The Fortunate Hand

Excerpt from score Die glückliche Hand (1910-1913/1924) by Arnold Schönberg, Universal Edition / UE 13613
© Universal Edition A.G., Vienna

The plot and characters of Arnold Schoenberg’s monodrama Die glückliche Hand are reduced to a few rudimentary elements. The roles are identified simply as A Man, A Woman, A Gentleman, Six Women, and Six Men. Only the man has an extended singing role; the other two roles are silent, while the chorus of Six Women and Six Men does not sing but is given only a spoken melody for which rhythms and dynamic are indicated precisely but pitches only suggested.[1] The action of this merely eighteen-minute-long work for the stage is divided into four scenes that transition seamlessly. It presents, in a fantastic, symbolic visual language, the experiences of a romantic artist who fails in life but finds creative inspiration in his loneliness and suffering.

The dramatic effectiveness of this opera results not from its plot but solely from its solid dovetailing of singing and speaking voices with the orchestral music and from the combination of this musical complex with precisely stated directions for color and light. For example, Schoenberg specified that a crescendo in the music be accompanied by stage wind, which in turn should go hand in hand with a crescendo of color in the stage lighting:

It begins with dull red light (from above) that turns to brown and then a dirty green. Next it changes to a dark blue-gray, followed by violet. This grows, in turn, into an intense hard red which becomes ever brighter and more glaring until, after reaching a blood red, it is mixed more and more with orange and then bright yellow; finally a glaring yellow light alone remains … . [2]

The character on stage in this scene is also supposed to mark this crescendo with gestures.

Schoenberg justifies his approach in relation to the end of the third scene as follows:

But the most decisive thing is that an emotional incident, definitely originating in the plot, is expressed not only by gestures, movement and music, but also by colors and light; and it must be evident that 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. [3]

The precise relation of the musical and lighting effects is achieved by means of a specially developed, carefully worked out apparatus of symbols.[4] Schoenberg’s ideas for the visual presentation of the play are, however, not limited to specific instructions for the lighting; he also designed costumes and a stage set, for which he made numerous oil paintings as preliminary studies.

While still working on the composition, Schoenberg met with Max Reinhardt, who was, however, of the view that a performance in a regular stage theater[5] would be impossible. It was obvious that Die glückliche Hand could much more easily be produced as a film than for the stage. Schoenberg did indeed look into the possibility of having his work made into film, but this has never been done. He did, however, draw up a very precise list of artistic instructions to that end. The first one is: Nothing about the music is to be changed.[6]