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 Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

There was another way in which the new emphasis on poetic or literary content affected New German musical style, and it proved ultimately the more subversive one. In curious fashion it paralleled a much earlier striving for the “unity of the poetic and the musical,” when in the late sixteenth century the composers of those sophisticated Italian part-songs known as madrigals became carried away with the project of representing strong emotion in their music and infused it with a degree of chromaticism without precedent, and without equal until precisely the moment we are now investigating, when a similar impulse (though now more strongly motivated by philosophical than by emotional content) turned Liszt into the nineteenth century's most zealous harmonic experimenter.

His experiments revolved in oddly systematic fashion around two harmonies with longstanding but limited diatonic application: the diminished-seventh chord and the augmented triad. In ordinary diatonic usage both of these chords often function as altered and intensified dominants. The diminished-seventh chord, built on the leading tone, adds an extra tendency-tone demanding resolution to the fifth degree of the tonic. The augmented triad on the fifth degree adds an extra tendency-tone demanding resolution to the third degree of the tonic. In any case, the altered pitch in an augmented triad is traditionally prepared and resolved as a chromatic passing tone. By treating other tones in these chords as tendency-tones, whether leading tones or passing tones, avenues of quick enharmonic modulation can be opened up. This sort of harmonic punning can be found as early as C. P. E. Bach, and had been a common device since Beethoven (Ex. 8-3).

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-3a Normal resolutions of diminished-seventh and augmented triads

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-3b Ludwig van Beethoven, “Pathétique” Sonata, I, “Tempo I” Tempo I

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-3c Franz Schubert, Quintet in C, I, mm. 11-24

Following on these precedents, but particularly on Schubert's usages, Liszt emancipated the diminished seventh and augmented harmonies from their diatonic contexts in two ways. First, he exploited the equidistance of the tones in these rootless harmonies to create circles of major and minor thirds, the former based on the tones of the augmented triad, the latter on those of the diminished-seventh chord. For these, as we have already seen, there were especially salient precedents in Schubert. For the circle of major thirds the precedents were explicit, based on sequences of flat submediants (revisit Ex. 2-11 from Schubert's Mass in E- flat). For the circle of minor thirds the Schubertian precedents were subtler, implicit in the part-writing rather than categorically expressed as harmonic progressions, as in the passage from the G-major Quartet cited in Ex. 2-14.

In his so-called “Mountain Symphony”—actually the Symphonic Poem No. 1 (first sketched in 1847), titled Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (“What one hears atop the mountain”) after a poem by Victor Hugo—Liszt contrived an explicit descending circle of minor thirds to match Schubert's major thirds in Ex. 2-11. The keys are even the same, which suggests that the Schubert passage may have been not just a precedent but an actual model. And just as Schubert had connected the bass notes of his circle with passing tones to produce a descending whole-tone scale, so Liszt connected his bass notes to produce a descending tone-semitone or octatonic scale, perhaps the first one ever to be explicitly set out in a single voice (Ex. 8-4).

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-4 Franz Liszt, Symphonic Poem no. 1, Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne

The octatonic scale may thus be counted Liszt's innovation, and it was taken up enthusiastically by many later composers, especially in Russia. The whole-tone scale, by contrast, was already a known quantity by the time Liszt came upon the scene, having been previously adapted from Schubert's original usage by a number of composers, again with Russians (who used it to conjure up fantastic or magical effects) in the lead. The original Russian precedent had been set by Glinka, to represent the evil sorcerer Chernomor in his “magic opera” Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). It is quoted in Ex. 8-5 from the popular overture to the opera, where its connection to the circle of major thirds is evident.

The New Madrigalism

fig. 8-6 The sorcerer Chernomor in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, costume sketch by A. Roller for the first production (St. Petersburg, 1842).

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-5 Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

Elsewhere in the opera Glinka uses it as an unharmonized scale. When sounded without harmonic support, its construction out of intervals of equal size inhibits any sense of degree-identification, which in turn prevents any sense of functional hierarchy among the pitches. This is just a fancy way of saying that a whole-tone scale is not centered unequivocally on a tonic, but putting it in terms of an abolition of hierarchy casts it in a Hegelian emancipatory light that heightened its appeal to the New Germans as well as the New Russians.

Liszt knew the scale not only from Schubert and Glinka, but also from the overture to an opera called Mazeppa by an altogether obscure Russian composer, a noble dilettante named Boris Scheel (1829–1901), who composed under the pen name of Baron Vietinghoff. A friend had sent the overture to Liszt as a sort of joke, since Liszt himself had based a symphonic poem on the legend of Mazeppa, a Ukrainian chieftain whose wild nocturnal ride, tied to the back of a runaway stallion by the enraged husband of his paramour, had been immortalized in another poem by Victor Hugo.

Liszt responded in kind with a humorous letter in which he parodied the tendency of which he himself was the titular figurehead. Although couched in ironic exaggeration, the letter accurately expresses the sense of historical necessity that drove Liszt and his party in their preoccupation with innovation.

When you have the opportunity, will you give my best compliments to the author, and give him also the little scale of chords that I add? It is nothing but a very simple development of the scale, terrifying to all whose long ears protrude that Mr. de Vietinghoff employs in the final presto of his overture.

[Carl] Tausig [1841–71, a Polish disciple of Liszt] makes pretty fair use of it in his [impromptu for piano] Das Geisterschiff (“The Ship of Ghosts”); and in the classes of the Conservatory, where the high art of the mad dog virtuoso is duly taught, the existing elementary exercises of the piano methods which are of a sonority as disagreeable as it is incomplete, ought to be replaced by this one which will thus form the unique basis of the method of harmony—all the other chords, in use or not, being merely arbitrary curtailments of it.

In fact it will soon be necessary to complete the system by the admission of quarter and half-quarter tones until something better turns up!

Behold the abyss of progress into which the abominable Musicians of the Future are hurling us! Take care that you do not let yourself be contaminated by this pest of Art!20

As students of twentieth-century music know very well, every one of the harmonic absurdities Liszt strains to imagine—twelve-note universal harmonies (sometimes expressed, as here, as the superimposition of two whole-tone scales), quarter- and eighth-tones, and all the rest—would eventually be quite seriously advanced in the same spirit as Liszt was advancing his own harmonic novelties: to wit, in the name of progressive emancipation.

Liszt's own use of the whole-tone scale reached a blazing climax, after he had returned to composing for the piano, in Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts,” 1867), the last number in the long cycle Années de pèlerinage (“Years of pilgrimage”). Although clearly the result of the interpolation of passing tones into a French-sixth chord on F♯ (“V of V” in the key of E major), the effect is one of a harmonic blur preceding the massive return of the main theme in the main key (Ex. 8-6).

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-6 Franz Liszt, climax of Sursum corda (last number in Années de pèlerinage)

As for the diminished seventh, perhaps the most dramatic use to which Liszt ever put it is found in his single-movement Sonata in B minor for piano (1853), a work dedicated to Schumann as if in return for the dedication of the latter's Phantasie, and cast along the same lines as Liszt's own concertos but, at half an hour's duration, grander by far. If provided with a program it would have been a virtual symphonic poem for the keyboard; that Liszt preferred to give it a neutral designation shows him still willing to make generic distinctions that some of his followers would abandon.

Ex. 8-7a shows the first page of the Sonata, containing three themes (or better, motives) that will be subjected to extensive “transformation” over its course. The first is the descending introductory scale marked lento assai. Its two occurrences already show the nature of the transformations that lie ahead: the former, beginning as if in the natural minor, is given a Phrygian inflection at the end; the latter, with its two augmented seconds, is cast in what Liszt called the “Gypsy” scale, associated in his mind with his native Hungary. (Naturally it is most commonly found in his famous “Hungarian Rhapsodies” for piano.) The two motives at allegro energico together make up what might ordinarily be called the Sonata's first theme, except that from the very beginning they are varied, developed, and transformed quite independently. The former is the one fashioned so strikingly (and from a tonal point of view, so indeterminately) out of appoggiatura-heavy diminished seventh arpeggios. Ex. 8-7b, showing a few of its transformations, gives a heady foretaste of the Sonata's expressive behavior. The resolution of chromatic arpeggios into diatonic ones sets up the basic harmonic polarity that in this Sonata largely preempts the usual tonal dichotomy.

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-7a Franz Liszt, Sonata in B minor, mm. 1-17

The New MadrigalismThe New Madrigalism

ex. 8-7b Franz Liszt, Sonata in B minor, transformations of diminished-seventh motive (mm. 18-22, 55-60, 125-34, 385-88)

Most radical of all are the passages in which Liszt allows diminished sevenths and augmented triads to succeed one another in parallel motion (that is, as consonances), usually by semitones along a chromatic scale, thus invoking another uniform-interval cycle devoid of any built-in degree hierarchy, so that traditional harmonic functions are held in abeyance. The Storm section of Les préludes contains a famous instance using the diminished-seventh chord. Even more celebrated is the theme heard at the very outset of Liszt's monumental trilogy of symphonic poems known as the Faust-Symphonie (1857), in which each movement purports to describe one of Goethe's characters (Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles in that order).

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-8a Franz Liszt, Faust-Symphonie, opening

The theme seems to mirror the title character's fateful quest of occult knowledge (Ex. 8-8a). Following the initial A♭, it consists of four augmented triads arpeggiated in a descending semitonal sequence that exhausts all the pitches of the chromatic scale. Again, the use of chords of uniform intervallic structure, deployed along a scale that is similarly uniform, prevents any tone (even the first one) from emerging as a functional center and creates an appropriate sense of aimless meandering. Perhaps even more remarkable is the similarly indeterminate harmonic progression that follows, in which the minor triad on the second beat of measure 5, owing to its harmonic environment, the voice-leading, and the rhythmic placement, clearly seems to resolve as a pseudo-suspension to yet another augmented triad, which the ear has by now been conditioned to accept as a normative—hence, a stable—harmony.

The first definite cadence—to a manifestly Beethovenian C minor—comes with the change in tempo from the introductory lento assai to the main body of the movement, allegro agitato ed appassionato. Passionate agitation is evoked by piling on a heap of functional dissonances. The main theme (Ex. 8-8b) starts right off on an appoggiatura to a diminished seventh chord. Like the augmented triad in the introduction, the chord thus introduced acquires a measure of stability by being made the object of a resolution. When the soprano resolution of E♭ to D arrives on the following downbeat, the bass shifts to another E♭, rendering the entire chord above it a dissonant suspension.

The key-defining tonic in root position does not appear in Example 8-8b until the middle of the fourth measure. On the way to it three more dissonant suspensions or appoggiaturas in the soprano intervene: F♯ resolving to F-natural as the third of the half-diminished ii7 on the third downbeat, immediately followed by a dramatic skip of a seventh—itself a dissonance—to a dissonant E♭ that resolves as an appoggiatura to D, the chordal root. Such dissonant leaps to dissonant notes, a derivation from the “sighing” figuration common in operatic melodies, would remain a permanent, prominent, and very distinctive emotional signifier in the music of the Zukunftists and their heirs.

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-8b Franz Liszt, Faust-Symphonie, Allegro agitato ed appassionato (mm. 71-74)

Following the habit we have already observed in Les préludes, Liszt casts the exposition of the Faust movement over a tonal dichotomy involving a third rather than a fifth. This, too, was a permanent acquisition, derived from Schubert (though with roots in late Beethoven), and a step toward the general replacement of the circle of fifths by circles of thirds as the prime navigational compass for tonal plans. Needless to say, the third in this case is major rather than minor, which would have merely reproduced the normal or classical harmonic trajectory of a minor-mode exposition, requiring no new key signature. Instead of the customary E♭, the triumphant closing theme (grandioso, m. 225) comes in an untrammeled diatonic blaze of E major (Ex. 8-8c). The extra half step, seemingly so near at hand, is in fact equivalent to seven progressions along the circle of fifths. The melding of the proximate and the remote palpably bends one's sense of musical space.

The New Madrigalism

ex. 8-8c Franz Liszt, Faust-Symphonie, Grandioso (mm. 223-28)

The emergence of diatonic simplicity out of chromatic complication is another way of signaling resolution, of course—and in its likeness to a synthesis an especially Hegelian one (as well as an increasingly necessary one as tonal trajectories became cluttered with thirds and half steps). And yet, almost needless to say, Ex. 8-8c is eventually recapitulated in C major, thus fulfilling the Beethovenian Struggle-and-Victory scenario and betokening the composer's place in the legitimate dynastic succession.

But given the suggestion, tacit but implicit in the Hegelian scenario, that the virtually deified Beethoven was being not merely emulated but in effect surpassed, the charge of virtual blasphemy had to be met and deflected. Scarcely any discussion of Liszt's achievement could avoid an accusatory or a defensive tone, depending on the attitude of the writer. Here is how one defender, a Russian, handled the problem:

If anyone should take it into his head to dampen my rapture at Liszt's music, for example, with this question: “If Liszt writes an orchestral fantasia of unheard-of perfection, does that mean that, in your opinion, Liszt as a symphonist is better and higher than Beethoven?”—I would answer thus: “Our [Russian painter, Alexander] Ivanov, naturally, has not put Raphael or Titian or Rubens in the shade, yet people in the know have every right to say about a picture by Ivanov that in its own way it is a miracle of art and an unprecedented miracle at that.21

But there was a problem that the theory failed to address: with closed circles of thirds and long stretches of tonally indeterminate chromatic writing competing with the diatonic fifth relations that had long driven tonal music to its climaxes, it was increasingly difficult to project tonal drama with a force commensurate with the startling new rhetoric of passionate local dissonance and orchestral splendor. In particular, it was difficult to plot a distinctive FOP (harmonic far-out point) that traditionally gave symphonic forms their overall there-and-back structure.

All became fantasia, beginning (and often ending) in medias res, which certainly accorded with the stated aims of the music of the future, but which nevertheless led to a certain arbitrary flattening of the tonal trajectory that could make the music seem paradoxically uneventful and disjointed. What was delightful when experienced within the confines of a small work like a Chopin prelude—or in Liszt's own exquisite Bagatelle ohne Tonart (“Bagatelle in no key”), which appeared a little ahead of schedule in the previous chapter (Ex. 7-10)—could seem bewildering and (many thought) even boring when stretched out at full symphonic length.

Another paradox was the sameness, the apparent uniformity, that often seemed to be the result of sui generis forms that followed content. This unexpected outcome may have been due to psychological principles that experiments in the realm of cognitive science have only recently confirmed: small differences with respect to a known model—tweaking, as it is sometimes called—often register more tellingly than do global (overall) differences of an apparently arbitrary character. Freedom can thus come at the price of significance. Along with constraint, the jettisoning of conventions could sacrifice effective communication.


(20) Liszt to Ingeborg Stark, summer 1860, in Letters of Franz Liszt, ed. La Mara, Vol. I, pp. 436–37.

(21) Alexander Serov, “Zagranichnïye pis'ma,” Teatral'nïy i muzïkal'nïy vestnik, 21 June 1859; in A. N. Serov, Stat'i o muzïke, Vol. IV (Moscow: Muzïka, 1988), p. 110.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008005.xml