Drei Klavierstücke

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Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 (or Three Piano Pieces) is a set of pieces for solo piano written by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1909. They represent an early example of atonality in the composer’s work. The tempo markings of the three pieces are:

  1. Mässig (at a moderate speed)
  2. Mässig (at a moderate speed)
  3. Bewegt (with motion)

The Three Piano Pieces form an important milestone in the evolution of Schoenberg’s compositional style. The first two, dating from February 1909, are often cited as marking the point at which Schoenberg abandoned the last vestiges of traditional tonality, implying the language of common-practice harmony that had been inherent in western music in one way or another for centuries. The functionality of this language, to Schoenberg at least, had by this time become stretched to bursting point in some of the more chromatically saturated works of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and indeed some of Schoenberg's own earlier tonal works such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 of 1899.[citation needed]

Although there are vestigial, superficial remnants of tonal writing, such as lyrical melody, expressive appoggiaturas, and chordal accompaniment, tonal hearing and tonal analysis are difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, at least three attempts at tonal analysis of the first piece have been made, by three respected authorities. One of them (Brinkmann 1969) says it is in E, another (Benjamin 1984) says it is a prolongation of F as the dominant of B, and the third (Ogdon 1982) concludes that it is in G. While all three are persuasive in their own way, other keys may also be heard here, but all are insubstantial. Any complete analysis must take these ghostly remnants of tonality into account, but no one key reliably shapes the structure (Straus 2000, 116, 131–32). Atonal analyses of this first piece are also divided in opinion. Allen Forte describes its pitch organisation as "straightforward" and based on hexachords (Forte 1972, 45). George Perle is equally certain that it is constructed instead from three-note "intervallic cells" (Perle 1977, 10–15).

The three pieces are given a unity of atonal musical space through the projection of material from the first piece into the other two, including recurring use of motivic material. The first of the three motivic cells of the first piece is used throughout the second, and the first and third cells are found in the third (Malhomme 1997, 84–85, 89–90). The third piece is the most innovative of the three. In its atomisation of the material and its agglomeration of the motivic cells through multiple connections, it isolates its musical parameters (mode of attack, rhythm, texture, register, and agogics) and employs them in a structural though unsystematic manner that foreshadows the integral serialism of the 1950s (Malhomme 1997, 90–91, 93–94).

This use of the term expression is especially pertinent when applied to the third of the Three Pieces, written in August 1909, whose violent emotional language, juxtaposing extremes of mood and dynamic, can be seen in the context of Schoenberg’s other expressionist works of that year such as the last of the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 and, most revealingly, the monodrama Erwartung.[citation needed] Characteristic of these pieces is a lack of motivic repetition or development and a rejection of traditional notions of balance and cadential, goal-oriented movement, supposedly deferring the musical discourse to a kind of stream of consciousness or subjective emotional expression. Probably because of this radical abandonment of traditional parameters, Busoni found the third piece rather harder to digest than the first two,[citation needed] and indeed its language does set it apart from its companions somewhat. In likening these developments to contemporary styles in visual art (Schoenberg was himself a painter), notably Kandinsky’s, with whom he had contact, the composer tellingly describes painting “without architecture... an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods.”[this quote needs a citation]

The violence and suddenness of this emancipation from tradition was influenced by turbulent events in Schoenberg’s life at the time: his wife Mathilde had recently eloped with the painter Richard Gerstl (who committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband), and in the professional sphere, his work was increasingly being met with hostility or incomprehension, as at the premiere of the Second String Quartet in 1908. However, Schoenberg at this time saw no contradiction in pursuing more seemingly traditional projects, such as the orchestration of his hyper-Wagnerian Gurre-Lieder (completed in 1911), bearing out his contention that the new style was, for him, an extension of previous practice, not a rejection of it.[citation needed]


  • Benjamin, William. 1984. "Harmony in Radical European Music, 1905–20", paper presented to the Society of Music Theory, 1984.
  • Brinkmann, Reinhold. 1969. Arnold Schönberg: Drei Klavierstücke Op. 11: Studien zur frühen Atonalität bei Schönberg. Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 7. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Forte, Allen. 1972. "Sets and Nonsets in Schoenberg's Atonal Music". Perspectives of New Music 11, no. 1 (Tenth Anniversary Issue (Fall–Winter): 43–64.
  • Malhomme, Florence. 1997. "Les Trois pièces pour piano op. 11 de Schoenberg: principes d'organisation de l'espace musical atonal". Musurgia 4, no. 1, Dossiers d'analyse): 84–95.
  • Ogdon, Will. 1982. "How Tonality Functions in Schoenberg's Opus 11, No. 1." Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 5:169–81.
  • Perle, George. 1977. Serial Composition and Atonality, fourth edition, revised. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.ISBN 0-520-03395-7.
  • Straus, Joseph N. 2000. Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, second edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-014331-6.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carpenter, Patricia. 2005. "The Piano Music of Arnold Schoenberg". Theory and Practice 30:5–33.
  • Cinnamon, Howard. 1993. "Tonal Elements and Unfolding Nontriadic Harmonies in the Second of Schoenberg's "Drei Klavierstücke", Op. 11". Theory and Practice 18 (In Celebration of Arnold Schoenberg), no. 2:127–70.
  • Cone, Edward T. 1972. "Editorial Responsibility and Schoenberg's Troublesome 'Misprints'". Perspectives of New Music 11, no. 1 (Tenth Anniversary Issue, Fall–Winter): 65–75.
  • Forte, Allen. 1973. The Structure of Atonal Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01610-7.
  • Haimo, Ethan. 1996. "Atonality, Analysis, and the Intentional Fallacy". Music Theory Spectrum 18, bo. 2 (Autumn): 167–99.
  • Straus, Joseph N. 2003. "Uniformity, Balance, and Smoothness in Atonal Voice Leading". Music Theory Spectrum 25, no. 2 (Fall): 305–52.
  • Straus, Joseph N. 2005. "Voice Leading in Set-Class Space". Journal of Music Theory 49, no. 1 (Spring): 45–108.
  • Wittlich, Gary. 1974. "Interval Set Structure in Schoenberg's Op. 11, No. 1". Perspectives of New Music 13, no. 1 (Fall–Winter): 41–55.