Arnold Schoenberg, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Op. 15




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Published on Aug 22, 2011

Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) is a fifteen-part song cycle composed by Arnold Schoenberg between 1908 and 1909, setting poems of Stefan George. George's poems, also under the same title, track the failed love affair of two adolescent youths in a garden, ending with the woman's departure and the disintegration of the garden. The song cycle is set for solo voice and piano. The Book of the Hanging Gardens breaks away from conventional musical order through its usage of atonality.

The Book of the Hanging Gardens served as the start to the atonal period in Schoenberg's music. Atonal compositions, referred to as "pantonal" by Schoenberg, typically contain features such as a lack of central tonality, pervading harmonic dissonance rather than consonance, and a general absence of traditional melodic progressions. This period of atonality became commonly associated with the expressionist movement, despite the fact that Schoenberg rarely referred to the term "expressionism" in his writings. Whether or not he wanted to be associated with the movement, Schoenberg expresses an unambiguous positivity with his discovery of this new style in a program note for the 1910 first performance of The Book of the Hanging Gardens: With the [Stefan] George songs I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for many years. Until now I lacked the strength and confidence to make it a reality. I am being forced in this direction ... not because my invention or technique is inadequate, but [because] I am obeying an inner compulsion, which is stronger than any upbringing. I am obeying the formative process which, being the one natural to me, is stronger than my artistic education.

Schoenberg's libretto transcends the tragic love poems of George and become a deeper reflection of Schoenberg's mood during this period when viewing his personal life. Alan Lessem analyses the Book of the Hanging Gardens in his book Music and Text in the Works of Arnold Schoenberg. However, how to interpret the work remains debated. Lessem maintained that the meaning of the song cycles lay in the words. Lessem treats each interval as a symbol: "cell a provides material for the expression of poignant anticipations of love, cell b of frustrated yearnings" ...the structure of [the] cycle may, viewed as a whole, give the impression of progression through time, but this is only an illusion. The various songs give only related aspects of a total, irredeemable present."

Moods are conveyed though harmony, texture, tempo, and declamation. The 'inner meaning,' if in fact there is to be found, is the music itself, which Lessem already described in great detail. Anne Marie de Zeeuw has examined in detail the "three against four" rhythm of the composition's opening and its manifestation elsewhere in the work.

As argued in Carl Schorske's groundbreaking study of Viennese society, the Book of the Hanging Gardens uses the image of the garden as a metaphor of the destruction of traditional musical form. The garden portrayed in George's poem, which Schoenberg puts to music, represent the highly organized traditional music Schoenberg broke away from. Baroque geometric gardens made popular during the Renaissance were seen as an "extension of architecture over nature." So too did the old order of music represent all that was authority and stable. The destruction of the garden parallels the use of rationality to break away from the old forms of music.


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