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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

It seems an even better one, and even more exactly suggests the difference between expressionism and the earlier (“Hoffmannesque”) romantic concept from which it grew, when the sentence that immediately precedes it is reinstated. “Art,” declared Schoenberg to Kandinsky, “belongs to the unconscious!”5 He was using, as we would now say, a “buzzword.” Expressionism, especially as preached and practiced in Schoenberg’s Vienna, cannot be fully understood apart from the psychoanalytical movement that sprang up at the same time and in the same place. Both movements had the same compelling if paradoxical aim: to explore the human unconscious, in the one case through scientific inquiry, in the other through art.

But how can one consciously do that? According to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, the “inner occurrences” that conditioned human subjectivity, and therefore provided the most authentic subject matter for expressionist art, were governed by emotions, drives, and wishes of which the human subject was unaware, often because they were socially unacceptable and therefore repressed from consciousness. Thus the expressionist artist’s subversive task was to portray something—or rather, the results of something—that was hidden not only from others but even from the one doing the portraying.

As Schoenberg put it in a program note accompanying one of his most radical expressionist works, Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909; first performed in London in 1912), “the music seeks to express all that swells in us subconsciously like a dream.”6 Even before one asks how one is to make such subject matter intelligible or communicable, and even before one shudders at the thought of the nightmares such art might communicate, one has to ask how such a subject matter can even be apprehended by the artist’s own conscious creative faculty. How can one express what is unknowable?

Art and the Unconscious

fig. 6-2 Sigmund Freud’s study at his house in Maresfield Gardens, London, 1938–1939.

That is the expressionist version of the old romantic conundrum of “absolute music”—music that describes the indescribable and expresses the inexpressible—updated for the psychoanalytical age. Absolute music achieved this feat, in Hoffmann’s inimitable phrase, by becoming the “secret Sanskrit of the soul.” Schoenberg faced an even harder task. Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of the Hindus, a dead and distant tongue that for Hoffmann symbolized everything esoteric, was after all a “natural language,” a real medium of communication. To realize the demands of expressionism without compromise would entail the old philosophers’ riddle of a “private language,” a manifest contradiction in terms. Or was it? Could one, truly recording one’s “inner occurrences” and doing full justice to their uniqueness, utter anything but nonsense? Can something truly and totally unique ever be communicated?

It would be better to leave these inevitable paradoxes to one side for now. We will have to return to them—repeatedly—because Schoenberg’s work posed with particular urgency and clarity the cursed question of intelligibility, alias “comprehensibility” (to use the word he himself preferred) or “accessibility” (to use more recent critical language). It is a question that has always dogged modernist art, and in the wake of Schoenberg’s influence the question achieved the dimensions of a crisis. But first we must trace the process through which Schoenberg—courageously? quixotically?—attempted to meet the impossibly contradictory demands that art and history, as he envisioned them, were making not only on him, but on all artists who aspired to authenticity.


(5) Arnold Schoenberg/Wassily Kandinsky, Letters, p. 23.

(6) Schoenberg, Program note to the first performance of Five Orchestra Pieces, op. 16 (1909); Nicolas Slonimsky, Music since 1900 (4th ed., New York: Scribners, 1971), p. 207.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006004.xml