(Original Caption) 1917- Sketch shows Austrian Composer, Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951), seated and wearing a suit. Drawn by Egon Schiele. BPA 2 #770.

Schoenberg’s morning and night

Arnold Schoenberg: Expressionist Music (Orchid)

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


I have no problems with impressionism. It’s what French artists do off the cuff when they can’t be bothered with sketches, what French composers do in a wishy-washy mood. So Debussy, so easily recognised.

Expressionism is another matter. A parallel 1900s movement of poets and painters who liked to let it all hang out, it was associated in music chiefly with Schoenberg and his disciples, three of the most buttoned-up composers you could ever wish to avoid. It is supposed to convey “powerful feelings”, as if Bach and Handel hadn’t done it better. Schoenberg’s paintings were also deemed “expressionist”.

The selection of songs on this album is drawn almost entirely from Schoenberg’s earliest output before he went over the atonal cliff. Far from anticipating his future monodrama of the same name, Erwartung (opus 2/1) sounds like a Lied Richard Strauss might have written in the garden between lunch and tea. A wedding song (opus 3/4) could have been by Brahms and a maiden’s song (opus 6/3) by Mahler. But then comes the shock of “Schenk mir” (opus 2/2) and we are in the lonely, only world of a man who taught himself to write music and decided it had to be done differently.

Two late songs from opus 48 show how far Schoenberg fled from Viennese normality. Atonal or 12-tone, they call to mind the everlasting tragic beauty of world war battlefields. Jane Grey, by contrast, evokes the savageries of England’s Tudor Court. 

Claire Booth sings each song on merit, finding beauty in unlikely phrases. Christopher Glynn empathises, adding a couple of Schoenberg’s 6 Little Piano Pieces for context and grim relief. Taken in small doses, two tracks morning and night, this forms a perfect bookend to a thinking person’s musical day.

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