12 Apr 2013

Schoenberg – Friede auf Erden, op. 13 (Peace on Earth)

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, chorus.

Duration: 8 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) – Schoenberg could not have asked for a better public champion in the first decade of the 20th century than Gustav Mahler. While premieres of new works by Schoenberg during the period were typically followed by strongly negative opinions, Mahler never wavered in his outspoken support of the younger man’s career. Mahler did acknowledge some confusion over some of Schoenberg’s musical innovations but he remained an ally until his death.

THE MUSIC – Schoenberg wrote Friede auf Erden in 1907, at a moment in his life when his highly stylized late-Romanticism was agitating toward transformation into a more rigidly structured, atonal Expressionism. The piece did not receive its premiere until 1911 and though he had indicated in the earliest sketches that the music was meant to be performed a capella, Schoenberg was obliged to create an orchestral accompaniment for the concert to support the incredibly challenging vocal writing. The text for Peace on Earth was taken from an 1886 poem by the Swiss writer Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. The first verse is a depiction of the Nativity while the second tells of bloodshed and imploring angels. The third and fourth verses gradually deliver the peace of the title but the comfort supplied by this beautiful conclusion in the music has an air of caution to it. Schoenberg eventually became disillusioned on the concept of universal harmony among men and his choral evocation, one of the last pieces of his early “tonal” period, would later elicit a somber remembrance from the composer. He wrote in 1923 that Friede auf Erden was merely an “illusion,” one created when he still believed such a unity was possible. With one World War just ended and another little more than a decade away, it is no surprise that he lost the faith of that more innocent time. He was surely not alone.     

THE WORLD – The 1907 elections of the Finnish Parliament were the first in the world to allow women candidates. Also that year, the RMS Lusitania made its maiden voyage, peasants staged a revolt in Romania and New Zealand became a British Dominion.

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony premiere of Friede auf Erden.