Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Matthew Griffith

At the age of 31, Arnold Schoenberg began sketching two works for reduced orchestra called Kammersymphonies in a conscious effort to establish his own musical personality. While on vacation in Bavaria in July 1906, he etched the final markings into one of these compositions and declared, “Now I know how I have to compose.”

Although in hindsight we know that his most famous musical characteristics were yet to develop, the Chamber Symphony No. 1 is a landmark at a distinctly pivotal moment in the history of classical music. Schoenberg would soon be known for a seeming departure from tradition, but his journey stemmed from a desire to refine and enhance what already was. In this piece there are only 15 players on the stage, but the expressive range and intensity still sounds remarkably like a full orchestra.

This Kammersymphonie is written as one continuous movement roughly 20 minutes in length, with elements of a full symphony strung together. Schoenberg himself indicated that there are five connected movement-like sections within: Exposition, Scherzo, Development, Adagio, and Reprise. After a brief and pleasant introduction, the piece jumps into action with a call from the French horn. This rising sequence of notes will return in many instruments throughout the piece, so be sure to listen for this iconic “motto” that the horn launches.

As a clarinetist, I am struck by how extreme the emotions are in this piece. At times my part requires incredibly quiet and delicate playing, while at other times I must be “shrill” and almost jazzy. There are luscious, resonant melodies next to march-like drives forward. No time is wasted dwelling on any one idea because another is just around the corner. It seems that Schoenberg’s students were also captivated by this Op. 9 and wished for it to be available in other forms. Alban Berg arranged it for two pianos, and Anton Webern wrote two different quintet arrangements. Schoenberg himself paired it with a four-hands piano version and later expanded it to full orchestra, cataloged as Op. 9b.

While the pandemic does not currently allow us to sit in the exact arrangement requested by the composer, I nonetheless hope that you enjoy our performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major.