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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

But first a word about the one composition using aggregate harmonies that was completed and performed—once only—during this phase of maximal maximalism. The composer was the then virtually unknown Alban Berg (1885–1935), formerly a pupil—and still very much a disciple—of Schoenberg. He would win fame in the 1920s as a composer of opera, and we will reencounter him. But the work that concerns us now is a little song cycle called Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskartentexten von Peter Altenberg, op. 4 (“Five lieder with orchestra on picture-postcard legends by Peter Altenberg”), composed in 1912. The performance, which took place under Schoenberg’s direction on 31 March 1913, provoked a reaction similar to the one that would greet the legendary premiere of The Rite of Spring two months later.

Altenberg (real name Richard Engländer, 1859–1919) was a popular Viennese writer who specialized in aphoristic “prose poems.” The texts Berg set did not literally come from postcards, but from a book of Altenberg’s poems (Altes Neues [Old News], 1911) in which they were so labeled. Only the two shortest songs from the cycle of five, the second and the third, were on the program Schoenberg conducted. It was the third song, which contained the aggregate harmony, that provoked the most vociferous protests. As one member of the audience later recalled, its

dissonances and the accumulation of wrong notes produced with all the might of the orchestra became a signal for a storm. A wave of laughter greeted the groans and squeaks of the orchestra, and this increased the singer’s nervousness to the point where his voice cracked. The audience tumult grew so great that Schoenberg finally had to interrupt the concert. When, after a while, quiet was restored, Schoenberg, who never left the podium, announced that “those who do not know how to keep quiet can leave the hall.” No one followed this invitation, of course, and the song was then repeated, but with the same results except that the laughter and the chaos were much louder, and that this time shouts, hisses and cursing came from the parterre and the galleries, while in the boxes a few fanatics stood brandishing their arms against the uprising hall. At last a commissioner of police appeared on the stage and forbade the continuation of the concert, an occurrence without precedent in the Viennese music world.2

The offending song has this poem for a text:

  • Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus:
  • Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus!
  • Leben und Traum vom Leben, plötzlich ist alles aus—
  • Über die Grenzen des All blickst du noch sinnend hinaus….
  • (You gazed pensively over the all-encompassing brink:
  • Never a care for home and hearth!
  • Life and dreams of living, all of a sudden gone—
  • You still gaze pensively over the all-encompassing brink….)

Rush-to-the-Patent-Office Modernism

ex. 4-2 Alban Berg, Altenberg Lieder, no. 3, end

The all-encompassing aggregate harmony, which comes at the beginning in the winds, and again at the end (Ex. 4-2) in string harmonics to accompany the repeated line, is actually a rather obvious example, if an audacious one, of traditional “word painting.” The audacity was enough to provoke the public, but its motivation was anything but novel, and far from profound. Although it purports to intensify a typically aspirant, romantic mood, it remains an exercise of wit, and its effect—especially, of course, when analyzed—is comic. To call it that is not necessarily to call it funny, but it does imply that the device is an intellectual conceit rather than an expression of feeling or belief. Berg’s song thus confronts the age-old dilemma that some three hundred years earlier had midwifed the birth of directly emotional and tragic recitative (hence opera) out of the intellectual conceits of “madrigalism.”

The grand eschatological torsos of Scriabin, Ives, and Schoenberg do not put the aggregate harmony to such obviously illustrative, hence potentially trivial, use—and this may be one reason why Schoenberg, to Berg’s intense dismay, sharply criticized the Altenberg Lieder to his former pupil’s face after the notorious concert. As we shall see, Schoenberg regarded the aggregate harmony the way Scriabin and Ives did, as something virtually holy, even taboo, not to be defiled by utilitarian, “madrigalian” use. Berg, having invoked it in an ironic vein, could even be charged with playing into the hands of the philistines who laughed.

But nevertheless his little Altenberg Lieder enjoy huge prestige as a landmark in the history of twentieth-century music, a prestige that derives from the way in which that history is often recounted. That telling, and the theory on which it rests, are in themselves a sort of maximalism, in which the neo-Hegelian esthetic values of the New German School, as first enunciated in the mid-nineteenth century, have been universalized and exaggerated. The highest of all values, in this view, is technical innovation, provided that (1) the innovation in question can be viewed as an emancipation, (2) it was “influential” (in other words, that it inspired imitation, or at least turned up in a lot of later music), and (3) it placed the innovator beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries (or beyond all but an initiated elite), so that he might learn, in the words of Milton Babbitt, “how it feels to have the history of music leave you ahead.”3

These values are nothing if not asocial. When challenged, as we shall learn, they can take more radical, downright antisocial forms. Twentieth-century historiography has also been influenced, like much twentieth-century art making, by the spirit of technological progress, giving rise to a “machine age” esthetic. The American poet William Carlos Williams voiced this view especially forcefully when he maintained that a poem was “a machine made out of words,”4 and that therefore a great poet was one who showed by his practice how to manufacture a new kind of machine. Much twentieth-century theorizing on music seems to regard it similarly, as a machine made of notes. The attention of composers and critics has thus often been more readily captured by the internal workings of the poetic or musical mechanism than by the expressive work it accomplishes. The resulting esthetic has been aptly characterized by the American scholar Christopher Williams as “techno-essentialist.”5

Like The Rite of Spring, the Altenberg Lieder qualify as “historically significant” on all three techno-essentialist counts listed above. The third criterion is met magnificently by the story of its ill-fated first performance, even though Berg (and, it seems, Schoenberg) experienced that event not as a Diaghilevian succès de scandale but as a humiliation. The first criterion is met most conspicuously by the aggregate harmony, which admitted a denser dissonance than ever before into musical practice. And the pervasiveness of “patent office modernism,” as well as its potential links with nationalism or otherwise parochial biases, are well illustrated by the Traité de l’harmonie, a harmony textbook by Charles Koechlin (1867–1950), a venerable French composer and pedagogue, which appeared in 1928 and contained the news that the earliest twelve-tone chord was actually penned not by the Austrian Berg but by the Frenchman Jean Huré (1877–1930), in an unpublished and unperformed stage work called La cathédrale, which was actually written not in 1912, not in 1911, but all the way back in 1910!

The second criterion is met even more conspicuously by the fifth and last song in Berg’s Altenberg cycle, a passacaglia that expresses the “chromatic aggregate” not as a harmonic simultaneity (Ex. 4-3a) but as a melodic succession is that repeated as an ostinato (Ex. 4-3b). Such arrangements, placing the twelve pitch classes all in a row, were destined (though nobody foresaw it at the time) to become the basis of one of the century’s most widely practiced and propagated compositional methods. The melody in Berg’s fifth song has been acclaimed—first by the composer Ernst Krenek (1900–91) in a memorial essay published in 1937, by which time the new method had been established and was gaining many adherents—as history’s first “twelve tone row.”6

Rush-to-the-Patent-Office Modernism

ex. 4-3a Alban Berg, Altenberg Lieder, aggregate chord in song no. 3

Rush-to-the-Patent-Office Modernism

ex. 4-3b Alban Berg, Altenberg Lieder, twelve-tone theme from no. 5 (passacaglia)

But where The Rite of Spring, notwithstanding its stormy premiere, has enjoyed a triumphant career in the concert hall that has lasted from 1914 to the present, the Altenberg Lieder, following that lone partial performance (which did not include the fifth song), “fell,” to quote Krenek, “like a stone into the abyss of the forgotten from which no one has as yet fetched it.” The first complete performance did not take place until 1952; the piano-vocal score was not published until the next year; the full score, not until 1966.

This retarded rediscovery, adding the aura of martyrdom and resurrection to that of its early rejection, has done its bit to enhance the work’s prestige even further. But unlike The Rite of Spring, Berg’s Altenberg Lieder did not become a part of history—that is, an entity with a potential relationship to listeners, performers, and composers, available to influence their thoughts and deeds—until two or three decades after the composer’s death. To accord it a comparable historical importance because of its hidden relationship to what came later is literally to consign it to the realm of the occult—to mythology rather than history. A great deal of musical historiography in the twentieth century has been mythology of this kind. The tales it has spun are on the record and have been influential. As a part of history in their own right they will need to be dealt with. But they should not be confused with an account of contemporary events.

The foregoing little sermon on history implies no esthetic judgment on the Altenberg Lieder. They are properly admired for their intense expressivity—often compared, as we will see, with a style of vividly exaggerated and subjectively distorted painting known as “expressionism”—and for the feats of compositional virtuosity that their expressionistic manner called forth. (Again a parallel with the old Italian madrigal in its “mannerist” phase might be suggestive.) Within the context of their time, however, these songs (like the madrigals of Gesualdo) might be better viewed as eccentric than as pregnant.


(2) Quoted by Robert Craft in the notes accompanying Columbia Masterworks MS 6103 (1959).

(3) Milton Babbitt, untitled memoir in “Stravinsky: A Composers’ Memorial,” Perspectives of New Music IX/2–X/1 (1971): 107.

(4) William Carlos Williams, introduction to “The Wedge” (1944), in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1969), p. 256.

(5) Christopher Williams, “Of Canons and Context: Toward a Historiography of Twentieth-Century Music,” Repercussions, 2–1 (spring 1993): 42.

(6) Willi Reich, Alban Berg. Mit Bergs eigenen Schriften und Beiträgen von Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno und Ernst Krenek (Vienna: Herbert Reichner Verlag, 1937), p. 47.

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. 25 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004002.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004002.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004002.xml