Arnold Schoenberg

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, for narrator, piano & strings, Op. 41

    Description by John Palmer

    Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon Buonapart" has its origins in a commission from the League of Composers. The work was to employ few instruments and be performed during the next concert season. Manuscript sources reveal that the Ode was begun on March 12, 1942 and completed on June 12 in its original form for speaker, piano, and string quartet. However, the work would be presented in a slightly different format, with string orchestra instead of string quartet, at its première of November 23, 1942 (this version is occasionally referred to as Op. 41b). Numerous people were approached for the part of speaker, among them actor Basil Rathbone, before Mack Harrell was chosen for the first performance, with Edward Steuermann at the piano and Artur Rodzinsky conducting the strings of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Byron composed his ode on April 10, 1814, the day after Napoleon's resignation, and had it published anonymously. Originally in sixteen verses, Byron's publisher later asked for an additional three, which Byron supplied, including the closing homage to George Washington. Byron's impassioned barrage was directed not only against Napoleon but toward every dictatorship. It is likely that the portentous lines, "If thou hadst died as honour dies, / Some new Napoleon might arise, / To shame the world again - / But who would soar the solar height, / To set in such a starless night?" evoked the image of Adolf Hitler in Schoenberg's mind. Byron's description of the demise of Napoleon's tyranny was, in 1942, also prophetic: In three years the Third Reich would meet the same fate. Certainly, the thirteenth verse, opening with "And she, proud Austria's mournful flower," touched Schoenberg as much as anything could have.

    During a rehearsal for a 1949 performance of the original scoring of Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Schoenberg coached the speaker in the declamation of the text. A proper performance, he noted, should emphasize the "dramatic and expressive values" of the text, while the pitches, as marked in the score were of secondary importance. Leonard Stein once related how Schoenberg pointed out his subconscious combination of the Marseillaise and the rhythm opening motive of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at the point where the narrator speaks, "The earthquake voice of Victory."

    Composed just after the Variations on a Recitative for Organ in D minor, Op. 40, the Ode, musically, is constructed on a diametrically opposed process. Whereas the "tonal" Variations borrow formal ideas from serialism, the dodecaphonic Ode retains tonal procedures and actually ends with a "cadence" on E flat major.

    The Ode is best characterized as a melodrama, similar to Pierrot Lunaire or Erwartung, but in many ways the Ode is more relaxed and accessible. This is in large part due to the methods in which Schoenberg uses the primary twelve-note row, which is constructed in such a way that the chords of G minor, E flat minor, and B minor can appear easily. All of this results in a more consistent, predictable texture and "harmony" than is typical of the composer's works of the previous two decades.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 Sony Classical 88875032222
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894794261
    2012 Sony Classical 88725413642
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon 02894790563
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2009 Naxos 505223
    2008 Naxos 557528
    2007 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4776651
    2005 Parlophone
    2001 Chandos 9939
    2000 Angel Records 61760
    1999 Chandos 9116
    1998 DG Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Distribution 457 630-2GH
    1998 New York Philharmonic 9701
    1995 Disques Montaigne 782025
    1995 Sony Classical 52664
    1995 Edition Abseits 008
    1993 Sony Classical 48463
    1993 Wergo 286403
    EDA 8
    Virgin 59057
    As Disc 631
    New York Philharmonic 9704/05
    Sony Classical Essential Classics 8869713094224