Like his master Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) was of a deeply religious nature. But if Mahler turned away from his Jewish roots, looking for a universal, doctrine-free type of religious experience, Schönberg – since the 1920s and not without an incentive from political circumstances – increasingly identified with the Old Testament chosen nation, a commitment which is most explicitly declared in his opus magnum, the unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1923-1937).
The cantata Friede auf Erden (1907, version for the orchestra 1911), the last total composition by Schönberg to the verses by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, rather small in size, is a kind of idyll or utopia (in 1923, Schönberg called it “an illusion for mixed choir”). The text refers to the birth of Christ – Christ’s peace will one day put an end to all war.
The unfinished oratorio Jacob’s Ladder (1915-1926, 1944) is the central piece of Schönberg’s “worldview music.” It is here that he turns for the first time to religious themes. The biblical motif of Jacob’s dream, where the patriarch sees angels moving up and down a ladder that reaches the heavens, finds a rare interpretation, although well known from the antiquity (found as early as in Origen). We are witness to the process of reincarnation. Thanks to their talks with archangel Gabriel, souls absorb the teachings that emerge from their former lives before coming back to Earth in a new bodily form. Through the successive groups of beings (the Dissatisfied, the Doubting, the Joyful, the Indifferent, and the Humble) and individual souls (the Summoned, the Rebel, the Soldier, the Chosen, the Monk and the Dying), Schönberg outlines the whole range of attitudes and expresses his spiritual vision that matches his times.
Karol Szymanowski’s (1882-1937) cantata Demeter (1917) belongs to undeservedly forgotten pieces. Perhaps the “blame” should be put on his sister Zofia’s text, brimming with Young Poland, modernist clichés – a lamentation of the Greek goddess, looking for her daughter Persephone in the cold bleak cosmos, finished with invoking Nirvana. The music, full of subtle nuances, suffuses it with an aura – tragic and magical at the same time – which echoes Szymanowski’s most outstanding scores of this time: Symphony No 3, Violin Concerto No 1 or Mity (Myths). [Marcin Trzęsiok]