The year 1909 was an extremely important one for Schoenberg. It was at this time, immediately following the composition of the song cycle The Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 15, that Schoenberg made his definitive break with tonality and began exploring alternative means of musical organization. In the Piano Pieces, Op. 11, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, he attempted to move toward a form more dependent on texture, dynamics, and rhetorical gesture than on pitch-oriented or motive-oriented systems of organization. His most extreme experiment in this regard was Erwartung (Expectation), a monodrama for soprano and orchestra on a text by Marie Pappenheim. This was a completely unique creation that attempts to portray the interior monologue of a woman waiting to meet her lover in a forest. Schoenberg himself said that the work could be understood as a nightmare scenario -- the entire reality exists in the woman's mind on a purely psychological level. There is no realistic time frame -- past, present, and future are blurred and the setting itself remains only suggestive and indistinct. Upon her discovery of her lover's murdered body (and there is some hint that she herself may have been the murderer), the unnamed woman proceeds through a confused and disturbed series of emotions as she remembers their love, his betrayal with another, to a strange sense of exhausted reconciliation.
In spite of a vestigial presence of D minor throughout the work, Schoenberg had by now abandoned tonality. But the treatment of such a difficult scenario required a new approach that could almost be called athematic. In his attempt to faithfully portray the hysterical, fragmentary, stream of consciousness, he created a score that mirrors and responds immediately to each of the many quixotic emotional changes in the woman's mind. In a very real sense, the score is through-composed, as there is no organized repetition except for very short fragments, generally for rhetorical effect and with no structural coherence or significance. The entire 20-minute work has no discernible musical structure outside of the general and vague sections suggested by the changing scenario of the text. Its primary effect is that of constant transformation and progression.
Erwartung is as evocative and powerful a work as anything Schoenberg composed. Its vivid scoring and invention perfectly capture the sense of psychological breakdown and impending disaster inherent in the text. The fact that Schoenberg composed the score in the astonishingly short time of 17 days may account in part for its coherence, despite the lack of formal organization. Because of its unusual format, and extraordinary difficulty, Erwartung had to wait until June 6, 1924, to receive its premiere, where Marie Gutheil-Schoder created the role of the woman.