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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)

Scriabin, Messiaen

CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The “Sacrificial Dance” at the end of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring reaches its dénouement in a massive crunch, denoting a strain the body of the Chosen One can no longer bear. Afterward there is only a tiny coda (reminiscent, perhaps, of the way the “March to the Scaffold” ends in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique) that tracks the concluding mimed action closely: she crumples (flute glissandi); the elders rush up to catch her (sweeping upbeat figure); she collapses in a heap (concluding thump).

That final crunch, the culminating chord in the culminating dance (incompletely represented in piano reduction in Ex. 3-33), consists of eight pitches doubled in many octaves. (When doubling or register are not themselves the issue, one often uses the term “pitch classes,”1 coined by the American composer Milton Babbitt in the 1940s and popularized in the 1960s, to refer to differently named pitches irrespective of octave position; thus the culminating chord in The Rite comprises the pitch classes C D♭ E F F♯ G A B♭) As usual in Stravinsky, the pitches in question are grouped so that the harmony can be construed as a “polychord” consisting of superimposed C major and F♯ major triads (a Petrushka-chord, as we have learned to call it), with an extra A joined to the former by downward extension (to make a seventh chord, or else to produce overlapping A minor and C major triads), and an extra F (or E♯) joined to the latter by upward extension (again to make a seventh chord, or else to produce overlapping F♯ major and B♭[A♯] minor triads; see Ex. 4-1).

Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)

ex. 4-1 Culminating harmony in The Rite of Spring represented as a maximalized Petrushka-chord

Describing the chord in this way is admittedly a mouthful, but it may well reflect Stravinsky’s conceptualization of it as a maximalization of his previous octatonic practice. But the process of extension is simultaneously one of transformation, since the chord in question can no longer be referred to the octatonic scale. Thus what can in one sense be described as a difference in degree (whether simply the number of notes heard simultaneously or the amount of crushingly expressive dissonance) can be described in another sense as a difference in kind (transcending the limits of octatonicism to embrace and control a greater chromatic purview). The chord, with its imagined creative history, represents and exemplifies in a nutshell the concept that drove the radical new music of the early twentieth century. It was a ne plus ultra within a ne plus ultra.

But a limit loomed. Eight pitch classes was only four away from complete chromatic saturation—or more to the point, from chromatic exhaustion. Stravinsky never reached the limit. Not to put it past him, it never figured in his expressive designs. But Mahler (unbeknownst to Stravinsky or anyone else at the time) had already come one pitch class closer to the saturation point in his unfinished Tenth Symphony (see Ex. 1-6); and at least four composers were driven to the limit—that is, to the use of “twelve-tone chords” or “aggregate harmonies”—in the period between 1911 and 1915, the years leading up to and immediately following the outbreak of World War I.

It was not a question of mutual influence. The works were not only too widely dispersed geographically for their authors to have been aware of each other’s projects, but also, with a single exception, they were all left unfinished like Mahler’s Tenth and were never published or even performed during their creators’ lifetimes. To describe them as emblematic works of their time might seem a bit paradoxical since their time did not know them. But the idea of reaching limits was indeed something known. It was nothing short of an obsession. Despite their being hidden from contemporary view, then, these unfinished (perhaps unfinishable) works, which will serve as the climactic exhibits, so to speak, of this chapter and the two that follow, will illustrate the predominating obsession of their time in the most concrete and tangible fashion.

And they can serve as emblems in another way as well. What is hidden from view is occluded, or occult. By extension, the latter word has acquired a figurative connotation in addition to its literal meaning. It stands for what belongs to the world beyond (hence hidden from) the senses, already identified with the Symbolists’ concept of the au-delà. And the three great torsos—the Mysterium by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915), the Universe symphony by the American composer Charles Ives (1874–1954), and the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)—all concerned matters occult.

They were all grand visionary statements on the borderline between philosophy and religion, a region already broached by Mahler in his grandly visionary Second Symphony, which dealt in its final movements with eschatological matters—matters of literally ultimate significance—rarely broached in secular art. These matters were broached more and more insistently in the art of the early twentieth century. They were perhaps the main impulse driving the engine of stylistic maximalism at this crucial time. What better way of exemplifying the way in which music was driven by ideas than with pieces of music that only existed, during their composers’ lifetimes, as ideas? (They have all been posthumously, which means speculatively, “realized” by subsequent composer-scholars, and in this way performed and recorded.)


(1) The first of Babbitt’s published articles in which this term appeared was “Twelve-Tone Invariants as Compositional Determinants,” Musical Quarterly XLVI (1960): 246–59; rpt. in Problems of Modern Music, ed. P. H. Lang (New York: Norton, 1960), pp. 108–21.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-004.xml