Defiance and Protest: Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon

Sunday's NOVA program includes two works from very distinctive periods of Arnold Schoenberg’s life. His first published works included several sets of songs for voice and piano, composed during his twenties while living in Vienna, while the Ode to Napoleon was written over 40 years later in California, during his tenure as a professor at UCLA. His Two Songs, opus 1, reflect both his love of dense, rich sonorities found in Brahms and the sensual chromatic harmonies of Wagner. The isolation and ennobled suffering experienced by Karl von Levetzow’s scorned lover resonated deeply with Schoenberg; he would come to identify himself as rejected by society and the establishment throughout his career.

While Schoenberg spent much of his first 50 years in Vienna, he accepted a position at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin (1926). Born into Jewish family, Schoenberg had converted to Christianity as an act of self-preservation during the swelling tides of anti-Semitism witnessed in turn of the century Vienna. Schoenberg lost his post in Berlin soon after the Nazi’s came to power in 1933. His Jewish heritage and avant garde music made him an easy target, and he became the most famous among composers writing music the Nazis considered “degenerate.” He formally reclaimed membership in the Jewish religion at a synagogue in Paris and would come to write a number of compositions celebrating his faith over the coming decades. In 1933, he and his family fled to the United States, where he first held a position in Boston followed by a move to California.

Schoenberg became a U.S. citizen in 1941. Soon after America entered World War II, he set Lord Byron’s poem to music in condemnation of tyranny and a German dictatorship he saw bearing an uncanny resemblance to that of Napoleon. The poet Lord Byron, upon learning that Napoleon had surrendered his empire to the Allies and agreed unconditionally to exile on the island of Elba,  wrote his “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” in April of 1814. Byron’s view of Napoleon was complex and ever shifting. For much of his political and military career, Napoleon exerted an irresistible influence over the poet. But at the moment of his abdication, Byron found little sympathy for the man he once deeply admired. Not since the fall of Lucifer had one so great fallen so far, and in Byron’s eyes the general had twice betrayed Europe, not only through military aggression and a bottomless appetite for power and but also in his cowardly choice of a nameless life in exile over suicide.

Schoenberg composed his Ode over a three month period (March 12-June 12, 1942). He stated the following about this work: “I had at once the idea that this piece must not ignore the agitation aroused in mankind against the crimes that provoked this war… I knew it was the moral duty of intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny.” Scored for a reciter (who speaks in rhythms and inflections marked by the composer), string quartet, and piano, the music escalates the sarcasm and hysteria found in the poetry. Due to the complexity of Byron’s imagery and the speed at which some of the text is declaimed, a link to the original poem can be found here for those NOVA patrons who would like to read it before Sunday’s concert.

NOVA’s performance of Schoenberg’s music this weekend commemorates the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany's capitulation at the close of WW II (May 8, 2015).

An Interview with Special Guest Timothy Jones

Click the link below to listen to a preview discussion of Sunday's NOVA concert, including an interview with special guest Timothy Jones, who discusses everything from finding a career as a singer, collaborating with composers, surviving cancer, and how all these topics tie in with our May 10th concert.