“After breaking new musical ground with the remarkable Three Pieces for piano, Op. 11 of 1909, Arnold Schoenberg set out to apply the same untamed language to a larger instrumental texture. The resulting Fünf Orchesterstücke (Five Pieces for Orchestra), Op. 16 from later in the same year are something entirely unprecedented in the orchestral tradition; Schoenbergs dense counterpoint and extreme chromaticism demand that the ensemble be treated in a way that gives little thought to the hallowed symphonic tradition that Schoenberg knew so well and, despite his revolutionary innovations, loved so dearly.
At his publisher’s request, Schoenberg added titles to each of the five pieces (later removed from most editions) in an effort to soften the blow that the works would deliver to unsuspecting audiences. A diary entry from 1912, however, attests to the great reluctance with which he did this, and reveals his effort to find the least revealing titles that he possibly could! And so we find the first work of the group labeled as “Premonitions.” To say that this first piece (labeled Sehr rasch [very fast]) is tumultuous does not adequately capture the explosive effect that it had on players and listeners of the day: a series of repeated motivic shapes, including a driving bass ostinato, gradually accrete, building to an intentionally frightening climax; having arrived there, Schoenberg explores an otherworldly orchestral color built on woodwind flutter-tonguing and muted trombones.
The second piece is marked Mässige Viertel (Moderate four) and titled “The Past.” Perhaps the allusion here is to the direct musical past, as hinted at by the piece’s vague D minor shadows and rough ternary (ABA) form. Schoenberg’s use of the orchestra is less experimental here than in the previous piece, but, if anything, even more colorful — note, for instance, the delicate interplay of the solo cello with the muted horn and bassoon counter-gesture during the opening bars.
Schoenberg removes all traditional motivic associations from the following piece, called “Chord-Colors.” A single generative harmony (C-G sharp-B-E-A) is woven into a number of chromatically-altered derivatives, scored for a kaleidoscopically rotating array of instrumental colors. A light thirty-second note figure in the flutes seems to rouse the group to slightly more active figurations, but Schoenberg insists that no dynamic greater than pianissimo be reached, even (indeed, especially) throughout the elaborate chromaticism of the middle portion.
The fourth piece, enigmatically titled “Peripetia,” revisits the Sehr rasch world of the first piece. Wild brass and woodwind flourishes initiate the rowdiness, and the horns follow up with muted (but still fortissimo) triplets. Schoenberg keeps motivic interrelationships under heavy disguise, and, just as the music seems to be cooling down to give the audience a chance to orient itself, Schoenberg rather cruelly drives the piece home to a thrilling close.
The thick contrapuntal web of the final piece, marked Bewegte Achtel (Heavy eight) and titled “Endless Recitative,” was so incomprehensible to conductors of the day that Schoenberg was forced to develop a symbol — later adopted by a large proportion of twentieth century composers — for indicating which musical material is of primary importance. As many as eight melodic voices are set to continually changing and increasingly urgent instrumental combinations. The bottom drops quickly out, however, and Schoenberg returns us to the introverted world in which we started. The scoring of the final chord for solo strings, brass in extreme register, and overlapping woodwinds is a final brilliant touch to an astounding work.”