Sheet Music Review: Arnold Schoenberg’s Revolutionary Second Quartet Transitions Through His Experimental Style

For all its atonality, Schoenberg’s Second Quartet reverts to the classic four-movement form.

By Mary Nemet | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine

Arnold Schoenberg, dubbed the “father of modern music,” had come to feel that the entire tonal system since 1600 had exhausted its possibilities. Listeners and colleagues did not at first embrace his visionary style, finding it confusing and inaccessible. Nevertheless, the composer stayed the course, and his second string quartet determinedly breaks with precedents, pushing the boundaries with his atonal system.

Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10; G. Henle Verlag, $49.95 (study score & parts); $11.95 (piano reduction)
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10; G. Henle Verlag, $49.95 (study score & parts); $11.95 (piano reduction)

By and by, his innovations were accepted, even admired, and thus the Second Viennese School emerged, along with his pupils: Berg, Webern, Egon Wellesz, and many other followers. Schoenberg’s String Sextet, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), perhaps his best-known work, had introduced his 12-tone system already in 1899, followed by Pierrot Lunaire and large-scale works in the 1930s such as the Violin Concerto and Fourth String Quartet. By this time, his 12-tone method had formally taken hold.

His Second Quartet, penned in 1908, was one of his most revolutionary to date. Transitioning through his experimental style, its first two movements use traditional key signatures, although they are highly chromatic in color. The unusual final two movements are almost fully atonal and incorporate poetry by Stefan George in a soprano vocal line. (The lyrics for movements three and four are printed here in three languages: English, French, and the original German).


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Thus, we have a parallel to Mahler’s Second Symphony, which also features vocal writing in its final two movements.

Schoenberg throws in a bit of sardonic humor, incorporating the trite but well-loved tune “Ach, du lieber Augustin” into the center of the second movement Scherzo—a diatonic interlude in total contrast to the tonal ambiguity of the rest of the work.

Schoenberg’s subsequent free atonal expressionist language coincided with the times, exemplified by the painters Kandinsky, Klimt, and Kokoschka, the poet Stefan George, Freud, and Wittgenstein. Their Vienna camaraderie was a cauldron of intellectual and artistic ferment, with highly stimulating dialogue between disciplines.

For all its atonality, Schoenberg’s Second Quartet reverts to the classic four-movement form. Premiered in Vienna in 1908 by the renowned Rosé Quartet and a singer from the Vienna Opera, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, it provoked a storm of indignation with roars of laughter and protests. A second concert just a few months later produced a different and undisturbed reaction from many supporters. Despite the initial fear of the new acted out by the public, now its imagination, color, and profundity were appreciated.

An extensive Preface and Comments enhance this fine Henle edition based on the 1937 final authorized version. A pocket score is also available, as well as a piano reduction to aid rehearsals for the singer.