Happy 2013, dear readers! I know I’m due for a post that wraps up the Autumn semester—a piece of reflection and lexical repose—but the truth is I’ve been a bit distracted. For most teachers (and students too, for that matter!) breaks are just as much a time to consider the successes of the semester past and recharge batteries for the work ahead. But not for me. At least, not this time. You see, for the past few weeks I have been immersed with a project about which I have been excited for quite some time (years, perhaps even a decade).
It surely comes as little surprise to learn that I’m working on a new piece of music. After all, I’m a composer! That’s what I do, right? So then, would it surprise you to learn that the piece I’m so diligently and carefully working my way through right now was originally composed a century ago (105 years, to be exact)?
I know this is a blog about teaching. I know this is a forum for open reflection. And I know that I designed this space to be an opportunity for me to be transparent about my pedagogy, not wax philosophic about my scholarship. However, I feel I would be doing myself and my students an injustice if I kept this project to myself, it’s just that much a part of who I am. And so, indeed, I think it wise to avail myself of the opportunity to write a “Knee,” a blogging aberration, if you’ll allow.
Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this blog post: Taking a Knee for Arnold Schoenberg.
Choral conductors and musical enthusiasts: what is your initial reaction if I say the words Friede auf Erden to you?
If your reaction was either one of awe or a string of curse words uttered at your computer screen, then you and I are in good company. If you didn’t have any reaction at all, especially if you don’t know the piece in question, don’t feel bad. Few do, and even fewer understand it. That’s because this little known work by Arnold Schoenberg is routinely skipped over by ensembles. For one thing, it’s physically taxing: the vocal lines are unrelenting unlike any choral work ever composed. For another, it’s hard to program: the text (by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer) is a secular poem on a sacred subject that contains imagery that many deem liturgically off-putting. Mostly, Friede auf Erden (“Peace on Earth”) is skipped over because it’s difficult. Unimaginably, impossibly difficult.
The work is built on a tonal structure that seems classical enough: D-minor (um…sure, let’s call it that) becomes D-major. Unfortunately, the former key is never firmly established and, indeed, no key is confirmed until the very end (and with a massive, tonal cadence). Complex passages of atonal lines replace a traditional development. No key equals no solfege, and that means intervals have to be learned slowly, carefully, and methodically. That might not sound like a problem for the more capable ensembles, but this 10-minute musical behemoth is meant to be performed a cappella (without accompaniment). How many choirs make a habit out of putting together lengthy, a tonal a cappella works? Still, the piece seems to coalesce around…something. Even at its most complicated (I’m struggling to avoid the word “dissonant” for theoretic reasons that I won’t get into here), lines of remarkable beauty seem to emerge from the fires of instability before being consumed again by chaos.
For me, this is Arnold Schoenberg’s great masterpiece. Not his 12-tone system. Not Pierrot Lunaire or Gurre-Lieder. Not even his treatise on harmony. This story of grace and redemption, confusion giving way to clarity, and atonality succumbing to tonality (something quite profound for those of you who know anything about Schoenberg) at times reeks of Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg’s mentor who foresaw and feared tonality’s fate.
Too bad it’s almost impossible to perform.
Friede (to use the work’s nickname) calls for a choir of 40 in which each singer has near perfect pitch, the maturity to be sensitive with lines that seem to wander aimlessly, and the vocal stamina to attack blisteringly high notes without wavering, after pages and pages of chromatic leaps across and within the passagio. I heard a college choir perform the work at a convention last year. They received a standing ovation simply because because they survived to the end. I was first to my feet.
Friede auf Erden was one of the last works performed and recorded by Joseph Flummerfelt and the Westminster Choir (it’s on the album, Heaven to Earth…as am I, for that matter!), not because he kept forgetting to perform it, but because it took him his entire life to put together just the right choir to attempt it, and almost as much time to mentally and spiritually reconcile the music itself. That’s quite an admission for one of the great minds in the history of choral music.
Once I saw first-hand just how challenging Friede is to put together, I decided to rearrange the score – to make the work easier. After all, I rationalized, Chanticleer’s Joseph Jennings reportedly did the piece in the style of a choral bell-choir: each singer performing only a few notes rather than vocal part as a whole (I don’t believe that story to be true, by the way, but I love the image it conjures). And so I set out on a journey that would lead me through a master’s degree and culminate in a doctorate – my dissertation “Structural Analysis Through Ordered Harmony Transformations in the Early Works of Arnold Schoenberg” might as well have been titled “Blake Henson Struggles with ‘Friede auf Erden’ and Tries to Reconcile the Work Harmonically According to a System He Recently Invented for This Exact Purpose.”
Brief aside: I spent so much of my doctoral studies obsessed with this work that Will, the non-scholarly, non-academic bartender at the watering hole across the street from the music building at Ohio State (yes, THE Ohio State University), just posted a note to my Facebook wall saying “Go Schoenberg!”…and I haven’t set foot in the place in about three years. But three years and a whole lot of b… soda later and that’s what he remembers of me. Yikes!
A few months ago I was having dinner with Michael Knight, the director of bands here at St. Norbert, and Joe Seroogy, local chocolatier and noted euphoniumist. They were talking about music to perform with the SNC Community Band, and wanting to find some lesser-known gems for the upcoming season. That’s when it hit me: a flute doesn’t need solfege. The move from tonality to atonality and back is nearly impossible for singers, but for a trumpet it’s child’s play!
“Okay Mike,” I interrupted, “I have an idea. Hear me out on this…”
He was almost as excited as I was.
So I’ve worked a little more during this break than I usually do. Eh. It’s all in the name of Music! Friede auf Erden for Concert Band is almost done. In fact, I drew the double-bar line today. I actually hand-wrote most of it because I needed to see the full score at all times and my computer screen just isn’t large enough for that. Next comes a long, rather arduous process of editing, re-mapping, and editing again. But the score will be complete by the end of the month!
Obviously, I’m pretty excited.
It’s rare that composers care this deeply for a work that they didn’t actually compose. But for me, this isn’t about fame or notoriety. To be honest, I could leave this out of my tenure dossier and scratch my name from the cover without losing any sleep (I’m not sure the Faculty Personal committee will fully grasp the complexity of this project anyway). It’s not about something I did, it’s about something I get to leave with the world. For me, Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is THE masterpiece, the greatest work ever composed…that no one can perform. With any luck, that is about to change. For almost ten years I’ve struggled to find ways to make it more approachable, to rework the score to be more easily sung. It never occurred to me to simply not sing it all, but rather play it.
I’m looking forward to sharing this work with you in the coming months, particularly with those of you who don’t know it. I’m not one to posit “definitive recordings” (that actually might be one of my least favorite expressions that musicians like to toss around), but if you’d like to get acquainted with Friede, let me suggest one or two performance before you begin searching YouTube for something that isn’t there (well, not really):
The Norwegian Soloists Choir is not only a phenomenal ensemble, but this performance is sublime. Perhaps even better, they get every not right. It’s frightening, actually, how accurate and expressive they are. They make it almost hard to recognize that this is both atonal and a beast to learn! I’ve been in some pretty fantastic ensembles, but I can’t even imagine ever pulling off something like they do here.
Another good one is one by the Westminster Choir on the album “Heaven to Earth,” the final recording under the baton of Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt:
<a href=”https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/heaven-to-earth/id505533886?uo=4″ target=”itunes_store”>Heaven to Earth – Nancienne Parrella, Marisa Maupin, Maurycy Banaszek, Jacquelin Watson, Gloria Justen, Hanfang Zhang, Elizabeth Thompson, Daniel Hudson, Joseph Flummerfelt, Westminster Choir, Douglas Haislip, William Trigg, Steven Brennfleck, James Musto, Heather Fetrow, James Neglia, Phyllis Bitow, François Suhr, Joanne Hansen, Adrienne Ostrander & Charles Robert Stephens</a>
Listen well! Then go and change the world.