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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

So there we have some more questions to be repressed for the time being, while we delve further into Schoenberg’s repulsive yet fascinating psychological terrain. The word “repulsive” here is not an esthetic judgment but (as the epigraph atop this chapter already suggests) a statement of fact. The use of art—sometimes didactically, sometimes voyeuristically—to explore what was ugly or obnoxious was another long-standing project that expressionism brought to a head; and it should come as no surprise that Schoenberg’s most extreme essay in the expressionist vein should have been a portrait of a sexually obsessed madwoman to set alongside counterparts in Wagner and Strauss and vastly outstrip them.

In creating it, Schoenberg brought musical expressionism to its Far Out Point—which in effect meant bringing German romanticism itself to its final shriek. Considering that for a century or more art had been defined as inherently romantic, and music as the most essentially romantic of the arts, the magnitude of Schoenberg’s achievement—or at least of his attempt—has to be regarded as “historic.” It is what won for Schoenberg his devoted disciples and his enormous authority, and also what insured that his name would remain a lightning rod for controversy second only to Wagner’s.

Schoenberg’s madwoman was the protagonist of a twenty-five-minute “mono-drama”—a one-act opera with a single character—that he composed, at white heat, between 27 August and 12 September 1909. Like the early song through which we first encountered Schoenberg’s name (and very likely in tribute to it) the opera was called Erwartung, “Expectancy.” But whereas the early song, in keeping with the fashion of its time, described an expectation (and gave a foretaste) of sensual pleasure, the new opera, subtitled Angsttraum, or “Nightmare,” depicted a prolonged foreboding of psychic horror, the kind of maximalized emotional tension without hope of relief for which only “emancipated dissonance”—dissonance with no possibility of resolution—seemed capable of providing an adequate symbolic medium.

Like the exiled Wagner some sixty years before, Schoenberg achieved this aggressive technical and expressive breakthrough in creative isolation, not to say seclusion. Like The Ring, Erwartung had to wait many years for its first performance, which took place in Prague (by then no longer in Austria but the capital of Czechoslovakia) in 1924—all of which further enhanced Schoenberg’s prophetic aura and gave the music, when finally heard, the force of revelation to its devotees.

The weird libretto was of a sort no established writer of the time would have agreed to write. It was composed at Schoenberg’s request by a family friend of the Zemlinskys named Marie Pappenheim (1882–1966), an avocational poet who had recently come to Vienna from Pressburg (now Bratislava in Slovakia) to study medicine, eventually becoming a well-known dermatologist. The disjointed, often ungrammatical monologue she came up with has often been compared with the sort of emotionally overwrought running babble an “analysand” or patient in psychoanalysis might utter from the couch in “free association.”

That was surely no coincidence. Marie Pappenheim’s brother, the psychiatrist Martin Pappenheim, was an early follower of Freud, and her cousin Bertha Pappenheim was the notorious “Anna O.,” arguably the first analysand. A patient of Josef Breuer, Freud’s mentor and early collaborator, Bertha Pappenheim underwent a celebrated but later bitterly contested cure from hysteria by means of hypnosis and “recovered memory.” Whether true memories or merely fantasies and hallucinations produced through hypnotic and autohypnotic suggestion, the therapeutic results of Bertha Pappenheim’s “talking cure,” when written up by her therapist in “The Case of Anna O.,” were a medical and literary sensation. It was the ongoing (indeed, still-raging) controversy over the reliability of hypnotically induced results that led Freud to modify the method so as to replace hypnosis with the fully conscious talk therapy known as free association.

But it was precisely the ambiguity of psychic phenomena, the impossibility of distinguishing with certainty between recalled (or even lived) experience and fantasy, the very pitfall that compromised the “Case of Anna O.” scientifically, that Marie Pappenheim now sought to exploit artistically in the libretto she fashioned for Schoenberg. Its dramatic situation is simplicity itself; the ramifications to which it leads are unfathomable. A woman (nameless, like most characters in expressionist drama) finds herself at the edge of a wood, anxiously looking for her lover. At the end of the opera she stumbles on his corpse and immediately begins a jealous rant that leaves us wondering whether she has murdered him.

The whole drama consists of her “inner occurrences,” as Schoenberg would say, a compound of immediate sensation, memory, fantasy, and hallucination. At the end, as in contemporary literary experiments with the “stream of consciousness,” we are left to wonder whether what we have witnessed is “real,” a dream, or a psychotic symptom. (In keeping with this irreality and uncertainty the Metropolitan Opera in New York once staged Erwartung with a set that contained, in addition to the phantasmagorical moonlit forest, a grand piano to suggest that perhaps the distraught protagonist had never left her parlor—or else perhaps that, stumbling through the real forest, she imagines herself all the while at home.)

Like the other fin-de-siècle madwomen we have met, Schoenberg’s “Frau” symbolized, in her violent loss of emotional control, the imagined consequences of the stresses to which modern civilization subjects its members, and also the displaced response of men threatened by the emancipation of the weaker sex. Thus, like most fin-de-siècle art (and like psychoanalysis, for that matter), it expressed a crucial ambivalence, using a radically innovative approach, and a vocabulary of extreme modernity, in order to critique, or even indict, the modern world.

The indictment was much stronger than before. Previous manifestations of the madwoman theme, whether in the operas of Strauss or the ballets of Stravinsky, had camouflaged it with the exotic trappings of antiquity (classical, biblical, primitive), enhancing its voyeuristic allure and distancing it from its uncomfortable contemporary relevance. Schoenberg and Pappenheim gave it a raw, unvarnished treatment that laid its social and psychological message bare. Neither Stravinsky’s Chosen One nor Strauss’s title characters have any interior life. They are not “subjects.” We see them act, we witness their drives and compulsions, but we are not privy to their reflections. (Indeed, it would have contradicted the whole primitivist assumption to allow the Chosen One to have any such thing as a reflection.) Schoenberg’s madwoman is nothing but reflection; we are left unsure whether indeed she has an external life to match her inner turmoil. Her intense subjectivity coupled with her namelessness allows her to represent both an autonomous contemporary psyche in all its unfathomable complexity, and an archetypal Every(wo)man. Through the prism of Schoenberg’s opera, Salome and The Rite of Spring themselves assume a clearer focus as cultural symptoms.

Indeed, Schoenberg made the parallels between his opera and its German antecedents inescapable. Where the woman imagines kissing her dead lover, Schoenberg forces the listener to recall Strauss’s necrophiliac Salome (Ex. 6-15). And when she lets out the one word—”Help!”—that she unambiguously speaks (or shrieks) aloud rather than to herself, Schoenberg literally quotes a similar frenzied moment from the part of Kundry, the madwoman in Wagner’s Parsifal and the progenitor of the whole fin-de-siècle line (Ex. 6-16).

Psychological Realism

ex. 6-15a Richard Strauss, Salome, mm. 319–320

Psychological Realism

ex. 6-15b Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, mm. 263–264

Psychological Realism

ex. 6-16a Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, mm. 190–195

Psychological RealismPsychological Realism

ex. 6-16b Richard Wagner, Parsifal, Act II, “Lachte!”

The scenario consists of four scenes separated by little orchestral interludes during which the singer leaves and re-enters the stage. They are chiefly distinguished from one another, again in a manner typical of expressionist theater, by lighting effects. The first scene is bathed in moonlight; the second takes place in “blackest darkness.” The third has a split stage (one side dark, the other moonlit), and the last is illuminated in multicolored light. They can be taken as representations of states of consciousness (Freud’s conscious “ego” vs. the unconscious “id”). It is during the “black” second scene that the woman has a presentiment of the grisly end, mistaking a log in her path for the dead body she will find (although she is not yet consciously aware of the presentiment). All of this, moreover, can be taken as a metaphor of music itself—or at least of Schoenberg’s music, if we remember his avowal to Kandinsky that art must express the instinctive and the inborn, the part of ourselves that is wholly unconscious and uncorrupted by convention.

But how “unconscious” is the music that represents this instinctive or reflex state? Webern, Schoenberg’s devoted pupil and spokesman, insisted that, as a representation of unconscious and irrational thought, Erwartung contained no thematic repetitions or developments—that is, nothing of musical “logic.” Both in its flow of pitches and rhythms and in its coloring, the work represented, in Webern’s view

an uninterrupted succession of sounds never before heard; there is no measure of this score that fails to display a completely new sound-picture, and so this music flows onward, giving expression to the most hidden and slightest impulses of the emotions.18

This description has set the tone for many others, and for ever more extravagant claims, such as the music theorist Robert Morgan’s contention that the speed with which Schoenberg composed Erwartung suggests that the opera in all its complexity of design “surfaced directly—without intervention of conscious control—from the composer’s innermost subliminal thought processes,” and that the music therefore “almost completely defies rational musical analysis.”19

These remarks exemplify the hyperbole that has always surrounded Schoenberg’s achievement, itself a testimony to its benchmark-setting maximalism. And yet a close look at virtually any measure of the score will tell another story—the story already implied by our analysis of the tiny piano piece, op. 19, no. 1, but projected on a vast scale. What made it possible for Schoenberg to compose his opera so quickly, as that close look will immediately disclose, was an extremely high degree of melodic and harmonic consistency. The material out of which Erwartung was assembled, though often tendentiously characterized by the composer and his disciples as a sea of possibilities even more limitless than Wagner’s, turns out to have been in fact quite limited, as effective composing always demands. In other words, the composer created his own rules but then followed them scrupulously.


(18) Anton Webern, “Schönberg’s Musik,” in Alban Berg, et al., Arnold Schönberg (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1912); quoted in John C. Crawford and Dorothy L. Crawford, Expressionism in Twentieth-Century Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 79–80.

(19) Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music, p. 73.

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. 29 Nov. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006012.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 29 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006012.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 29 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006012.xml