fb-pixel Skip to main content

In radical early piano pieces, no compromise from Schoenberg

A self -portrait by composer Arnold Schoenberg, <br/>from 1910.Arnold Schoenberg Center

On April 3, pianist Russell Sherman performs a Jordan Hall recital including Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke (Op. 11). Composed in 1909, the three pieces pushed into radically expressive realms of atonality and motivic concentration. They scandalized audiences and critics; trying to hasten their acceptance into the repertoire, Schoenberg ended up sparring with perhaps the one other musician of the era with enough vision and ego to match his own: Ferruccio Busoni.

The like-minded iconoclasts had exchanged letters for years: Schoenberg restlessly pursuing the new; Busoni, Italian-born but settled in Berlin, a composer as well, and a famous (and famously singular) piano virtuoso. In 1907, Busoni published a “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music,” decrying the tyranny of tonality, calling for “a kaleidoscopic blending and interchanging of twelve semitones,” lamenting that no composer had yet formulated an “orderly conception of this intensified means of expression.” That was intellectual catnip to Schoenberg, already dismantling 19th-century tonality, starting on the road to 12-tone technique.


But the freedom Busoni claimed as a performer would prove divisive. “What the composer’s inspiration necessarily loses through notation,” Busoni wrote, “his interpreter should restore by his own.” Busoni preached that commandment with spur-of-the-moment embellishments and unconventionally grand transcriptions, especially of works by Bach. When Schoenberg sent Busoni the Op. 11 pieces, hoping to elicit a performance, Busoni instead proposed (and completed) a “moderate concert interpretation” of the second piece: a rewrite, extending and smoothing abrupt transitions, altering the figuration to get more effect with less effort.

Schoenberg diplomatically but firmly objected. “I do not consider my piano texture the result of any sort of incompetence,” he wrote, “but rather the expression of firm resolve, distinct preferences, and palpably clear feelings.” Busoni considered Schoenberg’s piano writing to be strenuous and blunt, but could not see that as a virtue; Schoenberg was working a different pianistic vein, mining physical difficulty for expressive ore. Busoni published his transcription without advancing or supplanting the original. Schoenberg’s language was hard but powerful; Busoni’s translation was, by comparison, neither.


In his “New Esthetic” sketch, Busoni disdained those who preached absolute fidelity to the text: “To the lawgivers, the signs themselves are the most important matter.” But Schoenberg was a lawgiver, a proud musical prophet. In another letter, Schoenberg complimented Busoni’s “endeavor to be just,” while justifying his art in terms of the endeavor: “I would rate the struggle for truth higher than the truth itself.” The Drei Klavierstücke still bring their passionate fight.

Matthew Guerrieri

Russell Sherman performs at Jordan Hall on April 3 at 8 p.m. Free admission. 617-585-1100, www.necmusic.edu

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.