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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin
“Brahminism” Revisited

fig. 6-5 Alban Berg and Anton Webern, spring 1912.

It is certainly possible to view this as a “purely” musical advance, without justification on expressionist or spiritual grounds. In that case it would be a maximalization of the sort of contrapuntally saturated textures we have found in Brahms (particularly in his chamber music), textures that had already become an object of virtual fetish worship on the part of “Brahmin” critics and music lovers. Motivic saturation could also be seen as a historical advance from the point of view of the New German School, recalling their insistence that the general tendency in music history was toward the integration of form and content, with Wagner’s “endless melody,” a musical texture in which everything was “thematic” (that is, based on meaning-bearing leitmotifs) setting the standard. Once again Schoenberg could be seen as the synthesizer of the Brahms-Wagner antithesis, which gave him a special importance within a historical narrative based on “dialectics.” (But see the epilogue to this chapter for a critique of this historical claim.)

One of the first to argue in this way on Schoenberg’s behalf was his pupil Alban Berg, in an article called “Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” Like the Chamber Concerto it was a fiftieth-birthday offering to his teacher, first published in a “Festschrift” or celebratory volume devoted to Schoenberg in 1924. The article consists mainly of an analysis of Schoenberg’s “official” First Quartet (op. 7), not the one performed under Zemlinsky’s auspices in 1897, but one composed in 1905, in which Schoenberg asserted that he had achieved “a direction much more my own.”28

Berg, undoubtedly on Schoenberg’s authority, associated this new direction with the quartet’s unprecedented level of motivic saturation. There was “hardly any” material in the quartet, he claimed, even in its accompanimental figuration, its ornamental details and textural “fillers,” that cannot be traced to its germinating motifs. Having quoted the first ten measures of the quartet, Berg noted that he had in fact supplied the reader with the whole hour-long quartet in nuce (in a nutshell). That made the music more difficult to understand than any other contemporary music because comprehending its luxuriance required more cognitive work from the listener. And, Berg provocatively averred, it also made the music better than any other contemporary music. Such “unheard-of excess” of motivic richness, unifying the music in all its “harmonic, polyphonic and contrapuntal domains,” had not previously existed “since Bach.”29 But the claims did not stop there. The emancipation of dissonance, Berg implied, made it possible to eliminate that “hardly any” and produce a music in which literally every note, whether melodic or harmonic, was “thematic.” If the manner of the First Quartet was better than what had been before, then the manner of the Second Quartet was better yet, and so on into the music contemporaneous with Berg’s essay. The “progress” claim, coupled with the more-than-implied “Brahmin” snobbery of the title, made Berg’s essay immediately controversial, and the controversy has not subsided to this day.

The reason controversy has never subsided had to do not only with the brashness of the rhetoric, but also with the sheer impressiveness of the technical achievement, which made Schoenberg’s music such an influence on other composers and music theorists even as audiences continued to find it difficult and, in the opinion of many “laymen,” unrewarding. It is certainly not the aim of a book like this to resolve controversy, nor is there room for the kind of close analysis it would require of an hour-long composition fully to sustain Berg’s thesis. And yet the only evidence given thus far of the remarkable motivic consistency made possible by “emancipating the dissonance” has been a two-page piano piece lasting perhaps a minute, and a very general description of an opera that, like any opera, can claim coherence on the basis of its plot and text even without considering the music in detail.

As a parenthesis, then, let us replicate Berg’s experiment, so to speak, with one of Schoenberg’s emblematic expressionist compositions: “Vorgefühle” (“Premonitions”), the first of the Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16, composed with characteristic speed in May 1909, shortly before Erwartung. Specifically, let us consider the whole piece in the light of Ex. 6-24, a reduction of its first three measures, which (we may propose) foreshadows the whole piece in nuce, as study of the full score will confirm.

“Brahminism” Revisited

ex. 6-24 Reduction of Arnold Schoenberg’s Vorgefühle, mm. 1–3

Such a detailed comparison will indeed show that literally every note in the orchestral piece, “in all its harmonic, polyphonic, and contrapuntal domains,” can be referred to Ex. 6-24, which could therefore be asserted as the composition’s Grundgestalt. But Ex. 6-24 already betrays numerous motivic interrelationships. The first three sixteenth-notes in the running bass, to begin with, are an arpeggiation of the “atonal triad” at the downbeat of m. 2, which in terms of sounding duration counts as the main harmony in Ex. 6-24. Its “best normal order” is /0 1 6/.

The next three notes in the bass are an arpeggiation of the second chord in m. 1, which is a transposition of the chord that is held by the bassoons, and then the trombones, through the whole second half of the piece. Its constituent intervals could be represented in best normal order as /0 4 5/ (or, transposed up a semitone, as /1 5 6/. And the final chord in Ex. 6-24, the only one that contains four notes, is the sum of the two already tabulated: its constituent intervals could be represented as /0 1 5 6/. Not only that, but it too is explicitly arpeggiated in the running bass (the last two notes in m. 2 and the first two in m. 3).

The remaining two chords (the first in the piece and the one between the two repeated atonal triads in m. 2) are both presented as neighbors to the longer-sustained harmonies, proceeding to them in a way that should by now look habitual with Schoenberg, by semitones in contrary motion. Remarkably enough, these two chords, obviously “ornamental” in duration and function as implied by voice leading, are the only traditionally consonant harmonies in evidence. The one in the middle of m. 2, though wearing an enharmonic disguise, is actually an E-major triad. Thus the structural functions of consonance and dissonance seem to have been effectively (and perhaps parodistically) reversed. The one remaining harmony that will be found to play an important role in the composition, an augmented triad, may be found in the conjectural Grundgestalt as given in Ex. 6-24 by connecting (or collecting) the rhythmically prominent notes in the top voice: F, A, C♯. Thus local or contextual pitch “hierarchies” (ad hoc assignments of relative importance) continue to play a role in determining the syntax of the music.


(28) Schoenberg, “Analysis of the First Quartet” (1936); Rauchhaupt, Documentary Study, p. 36.

(29) Alban Berg, “Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” (1924); in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, eds. Elliott Schwarz and Barney Childs (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), pp. 68–69.

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 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006016.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 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006016.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 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006016.xml