Die glückliche Hand

Arnold Schoenberg

Die glückliche Hand

Op. 18 • “The Lucky Hand”

About this work

Composed 1910-November 1913, Die glückliche Hand is a drama with music, setting a libretto by the composer. Although he began writing the music shortly after completing the text in 1910, it would be three years before Schoenberg would finish the work. The First World War, Schoenberg's induction into the Austrian Army, and the general state of economic depression following the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire made it difficult for to realize a performance; therefore, Die glückliche Hand was given its première at the Volksoper in Vienna on 14 October 1924.

Die glückliche Hand resembles Schoenberg's earlier Erwartung, Op. 17, in that there is only one main voice--an unnamed man. Subsidiary characters mime their parts, for they represent extensions of the main character. There are, however, twelve chorus members who provide commentary on the man and his state at the beginning and end of the piece, singing and employing a technique called Sprechstimme, a type of heightened speech Schoenberg called for in Pierrot lunaire.

Expressionist theater par excellence, Die glückliche Hand opens with the man lying on the stage, face down. Next to him is a cat-like, mythical animal Schoenberg describes as a "hyena with large, bat-like wings." Twelve faces, illuminated with green light, peer through hatches in the dark background. The twelve, six men and six women, ask the man why he continues to yearn for earthly pleasures when he is capable of greater things, then disappear. A woman whom the man loves enters, although she betrays him with a rival. When she seems to return to the man he feels renewed strength and, surrounded by mute workers, creates a piece of jewelry. The woman leaves him again; he finds himself on the ground next to the strange animal and the cycle begins again as the chorus returns to ask him why he must continuously relive this experience.

Most of the plot is conveyed through action, not text, and there is actually very little singing. Schoenberg's stage directions are detailed and exacting, indicating precise moments certain actions are to occur and colors of various lighting effects. The total effect, as Schoenberg called it, is "making music with the media of the stage." All elements are to be used in a manner similar to the way a composer uses tones-combining them in such a way as to bring about certain artistic impressions. A perfect example of this is the "crescendo of light" Schoenberg calls for in the third scene: Beginning with a dim red light, colors change at indicated moments, passing through blood red to bright yellow. Based on values that can be compared to tones, the crescendo of light, which occurs independently of any action, represents the progress of the man's pain. Schoenberg notes: " … gestures, colors, and light are treated here similarly to the way tones are usually treated--that music is made with them; that figures and shapes, so to speak, are formed from individual light values and shades of color, which resemble the forms, figures and motives of music."

The harmonic language of Die glückliche Hand is similar to that of Erwartung, although some of the compositional techniques differ. For instance, during the chorus sections, Schoenberg employs direct imitation among the staggered lines of text, and there is some recapitulation of material later in the piece, which exhibits clear formal divisions.

The title of the work is derived from the end of the second scene, where the man, not realizing the woman has left, believes he has her in his hand. This fortunate (glücklich) hand can operate independently of the man and his pain.