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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 The Music Trance
Richard Taruskin

The alternative harmonic routes—cycles of thirds and semitones—could also function by themselves, liberated (as it were) from the dominance of the cycle of fifths, and herein lay the most profoundly subversive potential of Schubertian (and post-Schubertian) harmony. As often happens, what begins as a representational artifice can exert an independent fascination as a technical device; an expressive means can become an end in itself, pursued for the sheer pleasure of the entrancing patterns it makes available. As we have already glimpsed fleetingly in the Impromptu in E♭, op. 90, no. 2, there was a tendency to intensify the emotionally charged flat-submediant relationship by embodying it in sequences, giving the flat submediant a flat submediant of its own. The G-major harmony in m. 100 of the Impromptu (Ex. 2-5a) stands in the same relationship to the key of the middle section as does the key of the middle section to the key of the outer sections. The three keys, in fact, could be placed in an “interval cycle” similar to the circle of fifths, that is, a sequence of moves by identical intervals that continues until the point of departure is regained: E♭–C♭/B–G–E♭

This cycle of thirds is present in the Impromptu only by implication. It is stated fully and explicitly as a continuous succession in the passage from the “Great” C-major Symphony shown in Ex. 2-7. And it reaches a kind of epitome in the fourth movement of Schubert's last string quartet, in G major (1826 [D887], never performed or published during his lifetime) a dizzy whirligig of a movement in which many novel interval cycles are demonstrated and experimented with. In the context of a Haydnesque moto perpetuo (“perpetual motion machine”), long a source of exhilarating musical humor, the idea of harmonic cycles is not only of absorbing technical interest but poetically appropriate as well (Ex. 2-10). Just as in the symphony extract, the cycle is broken, and normal tonal “functionality” resumed, when one of the harmonies (C♭ suddenly respelled as B) finally resolves along the circle of fifths.

On a more “structural” level, Schubert used the cycle of major thirds to organize the overall key sequence in the four-movement “Wanderer” Fantasy. Its movements, all played attacca (without any intervening pause), end respectively in C major, E major, A♭ major, and C major. (The second movement, which ends in E, begins with a quotation of the song Der Wanderer in the relative key of C♯ minor.) And on a more explicitly “affective” level, the cycle of major thirds produces a terrifying blast of eerie sublimity when geared to the text of the Sanctus in Schubert's Mass in E♭ major another product of his final wonder year, 1828. The Mass Sanctus, we may recall, is a representation of the song of the angelic hosts surrounding God's throne. Schubert's use of the cycle of thirds here was surely an attempt to render the scene in as sublime or “unearthly” a manner as possible (Ex. 2-11). Once again, as we have come to expect from Schubert, major and minor triads are freely mixed—more for the sake of unpredictability here than for that of subjective expressivity (hard to attribute with any confidence to an angel). Even the E♭ triad, when it recurs, is replaced by its minor variant to enhance its freshness—or its strangeness. (“It is the addition of strangeness to beauty,” Walter Pater said, “that constitutes the romantic character in art.”)24

And now for the strangest, most unearthly touch of all: notice the orchestral bass line, in which passing tones have been inserted between the roots of all the third-related triads. These passing tones bisect each major third into major seconds, thus producing one of the earliest seriously intended whole-tone scales in the history of European music. (Mozart, had used one previously in his “Musical Joke” serenade, but only to represent out-of-tune violin playing.)

As a theoretical concept, the whole-tone scale had been known since the sixteenth century. That is, since the sixteenth century it had been known that six whole steps add up to an octave in equal temperament. Music theorists and composers had made occasional (usually jocular) references to this phenomenon. The German organist Jakob Paix, for example, in a volume of canons published in 1590, printed a canon by Josquin des Prez under the rubric in hexatono (“at six whole steps”), leaving it to the reader to figure out with a chuckle that the piece was just an ordinary canon at the octave.

New Cycles

ex. 2-10 Franz Schubert, Quartet in G major, IV, modulatory sequence

For another example, the Roman composer Giovanni Maria Nanino (1543–1607), a pupil of Palestrina, wrote an ingenious canon in 1605 as a memorial for Pope Leo XI, who had died the same year he was installed. Subtitled “Ascendit in celum” (“He ascends into Heaven”), it consists of a phrase that is to be sung each time a whole step higher than the last (Ex. 2-12). But since there is an imitation at the fifth before the repetition at the second, the actual mechanism by which the canon perpetually ascends is the circle of fifths rather than the whole-tone scale. Before the nineteenth century nobody could find any serious musical use for a scale that did not contain any perfect intervals.

Now there was such a use, and Schubert was perhaps its earliest exponent. The earliest instance known to the present author comes from Schubert's Octet in F major for winds and strings, composed in 1824 and first performed in public at a concert put on by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh on 16 April 1827 (just three weeks after Beethoven's death), at which Beethoven's great advocate put Schubert forth as the great man's successor. The octet is indeed one of Schubert's most Beethovenian compositions in inspiration, although the work of Beethoven's that provided the model for it, the Septet, op. 20, is early and relatively relaxed (Schubertian?) Beethoven. But Beethoven never wrote a passage like the one in Ex. 2-13.

New Cycles

ex. 2-11 Franz Schubert, Mass in E-flat, Sanctus, beginning

New Cycles

ex. 2-12 Giovanni Maria Nanino, “Ascendit in celum” canon (1605)

New Cycles

ex. 2-13 Franz Schubert, Octet, VI, mm. 172-77

Although the cello plays a deceptively ascending figuration, its first notes in each measure collectively describe a descending progression of major thirds, a closed “sequence of flat submediants”—C, A♭, E, C, (A♭)—like the one shown in Ex. 2-11 from the Mass. Over this root progression, no fewer than three whole-tone scales descend as the violins and viola connect, with passing tones, the roots (in syncopation, to avoid parallels), fifths, and thirds of the resultant minor triads in contrary motion to the bass. All the earliest whole-tone scales functioned the way these do, as a means of connecting the roots (and, as we see, not only the roots) in a symmetrically apportioned, descending cycle of major thirds—a characteristic pattern or template that grew out of the romantic penchant for flat-submediant harmony, and now offered an alternative means of tonal navigation to the traditional circle of fifths.

Schubert eventually experimented with analogous cycles of minor thirds as well, in which the linked tonalities all lie along an implied diminished-seventh chord (as laid out explicitly, if only “theoretically,” in Ex. 2-9). Here, too, a novel scale emerges from the part writing if passing tones are inserted between the successive chord roots, as Schubert demonstrated in another passage from the vertiginous finale of the G-major Quartet (Ex. 2-14a), where the wild harmonic gyrations undergo a stretta—an acceleration in sheer pace and an expansion of modulatory compass.

The peculiar restlessness of the harmony is insured by the use of the position for all the nodal points in the cycle of minor thirds, implying a cadence ceaselessly deferred and lending the passage the bearing of a frenzied, unappeasable pursuit. The emergent scale can be traced in the second violin part, which connects the chord roots with passing tones. Where the scale that emerged in this way from the cycle of major thirds consisted of a descent by whole steps, the cycle of minor thirds yields a scale that descends by alternating whole steps and half steps (Ex. 2-14b).

New CyclesNew Cycles

ex. 2-14a Franz Schubert, Quartet in G major, IV, another modulatory sequence

New Cycles

ex. 2-14b Franz Schubert, Quartet in G major, IV, demonstration of the scale that emerges from the interpolated passing tones

Like the whole-tone scale, it proved extremely suggestive to the composers who became acquainted with Schubert's posthumously published instrumental works at midcentury—particularly Liszt, who passed it along in turn to many other composers. One of them, the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), confessed in 1906 that Schubert, in his view, was the fountainhead of what he considered to be modern music, “the first composer in whom one can meet such bold and unexpected modulations.”25 (And, in saying this, he gave valuable testimony to the nineteenth century's primary criterion of musical modernity.) Owing to the delayed publication of his works, the implications of Schubert's tonal and harmonic experiments were still being worked out (albeit in entirely different technical and expressive contexts) almost a century after his death.


(24) Walter Pater, Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (1889; rpt. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987), p. 246.

(25) Vasiliy Vasiliyevich Yastrebtsev, Nikolai Andreyevich Rimskiy-Korsakov: Vospominaniya, 1886–1908, Vol. II (Leningrad, 1960), p. 374.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 The Music Trance. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002009.xml