Schoenberg: Suite for Piano

Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, Op. 25, was the composer’s first complete work written using the twelve tone method.  It was composed between 1921 and 1923, and the form is the traditional dance suite (prelude, gavotte, musette, intermezzo, minuet and gigue) with all six movements based on the same tone row.  I listened to a recording by the pianist Glenn Gould.

The pieces certainly don’t sound much like dances, though they are in places quite rhythmical and frequently change time signature.  The tone row was used to create a theme for each movement, some more obviously than others, and this does seem to give the pieces some cohesion.  I found them surprisingly lyrical and expressive with lots of dynamic and tempo changes, although the atonality gives the music a tense and sometimes disturbing quality.  They reminded me of some of Scriabin’s later preludes.  The musette was particularly interesting to me, featuring such strong use of G in the left hand that this did create a centre of sorts (although neither major nor minor).  There are also places where dissonances get resolved into consonances in a similar way to tonal music, for example in the intermezzo which ends unexpectedly with a major third and a sixth added in.

I found the faster pieces in the set the most challenging to listen to, as I have with other atonal music.  In slower pieces I find there is time to absorb the sound and make some sense out of it, but I am unable to do this in faster pieces and the lack of any cohesive harmony makes them sound (to me) like a chaotic mess.

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