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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

To demonstrate this, we need only take a melodic and harmonic inventory of the opening measures (Ex. 6-17) and spot-check the rest. And our inventory will start right off with something familiar. The very first harmony in the score, consisting of the three notes played before the first bar (a melodic quarter-note upbeat in the bassoon and an accompanying fourth that comes in on the last sixteenth), turns out to be an inversion of the same Rite-chord we have already spotted in the little piano piece, and which can be sighted in any number of early Schoenberg scores. (Transpose the accompanying fourth up an octave, as in Ex. 6-18a, so that it is above the bassoon’s G♯ rather than below it, and the more familiar voicing of fourth + tritone will appear.)

The harmony is just as pervasive in Erwartung as it had been in The Rite. It is Schoenberg’s basic harmonic building block, in fact, providing his music with a sonic norm much as the triad had always done in “common-practice” harmony. So from now on it will make some sense to call it the “atonal triad,” not only because of its prevalence but also in reference to its structure. Just as the triad is a superimposition of thirds, so this chord is a superimposition of fourths; and just as triads may superimpose thirds of the same kind or of different kinds, so can “fourth-chords.” When the thirds in a triad are of different kinds, moreover, the harmony can be inverted: the difference between the major and minor triads in common practice is defined according to whether the major third is below or above the minor third. Similarly, atonal triads like Schoenberg’s can be inverted according to whether the augmented fourth is below or above the perfect fourth. And just as ordinary triads can be extended by “stacking” more thirds atop the basic pair to make seventh and ninth chords, and so forth, so the atonal triad may be extended by stacking alternating perfect and augmented fourths above the basic pair. We have already seen this happen (and seen it extended to the maximum) in the sketches for Ives’s Universe Symphony (Fig. 5-6).

Atonal Triads

ex. 6-17 Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, Op. 17, mm. 1–7

All of these potential features (many of which Schoenberg later codified in his Harmonielehre) are immediately actualized in Erwartung. The left-hand component of the downbeat chord that immediately follows the initial harmony is an atonal triad with the augmented fourth on the bottom—a “major” atonal triad, if you will. But the melodic B that the chord accompanies can be construed as an extension of the chord according to the principles just described: it stands a tritone above the top note of the atonal triad, producing a four-note harmony that alternates augmented and perfect fourths. And now note that that flute figure that comes in immediately afterward continues the alternation with an E a fourth above the B, and a B♭ a tritone above the E. (The E♭ at the end of the flute figure, preceded by a sort of “leading tone,” could be added to the configuration if desired. And the choice of A for the bass of the next chord can now be rationalized as well: it too is an extension of the same series of fourths and tritones.) Thus we are observing the interpenetration of the horizontal and vertical dimensions that the “emancipation of dissonance” made possible; but we are also observing the extreme normative limitation that Schoenberg is voluntarily placing on his “emancipated” harmonic and melodic materials. The harmony of Erwartung, to a remarkable degree, consists of chords alternating fourths and tritones, ranging all the way from the basic three-note unit we are now calling the “atonal triad” to extensions of six notes or more. The series of chords in the second measure offers immediate confirmation of this generalization. In transcribing them for piano, Schoenberg had to prune them radically; they are spelled out in full in Ex. 6-18b. Particularly telling is the way the melodic D is suspended over a harmonic shift that embeds it in two successive extended atonal triads. Atop the first it stands at the distance of a perfect fourth, and above the second the distance expands to a tritone; in context, the effect is analogous to that of a modal mixture.

The pervasiveness of the atonal triad and its extensions can be corroborated in almost any bar of Erwartung. It supports many if not most of the important vocal entrances, starting with the first: the harmony at the first sung note is an inversion similar to the one noted at the very beginning. It is sorted out in Ex. 6-18c, where the voice’s C♯ appears as the “tenor.” The relationship is confirmed and clarified at the next harmony, where the voice straightforwardly plays bass extension to an atonal triad represented in the piano’s right-hand part. By contrast (or complement), at the next important voice entrance (m. 7) it plays “soprano extension” to an atonal triad represented in the left-hand part.

Atonal Triads

ex. 6-18a Atonal triads and extensions in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

Atonal Triads

ex. 6-18b Atonal triads and extensions in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

Atonal Triads

ex. 6-18c Atonal triads and extensions in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

The ultimate extension of the atonal triad, as we have already learned from Ives, is the aggregate harmony, the full chromatic gamut sounded as a chord. This famously happens at the pianissimo ending of Erwartung, where a series of chromatically ascending six-note extensions is met by a chromatically descending series. The two lines become a fuzzy stretto, with different groups of instruments moving at different rates of speed, so that ultimately a sonically saturating glissando effect is achieved, only to be suddenly cut off, sans ritardando and sans crescendo, at curtain’s fall.

This striking effect has supported many interpretations. The most obvious one is dramatic, or rather representational: a musical rendering of being emotionally engulfed, or even, perhaps, of fainting dead away. Another, equally convincing, interpretation (which in no way contradicts the first) is technical. It was memorably described by the pianist and critic Charles Rosen in a short handbook on Schoenberg. “The saturation of musical space,” Rosen suggested, “is Schoenberg’s substitute for the tonic chord of the traditional musical language.”20 By characterizing “the saturation of chromatic space” as “a fixed point toward which the music moves, as a point of rest and resolution,” Rosen ascribed to it a “closure” function (which, of course, is what he meant by calling it a substitute tonic in the first place). The idea had profound implications for Schoenberg and his notion of “pantonality,” and we will come back to it.


(20) Charles Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 57–58.

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. 19 Aug. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006013.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 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006013.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 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006013.xml