To today’s listener, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony probably sound likes a logical step in the slow decline of conventional tonality heralded by late romantic chromaticism. But to the audience privy to the work’s premiere it came as something of a shock, with a number of people noisily leaving the concert in protest. Gustav Mahler, however, recognised the significance of the work - and angrily demanded silence - later rising for applause that he maintained until everyone had left the hall.
Schoenberg too believed this work held a special significance: on completing it he told his friends: ‘Now I have established my style. Now I know how I have to compose.’ Indeed, many of the work’s most notable attributes de ned Schoenberg’s later music.
Structurally, the work merges the separate movements of a standard multi-movement symphony into a single form. Such a feat necessitates incisive brevity of expression - a skill that Schoenberg continually strove to refine. In the composer’s own words, he sought to master a style in which ‘every technical or structural necessity was carried out without unnecessary extension, [a style] in which every single unit is supposed to be functional.’
From a harmonic perspective the work is also of pivotal importance. The opening chord - a stack of ambiguous perfect fourths - flirts with the idea of abandoning tonality. But while with this and other techniques the composer challenges established harmonic conventions, in this work his forays into the realm of atonality ultimately return to resolve into familiar triads. While at the time he wrote Chamber Symphony Schoenberg felt highly optimistic about his future musical path, he later found the way forward a much tougher challenge than anticipated. Looking back, he said: ‘It was as lovely a dream as it was a disappointing illusion’.