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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

The more radical way of interpreting the chord would be to regard it as the product of a symmetrical “interval cycle.” The common practice against which this second interpretation needs to be measured is not the “ordinary” tonal practice based on fifths, but a practice that had only arisen in the very latest Russian music, all of it written within a decade or so of Jeux d’eau. In his most recent operas, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in particular had been experimenting zealously with cycles of minor thirds as a way of conjuring up supernatural or magical worlds. As he explained in his autobiography, Rimsky-Korsakov had first observed these cycles, and the octatonic scales that could be derived from them, in Liszt’s first symphonic poem, the so-called Mountain Symphony.42 Beginning in the 1890s, Rimsky was himself engaged in a maximalizing quest; he could with considerable justice be called the first Russian modernist.

The reasons for the quest are worth noting. Up to the early 1880s, the dominant genres of Russian opera had been historical dramas and peasant comedies, the former corresponding to the “serious” type of traditional European opera, the latter to the old opera buffa. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 brought in its wake the strictest code of censorship the Russian autocracy ever imposed. Historical dramas were virtually banned, and even peasant comedies were regarded as questionable subjects if they involved Ukrainians (who were suspected of separatism). So Russian composers, hitherto virtually obsessed with realism, were forced into an about-face. “Fantastic” subject matter—folk tales and fairy tales—became about the only type the censors regarded as safe. At first by edict, later as a result of a seriously kindled interest in harmonic novelties, the realm of fantasy became Rimsky-Korsakov’s virtually exclusive domain.

The harmonic novelties in question were overwhelmingly octatonic: that is, they involved progressions based on the harmonies that could be derived from the 0369 “nodes” of the scale, the minor-third cycle that became an octatonic scale when passing tones were added (just as a whole-tone scale resulted from the adding of passing tones to an/048/ major-third cycle, something one finds as early as Schubert). Ex. 2-27 shows the complex of harmonies that may be drawn from an octatonic scale whose nodes correspond to the /0369/ progression Ravel employed in Jeux d’eau—that is, the progression that contains the F♯-C tritone axis, and Ex. 2-28 is a scene-setting passage that conjures up the fantastic underwater world of the Sea King in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko (1897).

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ex. 2-27 Triadic harmonies referable to an octatonic collection

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ex. 2-28 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sadko, Act I, scene 2, mm. 1–23

The notes circled in Ex. 2-28 are the only ones not found in the scale shown in Ex. 2-27. Chromatic passing tones one and all, they contribute to the smoothness of the part writing but do not register as harmonically significant. Thus Rimsky in Sadko was actually doing something a bit more radical than Ravel in Jeux d’eau, at least from the “structural” point of view: he was mining the octatonic collection for lengthy passages of “seemingly traditional” harmonies that were nevertheless “without tonal motivation,” in the words of the music theorist Elliott Antokoletz.43 What this means is that there is no way, up to m. 19, of deciding which of the constituent harmonic roots in Ex. 2-27 is the tonic. It is only the dominant of C, which is not part of the scale of reference (and which therefore sounds like an agent acting on the harmony from without), that allows a tonic function to emerge. And when it does, it focuses attention on the title character, Sadko, a human intruder on the magical sea world, who is about to sing, and who inhabits the ordinary world of mortals where fifths, not thirds, prevail.

This opposition of “human” music based on fifth relations and “magic” music based on symmetrical cycles of thirds was the harmonic novelty that so attracted and influenced the younger composers of Russia and France alike, beginning with Ravel’s generation. The French-Russian affinity will look even stronger in the light of Ex. 2-29, another snatch from the same scene in Sadko, where two scales based on symmetrical cycles of thirds (a whole-tone scale in the “soprano,” decorated with trills and chromatic neighbors, and an octatonic scale in the “alto”) are set in motion over a bass that oscillates between E and its tritone counterpart B♭, the two pitches that (as exhibited in the second part of Ex. 2-29) bisect both scales and furnish the whole progression with a harmonically static axis of symmetry.

Russian Fantasy

ex. 2-29a Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sadko, Act I, scene 2

Russian Fantasy

ex. 2-29b The symmetrical scales and their points of intersection

The use of dominant-ninth chords for harmony adds to the symmetry in evidence, since the dominant-ninth chord is intervallically (hence inversionally) symmetrical: its constituent intervals form a palindrome (M3-m3-m3-M3) that by definition remains constant whether counted from the bottom or from the top. Although composed by a Russian born in the 1840s, this passage could easily slide unnoticed into a composition by a Frenchman born in the 1860s (Debussy) or the 1870s (Ravel). The difference—and it was a crucial one—lay in the degree of calculation involved. The scholarly Russian did these things systematically and “theoretically.” The hedonistic “decadent” French did them “by ear.” Rimsky thoroughly disapproved. The one time he is known to have attended a concert at which Ravel’s music (including Jeux d’eau) was played, he was asked his opinion and, “after hemming and hawing for a while”44 (according to one of his pupils) he said, “As far as the principle of using dissonance with all the rights of consonances is concerned, it’s not my cup of tea; although I should hurry right home lest I get used to it and, God forbid, begin to like it.’” So while he may not have wished to like what Ravel was doing, Rimsky grasped it well, just as he grasped the underlying principle that drove maximalism. He took Liszt’s innovations further, but drew a line. Ravel overstepped this line, but (as we shall see) drew another. And yet it could be argued that if Ravel went further than Rimsky in his tolerance for dissonance, Rimsky went further than Ravel in his freedom from the circle of fifths. In any case, Rimsky’s witticism about “using dissonance with all the rights of consonances” jibes remarkably with a pseudopolitical slogan (“the emancipation of dissonance”) that Arnold Schoenberg would soon be touting in earnest. By then, Ravel would no longer be on board. (To him, Schoenberg’s stuff was “laboratory music.”45)

But Rimsky’s dictum applies well to Ravel’s novel idea, that of mixing into pungent “polyharmonies” chords that Rimsky used only in succession. Only once, in a work he did not live to complete, did Rimsky ever try it himself: see Ex. 2-30.

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ex. 2-30 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, sketch for Heaven and Earth (1908)

Yet here again the younger composer managed to trump the elder at his own game. In Rapsodie espagnole for orchestra (1908), another composition with a Lisztian title but Rimskian content, Ravel saturated his music with brilliant orchestral effects he had learned from the Russian composer. The most general influence came, naturally enough, from Rimsky’s Capriccio espagnol (1887). One very specific device, glissandos of natural harmonics in the strings, came courtesy of Rimsky’s Christmas Eve suite (1904), given its first French performance in 1907, shortly before Ravel started work on his Rapsodie. The most telling appropriation from Rimsky, perhaps, took the form of woodwind cadenzas over fermatas in the strings, borrowed from Rimsky’s most popular orchestral work, Sheherazade (1888), a symphonic suite (that is, a suite of symphonic poems) based on tales from the Arabian Nights.

Rimsky had played a solo clarinet off against repeated pizzicato chords in the strings (Ex. 2-31). The harmonic progression is drawn once again from the repertoire illustrated in Ex. 2-27: dominant sevenths on A, C, and F♯, together with E♭ making up an 0 3 6 9 cycle of minor thirds. Against them, the notes given constant emphasis in the repeated clarinet phrases (E and G), fit in, respectively, as fifth and seventh over A, third and fifth over C, and finally seventh and ninth over F♯. Thus “octatonicism” is reconciled with the older technique, also a Russian favorite, of “common tone” progression.

In Ravel’s cadenzas (Ex. 2-32), the harmonies, like those in Jeux d’eau, are mixed (or superimposed). In the first, a pair of clarinets noodle arpeggios centering on A over a sustained dominant ninth on E♭: a tritone relationship that fills in the gaps, so to speak, between the C and F♯ in Jeux d’eau according to the scheme in Ex. 2-27. In the second, for two bassoons, harmonies built over not two but three roots drawn from a single /0 3 6 9/ matrix are set simultaneously in motion: C♯ (bassoons), B♭ (cellos and basses), and E (violin harmonics).46 In effect, Ravel has combined the harmonic contents of all three Rimskian cadenzas in Ex. 2-31 into a single (or rather a triple) “polychord.”

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ex. 2-31 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade, II

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ex. 2-32a Maurice Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole, I, Cadenza at fig. 6

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ex. 2-32b Maurice Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole, I, Cadenza at fig. 8


(42) Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, trans. Judah A. Joffe, ed. Carl Van Vechten (London: Eulenburg Books, 1974), p. 78.

(43) Elliott Antokoletz, Review of Pieter Van den Toorn, The Music of Igor Stravinsky, JAMS XXXVII (1984): 429.

(44) Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin, Mïsli i vospominaniya o N. A. Rimskom-Korsakove (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1956), p. 207.

(45) Alma Mahler Werfel, And the Bridge Is Love (London: Hutchinson, 1959), p. 148.

(46) See Steven Baur, “Ravel’s ‘Russian’ Period: Octatonicism in His Early Works, 1893–1908,” JAMS LII (1999): 376–77.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002010.xml