Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal “Erwartung” – Stay or Go?

I’ve never attended the symphony before with the sense that I might not stay for the program’s second half, but that was my thinking when I entered San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall on a recent Sunday afternoon. The first of the program’s two semi-staged works was Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”) featuring dancers from Alonzo King LINES Ballet. This, I knew I’d love. The other was Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal one-act monodrama for orchestra and lone soprano, titled Erwartung (“Expectation”).

Should I mention that I dislike atonal compositions – and, well, Schoenberg’s music — in general?

Yeah. Undecided. Do I stay or do I go?

Once at Davies Hall, I solicited the opinion of one of the box-office agents, coming straight to the point. “Am I going to hate the Schoenberg?” I asked.

She laughed; maybe I hadn’t been the first person to express my misgivings. But her response surprised me.

“Believe it or not, there are a lot of ticket-holders who are coming more for the Schoenberg than the Ravel. I’ve gotten calls from people confirming we’re starting with the Ravel so that they won’t miss any of the Schoenberg in case they arrive late.”

This floored me. I’d had this vision of a packed house for the first piece and a half-full house for the second. I stared at the box-office agent, who was being so kind and good-natured about my anti-Schoenberg-ness that I pressed on. “Um … why? Why the interest in “Erwartung?

“It rarely gets performed. People have been willing to drive from far away to come see it.”

There’s nothing like being told that something you will soon receive is rare and desirable, to make you rethink your skepticism. I realized, as well, that my seat in the first tier, each 25-seat section with its own partition and exit door, would allow me to theoretically creep away if I hated it and only disturb the others in my section.

Decision made, I settled in my seat to enjoy the program’s first half. Predictably, I enjoyed Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a seven-movement orchestral suite featuring the LINES Ballet dancers performing on an extended front stage. A long intermission allowed me to educate myself on Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Composed in 1909 in mere weeks although not premiered until 1924, it held none of the Romantic aesthetic and harmonic grounding points (the young Schoenberg had been a post-Wagnerian Romantic who emulated Brahms as well). Instead it revealed the composer’s newfound style of music-making, a radical atonal style (he himself scoffed at the term “atonal,” proposing instead “pantonal,” which, yeah, never caught on) that sent the classical music world spinning and heralded the arrival of the Modernist era.

In a nutshell, Erwartung is about a lone woman out walking at night, who comes upon an inert form on the ground. She thinks it’s her lover and he’s alive, only to discover yes to the former and no to the latter. The entire thirty minutes is her processing her disorientation, sorrow, horror, grief, disbelief, rage. You know how when something bad happens in real life, all those emotions come flying at you in the course of a few seconds? That’s the point of this whole thing – to stretch out those swirling emotions so at odd with each other and reality itself, into one sung monologue.

Acclaimed soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams was stunning as The Woman—more on her performance later. Within the program notes, she offered an invaluable translation of Marie Pappenheim’s original German libretto, and describes the opening scene as follows:

At the edge of a forest. Moonlit streets and fields; the forest high and dark. Only the first tree trunks and the beginning of the wide path are still bright. A woman comes; delicate, dressed in white. Red roses partially stripped of leaves on her dress.

So that’s the mood I was set up for.

Which made my first—and, in truth, only—gripe come up fast. Having read the above description, I was expecting a darkened woods, a woman in a white dress. Instead a woman in contemporary clothing walked onstage and took a seat on a folding chair on the extended stage. In front of her was what appeared to be a body covered by a tarp. This staging by Peter Sellars – a Symphony collaborator and frequently controversial stage director known for re-staging operas in ultramodern settings (which I only discovered later) baffled me.*

She sat and waited. We sat and waited. It felt awkward. I was already rethinking my decision to stay. Two men in official dress finally appeared and walked across the stage to her. I had this weird moment of not knowing whether this was the performance or if two SF Symphony security officials were going to whisper to Mary Elizabeth Williams that there was a technical issue, or perhaps tell her she had a pressing phone call backstage that simply could not wait.

It was weird. No music. No solo soprano voice. My legs began to feel twitchy with the urge to bolt.

One official handed her a clipboard and pen, and she signed it and they departed, leaving her alone with the body bag. And then finally, finally, she began to sing, and I changed my mind about everything.

And now let’s talk more about Mary Elizabeth Williams’ performance, because she made this piece work. She held within herself an entire orchestra’s worth of sounds, emotions, shifts of mood, moments of drama, chaos, bleak despair, filling the hall with that glorious voice of hers. Her body radiated intention and focus on each different mood arising. At times she was lying down, even as she sang, with the same volume and intensity, surely no small feat. The orchestra, under the baton of music director (for only one more year, sniff, sniff) Esa-Pekka Salonen, lent their trademark glorious sound and support without ever upstaging Williams. She sang in German and the English translation was projected high up on a screen behind the orchestra, which made things even easier to understand from then on.

I didn’t leave. I not only stayed through it all, but beyond that baffling opener I didn’t once think of getting up and leaving. In fact, here it is, two weeks later, and I’m thinking about Erwartung and rereading the program notes and checking in with all my classical-music book resources to see what they had to say. Jenny Judge, a musicologist and a philosophy lecture at the University of Melbourne, shared the following insight in the program notes, which helped me figure out my problem with Schoenberg.

The reason we find ourselves grasping for timbral and rhythmic regularities, as we listen, is that there are no obvious harmonic regularities to be found. Erwartung is a potent expression of what Schoenberg called “emancipated dissonance.” This is the compositional style that he developed in this and subsequent works, in which a total lack of implied key means that dissonances don’t just fail to resolve: they’re impossible to resolve. Schoenberg thought that abolishing functional harmony meant that it would now be possible to hear dissonance in its own right, instead of always in relation to some resolution (which, of course, always constitutes the obliteration of dissonance). And this would place true expressive freedom within reach.

Jan Swafford, in his book, The Vintage Guide in Classical Music, offered some fascinating insight as well.

The real problems with Schoenberg’s mature music are probably not so much dissonance (gloriously dissonant pieces by Bartók have become popular) or lack of melody (much Beethoven is hardly more melodic than Schoenberg). The problem may be that Schoenberg is unpredictable; the music develops constantly, repeating almost nothing literally; the rhythm wanders, only occasionally having a steady pulse; the texture is often densely contrapuntal; and the atonal language erases the usual tonal expectations. The result is that his music, by denying us expectations about the future, forces us into the present. It resembles our psychological perception of time, which is constantly in flux. Most of the music we are familiar with has a clocklike pulse; that is the rhythm of the body. Schoenberg and his followers worked almost entirely in the volatile rhythm of the mind and emotions.

My biggest beef about atonal music is that my brain craves a story. It needs a story. That’s what holds my interest. What I hadn’t anticipated here was the way a singer presenting a libretto became “story” in itself, twofold. I could read the words up high on the screen as well as read Williams’ face, her accompanying body language. It all provided the necessary glue that kept me tethered to the drama unfolding before me. And was there ever such a good place, musically, for atonality? A chaos of emotions, shifting constantly, moment by moment. The dissonance here belonged. Really, it was kind of genius to use such unpredictable, dissonant music to get inside the mind of someone experiencing deep trauma.

I still wouldn’t say that I like Schoenberg and his music. But I found this performance to be strong and stirring enough to recommend that you see it performed live, should the opportunity arise.  I’m reluctant to link a recording of it here, because, like a Mahler symphony, hearing it live is a world apart from hearing a recording. Instead, give this Schoenberg piece a listen. It’s Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg’s most popular work, which, I’m embarrassed to say, I never before considered listening to. The surprise, again, is on me.  Verklärte Nacht is shockingly lovely. You almost think you’re listening to Ravel or Debussy.

*Now a note about this staging. Only now am I learning, through others’ online reviews, that Sellars had re-staged this work to take place at a prison (??).  The Woman didn’t stumble upon his body in the woods; she was summoned to the prison after an “Accidental Death in Custody.” (??) Apparently this phrase had appeared on the screen just before the performance (or maybe as it started?).

Dear Mr. Sellars and San Francisco Symphony: a little more explanation or visibility of that phrase would have made a world of difference. Then again, the whole idea of the libretto being changed in such a rabid fashion would have had my head spinning. (Mostly asking WHY?) Maybe I would have gotten up and left. In the end, quite possibly, ignorance was bliss.


2 thoughts on “Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal “Erwartung” – Stay or Go?”

  1. I am a fan of “Verklärte Nacht!” Not so much his other works. This was interesting to read, though, thank you for teaching me something new.


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