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Contents

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

TONAL OR ATONAL?

Chapter:
CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Source:
MUSIC IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

That much is fairly obvious. What the composer withheld from this description, possibly because it would have required too technical an explanation for a record sleeve, is the really crucial matter: each one in the initial series of arabesques, minus its first and last notes, is a transposition of the Eschbeg set, Schoenberg's musical signature, leaving no doubt as to exactly whose consciousness is being buffeted through space, and focusing attention not merely on the buffeting but on the consciousness itself, that is, the “inward,” subjective experience.

The exactness of the transpositions—as it happens, through an ascending circle of fifths—shows the composer treating this crucial musical configuration far more explicitly as a motif, a discrete and basic melodic shape, than he had done previously. Ex. 6-7 shows the untransposed Eschbeg set, economically represented so that its constituent pitches ascend within the narrowest possible intervallic confines. (Forte calls this manner of representing a pitch-class set the “best normal order”; it is very useful for making comparisons.) The four transpositions at the start of Entrückung, all similarly displayed, follow the original set.

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-7 Transposition of the “Eschbeg” set in Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung)

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-8 Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 21–26

The interval of transposition between the pitch level of original Eschbeg set and that of the first arabesque is the same—a perfect fifth (=seven semitones, hence t7)—as the interval separating the arabesques from one another: additional evidence that the original set was the conceptual point of departure (and implying that the “transport” begins already some way off the ground). The notes that sandwich the Eschbeg set at the extremities of each arabesque are also motivically significant. As indicated in parentheses at the end of each line of Ex. 6-7, the final note of each arabesque, transposed to the pitch level of the original set, supplies the note corresponding to the composer’s first initial, A, making the signature more complete (“A. Sch[ön]be[r]g”). And the beginning notes of each arabesque, defining the ascent by fifths, together comprise a transposition of the opening phrase in the voice part (Ich fühle Duft…, Ex. 6-8), calculated so that if the two four-note groups are laid side by side, an unbroken series of ascending fifths is the result, suggesting a direct continuation by the voice of the spiritual ascent announced by the strings:

(Strings)|(Voice)

G♯A♭–D♯E♭–B♭–F–|–C–G–D–A

In the third measure, the four-note group to the left of the vertical line, consisting of the respective opening pitches of the four string arabesques, is turned into an explicit motive in the “left hand” staff of Berg's keyboard transcription (Ex. 6-9). It is sequentially repeated there three times (the last sequential repetition falling one note short—note well which note!—of completion). Three measures later it is back for another sequential treatment, in diminution and “permuted” (that is, with its pitches presented in a different order: E♭–A♭–(E♭)–F–B♭ instead of F–E♭–A♭–B♭). In m. 9 (left-hand staff) it is transposed for the first time to the pitches-/C–G–D–A/- on which the voice will eventually make its entrance (Ex. 6-10).

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-9 Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 3–6

Tonal or Atonal?Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-10 Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 9–15

Is the music “atonal”? Ex. 6-10 seems to say no. The cello’s G and C pizzicati under the sustained D–A fifth in the viola in m. 9 are expanded into sustained bass fifths (G–D in m. 13 and C–G at the end of m. 15) that fairly scream “Cadence!” But the very necessity of “screaming” in this context underscores the arbitrariness of the cadential gesture. The big V–I in C, like the “big Five-Ones” in Mahler’s Second, seem to be little more than a “terminating convenience”16 (to borrow a term from the music analyst Pieter van den Toorn), rather than a true functional “outcome” of the music that preceded it.

Elsewhere, despite the ample use of the circle of fifths (a “tonal” mainstay if ever there was one), the sense of tonal function (or of tonal “attraction”) is attenuated to what seems the vanishing point. For one thing, the circles of fifths tend to go in the “wrong” direction—not the centripetal “V–I” direction but the other way, centrifugally, as if perpetually seeking the next dominant. For another thing, the circle is “real,” as the language of fugue writing would put it, rather than “tonal.” That is, all the fifths are perfect, so that the implied complete circle is closed not after a diatonic seven progressions but a full chromatic twelve. For a third, until m. 13 no tone is allowed to assume the function of a dominant root. The B♯ that might have functioned as a leading tone over the initial G♯ in Ex. 6-6 is withheld from the first arabesque. Not until the crest of the second arabesque does it appear (spelled as C); and, as a note-count will verify, it is the twelfth pitch class out of twelve to arrive, so that there is little chance of the ear’s connecting it with the initial G♯ in any harmonically functional manner.

Finally, and this is particularly interesting, when the C finally arrives toward the end of the second arabesque in Ex. 6-6, the ear has likely been conditioned by the first arabesque to interpret the note as an appoggiatura rather than a potentially functional “harmonic tone.” How is that possible in a harmonically “functionless” context? Simply by the rhythm and contour of the melodic writing, which apes the shape of an appoggiatura—a leap from upbeat to downbeat, landing on a tone that moves by step in the direction opposite to the leap.

The music that formed the immediate historical background to Schoenberg’s expressionistic idiom was particularly rich in expressive appoggiaturas (or Seufzer, “sighs”—look back at Ex. 1-7, from the Adagio in Mahler’s Tenth!), and it is clear that Schoenberg intended such associations to remain in force. His radical style very effectively demonstrates the extent to which melodic shapes may continue to suggest local, quite conventional harmonic implications even in the absence of explicit harmonic functions—or rather, it demonstrates the extent to which our listening is always laden with unconsciously learned (or “picked-up”) theory that the canny composer (who has also picked it up) is free to exploit. The question “tonal or atonal?” is thus not only a question about composing methods. It is also a question about listening habits and strategies.

The voice part, too, is riddled with appoggiaturas—even more conventionally expressive in the presence of a text. Measures 38, 39, and 40 all contain “sigh” figures to enhance the emotional impact of the poet’s rueful appeal to “thou radiant, beloved specter, caller-forth of all my anguish” (Ex. 6-11a). There is an ineluctable sense that the A♯, C♯, and F resolve respectively to A, C, and E as dissonance resolves to consonance, even in the absence of any confirmation from the actual harmony. And then, in mm. 54–55 (Ex. 6-11b), all at once there is confirmation. The resolution of D to C♯ establishes a dominant chord just as it would in Mahler or Strauss: it is as if Schoenberg were twisting a dial to bring the key of F♯ in and out of focus.

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-11a Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 38–40

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-11b Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 51–55

The coda, which begins with the voice repeating its opening motive in agreement with a shimmering F♯ major triad (Ex. 6-12), is kept pretty well in focus by the use of tonic and dominant pedals. The movement, in its implied progression from tonal indefiniteness to regained definition, demonstrates the location of “tonality” and “atonality” on a contextual continuum, and the impossibility of drawing a categorical line between them. Even when there is no obvious return to “functionality,” Schoenberg’s expressionistic music often ends with unmistakable cadential gestures, usually involving half-step progressions that continue, just as they had been doing in Mahler and Strauss, to provide (on a “local” if not a “global” level) a sense of tonal motion and closure.

Tonal or Atonal?

ex. 6-12 Arnold Schoenberg, Quartet no. 2, IV (Entrückung), arr. Berg, mm. 100–105

Notes:

(16) Pieter van den Toorn, The Music of Igor Stravinsky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 332.

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. 20 Nov. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006009.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 20 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006009.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 20 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006009.xml