10 November 2018

Arnold Schönberg and George Benjamin

September found me several times in the Philharmonie, given that the Musikfest Berlin festival which features contemporary classical music was on-going. The second concert I attended was a chamber orchestra performance, consisting of two parts: the first half was Arnold Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, for a string sextet; followed by George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, a lyrical tale featuring a soprano, an alto, and fifteen players. I am not familiar with either of the pieces, nor of the composers. And it turns out that while I couldn't care less of the Schönberg, I loved the Benjamin piece.

See, I didn't know what to do with the Schönberg piece. It started boring, and sounded definitely not like the typical tonal pieces of the late 19th century. It reminded me of the direction the music of Debussy was taking, or even Liszt if you only look at his late period. But it wasn't striking. It felt like the music just happened in front of me, and nothing was there to captivate me or keep me on the edge of my seat.

On the contrary, George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill was amazingly superb. It started with a bang, and I was fixated and concentrating on listening to it from the very beginning onward. It's actually a piece inspired by the legend of the Pied Pier of Hamelin, but with a modern twist. There is a story narrated by both the soprano and the alto, telling about a minister who wanted to get elected in an upcoming election, but the crowd tells him that they would only vote for him if he finds a way to kill the rats. One night, the minister finds a faceless man in his daughter's bedroom, and somehow they discuss the rats. The minister promises over his sleeping child that the faceless man will be paid if he makes the rats go away. Of course he isn't paid later when the rats disappear, and later on, the children also disappear.

It's such a horrific story, and the music is also at times striking and drastic. Yes, a few people did walk out. Somehow I feel like the probability of me liking a piece is higher when someone walks out of the concert. In any case, it was very obvious that I liked the second half of the concert rather than the first half.

So yeah, I might want to check out more of George Benjamin's works. What I heard that night was quite captivating and I would like to hear more.


  1. When did you start developing an interest for classical music? Is it something you discovered alone?

    1. Zhu,

      I wanted to be a classical concert pianist, ages ago. I discovered that I liked classical music back in Japan, when we were students in school and there was music class. I suppose I didn't realise that earlier in the Philippines, mostly because the state of music education in primary school isn't up to speed. But it was already late when I finally discovered I liked it. In any case, I learned how to play the piano and actually became rather good at it, but eventually stopped playing when I entered university.