We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

Recall the quotation, toward the end of Schoenberg’s “atonal” monodrama Erwartung, of the opening phrase from Am Wegrand, a song in D minor (Ex. 6-20). Although it had originated in a “tonal” context, the phrase contained a motif (or a pair of inversionally equivalent motifs) that had been serving in the opera as a Grundgestalt, a fundamental musical idea or “basic shape” that gave coherence to the harmonically nonfunctional (“atonal”) musical texture. There is no reason to suppose that the D-minor melody had been the actual source for the intervallic motif as it appears in the opera. More likely the association occurred to Schoenberg in the course of work, in response to the poetic idea or dramatic situation that the song and the opera had in common: waiting anxiously and fruitlessly for a desired person to appear.

Nevertheless, the notion of a motif crossing over or “progressing” from a tonal to an atonal context attracted Schoenberg, because it represented his stylistic transition to atonality—the “emancipation of dissonance,” as he preferred to call it—not as an arbitrary revolution against previous musical norms but as a methodological extension. As such, it could be described as a logical, or in terms of “dialectical” history even an inevitable, outgrowth from “common practice.”

As reflective and self-aware as any modernist, and preoccupied to the point of obsession with his place in history, Schoenberg never resolved his ambivalence on this score. At times, he represented his technical innovations as a virtual starting-over-from-scratch, even a musical bath in Lethe, the mythical river of forgetfulness. His strongest statement of this kind came in a program note he wrote late in 1909 or early in 1910 for the first performance of his Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (“Book of the hanging gardens”), op. 15, a song cycle set, like the ending movements of the Second String Quartet, to poems by Stefan George. In these songs, for the first time, Schoenberg unflinchingly maintained his “fluctuating” or “suspended” tonality, and his fully “emancipated” treatment of dissonance, right up to the double bar, withholding all tonal closure. At once aggressive and defensive, the note asserts:

With the George-Lieder, I have succeeded for the first time in approaching an expressive and formal ideal which has haunted me for years. Up until now, I lacked the strength and self-assurance to realize it. But now that I have started definitely upon this road, I am aware that I have burst the bonds of a bygone aesthetic; and, although I am striving towards a goal which seems certain to me, I foresee the opposition which I shall have to overcome; I feel the heat of the animosity which even the least temperamental will generate, and I fear that some who have believed in me up till now will not admit the necessity of this evolution.35

But even as he proclaimed his radicalism, Schoenberg’s ambivalence showed through. He simultaneously characterized his achievement as a break (a “bursting of the bonds”) and as an evolution. In later writings, evolution definitely gained the upper hand over break in Schoenberg’s self-evaluation, and he emerges ever more consistently in his own telling as a maximalist rather than a revolutionary, even as a sort of conservative, finding precedents for almost all of his stylistic departures in Wagner’s “roving harmony” and in what he called Brahms’s “developing variation” technique.

Of the two, the Wagner connection was the one more easily perceived and conceded by the composer’s contemporaries, especially those who knew the Gurrelieder, Schoenberg’s epic (that is, “Wagnerian”) cantata. Even Schoenberg’s expressionist music had an obvious affinity to Wagner’s music, consisting as it did of a formally free (or ad hoc) web of motifs. But Wagnerian leitmotifs were heterogeneous and referential, whereas Schoenberg dealt in nonreferential (or rather, self-referential) motifs that were ideally related, in the spirit of romantic “organicism,” to a single basic shape (what Emerson called THE ONE). That is why Schoenberg especially prized his descent from Brahms, in whose techniques of thematische Arbeit (“working-out of themes”) he came to see the source of his own Grundgestalt idea.

But of course, or perhaps even needless to say, the Brahms from whom Schoenberg descended was Schoenberg’s Brahms—a Brahms very compellingly (and influentially) reimagined in terms of the characteristics that linked their styles. Unlike his Wagnerian heritage, which he accepted as self-evident, Schoenberg very actively propounded his descent from Brahms. This gives us another opportunity to compare theory with practice. On one occasion, for example, asked in a radio talk to explain his own methods, Schoenberg responded by citing and analyzing the first theme from Brahms’s F-major Cello Sonata, op. 99, a late work (composed in 1886) that Schoenberg, a cellist himself, had known when it was new and thought difficult to understand (Ex. 6-27).

Schoenberg’s Brahms

ex. 6-27 Johannes Brahms, Cello Sonata no. 2, Op. 99, first theme, as cited by Schoenberg

Schoenberg emphasized the way Brahms built up the theme by gradually expanding on the initial two-note group: first by reversing its contour and contracting it to a semitone; next by disjunctly linking two versions of the falling pair, the first expanded to a whole tone, and the second (evened out to vary the rhythm) expanded to a minor third, the sum of a semitone and a whole tone; next by linking two versions of the first (ascending) pair conjunctly (so that the middle note does double duty), and expanding the interval from a fourth to a sixth (the previous third, inverted); then ascending further (the interval between the two three-note groups inverting the already-repeated ascending fourth) and varying it with a fifth in place of the sixth; and finally, summarizing everything in a five-note phrase that ascends through a fourth, a sixth, and another fourth, then falls by a fifth (an inverted fourth), with the two longest notes, F and G, representing the falling seconds from before in an expanded inversion encompassing a ninth (which is also the largest interval previously achieved, in the fourth phrase).

We could retell this story even more “Schoenbergianly,” perhaps, by putting it in reverse. Then it would more closely resemble the painstaking analysis given above of the little piano piece, op. 19, no. 1 (Ex. 6-13). Thus, if we take the concluding five-note phrase as a Grundgestalt, we could then systematically derive every previous (and succeeding) thematic event from it. The fact that in this case Schoenberg’s practice seems to resemble his theory in reverse is significant; for his self-constructed link to Brahms was a classic case of reverse (or double-reverse) historical narration, reversing into forward motion a lineage that had originally been traced retrospectively.

The most celebrated instance of this rhetorical ploy was another radio talk, given to mark the centenary of Brahms’s birth in 1933 and significantly titled “Brahms the Progressive.” In it, Schoenberg illustrated “developing variation” (the building up of larger musical entities from the endlessly varied repetition of smaller ones) by subjecting two themes of Brahms to a really atomistic analysis. First he showed how the theme from the slow movement of Brahms’s String Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2, could be derived from the tiniest particle, a two-note scalar descent labeled “a” in the diagram he drew up when revising the talk for publication in 1947 (Ex. 6-28). Again, the closest equivalent of the Schoenbergian Grundgestalt is not so much the two-note atom, but something a bit more characteristic—say perhaps the four–note “molecule” labeled “e” in the diagram. As the accompanying legend shows, “e” rather than “a” functions in context as a nexus set, relating all the others including the last.

Schoenberg’s Brahms

ex. 6-28 Arnold Schoenberg’s diagram of Brahms’s Op. 51, no. 2 theme

Schoenberg’s most famous Brahms analysis is the second one in “Brahms the Progressive.” It concerns O Tod (O Death!), from Brahms’s biblical cycle Four Serious Songs, op. 121 (1896), his last important composition. Its very telling analytical diagram is shown in Ex. 6-29; what it “tells” is how much more important the idea of motivic saturation was to Schoenberg, in analyzing Brahms, than were the guiding principles of voice leading and harmony that were likely paramount in Brahms’s mind, as they would have been in the mind of any “tonal” composer.

Schoenberg’s BrahmsSchoenberg’s Brahms

ex. 6-29 Arnold Schoenberg, analysis of “O Tod” from Brahms the Progressive

Note, for example, the apparent violence Schoenberg must do to the bass line in mm. 8–10 (reversing notes at will and selecting arbitrarily from the newly ordered result) in order to reproduce his motif “e,” a pair of descending thirds outlining a seventh. Even more subtly and significantly revealing are the rising thirds labeled “b” in mm. 2–5. It is doubtful whether Brahms could have considered the quarter-eighth pair labeled “b” in m. 5, where the second note is a dissonant appoggiatura, to be the motivic equivalent of the similarly labeled pairs of half notes that precede it, where all the tones are “chord tones.” Did Schoenberg really think that harmonic considerations—matters of consonance and dissonance—were no longer relevant to motivic identity in Brahms? Had Brahms already emancipated the dissonance?

Surely not, nor is it likely that Schoenberg really thought he had. Indeed, the emancipation of the dissonance was the one aspect of his own practice for which Schoenberg never claimed an explicit precedent in earlier music. But in a sense the claim he made in “Brahms the Progressive” was even bolder, and certainly more controversial. Calling Brahms a progressive was nothing if not polemical, since Brahms himself opposed the idea of musical progress that was proclaimed in his own day by the “young Hegelians” of the New German School. Calling him a progressive was Schoenberg’s way of saying that Brahms, like any other great composer, served history’s design willy-nilly.

What was progressive about Brahms, then, was the fact that he was in Schoenberg’s view a Schoenberg-in-training or a Schoenberg-in-waiting, whose motivic webs foreshadowed Schoenberg’s own in density. And to imply this much was further to imply that the emancipation of dissonance, Schoenberg’s great “bursting of the bonds,” was in a larger sense no break at all but rather the unique and necessary culmination of all previous musically progressive practice, realizing a historical tendency that Schoenberg was the first to identify and formulate explicitly, but which many historians, in thrall to his charisma, have since endorsed.


(35) Quoted in Reich, Schoenberg: A Critical Biography, p. 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. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006021.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006021.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006021.xml