Conductor John Mauceri on Schoenberg and Bach

We’ve got a brilliant programme lined up for our performance on Friday 28 April, exploring a wide range of music that looks beyond the material world and strives for transcendence, conducted by John Mauceri and featuring star soprano Angel Blue. Here John introduces a work from the programme and explains why our assumptions about Schoenberg are probably wrong ...

The music of Bach and his predecessors cast its shadow on Germany’s two 20th-century firebrands, Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith. In 1929, Schoenberg – who had already delivered his 12-tone system of rules and processes to the world – embarked on a major experiment alongside his strictly atonal works, returning to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and making it his own.

While working on 12-tone compositions Schoenberg had invented the term 'Klangfarbenmelodie' (sound-colour melody) to describe using orchestration as a structural element in music that was as important as the notes themselves. What if one could articulate the structures of a great organ work by Bach through orchestration?

The result is a tour de force of Schoenberg’s orchestration genius. Indeed, the very first note of this 15 minute work presents us with four different simultaneous dynamics and ‘envelopes’ (that is, the direction of those dynamics and whether they make a crescendo, diminuendo, start with an accent, and so forth). 

Schoenberg would balance the rest of his compositional life between 12-tone works and composing original tonal music, rather than simply orchestrating Bach. In 1934, for example, he composed a half-hour Suite in G major, ‘in the old style’, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These works have remained in the shadows and it is perhaps time to hear them again, breaking down the assumption that Schoenberg only wrote difficult atonal music. I am grateful to the Arnold Schoenberg Centre for sharing the manuscript and the composer’s conducting score with me in preparing for this performance.

John Mauceri