A concert for Egon Schiele
Variace Chamber Ensemble
artistic director: Jan Jouza
Tonight we would like to launch a tradition of annual festival “concerts for Egon Schiele”, which will be focused on the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. We have striven to select for the first evening pieces whose dating and, above all, nature correspond to Schiele’s paintings, straddling Viennese Art Nouveau and Expressionism. All of them were written by composers who sought the route from the principles of Late Romanticism towards novel ways of expression. It is music that explored the very limits of tonality, yet did not transcend them (similarly to Schiele, who himself during his short life did not cross the borderline between objective depiction and “pure” abstraction).
However proudly is today’s Český Krumlov referring to the eccentric painter’s relatively brief visits to the town, there is no doubt that the most decisive role in his artistic development was played by Viennese modernism. The movement’s major representatives in music included Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) and his pupil and colleague Anton Webern (1883–1945). The two composers underwent a similar creative evolution: in their early pieces, they in a singular manner squared up to the boldest influences of the time (primarily represented by Wagner, Mahler and Brahms), and for today’s listener they eloquently characterise the atmosphere in Vienna at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Circa 1908, Schönberg and, subsequently, Webern took a radical step from tonal music to free atonality. With the aim to attain a more solid compositional order, for several years Schönberg mulled over creating a method that would allow for equal making use of all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, without the hierarchised relations formed within the traditional harmony. By the early 1920s, his efforts had resulted in the introduction of the rules of dodecaphony, which Webern went on to develop and bring to bear with the utmost consistency.
The two Webern works featured on the programme of today’s concert date from his early, tonal phase (during which, between 1904 and 1908, he studied composition with Schönberg). Most likely completed in 1905, Webern perceived his Slow Movement for string quartet as a study work, he did not furnish it with an opus number (the first piece in the case of which he ventured to do so was the orchestral Passacaglia, written three years later), and it was not published during his lifetime. The Slow Movement only received its public premiere at the beginning of the 1960s, yet owing to its popularity among the listeners it has ever since been one of the most frequently performed Webern pieces. The pensive lyricism of the Slow Movement has been attributed to the composer’s love for Wilhelmina Mörtl, whom he later on married, although in a broader context it rather reflects the poetics of the time. The harmony and melodic style are by and large whole traditional, with relatively moderate employment of alterations and chromaticism. In this respect, the Rondo for String Quartet can be deemed to be far closer to Webern’s later style, which it also ushered in by placing emphasis on a variety of performance techniques and timbres. Perhaps it is not too inappropriate to say that, similarly to Schiele’s misshaping the represented figures, in the piece Webern too deforms and depicts the Viennese waltz in a novel manner. Just like the Slow Movement, the Rondo, most probably dating from 1906, remained generally unknown up until the 1960s, when the musicologist Hans Moldenhauer began making public the results of his Webern research.
A markedly more radical deviation from 19th–century music is the Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), a Prague-born, German-speaking composer. In this case too, the individual parts are stylised portraits of familiar musical formations, yet they are portraits of a highly expressionistic nature. Schulhoff wrote the work in 1923. By the time, the thirty-year-old composer had studied in Prague, Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne, and had also gained post-war experience in Germany, where he had absorbed the influences of Dadaism and the period popular music. The highly impressive Five Pieces for String Quartet was first performed in 1924 at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg to great acclaim. The vivid rhythm of dance stylisations, the unprepared dissonant chords, the polytonality and the loosened tonality, the concise form – these are all characteristic facets of the piece, as well as the music by the other avant-garde creators of the time. In the early 1930s, Schulhoff began experiencing great difficulties and even persecution on the part of the Nazi ideologues owing to his Jewish descent. Public performances of his works were prohibited in Germany, followed in 1939 by a ban in the occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. A left-wing artist, who during that decade embraced the ideas of socialist realism, Schulhoff applied for Soviet citizenship, which, by an irony of fate, he was granted in the summer of 1941, a mere few days prior to the opening of the Eastern front. As a citizen of an enemy state, he was immediately arrested by the German authorities and subsequently deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp, where in August 1942 he died of tuberculosis.
Arnold Schönberg composed the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in 1899. He was inspired by the eponymous poem by the German author Richard Dehmel (1863–1920), whose five stanzas are duly reflected in the division of the one-movement opus, as well as in the piece’s atmosphere. The endeavour for similar transposition of poetry into the phraseology of instrumental music is a typical trait of the symphonic poem, while it was a phenomenon relatively innovative in the domain of chamber music. Yet coming across as far more provocative for the contemporary audience was the ambivalent, boldly chromaticised harmony. Schönberg’s Transfigured Night, which is deemed to have been one of the milestones of modernism in music, was only premiered in 1902 and met with a rather mixed response.
Variace Chamber Ensemble
The Variace Chamber Ensemble has performed pieces for string quartet and less common instrumentations alike. Founded in 1997, it has given numerous concerts in the Czech Republic and abroad (Switzerland, Germany and Poland). The ensemble has repeatedly appeared within the Czech Philharmonic chamber music cycle and at events organised by the Czech Chamber Music Society. Since 2010, it has regularly performed within the “Tones of Architecture” series of concerts held at palaces and halls in Prague with the participation of leading Czech actors (Josef Somr, Otakar Brousek Jr., Simona Postlerová, and others). One of the most notable projects within the cycle, which also include presentations of the venues’ history, was the concert titled “Double Bass”, featuring Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, the “Trout”, combined with extracts from Patrick Süskind’s play The Double Bass. The Variace Chamber Ensemble’s debut album, titled Literature in Music (Caplet, Respighi and Schönberg’s Transfigured Night; released by Waldmannn) was voted Record of the Month (May 1999) by the critics of the French magazine Répertoire (R10). Its second CD (Martinů, Martin, Haas, Schulhoff, Ullmann) was released by Agentura V+M in 2004.
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