1. »Unterm Schutz von dichten Blättergründen...« >>> text | sources

2. »Hain in diesen Paradiesen...« >>> text | sources

3. »Als Neuling trat ich ein in dein Gehege...« >>> text | sources

4. »Da meine Lippen reglos sind und brennen...« >>> text | sources

5. »Saget mir auf welchem Pfade...« >>> text | sources

6. »Jedem Werke bin ich fürder tot...« >>> text | sources

7. »Angst und Hoffen wechselnd sich beklemmen...« >>> text | sources

8. »Wenn ich heut nicht deinen Leib berühre...« >>> text | sources

9. »Streng ist uns das Glück und spröde...« >>> text | sources

10. »Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im Harren...« >>> text | sources

11. »Als wir hinter dem beblümten Tore...« >>> text | sources

12. »Wenn sich bei heilger Ruh in tiefen Matten...« >>> text | sources

13. »Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide...« >>> text | sources

14. »Sprich nicht mehr von dem Laub...« >>> text | sources

15. »Wir bevölkerten die abend-düstern Lauben...« >>> text | sources

DURATION: ca. 25 Min.

Universal Edition
Belmont Music Publishers (USA, Canada, Mexico)

The Book of the Hanging Gardens op. 15, was composed between 1908 and 1909. The work was premiered in Vienna by the Austrian singer Martha Winternitz-Dorda and the pianist Etta Werndorff, on January 14, 1910.  A collection of fifteen pieces, these settings are selected from a larger collection by the German poet Stefan George (the work is commonly referred to as the “George Lieder”). This composition represents a break from traditional harmony and normative treatment of dissonance. Along with his Three Pieces for Piano op. 11 (also from 1909), the op. 15 demarcates the beginning of Schönberg’s “atonal” period. 

George’s collection of poetry, The Books of Eclogues and Eulogies, of Legends and Lays, and the Hanging Gardens, first appeared in 1895. This volume is divided into three subsections, and Schönberg was particularly attracted to the third one, Hanging Gardens. These thirty-one poems offer a torrid narrative, recounting a young prince and his sexual awakening in a paradisiacal garden. The overall theme is one of transformation: a naïve youth quietly enters the garden, and later consummates his desire with his lover in a bed of flowers. As the awakened youth parts ways with her, the garden itself then dies. Carl E. Schorske, in his book on fin-de-siècle Viennese culture, explains how these poems “chart the transformation not only of the lover, but also of the garden. The trajectory is from the autonomy of garden and lover, through their integration, to the disintegration of both.”

With his selection of just fifteen poems, Schönberg was apparently resisting the more consistent narrative thread of George’s larger cycle. Moreover, the composer’s affinity for concision is evident here, as more than half of the fifteen songs take less than two minutes in performance. Thus, in The Book of the Hanging Gardens, each one of these self-contained songs may be heard as its own distilled thought or mood, even a fleeting moment, and exemplifies one of Schönberg’s hallmark traits as a composer – his distinctive sensibility for aphoristic expression.

By Schönberg’s own account, The Book of the Hanging Gardens was especially ground-breaking. In this particular work, the composer found a new voice for something that had been awaiting fruition for some time.  Schönberg comments on this in his program notes for the work’s premiere, at the Verein für Kunst und Kultur concert in Vienna:

“With the George Lieder I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for years. Until now, I lacked the strength and confidence to make it a reality. But now that I have set out along this path once and for all, I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.  […] I am being forced in this direction not because my invention or technique is inadequate, nor because I am uninformed about all the other things the prevailing aesthetics demand, but that I am obeying an inner compulsion, which is stronger than any upbringing: that I am obeying the formative process which, being the one natural to me, is stronger than my artistic education.”

The term (which Schönberg coined) that became a touchstone for his own musical aesthetic was “the emancipation of the dissonance.” This concept deems the comprehensibility of both dissonance and consonance as equally important.  In his 1949 article “My Evolution,” Schönberg maintains that “dissonances need not be a spicy addition to dull sounds, they are natural and logical outgrowths of an organism.” Moreover, tones need not have functional purpose in the conventional sense, and resolution to a tonic is no longer necessary.  As stated in his 1911 treatise, Harmonielehre, the traditionally-held notion that defines “non-harmonic tones” as extraneous to a prevailing harmony has become obsolete. The result of this shift is an unprecedented amount of freedom given to the composer. Therefore, harmony needs not be functional, but may be used for its own coloristic capabilities. And an early free atonal work such as The Book of the Hanging Gardens serves as an example of this newfound realm of possibilities.

Song No. 1, “Unterm Schutz von dichten Blättergründen,“ illustrates how Schönberg is breaking from functional tonal language. The rather amorphous opening piano line adheres to no diatonic scale, and is thus without a strong sense of direction. Ends of phrases lack the harmonic punctuation that cadences provide. Additionally, many of the “chords” are made of non-tertial harmonies. Schönberg uses them more like (as applies to Debussy) “sonorities,” which avoid the goal-oriented tendencies of traditional tonality.  For instance, with the harmony at measure 17, the piano and voice sound six of the seven tones of the C major scale, resulting in an imaginatively-colored cluster of tones. Also, devoid of any harmonic goal, the relationship between the way the piece begins and ends is motivic; at the last phrase of the piece, the main motive is restated in the lower register, in slight variation. 

Since functional harmony is abandoned in these works, Schönberg had to turn to an alternative means through which to shape a piece. As in much of his work, “developing variation” of motivic or thematic content is the way he organizes musical structures.  Such is the case with The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and “Das schöne Beet” No. 10, is a representative example. In various exchanges between the voice and piano, nearly every musical statement is derived from a G#-A-D motive. Occurring in both horizontal and vertical forms in the first measure, this motive is then inverted, transposed, and reordered throughout the course of the piece. Here, Schönberg is drawing upon the compositional techniques of Johannes Brahms and his style, namely, how he shapes the restatement of material: exact repetition is abandoned in favor of continually-nuanced motives and phrases.

While nearly all of the songs in the op. 15 are short, song No. 14, “Sprich nicht immer,” is by far the most aphoristic. George’s poem is comprised of fourteen fragmentary lines of text, each of which contains no more than three words.  Schönberg’s setting of only eleven measures complements the brevity of this poem. As Theodor W. Adorno mentions in his article, “Concerning the George Songs,” the economy of expression in No. 14 makes it stand out as being especially radical.  “Sprich nicht immer” presages an inclination for brevity that would later distinguish Schönberg’s pupil, Anton von Webern. 

With its free atonal style, elegant concision, and structuring through the use of developing variation, the op. 15 is a marker in Schönberg’s repertoire – particularly through the new world of freedom afforded by atonality.  Indeed, the “emancipation of the dissonance” is a principle that would not only influence Schönberg’s evolution as a composer, but, as history has shown, would lead to one of the most significant advancements in all of Western music.

The subsequent realization of the principle of atonality foreshadowed the advent of the 12-tone method in 1920, which in turn opened the gateway to a new world of sound.

Charles Stratford | © Arnold Schönberg Center