Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2

I have been listening to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, and it has inspired some thoughts about art and its associations with something ‘other’.

Here is a description of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, taken from Ethan Haimo’s Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language.I am including it here because I think it provides a concise, yet comprehensive, introductory description of the work:

The String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 may well be the most heterogeneous of all of Schoenberg’s compositions. No other of his compositions has four movements of such strikingly different character. No other of his compositions begins as an instrumental work and ends as a vocal work. No other of his compositions has movements both with, and without, key signatures. No other of his compositions juxtaposes the tune of a farcical folksong in one movement and a setting of a deadline serious poem in the next. Although Schoenberg took several steps to unify the cycle (using motives from the first two movements as the basis for the principal ideas of the third movement and returning to an F-sharp triad at the end of the finale), the fact remains that the two halves of the work reflect two distinct stages of his compositional development. [1]

As a composer, I am interested in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 for three main reasons. First, it has an undeniable relationship with something historically embedded: the classical string quartet. I feel this relationship is emphasised by its allusion to a classical harmonic language (this is despite its apparent experimentation with atonality). Second, this work seems to challenge such an inevitable relationship with tradition with the inclusion of a soprano voice. Despite the additional soprano voice, Schoenberg describes this work as his second string quartet, and in doing this he presents an undeniable challenge to the piece’s bonds with traditional string quartet writing. Understandably, his quartet presented receivers with something which challenged what they already knew to be the string quartet. The Guardian provides a helpful description of the reception at the premiere:

Breaking with 150 years of musical tradition, Schoenberg had decided to add a soprano to the two violins, viola and cello that normally constitute a string quartet. The soprano had been silent for the first two movements of the piece, but as soon as she began to sing in the third movement people started to hiss, and there were shouts of “Stop singing” and “We’ve had enough” before the fourth movement. [2]

Third, I believe a contemporary reception of this work demonstrates a change in the way a society interprets artworks over time: what was once interpreted as outré and probably experimental, sounds resolutely classical, in my opinion, today. I am not surprised that Schoenberg claimed to be influenced by Mozart:

I owe very, very much to Mozart; and if one studies, for instance, the way in which I write for string quartet, then one cannot deny that I have learned this directly from Mozart. And I am proud of it! [3]

Perhaps the ‘shock value’ of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 has been reduced by Ferneyhough’s String Quartet No. 4 which also includes a soprano voice and, in comparison to Schoenberg’s piece, can be regarded as more ‘experimental’ in terms of its timbral and harmonic exploration.

However,  Ferneyhough’s String Quartet No. 4 cannot be regarded as challenging the relationship with tradition in the same way as Schoenberg’s quartet does, simply because it is a response to Schoenberg’s piece. Ferneyhough writes:

…if I assert that it has to do with the ‘history’ of only a limited tradition of the string quartet, of course, it’s the history of my reception of certain quartets – in particular, Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet – which I feel is a work of exceptional interest by virtue of initially attempting to be a string quartet, and then absolutely failing to achieve that goal. [4]

As an additional note, the inclusion of a soprano voice, in Schoenberg’s piece, potentially arose as a result of Schoenberg’s compositional practice in general. Haimo elaborates on this point:

After completing Friede auf Erden, things still did not settle down and Schoenberg continued to jump from project to project. On the same day he completed the fair copy of Friede auf Erden (9 March 1907), Schoenberg returned to Sketchbook III and on p. 57 made some sketches for what would become the String Quartet, No. 2, Op. 10. Almost immediately, he dropped this idea and turned instead to writing songs. In quick succession, he started three songs, “Der verlorene Haufen”, “Jane Grey”, and “Jeduch”. By the end of April 1907 Schoenberg did finish the first two of these, and they were published as the Two Ballades, Op. 12 (as Op. 12, No. 2 and Op. 12, No. 1 respectively.). [5]


[1] Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 210

[2] Christopher Fox, ‘Air from another Planet’, The Guardian <> [accessed: 09/07/14]

[3] Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Schoenberg as a Painter: Interview with Halsey Stevens’ in Schoenberg: The Expressionist Years 1908 – 1920, Arnold Schoenberg, Halsey Stevens (Sony Classical, SMK62020, 1995)

[4] Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, ed. by James Boros and Richard Toop (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), p.153

[5] Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.192

3 thoughts on “Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2

  1. Personally I dislike Brian Ferneyhough’s (and many other composers’) pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship his ‘message’.
    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication


    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for your message because it’s sparked some interesting thoughts for me. First, I have to say that this post isn’t about Brian Ferneyhough, it’s about one aspect of one string quartet by Arnold Schoenberg that sparked one line of thought for me as a composer. One can’t really put Ferneyhough and Schoenberg in the same group. Nevertheless, let’s talk about Ferneyhough. I disagree with your point that Ferneyhough doesn’t write with intention: he does, even when writing something almost impossible to perform, there’s a reason behind this. In my opinion, this type of music forces the performer to go beyond their own boundaries as well as the ones defined by the composer’s own knowledge. Finally, your message interests me because it contradicts itself: you mention the sensory experiences that aren’t planned like this is a bad thing. Do you think every single aspect of a piece of music should be predictable? What is music to you?


      1. “History will say—history says now—that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure.”

        “Deeply flawed at their musical and philosophical roots, unloving and oblivious to human limits and human needs, these movements left us with far too many works that are at best unloved, at worst detested. They led modern classical music to crisis, confusion, and, in many quarters, despair, to a sense that we’ve wasted decades.”



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