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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

One strategy might be to observe a single motivic entity operating in Schoenberg’s music both in a context where it has differentiated degree functions and in one where it does not. A clue toward finding such a motive comes from a composition by Berg, a Kammerkonzert (“Chamber concerto”) for violin, piano, and thirteen wind instruments, which he composed in 1923–1925 and offered to Schoenberg as a belated fiftieth-birthday present. It opens with a five-bar motto in which Berg, using the German pitch-letter associations familiar from the famous BACH cipher (B♭–A–C–B), encoded Schoenberg’s name, Webern’s name, and his own name as musical themes played respectively by the piano, the violin, and a French horn from the accompanying band (Ex. 6-4):

ArnolD SCHönBErG = A–D–E♭–C–B–B♭–E–G;

Anton wEBErn = A–E–B♭–E;

AlBAn BErG = A–B♭–A–B♭–E–G


ex. 6-4 Alban Berg, motto from the Kammerkonzert

Berg’s compliment to his teacher, as he pointed out in a letter, hinged on the fact that the notes in the names of Webern and Berg are all included in that of Schoenberg (a feature that the later musical development would make conspicuous).13 But he was not the first in the Schoenberg circle to use the pitch-letter code to construct thematic material. Schoenberg himself had long made a habit of it. And what is more, he often used his own name for the purpose, as if signing his work. Indeed, he may have got the idea in the first place from being an enthusiastic amateur painter. Alternatively (or simultaneously), the cipher of his name may have symbolically or superstitiously embodied for Schoenberg the essence of his singular identity, the “inborn, instinctive self” which (as we know from his letter to Kandinsky) he regarded as the true subject matter of any artist’s—any true artist’s—art.

Varieties of the motif with which Berg began his Chamber Concerto can be found in many of Schoenberg’s early works. Since most of the time he used only the six tones derived from his surname—E♭ (“Es” in German), C, B (“h” in German), B♭, E, G—this particular group of notes is often informally called the “Eschbeg set” in the voluminous analytical literature that has grown up around his work. Perhaps its earliest occurrence (Ex. 6-5) was sighted by the music analyst Allen Forte in one of the songs from Schoenberg’s op. 6 (the set from which Ex. 6-2 above is also drawn).14 It is the beginning of the third item in the opus, Mädchenlied (“The maiden’s song”) to a poem by Paul Remer, composed in October 1905.

In this early instance, every note in the Eschbeg set can be assigned a function within the signature key of E minor, which is why E♭ and B♭ are spelled D♯ and A♯. That, plus the fact that this is the earliest known occurrence of the set, plus the presence in the passage of a single note that is foreign to the set (the F♯ in the right hand on the second beat of m. 1), might seem to weaken the argument that Schoenberg was employing his signature set as a pitch source “with premeditation” (to use the precise vocabulary of criminal law). On the other hand, the frequency with which the set occurs from this point forward in Schoenberg’s work has been cited by some as sufficient evidence of his premeditation, even the first time.


ex. 6-5 Arnold Schoenberg, Mädchenlied, Op. 6, no. 3, beginning

But there is no need to insist upon or argue the point. Even if we concede that this early occurrence was coincidental (or, to take the middle ground, that his early unpremeditated use of the set might, on reflection, have prompted Schoenberg’s later premeditated usages), the passage still affords us the comparison we seek between functional and nonfunctional—or if you must, “tonal” and “atonal”—deployments of the same group of tones, so that we may discover the particular (“positive”) properties of “atonal” syntax.

For the nonfunctional counterpart we can turn to one of Schoenberg’s most famous compositions, the last movement of his Second String Quartet, op. 10 (1907–1908), the work with which his “expressionist” style is often said to begin. As he had previously done in Verklärte Nacht, he transferred to the chamber medium devices more often found in contemporary orchestral music. Following the example of Mahler, who had ended his Second Symphony with two movements in which the instrumental ensemble suddenly accompanies the singing of a text, Schoenberg added a soprano solo to the concluding movements of the Second Quartet, singing poems by Stefan George (1868–1933), Germany’s leading avant-garde poet.

The slow movement, a theme and variations in a very chromatic but still functioning G♭ major, incorporates a setting of “Litanei,” a quasi-religious poem about renunciation. It ends with a prayer, “Kill my longings, close my wounds, take my love away and grant me Thy peace!” The quartet’s finale could be understood as the answer to the prayer. It is a setting of a much longer poem called “Entrückung,” a highly poetic noun of George’s invention that comes from the verb entrücken, which simply means “to remove” or “to carry off.” The new noun might be translated as “transport” or “rapture” or (most literally) “swept-awayness.” Both the poem’s title and its famous opening line, “I feel the air of another planet,” have become emblems of the musical departure Schoenberg intended his setting both to symbolize and to enact.


ex. 6-6 Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, m. 1

As shown in Ex. 6-6 (given in Alban Berg’s transcription for voice and piano) ‘Entrückung’ begins with some word-painting involving both an explicit external gesture and an esoteric “inner” meaning to which, after our discussion of the Eschbeg set, we can gain privileged access. Schoenberg described the outer side of it in a program note he wrote to accompany a recording issued in 1949. The arching “arabesques” (curving lines) that are passed up from cello to viola to the violins, representing “the departure from earth to another planet,” suggest the experience of “becoming relieved from gravitation—passing through clouds into thinner and thinner air.”15


(13) Alban Berg to Schoenberg, 9 February 1925; Juliane Brand, Christopher Hailey, and Donald Harris, eds., The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence (New York: Norton, 1987), pp. 334–37.

(14) See Allen Forte, “Schoenberg’s Creative Evolution: The Path to Atonality,” Musical Quarterly LXIV (1978): 133–76.

(15) Schoenberg, “Analysis of the Second Quartet” (1949), in Schoenberg, Berg, Webern: The String Quartets: A Documentary Study, ed. Ursula von Rauchhaupt (Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, 1971), booklet accompanying LaSalle Quartet recording, DG 2713 006, p. 48.

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. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006008.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006008.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006008.xml