Ode To Napoleon? Or Hitler?

by nrho

I recently had the privilege of going to see the Daedalus Quartet perform at the Penn Museum. To give a little background, the Penn Humanities Forum, every year, organizes a variety of activities that are based on a specific. This year’s theme is violence. The Daedalus Quartet named their program “Music from Exile” after the composers of their chosen works who, in some way or another, were forced into exile by the Third Reich. One of the works they performed was Ode to Napoleon composed by Arnold Schoenberg, an artist we talked about last class. This post will introduce the piece and perhaps provide some analysis regarded the piece’s sonic qualities.

In 1942, Schoenberg was approached by the League of Composers to compose a piece that was to employ few instruments and be performed during the next concert season. Schoenberg did not understand nor did he approve of Nazi Germany’s obsession with totality and the singular leader. Apparently, Schoenberg believed it was his moral duty to “take a stand against tyranny.” This statement makes sense given the nature of the piece. As we know from class, Schoenberg was one of the fathers of and first believers in the concept of atonality. The Ode to Napoleon incorporates a string quartet, a piano, and a baritone as a narrator. The piece can only be described as evil an eerie. The strings are constantly creating dissonant chords together, and the piano perpetually clashes with every other performing force. There are times with the pace speeds up creating a sense of dire “franticness.” The narrator emphatically recites Lord Byron’s poem “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” over the sound of the string and piano.  The lyrics speak of the atrocities and evil committed and demonstrated by Napoleon, and it’s easily translated into Schoenberg’s disapproval of Hitler. It’s best if you give the piece a listen.<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=510IOC15iIM&gt;

While this isn’t music I’d ever choose to listen to for pure enjoyment, it sure delivers a message, and in doing so, packs a strong punch. The piece is moving and chilling.