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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

And yet Berg’s article, written long after the fact, was an anachronistic measure of Schoenberg’s achievement. By 1924, as we shall see, “purely musical” values were staging a strong comeback; but in the heyday of early twentieth-century maximalism, they could never have sustained the kind of claims Schoenberg himself was making for his “pantonality.” The reason why the spiritual or spiritualist element has taken a back seat in discussions of Schoenberg to the seemingly contradictory discourses of “expressionism” and “pure music” (between which it had originally provided the necessary mediating link) has partly to do with changing fashions: occult matters greatly declined, and abstract or “structural” matters greatly surged after World War I as standards for validating or evaluating art. But it also has to do with Schoenberg’s notoriously spasmodic artistic production. The masterwork that would have given supreme expression to his spiritual concerns remained unfinished, and is little known.

Late in 1912, Schoenberg was seized with the idea of composing an operatic trilogy on the subject of Balzac’s Séraphîta, the philosophical novel that so excited his imagination. Again he turned to Marie Pappenheim for the libretto. Alternatively, and concurrently, he planned a vast choral symphony in emulation of Mahler’s Eighth (the “Symphony of a Thousand”), which was itself a maximalization of Beethoven’s Ninth. The earliest surviving sketch for the symphony, dated 27 December 1912, is a recitative labeled “seraphita.” The culminating movement, for which the text was finished in January 1915, would have been a counterpart to the mystical final chapters of Balzac’s novel, which contained the vision of heaven.

This text contained several plain or covert paraphrases from Balzac, of which one—the Archangel Gabriel’s opening speech, “Whether right, left, forward or backwards, up or down, one has to go on without asking what lies before or behind”—resonates as well with Schoenberg’s description to Kandinsky of his “absolute and unitary” musical space, the original stimulus for the emancipation of the dissonance. We know its musical setting not from the symphony finale, which Schoenberg never wrote, but from the sketches of a work that eventually took its place in his creative agenda: Die Jakobsleiter (“Jacob’s ladder”), another grandiose oratorio that would have been something to set beside Gurrelieder, and which he started to compose in 1917.

The music leading up to Gabriel’s Balzac-inspired opening line is given in Ex. 6-25a. It begins with an ostinato derived from a six-note “row of tones,” as Schoenberg put it, that alternated half steps and whole steps from a starting point on C♯. (This strict alternation of tones and semitones makes Schoenberg’s row a segment of what we now call the octatonic scale, of course, but there is no evidence that he conceived it that way.) To achieve the heavenly unity he sought, Schoenberg intended to base all the themes in the oratorio on this “row,” which (whether by coincidence or design) begins with the same D-minor scale-segment (C♯–D–E–F) that he had previously mined from Am Wegrand for use in Erwartung. (It comes back in the second half of Die Jakobsleiter to represent the voice of “the liberated soul.”)

The maneuver that made the opening of Die Jakobsleiter demonstrably a musical representation of Balzac’s heaven was the immediate combination of the ostinato drawn from the octatonic segment with the complementary hexachord (F♯, A, B♭, B, C, E♭)—that is, the remaining six tones necessary to complete the aggregate. Like the octatonic hexachord from which Schoenberg derived the opening ostinato, this hexachord is also invariant when inverted, and can therefore represent or actually display the equivalency of “up and down, right or left, forward or backward.”

Schoenberg demonstrated these properties by presenting the second hexachord as a pair of the /0 1 4/ motifs so familiar from Erwartung, the one quite conspicuously the inversion of the other (Ex. 6-25b). They are sounded piecemeal but then sustained in the winds while the strings continue to sound the first hexachord as an ostinato running beneath.

As soon as the two wind chords have been completed in the higher register and are being sustained there, the string ostinato running beneath accelerates into a rhythmic diminution, which is then treated as a stretto. That is, different instruments enter in counterpoint with different orderings of the six tones of the hexachord, so calculated that after six such entries all six constituent tones are continuously present in the texture. Chalk up another aggregate simultaneity to go with Scriabin’s and Ives’s!

Just as in the Acte préalable (the ultimate exhibit in Chapter 4) or the Universe symphony (the ultimate exhibit in Chapter 5), we now have a completely saturated and completely symmetrical—which is to say a completely unitary, completely invariant, and functionally quiescent—musical space. And like its companions, Schoenberg’s construction exists and was motivated not simply as a technical feat but as a metaphor for a spiritual vision, a Weltanschauung. Or rather, to put it at once more boldly and more truly in terms of its conception, like Scriabin and Ives, Schoenberg was using his music here as a medium of occult revelation—a representation or even an enactment of an “ascent to a higher and better order.”

When the origin of atonality in a transrational, uncanny discourse is recognized, and its nature as a medium of occult revelation is grasped, both its heritage and its reason for being are clarified. It emerges as the outcome of a hundred years of romantic striving for sublime utterance. Die Jakobsleiter, with its religiously symbolic aggregate harmony, stands along with the grandiose torsos of Scriabin and Ives at the end of the line that began with Haydn’s “Chaos” and Beethoven’s Ninth. Erwartung, with its culminating aggregate symbolizing emotional overload, had already pressed to a seemingly unsurpassable limit the capacity of music to underscore and intensify dramatic catharsis—the purging power of terror. No wonder Schoenberg had to give up his attempt to surpass the unsurpassable. His failure to complete Die Jakobsleiter, like Scriabin’s to complete the Mysterium or Ives the Universe, was emblematic of a predicament in European culture. Maximalism had maxed out.

Unless, that is, it went in the other direction.

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006017.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006017.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006017.xml