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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

But now the repressed questions must be faced. Why was it desirable to denature tonality? Why was emancipation of the dissonance a necessary step? Unrelieved dissonance suited certain dreadful or turbulent moods, all right, of a kind then favored by many artists, especially German ones. But other moods—joy, serenity, contentment, anything “positive”—were seemingly put off limits. Were they no longer suitable for artistic representation? Did they merely reflect a “false consciousness” that it was the duty of true artists (“who do not turn their eyes away,” in the words of our epigraph) to unmask? And why was motivic saturation so desirable, especially when (as we have seen) its exacting compositional requirements could seem to contradict the “instinctive” creative freedom Schoenberg proclaimed?

As long as we view Schoenberg solely as an “expressionist,” a dealer in emotions, these questions will continue to disturb us. But there was another, equally potent and equally distinguished component in Schoenberg’s Romantic legacy that he consciously sought to maximalize: the legacy of the Sublime. Alongside his fascination with “inner [that is, psychic] occurrences” was an equally strong interest in spiritual transcendence and the possibilities of representing it in art. From a rationalist perspective the two impulses—psychological realism vs. occult revelation—can seem to be in contradiction. From a more accommodating perspective that regards psychic phenomena as emanations from a spiritual source (or as “micro-cosmic” reflections of the “macrocosm”), they can be viewed as complementary. It is when we adopt this complementary perspective that Schoenberg’s musical innovations (or rather, his motivations toward them) become coherent.

Musical Space

fig. 6-3 Wassily Kandinsky and Schoenberg with their wives, Nina and Gertrud, at Pörtshach on the Wörthersee, 1927.

Significantly, the most unambiguous expressions of Schoenberg’s interest in the occult are found in his correspondence with Kandinsky, the early abstract painter, who justified his own artistic radicalism in terms of his religious strivings, and who summarized his theories in a book entitled Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art), published in 1912. In a letter to Kandinsky dating from the same year, Schoenberg proclaimed “a unity of musical space demanding an absolute and unitary perception22 (his italics) to be his creative ideal. And he associated this aim with a book that both he and Kandinsky worshipped at the time, Honoré de Balzac’s philosophical novel Séraphîta (1835), “perhaps the most glorious work in existence,” as the musician gushed to the artist.

Musical Space

fig. 6-4 Emanuel Swedenborg.

The long central chapter in Séraphîta is an imaginary (and fanciful rather than historically accurate) exposition of the teachings of the occult philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), as related to Wilfrid, a man of thirty, and Minna, a girl of seventeen, by an androgynous ethereal being with whom both are in love and who in the last chapter ascends to an angelic state. The two lovers, who are left to share the love they bore for the angel, are privileged to witness the assumption and are vouchsafed a vision of heaven:

Wilfrid and Minna now understood some of the mysterious words of the being who on earth had appeared to them under the form which was intelligible to each—Séraphîtus to one, Séraphîta to the other—seeing that here all was homogeneous. Light gave birth to melody, and melody to light; colors were both light and melody; motion was number endowed by the Word; in short, everything was at once sonorous, diaphanous, and mobile; so that, everything existing in everything else, extension knew no limits, and the angels could traverse it everywhere to the utmost depths of the infinite.23

This vision is what inspired Schoenberg toward his integrated musical space. Many details in Balzac’s heavenly depiction found echo in Schoenberg’s musical theorizing. Where in Balzac’s heaven “colors were both light and melody,” Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre contained a famous speculation on the possibility of composing “tone-color melodies” (Klangfarbenmelodien) that would add another dimension of integration to his utopian musical universe, with timbre playing a role normally assigned to pitch.24 The closest he came to realizing it was in the third of the Five Orchestral Pieces, called “Farben” (colors), where very slowly changing harmonies shimmer with dovetailed instrumental voicings that cause the timbres of sustained tones to shift subtly before one’s ears. (In private, Schoenberg habitually referred to his famous color-piece as “Morning by a Lake”; in 1949, he finally added the title to the score.) But it was not just a vision that Schoenberg wanted to transmit. He also wanted to convey an experience—Wilfrid and Minna’s experience in ascending to Séraphîta’s abode, where “everything existed in everything else.” As we already know from his quartet setting of Stefan George’s Entrückung, Schoenberg regarded his musical breakthroughs in spiritual terms—very much as an “ascent to a higher and better order,”25 as he put it in a letter to Nicolas Slonimsky, another Russian correspondent. He viewed “pantonality” very much as Balzac presented Séraphîtus/Séraphîta. Surmounting the major/minor dichotomy, voiding all distinctions between particular keys, was for him an achievement comparable to embodying androgyny or double gender. Pantonal music, like Balzac’s angel, was a perfected being. To Webern he confided that pantonality, like androgyny, “has given rise to a higher race!”26

Like Scriabin’s, then, and like Mahler’s and Ives’s, Schoenberg’s was a Weltanschauungsmusik, a music that embodied a spiritual “worldview” or universal existential revelation. And it was this in addition to being a music of primal unconscious emotional expression and a music of unprecedented motivic integration. Indeed, as we are about to see, it was the spiritual Weltanschauung that provided the conceptual link between the emotional expression, which depended on the emancipation of dissonance, and the motivic integration, which the same emancipation made possible. One of the most overdetermined musical visions at a time of many visionary extremes, Schoenberg’s was the most complex and far-reaching maximalism of them all, and by far the most lastingly influential.

Thus the most important (or at least the most fundamental) thing that the emancipation of dissonance vouchsafed was not the expression of catastrophic emotions, though that was a spectacular by-product, but the achievement of a fully integrated musical space, in which the “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions were at last made equivalent, and (to recall Balzac), everything musical could exist in everything else. Only by emancipating the dissonance, Schoenberg argued, could musical practice become fully adequate to the musical imagination. “Every musical configuration,” he wrote,

every movement of tones has to be comprehended primarily as a mutual relation of sounds, of oscillatory vibrations, appearing at different places and times. To the imaginative and creative faculty, relations in the material sphere are as independent from directions or planes as material objects are, in their sphere, to our perceptive faculties. Just as our mind always recognizes, for instance, a knife, a bottle, or a watch, regardless of its position, and can reproduce it in the imagination in every possible position, even so a musical creator’s mind can operate subconsciously with a row of tones, regardless of their direction, regardless of the way in which a mirror might show the mutual relations, which remain a given quality.27

In other words, as long as composition was constrained by rules of consonance and dissonance, or by harmonic functions, “horizontal” ideas like melodies could not always be “vertically” represented, as chords. And a harmonic progression would no longer mean the same thing (whether “syntactically” or “semantically”) if it were played in reverse, or if all or some of its intervals were inverted. Imagine a G-major triad followed by a C-major triad. In the context of the key of C major this can mean “the end.” But if reversed it can mean anything but that. And if inverted, so that the G-major triad were a C-minor triad, and the C-major triad an F-minor triad, it would all of a sudden (in the same tonal context) lose its syntactical significance altogether and pick up instead a terrific freight of emotion.

If the voice leading were strictly reproduced, moreover, the inversion would be a syntactic anomaly. And if, perchance the G-major chord were a dominant seventh, and the inversions (instead of reproducing the original voice leading) took the respective chord roots as their axis, the result would be a syntactic absurdity (Ex. 6-22).

Musical Space

ex. 6-22 A “tonal” cadence inverted

These trivial examples, or a slightly less trivial one once published by the music theorist Joseph Schillinger, who both reversed and inverted the opening phrase of Bach’s F-major keyboard invention (Ex. 6-23) will suffice to establish that in “tonal” music, musical space is neither reversible nor invertible without distortion or loss of meaning. But as our analyses both of Erwartung and of op. 19, no. 1 have already demonstrated, thanks to the emancipation of dissonance in Schoenberg’s expressionist music the horizontal and the vertical are indeed interchangeable and inversions are functionally equivalent. Musical space has been unified, or equalized in every dimension, so that musical objects and ideas (i.e., motifs and their derivatives) can now be “reproduced,” just as the mind can imagine them, “in every possible position, … regardless of their direction.”

Musical Space

ex. 6-23 Joseph Schillinger’s inversion of the subject of Bach’s F-major Invention


(22) Schoenberg to Kandinsky, 19 August 1912; Letters, p. 54.

(23) Honoré de Balzac, Séraphîta (Blauvelt, N.Y.: Freedeeds Library, 1986), p. 173.

(24) Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, pp. 421–22.

(25) Schoenberg to Nicolas Slonimsky, 3 June 1937; Music since 1900, p. 1316.

(26) Webern, The Path to the New Music, trans. Leo Black (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Theodore Presser Co., 1963), p. 37.

(27) Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve Tones (I)” (1941); Style and Idea, p. 223.

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. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006015.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006015.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006015.xml