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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

5. Schoenberg's
Rhapsody on Greensleeves


It was the late Hans Keller who brought the attention of Arnold Schoenberg to the folksong 'Greensleeves', pointing out the infinite canonic and serial possibilities of this fine old English tune. At first Schoenberg was lukewarm to the suggestion, but after analysing the song in detail saw what Keller was getting at. The result? - one of the composer's most delightful pièces d'occasion, full of warmth and period charm.

'Greensleeves' is heard at the outset on solo bassoon - it may not be immediately recognisable, as Schoenberg has added a few chromatic notes to the original in order to use up all twelve notes of his row - and is then 'dispersed', as it were, between horns and trumpets in Klangfarbenmelodie technique. After this, the composer begins to show his paces by uncovering all the contrapuntal possibilities of the tune. We hear it in canon (saxophone and celesta), inverted canon (cor anglais and double bass), retrograde canon (three solo violas) and retrograde inverted canon (flutes, oboes and upper strings). Finally, in an amazing piece of contrapuntal wizardry, all four possible versions of the tune are heard simultaneously in their original scorings!

There are some delightful period touches, such as the passage where the composer imitates a consort of viols (four muted double basses) and the witty caricature of an English rustic dance (muted trumpet and xylophone over a drone bass, 2 bars before H). But it would be wrong to give the impression that the work contains nothing but bucolic wit and good-humoured parody. There are many poignant moments, none more so than the passage where Schoenberg quotes extensively from his own Verklärte Nacht. 'Why?' I hear you ask. The composer himself supplies the answer a few bars later: it fits in perfect counterpoint with 'Greensleeves'! The entire work is a magnificent technical accomplishment and, frankly, one is left puzzled as to why it is so seldom performed.


Copyright © Trevor Hold, December 23rd 1999


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