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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

So much for the theory. To observe it in practice, we can return to the harmonic progression we encountered at the beginning of the song Erwartung. Such progressions, in which “color chords” arise from the use of multiple neighbor tones, occur time and again in Schoenberg’s early songs. The one in Ex. 6-2 comes from Der Wanderer (“The wanderer”), op. 6, no. 8, a Nietzsche setting that dates from 1905. In the context of E-flat major, the unusual chord achieves both its intelligibility and its poetic effect from its easily apprehended relationship to the tonic triad.

Theory and Practice

ex. 6-2 Arnold Schoenberg, Der Wanderer, Op. 6, no. 8, mm. 9–11

Six years later, in the Harmonielehre, Schoenberg suggests that such chords no longer need justification by voice leading. In a passage that is famous for its sardonic wit, he cites some strong dissonances in one of Bach’s motets that conservative musicians (he calls them “aestheticians,” upholders of beauty) would surely decry in a modern composition, and a celebrated example from Mozart’s G-minor Symphony (Ex. 6-3). He notes that in all cases they are products of “non-harmonic tones” on their way to resolution; but he takes special satisfaction in pointing out that Mozart’s chord (almost exactly like the ones cited in Ex. 6-2 from Schoenberg’s own music), which functions as an “incomplete neighbor” (that is, an appoggiatura), lacks a preparation.

Theory and Practice

ex. 6-3 Arnold Schoenberg, Harmonielehre, examples 232 and 233

Casting himself in solidarity with Mozart, Schoenberg speculates on what prompted such licenses. Mozart emerges in Schoenberg’s description as something of an expressionist himself creating “according to the laws of his nature” despite the protests of the uncreative upholders of convention. But more significant, perhaps, is Schoenberg’s assertion that a continual evolution in musical style led from Mozart’s innovations to his own, making them not only predictable but inevitable—which is another way of saying that they were necessary. Whereas even in Mozart “such harmonies have been used almost exclusively where they can be explained as passing tones and the like,” for the composer of the present, “they are henceforth just chords”; and he adds, even more ominously, that “they are only superficially annexed to the old system, for they are judged according to a different principle, according to their origin, and are not referred to roots.”11

Why ominously? Because if such chords are no longer dependent for their understanding and use on their relationship to functional harmonies (i.e., harmonies with roots), and if they can succeed one another with all the freedoms of consonances, then the whole system of functions, undergirding what at least since the seventeenth century had provided music with its “tonality,” becomes moot. And indeed, one of the closing chapters in the Harmonielehre—significantly, it is the first chapter in which Schoenberg cites his own works as examples—bears the title Über schwebende und aufgehobene Tonalität (“On Fluctuating and Suspended Tonality”).

The former, fluctuating tonality, is a key that is suggested though never fully established through a cadence, and is therefore inherently unstable. The prime example, unsurprisingly, is the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Suspended tonality, for which Schoenberg cites precedents in “classical development sections,” is a situation in which no key at all is forecast. Rather than harmony, what holds such music together will be the coherence of the thematic material: its motivic consistency “creates the opportunity for such harmonic looseness through its characteristic figurations.”12


(11) Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, p. 330.

(12) Ibid., p. 384.

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. 22 Jun. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006006.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 22 Jun. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006006.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 22 Jun. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006006.xml