We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

The best place to look to observe Mahler’s response to it is the moment that traditionally carried the highest charge in a symphonic first movement: the “retransition” to the recapitulation, where sufficient “dominant tension” had to be generated to motivate a “double return” commensurate in strength to the length and range of the preceding development. Beethoven had already solved this problem in maximalistic fashion in the first movement of the Eroica, with the “premature” horn entry with the opening theme in the tonic against an unbearably prolonged dominant pedal in the violins. Mahler’s retransition, which begins five bars before 20 with the arrival of the dominant pedal in the bass, builds on Beethoven’s precedent, drawing as well on a related precedent in the Ninth.

Ex. 1-2 shows the spot in question as Mahler sketched it in an early draft for the Todtenfeier, amounting to a harmonic reduction. The G tremolo in the bass should be understood as continuing as a pedal up to (but not including) the last measure shown. From the beginning Mahler strives for maximum dissonance against the pedal—a semitone in the first measure, a major second in the second measure, a tritone in the fourth. Beginning at m. 6, harmonies that are normally mutually exclusive (that is, normally sounded in succession) are mixed over the dominant pedal, just as they had been ninety years earlier in the Eroica. The first mixture pits what looks like a tonic triad against a diminished seventh spelled with F♯ as the root, the two chords having two notes in common. It gives way in m. 7 to an even more dissonant combination, consisting of the same tonic triad over a diminished seventh built on B natural, the leading tone, the two chords having no notes in common. They produce, instead, a seven-note cluster.

Connoisseurs of musical horror will recognize this cluster as the very chord Beethoven had used in the finale of the Ninth for the intensified repetition of the Schreckensfanfaren, the “horror fanfares” (as Wagner called them) that precede the Ode to Joy and set it in relief. Over the course of the intervening seventy years, this harmony had been regarded as a one-time curiosity to be explained only in terms of its immediate expressive context. Not until Mahler’s time did anyone see it as a benchmark to be exceeded; that is evidence both of Mahler’s consciousness of continuity with tradition, and of the difference between his early modernist attitude and those of Beethoven’s earlier progeny.

But whereas Beethoven’s Schreckensfanfaren functioned more as a peremptory noise than as a harmony (even if, by moving to the dominant, it acquires a harmonic function retrospectively), Mahler’s equally dissonant chord is set in a progression that assigns it an unbearably tense dominant function. Remembering that the bass G continues to sound throughout Ex. 1-2, we may construe the two harmonies in m. 6 as, on the one hand, a tonic , and, on the other, a diminished seventh built on the leading tone to G, hence functioning as a “V of V.” In other words, we have a mixture of two chords that in the present context can be assigned the same function—namely, that of “predominant,” or dominant preparation. The dissonance produced by the mixture of two chords of similar function intensifies or maximizes the function, lending it an ever greater need for resolution.

The next move is to hold the tonic as a pedal and replace the first diminished seventh chord with another that, because it is built on the leading tone of the tonic scale, now reinforces the function of the dominant pedal, producing a “dominant ninth.” In Mahler’s version of the Schreckensfanfare chord, then, the C and the E♭, while nominally part of the tonic chord, are actually functioning as a dissonant suspension over a dominant ninth. Since they can be represented in notation as an additional pair of thirds (an “eleventh” and a “thirteenth”) stacked atop the dominant-ninth chord, and since such chords (following Mahler’s precedent and faithfully continuing the tradition in which he participated) became increasingly common during the early modernist period, many musicians trained during or after that period would call the harmony in m. 7 a “dominant- thirteenth” chord, here making what amounts to its symphonic debut.

High Tension Composing

ex. 1-2 Gustav Mahler, sketch for Todtenfeier

But unless we remember that two of its members are functional suspensions, we will not appreciate the effect of the harmony in m. 8 of Ex. 1-2, in which the C is palpably resolved to B natural, a chord tone, leaving only the E♭ suspended, hence putting additional pressure on it to resolve and upping the level of “dominant tension” beyond anything previously experienced by the audience who heard the symphony at its premiere. The tonic to which this amplified dominant is cataclysmically resolved—via a bass descent through a full chromatic scale and then some!—in the movement’s most “maximal” single gesture is expressed as a pair of eighths: a Wagnerian double drumbeat that makes absolutely explicit the already implicit reference to Siegfried’s heroic C-minor funeral music.

And yet for all the familiar resonances and the absolute clarity of the cadential function these maximalized harmonies perform, their novelty was widely perceived not merely as a difference in degree of intensity, but as an absolute difference in stylistic kind. This we may learn from the testimony of a highly qualified witness, none other than Guido Adler, who wrote that in the Second Symphony,

the bold power of combination builds up to harmonies previously not to be found in the literature. In this respect [Mahler] oversteps the boundary previously accepted in our time for the purely beautiful. It is not impossible, and not improbable—indeed surmise based on the experience of history suggests—that the progressive artist leads his own age and especially posterity to another way of viewing and understanding sounds. Whether an enduring advance results, only the future can decide.14

One may suspect that Adler’s question was somewhat disingenuous. His critique was so solidly informed by the old “New German” insistence on “progressive” art as to remove any doubt that, for Adler (as for any early modernist), Mahler’s “unprecedented cacophonies” were in large part responsible for his value as an artist. Nor would anyone but a “philistine” have insisted by the 1890s that the domain of art was limited to the “purely beautiful.” The whole history of nineteenth-century music was a history of the creeping encroachment of the “great” (or the sublime) upon the traditional domain of the beautiful. To put it another way, composers of “great” music, beginning with Beethoven, had long been sacrificing ingratiating pleasure on the altar of edifying pain. This process, too, was undergoing a maximalizing acceleration as late romanticism shaded into early modernism, and here, too, Mahler was in the vanguard.


(14) Guido Adler, Gustav Mahler (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1916), p. 23.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001006.xml