Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, Opus 42

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

BORN: September 13, 1874, in Vienna
DIED: July 13, 1951, in Brentwood Park, California

COMPOSED: Schoenberg composed the Piano Concerto between July and December 1942

WORLD PREMIERE: Radio broadcast of February 6, 1944. Eduard Steuermann was the soloist, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Radio City Hall in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1963. Glenn Gould was pianist, Enrique Jordá conducted. MOST RECENT—September 1984. Charles Rosen was pianist, Edo de Waart conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  In addition to the solo piano, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, snare drum, xylophone, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY What is the correct spelling: Arnold Schönberg or Schoenberg? Hidden behind that tiny difference is a recap of the dramatic turmoil at the heart of the twentieth century. The composer born as Arnold Franz Walter Schönberg, in what had once been Vienna’s Jewish ghetto, became the spearhead of a visionary circle of musical innovators in the first decades of the new century.

But with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Schönberg—who had, with uncanny prescience, warned against underestimating the Nazi danger—formally reclaimed his allegiance to the Jewish faith and emigrated to the United States, which he adopted as his new home for the rest of his life. He also adopted the spelling “Schoenberg,” making it clear that this was how his name should appear from that point on. Even if the change was “because few [American] printers have the ‘ö’ type,” as the composer once explained in a letter, the change neatly encapsulates the “American” Schoenberg who—in characteristically uncompromising fashion—remade himself in such late-period masterworks as this Piano Concerto.

These days, it may be difficult to imagine the intensity of culture shock that an artist as sensitive as Schoenberg must have experienced after nearly sixty years in two of Europe’s great metropolises: his native Vienna and Berlin, where he had taught composition at the Prussian Academy of the Arts from 1926 until his exile. Schoenberg was grateful for much of what his new life in California brought him. Soon after moving to Los Angeles—where he ended up teaching at USC and UCLA—he praised the beauty around him to his former student Anton Webern: “It is Switzerland, the Riviera, the Vienna Woods, the desert, the Salzkammergut, Spain, Italy—everything in one place. And along with that scarcely a day, apparently even in winter, without sun.” Schoenberg even befriended George Gershwin (who headed out West in 1936 to work in Hollywood), playing tennis with him weekly and, in a memorial for Gershwin after his death the following year, he movingly spoke of his younger colleague as a great composer who had helped shape American music and given something valuable to the world as a whole.

One of the most striking works that came out of Schoenberg’s time in America is his Piano Concerto of 1942. Its impetus suggests the divergent circles of acquaintances with which the Los Angeles Schoenberg associated. Oscar Levant (1906-1972), the pianist, composer, and comic entertainer, had come to Hollywood as a young man, writing music for the movies and eventually becoming a student of Schoenberg. In his witty The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, Levant recalls having the temerity to ask his renowned teacher to write a short piece for him. But the request “burned feverishly in Schoenberg's mind, and he decided to write a piano concerto . . . . However, I wasn’t prepared for a piano concerto and in the meantime . . . the fee grew to a vast sum for which, as the dedicatee, I was promised immortality.”

The situation was saved when another party, Henry Clay Shriver, a well-off former counterpoint student of Schoenberg who had become a lawyer, offered to pay the composer’s requested fee of $1,000 and in turn received the dedication. The Piano Concerto would be the last of Schoenberg’s four concertos, only two of which (including the Violin Concerto of 1934-35) were completely original works—both products, as it happens, of his American years.

With Eduard Steuermann as the pianist, Leopold Stokowski conducted the Piano Concerto’s premiere in 1944 via radio broadcast. To prepare, he listened to Steuermann and a colleague play a two-piano arrangement of the score many times before rehearsals began. The reviews were mixed, but one of the most glowing came from the not-easily-pleased composer/critic Virgil Thomson, who wrote that the Piano Concerto’s “particular combination of lyric freedom and figurational fancy with the strictest tonal logic places it high among the works of this greatest among the living Viennese masters (resident now in Los Angeles) and high among the musical achievements of our century.”

The Piano Concerto was later “dismissed by progressives as a betrayal of modernism and by conservatives as being too advanced.” This charge of “betrayal” relates to the specific musical character of the twelve-tone (aka dodecaphonic) method as Schoenberg applies it in this score. Some of his young advocates, such as the composer/conductor René Leibowitz back in Europe, worried that the master had permitted too many references to traditional tonality. Indeed, the very project of writing a concerto—a format so inextricably linked in the public mind to the showpiece displays of the nineteenth century—was bound to raise eyebrows. 

THE MUSIC  The twelve-tone method replaces the hierarchical system of major and minor scales with a tone row as the source of a composition’s pitch material. The prime form of the Piano Concerto’s tone row is: E-flat—B-flat—D—F—E—C—F-sharp—A-flat—D-flat—A—B—G. We hear it stated outright over eight bars, by the piano alone, at the very start of the work—but not quite, and this is crucial for the overall character of the Piano Concerto. Schoenberg allows a repetition of notes—of a phrase, actually, between the B and G (at which point the clarinet, viola, and cello gently add their voices).

It may seem a small detail, but this repetition shows Schoenberg bending one of his rules: notes of a tone row are not supposed to be repeated. The Piano Concerto teems with such “maverick” gestures, if you will. Closely linked to this is the fact that this little phrase adds essential momentum to what is at heart a waltz tune. In other words, Schoenberg is deliberately evoking gestures from the music of the past. Another: the decision to open with the piano in soliloquy brings to mind the beginning of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

The tone row Schoenberg has devised for the Concerto itself is ordered in such a way as to give prominence to intervals ultra-familiar from tonal music: for example, the first two notes would be a tonic and dominant in old-fashioned E-flat, and the second through fourth notes outline a B-flat major triad. Indeed, because of its character, Schoenberg is able to use this particular tone row as a melody in itself, which he proceeds to vary continually—turning it upside down, backwards, and upside down and backwards (all procedures that were part of J.S. Bach’s mother tongue). The Piano Concerto is, therefore, easier for the listener to assimilate than, say, Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto. This is a quality the Piano Concerto shares with the Violin Concerto his student Alban Berg wrote in 1935, the year he died—though the sound worlds of both pieces are entirely unalike.

Even apart from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone language, his style of writing here is reminiscent of the beloved concerto literature of the past, allowing for moments of virtuosity (even cadenzas), the thrilling sonority of double octaves (another twelve-tone no-no), and even playful exchanges between soloist and orchestra.

Schoenberg left brief parable-like descriptions (in English, it should be noted) of the Piano Concerto’s four sections, which are seamlessly linked together: “Life was so easy,” “Suddendly [sic] hatred broke out,” “A grave situation was created," and “But life goes on.” Although he did not publish them, these descriptions do neatly encapsulate the highly varied character of the Concerto. Its casting in four sections, moreover, hearkens to Brahms’s four-movement Second Piano Concerto, a work that also shares Schoenberg’s concern for symphonic integration of the piano with the orchestra.

The waltz demeanor of the first section (Andante) conveys something of the Paradise lost of the Old World, when “life was so easy.” Rich in lyricism, this music also manifests Schoenberg’s extraordinary ear for texture and color. “It sounds like chamber music for a hundred players,” Virgil Thomson aptly remarked. A menacing, fortissimo outburst from the trombones signals the eruption of the second section, which is a terrifying, fierce, even demonic Scherzo, corresponding to the eruption of “hatred” (in Schoenberg’s own life story, the sudden emergence of the Nazis).

A dark-tinted Adagio follows, signaled by a mournful, dirge-like refrain on violas and haunting phrases for the woodwinds. The piano interrupts with an eloquent cadenza, but the dramatic pressure accumulates and Schoenberg stages a grand climax that is met by silence and then another cadenza. The soloist then introduces an almost-insouciant tune for the final, rondo-like section (Giocoso), its rhythmic profile given a kind of Schoenbergian groove. The theatrical final measures bring the Piano Concerto to an abrupt stop on a C major chord—utterly shocking and new in this context.

Schoenberg’s backward glances are not those of a repentant revolutionary, but gestures of an authentic aesthetic in which the composer had never denied the place of his great predecessors.  As Lou Harrison observed in 1944 in an assessment of the late works: “The pleasure to be had from listening to [Schoenberg’s masterpieces] is the same that one has from hearing the large forms of Mozart and the other Viennese masters.”

Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

Emanuel Ax with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Glenn Gould with Robert Craft conducting the CBC Symphony Orchestra (Columbia)  |  Maurizio Pollini with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Mitsuko Uchida with Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Phillips)

Readings: Essay on Schoenberg in The New Grove Second Viennese School, by Oliver Neighbor (Norton)  |  Style and Idea, edited by Leonard Stein (University of California Press)  |  The Arnold Schoenberg Center web site,

(January 2018)