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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin
At the Opposite Extreme

ex. 6-25a Arnold Schoenberg, Die Jakobsleiter, mm. 1–8

At the Opposite Extreme

ex. 6-25b Complementary hexachord and derivative harmonies

The idea of the “aggregate” or full chromatic gamut as symbolizing closure, or (more practically) as providing the opportunity for it, is curiously corroborated at the opposite end of the temporal and expressive scale by a number of pieces of extraordinary—indeed unprecedented—brevity. Among the most curious yet (backhandedly) characteristic products of the maximalist impulse, they bore a relationship to Beethoven’s Bagatelles (or Schubert’s Moments musicaux) comparable to the relationship that Gurrelieder or Die Jakobsleiter bore to the Ninth Symphony. They provided an arena in which Schoenberg, and even more enthusiastically and committedly his pupil Webern, could strive for the maximum in compression—“every glance a poem, every sigh a novel,” as Schoenberg put it in a preface he contributed to the first edition of Webern’s Bagatelles for string quartet, composed in 1911–1913 but only published in 1924. Even at the tiny end, determined extremism of this kind is a mark of the maximalist impulse.

Ex. 6-26 contains three such pieces, composed for increasingly elaborate performing media. The first is the sixth and last of Schoenberg’s Kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19, composed in June 1911, and conveying (as the composer remarked one day) the emotion he felt at Mahler’s funeral in May. It is nine measures long. Next comes the fifth of Webern’s six Bagatelles, op. 9, composed a year or two later. It goes on for twelve measures; but as they are half the length of Schoenberg’s measures, the piece is actually shorter. Finally comes the fourth of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 10, which lasts only six measures at a faster tempo, and is the shortest of all. (Webern exceeded its brevity only once, in a five-measure piece for cello and piano composed in 1914.)

These microscopic pieces all share a principle of structure (if such a word may be used to describe something so short). Webern put it best, or at least most vividly, in a memoir about the writing of the Bagatelles:

I had the feeling here that when all twelve notes had gone by, the piece was over…. In my sketch-book I wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes. Why? Because I had convinced myself: this note has been there already. It sounds grotesque, incomprehensible, and it was unbelievably difficult. The inner ear decided quite rightly that the man who wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes was no fool.30

Webern exaggerated slightly. No piece, whether by him or by Schoenberg, was ever over after a single round through the twelve pitch classes. But the three pieces chosen for Ex. 6-26 come close.

At the Opposite Extreme

ex. 6-26a Arnold Schoenberg, Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, no. 6

If, adopting the method Webern described, one wrote out the notes of the chromatic scale and crossed them off as they occur, one would note the gradual accumulation of the twelve in Schoenberg’s piano piece (Ex. 6-26a). The pair of chords that open it, and which together comprise a hexachord (half the chromatic gamut), form a ground that lasts until m. 6, against which the remaining pitches are gradually set off—D♯ and E as an expressive “sigh” figure in m. 3, B♭ as an extension of the fourths in the second “ground chord” in m. 5, immediately followed by D and G♯.

The twelfth and last pitch, C♯, comes in m. 7, after the ground chords have cleared. The single line of which it is a part, marked “with very tender expression,” has the character of a recitative, perhaps. In any case it is a transition to the last pair of bars, in which all twelve pitches are quickly “recapitulated,” and which ends with a final sounding of the ground chords. They are clearly a coda. So despite its brevity, the piece has a clearly delineated, and by no means untraditional, formal structure; and that structure is articulated by means of the gradual introduction and exhaustion of the chromatic gamut, just as Webern implied.

The profusion of expression marks corroborates the impression of traditional “romantic” expressivity. In Webern’s Bagatelle (Ex. 6-26b) they are even more profuse. Every note carries detailed performance directions, and an extraordinary range of tone colors (pizzicato, tremolando, sul ponticello) is employed, recalling Schoenberg's call for Klangfarbenmelodien. Crossing off the pitches, we note the first “exhaustion” with the first violin’s A in m. 7. Starting the next count with the next note, G, we note the next closure in the whispered pizzicati in m. 11 (again A, one of the two notes plucked together, can be called the last pitch), followed by a rest. The remainder, again, is coda; and again the pitches are “recapitulated” faster than they had been “exposed.”

At the Opposite Extreme

ex. 6-26b Anton Webern, Sechs Bagatellen Op. 9, no. 5

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this miniature is its tonal organization, reminiscent in microcosm of others we have seen. The opening measure fairly proclaims its symmetry. The ascending second in the second violin scrapes the insides of the major third sustained by the viola and cello. To continue the implied contraction would mean a convergence on D, the very note that appears in the first violin in m. 2. Reversing our perspective now, moving out from the axis D to C♯/D♯ and thence to C/E, we have reason to expect B/F to follow—and these are exactly the new pitches introduced by the first violin and viola on the downbeat of m. 3. And our next expectation, for B♭/G♭, is immediately fulfilled by the next pair of new pitches, played as a double stop by the first violin at the end of m. 4 and then sustained.

Only three pitches remain, and they are supplied in mm. 6–7. True, they are not introduced in precisely the order that our outward symmetrical expansion would imply: A♭ comes before, not after A. But we have good corroborating evidence of Webern’s symmetrical conceptual layout at the very end, when D, the note identified in the first two bars as the axis pitch, returns to close the piece. It is the “tone center” in the newly literal sense we have already encountered in Strauss and Debussy, and will encounter again, maximalized, in the work of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, Webern’s contemporary.

Finally, the “orchestral” piece (Ex. 6-26c): as if to compensate for its profusion of colors, it is the most austerely economical with pitches. The reason for putting the word “orchestral” in quotes has to do with Webern’s use of solo strings rather than sections, so that the piece is actually scored like chamber music, for nine instruments “one on a part.” Crossing off our pitches as before, we note the first completion in the trumpet’s “concert B” (notated as C♯ for a trumpet in B♭) in m. 2. For the first time since we have been counting, by the way, the twelve pitches have been introduced without any repetitions.

At the Opposite Extreme

ex. 6-26c Anton Webern, Fünf Stücke Op. 10, no. 4

The second count begins with the second “concert A” in the clarinet in m. 2 (again notated for an instrument in B♭, thus as B). Again the pitches accumulate without any redundancies (and with the clarinet’s trill in m. 5 supplying both the eighth and the ninth pitches). Only the last phrase, in the solo violin (to be played “as if exhaling’), which supplies the twelfth pitch (B♭), indulges in the luxury of a few redundant tones. Its first note, A♭, had already been played (as G♯) by the trombone; its last three pitches, more poetically, could be understood as starting another go-round that trails off into silence.

Given such extreme parsimony, the three notes contributed by the snare drum are somewhat enigmatic. Since they neither reinforce the beat, like a traditional percussion part, nor coincide with the attacks of any other part, they have to be understood as another melodic phrase in counterpoint with the rest. An even more vivid instance of Klangfarbenmelodie takes place in the second piece from the set, in which a tiny triangle tremolo takes over directly from a phrase played by the solo first violin in artificial harmonics, tremolando. One clearly has the sense that a single melodic line, in a single approximate “color,” has passed from the range of definite pitch into that of indefinite.

It often happens that hostile reviewers seem to sense the implications of radical novelties better than those who affect a more tolerant, less committed stance. Lawrence Gilman, whose important review of Ives’s Concord Sonata helped make the history of that piece, performed a similar service in the case of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Reviewing the New York premiere in 1926 and perhaps thinking to make fun, he nevertheless captured its claustrophobic expressive intensity better than any contemporaneous writer. Unlike most of his fellow reviewers, Gilman knew romanticism when he heard it, however attenuated. “Men of our generation,” he began,

aim, in such extreme cases as that of Webern, at a pursuit of the infinitesimal, which may strike the unsympathetic as a tonal glorification of the amoeba. There is undeniably a touch of the protozoic: scarcely perceptible tonal wraiths, mere wisps and shreds of sound, fugitive astral vapors, though once or twice there are briefly vehement outbursts, as of a gnat enraged. The Lilliputian Fourth Piece is typical of the set. It opens with an atonal solo for the mandolin; the trumpet speaks as briefly and atonally; the trombone drops a tearful minor ninth. (The amoeba weeps.)31


(30) Webern, The Path to the New Music, p. 51.

(31) Lawrence Gilman, New York Herald Tribune, 29 November 1926; quoted in Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective (2nd ed., Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), pp. 249–50.

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. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006018.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006018.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006018.xml