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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)

Schoenberg, Webern, and Expressionism; Atonality

CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Art is the cry of distress uttered by those who experience at first hand the fate of mankind. Who are not reconciled to it, but come to grips with it…. Who do not turn their eyes away, to shield themselves from emotions, but open them wide, so as to tackle what must be tackled. Who do, however, often close their eyes, in order to perceive things incommunicable by the senses, to envision within themselves the process that only seems to be in the world outside. The world revolves within—inside them: what bursts out is merely the echo—the work of art.1

Arnold Schoenberg (1910)

In the middle of Chapter 1 we stole a glance at a tiny song, Erwartung (“Anticipation”), by Arnold Schoenberg composed in 1899 (Ex. 1-9). Its purpose there was to illustrate Jugendstil, “decadent” sensuality at its prettiest. It also illustrated the device of “the smallest link”—the use of half-step neighbors to create “color chords” that had no theoretical “textbook” standing as harmonic entities, but that were justified by the logic of voice leading. Compared with the gigantic symphonies of Mahler or the bloated one-act operas of Strauss, its immediate companions in that chapter, the song seemed modest in the extreme. There was little in it to suggest that its composer would eventually take transcendental maximalism to its furthest, most threatening extreme, or that as a pedagogue he would play an unparalleled role in its dissemination.

Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)

fig. 6-1 Arnold Schoenberg, by Egon Schiele.

Schoenberg’s whole career was fraught with ironies, contradictions, and ambiguities, beginning with the paradox that one of the outstanding academic music theorists and composition teachers of the twentieth century was himself self-taught. By the time he wrote Erwartung the Vienna-born Schoenberg had had little musical instruction beyond the violin lessons, starting at age eight, that were typically thrust on middle-class Jewish boys. Later he taught himself cello and played in amateur quartets and orchestras. His early composing consisted of imitating the violin duos he was assigned as a child, and arranging pieces to play with his companions. He had some informal instruction in harmony from one of his playing partners, but when it came to composing in “classical” forms, he had to look them up in an encyclopedia.

In 1895, Schoenberg, then working as a bank clerk, showed some of his early efforts to Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871 – 1942), a young conservatory-trained composer who was conducting one of the amateur orchestras in which Schoenberg played. Zemlinsky gave his friend a few lessons in counterpoint and some general advice, and that was the extent of Schoenberg’s “formal” training. A string quartet that Schoenberg wrote while consulting with Zemlinsky (who later became his brother-in-law) was accepted for performance in 1897. With that, lessons came to an end. Zemlinsky having declared him an equal, from then on Schoenberg lived the life of a professional, albeit usually unemployed, composer.

He earned his living over the next several years by conducting amateur choruses and orchestrating operettas (never having had any official instruction at all in conducting or orchestration), and in his spare time composed two works that are now recognized as masterpieces. One was Verklärte Nacht, op. 4 (“Transfigured night,” 1899), a tone poem scored, unusually, not for orchestra but for string sextet, as if Schoenberg were deliberately casting himself as heir to both the “New German” tradition of programmatic composition in the spirit of Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss, and the “Classical” chamber-music tradition of Brahms.

Its program followed the plot of a narrative poem by Richard Dehmel, the same poet who wrote the text of the song Erwartung. Vienna’s leading “decadent,” Dehmel enjoyed a reputation for daring subject matter and Verklärte Nacht was no exception. It tells of a magnanimous man who forgives the woman he loves illicitly for becoming pregnant by her lawfully wedded but unloved husband. In Schoenberg’s musical interpretation, the man’s promise to accept the child as his transforms the anguished mood of the tone poem’s D-minor beginning into a radiant D major that gleams with the starlight of natural and artificial harmonics.

Though certainly up-to-date, the music of Verklärte Nacht was in no way ahead of its time. Nevertheless, it achieved a scandalous reputation when the very conservative Wiener Tonkünstlerverein (Vienna Musicians’ Club), which had sponsored the performance of his early quartet, rejected the tone poem for containing what its jury considered to be a compositional error (Ex. 6-1): a chord that might arguably be analyzed as a dominant-ninth chord in “fourth inversion” (ninth in the bass), but which—like the “color chord” in the song Erwartung—is better justified as the product of voice leading by semitones in all voices in contrary motion.

Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)

ex. 6-1 Offending passage from Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht

At least Schoenberg claimed that the score was rejected for this reason, in an essay he wrote almost half a century later (from which the example, asterisk and all, was taken).2 It seems at least as likely that it was rejected because of its risqué subject matter. But whatever the reason for it, this experience seems to have equipped Schoenberg with the resentment and the sense of alienation that a modernist giant needs. From then on, in a transformation that dated almost precisely from the turn of the century, it became a point of pride and principle with Schoenberg and his pupils (like Berg, whose early aggregate harmony was discussed in Chapter 4) always to be pushing the envelope of stylistic and technical innovation.

Even so, like any “maximalist’s,” Schoenberg’s expressive aims remained those of his forebears, and were readily recognizable as such even when his stylistic and technical means were self-consciously advanced. That is why the other masterpiece of his early years, a vast cantata called Gurrelieder (“Songs of Gurre”) for five solo voices, a speaker, three male choruses, a double (eight-part) mixed chorus, and an orchestra containing four flutes, four piccolos, five oboes, seven clarinets, three bassoons, two contrabassoons, ten horns, seven trumpets, seven trombones, four harps, twelve percussionists, and strings to match, was such a great success when it was finally performed.

Based on a volume of poems by the Danish romantic writer Jens Peter Jacobsen that purported to retell a set of Nordic myths like the ones in Wagner’s Ring (but in a “decadent” erotic manner reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde), the work was composed over the course of a single year (March 1900–March 1901). The orchestration took much longer. Schoenberg worked on it until 1903, when, despairing of ever getting the work performed, he turned to other projects. He did not return to it until 1910, by which time his reputation had grown to the point where a performance could be secured. He completed the scoring in 1911, and the work was finally heard the next year.

It was received with amazement and delight by a public already used to Mahler and Strauss. The self-taught composer exhibited astounding mastery of every branch of compositional technique, not excluding counterpoint (for the gigantic final chorus is cast as a double canon). Having put himself so thoroughly through the mill, he now appeared to many as virtually the miller-in-chief. One who thought so was Richard Strauss, who had exerted his influence on Schoenberg’s behalf after seeing the first orchestrated excerpts from Gurrelieder as early as 1901. He secured a government stipend to see the younger man through the task of scoring the colossal work, and then got Schoenberg his first teaching job (the first of many) at a private conservatory in Berlin.

But by 1912, Schoenberg’s style had undergone a remarkable metamorphosis, and he no longer thought Gurrelieder a representative (or a particularly valuable) composition. He famously refused to acknowledge the audience’s applause, preferring alienation to acclaim. He offended his erstwhile benefactor Strauss as well, publicly chiding him for failing to make a comparable stylistic advance. His intransigent stance became a modernist paradigm. Combined with his awesome technical command and his increasingly prestigious teaching posts, it invested Schoenberg with a moral authority that made him influential out of all proportion to the frequency with which his music was ever performed.


(1) Arnold Schoenberg, “Aphorismen,” in Schöpferische Konfessionen, ed. Willi Reich (Zürich, 1964), p. 12; translation adapted from that of Leo Black, in Reich, Arnold Schoenberg: A Critical Biography (New York: Praeger, 1971), pp. 56–57.

(2) Arnold Schoenberg, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Music” (1946); Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, trans. Leo Black, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 132.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-006.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-006.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-006.xml