, the note D is used as a reference point for the melodic lines and some cadence points.

Beginning with a cello solo, which Schoenberg then subsequently layers the other parts on top of. Within this movement a quasi-humorous quotation to the children’s song “O du lieber Augustin – alles ist hin” (Oh my dear Augustin, all is at an end) is made, which has sent musicologists and Schoenberg listeners into a complete tailspin. The quotation is heard when Schoenberg modulates to F# minor and the start of the new section begins with harsh ff pizzicato from all parts bar the first violin which plays a descending chromatic theme. This then leads into the quotation and this part of the movement feels slightly calmer due to the ‘poco rit’ direction Schoenberg writes in.

The exciting, finale section, marked ‘presto’ sees the parts come together in unison, playing a dramatic and very technically demanding conclusion to this movement.  In the penultimate bar the cello returns with the initial solo on D, which is a huge contrast in texture from full instrumentation to just one. The ending is intriguing as all parts end on a D marked pp and are marked pizzicato.


The Third Movement

The third and fourth movements differ from common conventions, as Schoenberg introduces a female soprano into the chamber group. The voice sings two poems by Stefan George, the first being ‘Litany’ and the second being ‘Entrueckung.’ It has been said that the poems represent Schoenberg’s tonal methods and how he handles his new musical ideas. ‘Litanei’, the poem used within the third movement, follows the form of theme and variations. Five variations correspond to the first five lines of the text, with the finale comprising the remaining three lines of the poem:


Litanei – German Original with English Translation

Variation I – Tief ist die trauer die mich umdustert/Ein tret ich wieder/Herr! in dein haus. Deep is the sadness that gloomily comes over me/Again I step/ Lord, in your house.

Variation II – Lang war die reise/matt sind die glieder/Leer sind die schreine/voll nur die qual. Long was the journey/my limbs are weary/The shrines are empty/only anguish is full.

Variation III – Durstende zunge darbt nach dem weine/Hary war gestritten/starr ist mein arm. My thirsty tongue desires wine./The battle was hard/my arm is stiff.

Variation IV – Gönne die ruhe schwankenden schritten/Hungrigem gaume bröckle dein brot! Grudge peace to my staggering steps/For my hungry gums break your bread!

 Variation V – Schwach ist mein atem rufend dem traume/Hohl sind die hände/fiebernd der mund. Weak is my breath/calling the dream/my hands are hollow/my mouth fevers.

Finale – Leih deine kühle/lösche die brände./Tilge das hoffen, sende das licht! Lend your coolness/douse the fires/rub out hope/send the light!

Gluten im herzen/lodern noch offen/Innerst im grunde/wacht noch ein schrei. Fires in my heart still glow, open/inside my heart a cry wakes.

Töte das sehnen,/schliesse die wunde!/Nimm mir die liebe/gib mir dein glück! Kill the longing/close the wound!/Take my love away/give me your joy!


The text, which is a type of prayer, is at the core of the structure for the third movement. Schoenberg commented on the poem saying:


“I was afraid the great dramatic emotionality of the poem might cause me to surpass the borderline of what should be admitted in chamber music.”


This movement is said to be the ‘development’ of the quartet, as it takes previous themes and bridges the transition between tonality and atonality. Schoenberg develops structures within this movement, which are used as the basis for the fourth movement, which has no tonal centre.


The Fourth Movement

Based on the setting of Stefan George’s poem ‘Entrückung’, the fourth movement pushes the most boundaries.

The lack of tonal stability within this movement separates the five different voices. Schoenberg utilises contrapuntal writing to bring forward the melodic lines, whilst also making sure the poem is developed and effective. Although there is no key. Schoenberg often refers back to an F# major triad, and this acts as some sort of centre to the movement. The thematic ideas are developed from previous movements, which leads to a chorale theme at the end of the movement.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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