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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

But first we need to investigate the other pervasive motif in Erwartung, which first appears as the three notes (C♯–A♯–D) that initiate the lyrical oboe line in mm. 1–2, and reappears in transposition as the last three notes of the same phrase (E–C♯–B♯). The two notes that come in between, G and D♯, replicate the same motif when combined with the E that follows them, thus producing a pair of overlapping (or “imbricated”) statements (Ex. 6-19a). This motif consists of a semitone and a minor third enclosed within a major third. Its “best normal order” is /0 1 4/, with the semitone beneath the minor third. But like the atonal triad, it can appear in the score with either interval on top (or to put it more formally, it has an inversional equivalent). And it can be varied (or distorted) in other ways as well.

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-19a Melodic motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-19b Melodic motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-19c Melodic motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung

In one guise or another, then, this motif inhabits virtually every measure of the score. At the end of m. 4, for example, it is found both at the end of the voice part and also as the nervous staccato ostinato running beneath. Stretched out as if on a rack, its intervals expanded to sevenths and tenths, it comes at the end of m. 6 (F–D–C♯). A comparison of the staccato bass chords in m. 1 and the bass arpeggio in m. 3 will show a version of it (A–C–C♯) crossing the cusp between harmony and melody, and it is followed in m. 3 by a transposition (G♯–B–C) that maintains a common tone (Ex. 6-19b). All of these procedures become standard means of composerly navigation as the music unfolds. Particularly telling are the settings, like the one at mm. 301–302 (Ex. 6-19c), where the motif and its inversion are both multiply embedded in a single melodic line (sometimes even further reinforced by the accompaniment).

In 1967 Herbert Buchanan, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Rutgers University, published a short article, “A Key to Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Op. 17),” that took nearly everyone by surprise.21 He had discovered that the closing measures of the opera contained a quotation, encompassing both text and music, lengthy and literal enough to be obvious to anyone alerted to its presence (and in fact almost immediately repeated), from an early song of Schoenberg’s: Am Wegrand (“By the roadside”), op. 6, no. 6 (1905). (The relationship had previously been noted in a footnote to Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s book Philosophy of New Music (Philosophie der neuen Musik, 1949), but as Adorno’s work was as yet untranslated and little known in the American academy, Buchanan may well have found it independently.) What was surprising about the discovery was not only the fact that it seemed to contradict the opera’s reputation for “athematicism,” but also the fact that the song in question, although it was composed only four years earlier than the opera, was quite conventional (or “tonal”) in harmonic design. Even in its operatic recycling, the passage in question can be analyzed perfectly straightforwardly in D minor (Ex. 6-20).

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-20a Arnold Schoenberg, Am Wegrand, mm. 3–4

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-20b Arnold Schoenberg, Am Wegrand, mm. 22–24

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-20c Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, mm. 411–412

As the example shows, the quotation from the song in the opera is not exact. Rather it is a conflation of two spots. The opening voice melody in Ex. 6-20a is transferred to the orchestral bass in Ex. 6-20c, and the voice countermelody in Ex. 6-20b is transferred to the orchestra in Ex. 6-20c and accompanied in the operatic voice part by a modified transposition of itself that descends in alternating semitones and minor thirds, so that it consists almost entirely of imbricated /0 1 4/ motifs or inversions thereof (Ex. 6-21a).

Meanwhile, the middle voice or harmonic filler in the orchestra part is also saturated with /0 1 4/ motifs. The first beat contains the motif labeled “b” in Ex. 6-21a (D–F–C♯); the second contains a new motif “f” (F–F♯–A), a transposed permutation of “b”; between the second and third beats motif “b” reappears, as does motif “f” in the fourth beat (Ex. 6-21b). And finally, the orchestral bass, which as we know is a direct quotation from Am Wegrand, a song in D minor, contains a four-note group in which the /0 1 4/ motif and its inversion are imbricated (Ex. 6-21c).

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-21a /0 1 4/ motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, m. 411, voice part

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-21b /0 1 4/ motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, m. 411, figuration

Crossing the Cusp

ex. 6-21c /0 1 4/ motif in Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung, m. 411, bass

Thus motif b/b′ in Ex. 6-21c, which on its original occurrence in Am Wegrand had been invested with tonal functions (another way of saying that its constituent pitches were identifiable as degrees 7♯–1–2–3 in D minor) has been abstracted to serve, throughout Erwartung, as a basic melodic shape or Grundgestalt with only contextual harmonic significance. Its progress from the one (functional or “tonal”) status to the other (contextual or “atonal”) one might seem to symbolize Schoenberg’s progress, as he then conceived it (or at least as he later described it), over the hump from his “tonal” to his “pantonal” period. That could well have been his reason for interpolating the quotation from the older song. The unanswerable question, already broached, is whether he consciously mined a tonal piece for a motif to abstract and as it were “denature,” or whether memories of Am Wegrand were stirred when Schoenberg found himself playing so extensively with the tones (or, more precisely, with the intervallic relationships) of one of its characteristic motifs.


(21) Herbert Buchanan, “A Key to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, op. 17,” JAMS XX (1967): 434–49.

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. 18 Feb. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006014.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 18 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006014.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 18 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006014.xml