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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

The problem with Gurrelieder, so far as Schoenberg was concerned, was not merely its public appeal but its very public (“extrovert”) orientation. Mythic pageantry was certainly a viable and time-honored manifestation of romanticism, but Schoenberg’s artistic isolation had wed him to an older and, he thought, truer romantic attitude. Indeed, Schoenberg’s was an updated and intensified version of the original German romantic attitude, the one associated musically with Beethoven (as interpreted by critics such as E. T. A. Hoffmann), and with the “Schubert circle.”

These early romantics saw the highest, most serious purpose of art in expressing and achieving a unique human subjectivity, the quality they described as Innigkeit, “inwardness.” Only through artistic creation—or, failing that, through artistic empathy—does one truly become a person, according to this very pure romantic view. But only an art that is uniquely personal can be the vehicle through which true personhood—a truly “inner” expressive freedom or “autonomy”—is achieved and communicated. Such art was by nature very difficult both to create and to understand, since it demanded the resolute avoidance of traits that made artworks (and their creators) seem similar to one another rather than different and unique. In a word, it demanded the rejection of conventions.

The task that confronted artists who returned to this goal a hundred years after Beethoven and Schubert was more difficult yet, since the stylistic departures that distinguished the work of the early romantics had long since become conventional. Even the music that had seemed to mark the furthest extreme of originality and personal idiosyncrasy at the beginning of the century—Mahler’s and Strauss’s—had become socially accepted and (in Schoenberg’s view) conventional by 1911, when the composer wrote to the painter Wassily Kandinsky, then a close friend, a famous letter that reads today like a public manifesto: “One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! Not one’s taste or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge, or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive.”3

As Schoenberg came to see it, all that Gurrelieder had displayed, with its gaudy orchestration and ostentatious counterpoint, was taste, intelligence, knowledge, and skill. Worse, the emotions so stunningly portrayed—the amorous ecstasy, the blasphemous rage, the ghostly horror, the glorious elation—were not Schoenberg’s but those of Jacobsen’s characters. They were “anyone’s” emotions, and they were expressed in terms that anyone could have learned from models in Wagner and Strauss. Nor were the oratorio’s plot and action, being external to the emotions, a valid subject for art, which to be authentic must henceforth concern itself, Schoenberg now decreed, with “the representation of inner occurrences”4 alone.

Schoenberg first used this phrase in a lecture he delivered in 1928, to account for the unprecedented turns his art had taken since the time of his early and (he now thought) spurious success. It was his definition of “expressionism,” a term that over the course of a decade or so had become fairly common as a describer of contemporary German art, and that is now part of the standard art historian’s vocabulary. It is less often used in connection with music; but when it is, it is invariably applied to Schoenberg. As long as he accepted it himself, however belatedly, it seems fair to adopt it here, especially as his outburst to Kandinsky, quoted above, was perhaps the best capsule summary ever made of expressionist aims.


(3) Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, 24 January 1911; Arnold Schoenberg/Wassily Kandinsky, Letters, Pictures and Documents, ed. Jelena Hahl-Koch, trans. John C. Crawford (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 23.

(4) Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony [Harmonielehre, 1911], trans. Roy E. Carter (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), p. 18.

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006003.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006003.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006003.xml