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Set of four pieces for piano four-hands composed in the mid‒late 1890s, published in 1899 with the inscription "dedicated to Baron Alphons von Rothschild," premiered in January 1900, and subsequently orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg for performance in Berlin in November 1903.

Four-hands Piano Version (1899)

The work had a number of different titles at the compositional stage, including: "Dances or Suite on Jewish Folksongs" (Tänze oder Suite nach jüdischen Volksweisen), "Hebrew Dances" (Hebraische Tänze), and "Dances of the Hassidic Jews" (Tänze der Chassidim).

Having first been rejected by Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig (OJ 9/20, [19], June 28, 1899), the work was accepted by Josef Weinberger of Vienna. Hofmeister's Monatsbericht records its publication in two volumes in October 1899. Of the title-page, Schenker complained that "instead of a regular orthodox Jew they have used a dancing girl" (Sbb B II 4429, letter to Busoni, November 6, 1899) The constituent movements are:

  • vol. 1 No. 1 Andante espressivo, Allegro scherzando (D minor)
  • vol. 1 No. 2 Allegro con fuoco (C minor)
  • vol. 2 No. 1 Allegretto [dolcissimo] (G minor)
  • vol. 2 No. 2 Allegro molto passionate (D major)

Schenker sent copies to several pianists shortly after publication, including Ignaz Brüll, who commented: "I believe that, through their distinctive melodic beauty and the skillful ‒ and original ‒ manner of their development, the Dances will cause a sensation" (OJ 9/23, [4], November 7, 1899), and Ferruccio Busoni, who had evidently played them through with Artur Schnabel (OJ 5/18, 33, December 21, 1933), remarked "These pieces are touched by genius (sind genial)" (OJ 9/27, [11], February 11, 1900). The Syrian Dances were given their first public performance on January 26, 1900 in the Bösendorfer-Saal in Vienna, the pianists being Schenker himself and Moriz Violin, the concert also involving the baritone Eduard Gärtner. Schenker later stated that in addition to this performance he and Violin had performed them in "many private houses", and had played a selection of the pieces to Eduard Hanslick (OJ 5/18, 33).

Orchestrated Version (1903)

On August 25, 1903, Busoni wrote asking Schenker's permission to include "an orchestrated selection from your Syrian Dances" in a series of orchestral concerts of "New and Rarely Performed Works" that he had initiated the previous year in Berlin (OJ 9/27, [12]). In response, Schenker recalled that Arnold Schoenberg had been present at the first performance and had asked permission to orchestrate the pieces, upon which Schenker had referred him to the publisher. Schenker commented to Busoni that he had himself considered orchestrating them, and "had the sound of the orchestra clearly" in his head (Sbb B II 3549, letter to Busoni, c. September 1, 1903). Busoni invited Schoenberg to undertake the task, and all four dances were performed in the Beethoven-Saal, Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under José Vianna da Motta on November 5, 1903. Schenker recorded that a further performance was booked for Prague (diary, November 18, 1903). Schoenberg's orchestration was never published and seems to have been lost.

The disastrous reviews that this performance received from its Berlin critics probably influenced Schenker's decision soon after to abandon composition.

Later revival

Schenker remained proud of this work. In 1918, he reported playing it with Jeanette (diary, September 15, 1918). In 1933, Oswald Jonas asked if Schenker had a spare copy (OJ 12/6, [27] and OJ 5/18, 33). Schenker replied that he did not have one himself, but in February 1914 he had a copy sent to Jonas by Weinberger.

Bibliography

  • Heinrich Schenker: Selected Correspondence, ed. Ian Bent, David Bretherton and William Drabkin (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014), pp. 30‒43

Contributor

  • Ian Bent

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Correspondence

Diaries