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

That characteristic resort to browbeating was surely the least attractive product of modernist mythography. There were much more attractive ones. Webern gave a fascinating practical demonstration of how historiographical ideas can be translated into composerly procedures, when in 1934–1935 he transcribed for orchestra the six-part ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. The most characteristic feature of the orchestration, and at the same time one of its more enigmatic traits, is the way Webern cut up (or, as music analysts would say, “segmented”) the famous “royal” theme given Bach by Frederick the Great as a subject for improvisation. On its every appearance, the 8-measure theme is divided into seven timbrally differentiated parts, numbered for reference in Ex. 6-30.

“Motivicization” in Practice

ex. 6-30 Theme from Bach’s Six-part Ricercar as segmented by Anton Webern

At first blush we are apt to notice nothing more than the seemingly arbitrary shifts of timbre. We may be inclined to write it off as another attempt at Klangfarbenmelodie, “tone-color melody,” or attribute it to Webern’s penchant for what was sometimes called his “pointillism,” with reference to the French postimpressionist painterly technique of applying color in little daubs that contrast close up but blend when viewed from afar. When all the voices get going in Webern’s scoring, and with all the countersubjects given a treatment just as pointillistic as the subject gets, the kaleidoscopic effect is indeed entrancing.

But a closer look reveals something else as well. The colors do not only contrast; they also recur in a consistent pattern whenever the theme is sounded. Thus segments 1 and 5 are assigned to the same instrument on every appearance of the theme (first the muted trombone, then the flute, then the bass clarinet, then the English horn, and so on), as are segments 2 and 6 (first the muted horn, then clarinet, muted trombone, “open” horn, etc.). The constant use of the harp as a doubling instrument in segments 4 and 7 consistently associates them with one another, as well as with segment 2, which uses the color the harp doubles in segment 4, and segment 3, which uses the color doubled by the harp in segment 7. (Sharp-eyed readers will notice that the assignment of the cello to motif 6 and bassoon to motive 7 in the sixth line of Ex. 6-30 reverses the established pattern. The example is accurate: the apparent “error” was Webern’s.)

If we now notice that the two segments doubled by the harp (4 and 7) are identical in pitch content (E♭ descending to D), we have made an association between color and motif—the first of many. This observation turns out to coincide with Webern’s compositional strategy, as we learn in a letter he sent the conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was preparing the first performance in 1938. “My instrumentation attempts to reveal the motivic coherence” of the ricercar, he wrote.44 Knowing this much prompts an analytical strategy. Replacing the word “segment” with “motif,” then, we may survey Webern’s achievement thus:

  • The next logical step is to observe that the two motifs associated by harp-doubling with the two identical ones, namely 2 and 3, also consist (like motives 4 and 7) of descending semitones.

  • Turning our attention next to all the motifs that share the color doubled by the harp in segment 4—namely segments 2, 4, and 6—we notice a pair of subtle interrelationships. First, motifs 4 + 6 reproduce motifs 6 + 7 in reverse order. Second, motifs 2 and 4 connect over an augmented second, which is the inversion of the diminished seventh at the end of motif 1, surely the most characteristic interval in the theme.

  • Not only that, but the contents of motifs 2 (G + F♯) and 4 (E♭ + D) can be replicated within motif 1 at a transposition of a fourth (or fifth, depending on direction): C, B, A♭, G; and now remember that the second entry (or “answer”) in a fugue or ricercar is at that very transposition, so that the next time motif 1 is heard, it will use the pitches of motifs 2 and 4.

  • And of course anything said about motifs 2 + 4 can also be said about motifs 2 + 7.

  • Meanwhile, motifs 3 + 7 (associated by color) equal motifs 3 + 4 (associated by contiguity), and also equal motifs 2 + 3 at a transposition of a second. Putting this another way, one can say that motif 3 is to motif 2 what motif 4 (or 7) is to motif 3. And is it a coincidence that motifs 3 + 2, or 4 + 3 are transpositions of the famous B-A-C-H cipher?

  • And by the same token, motif 5, which covers four descending half steps, equals motifs 2 + 3 + 4(= 7).

  • Finally, motif 1, the longest of the motifs and the most characteristic, being the famous Kopfmotiv or head motif of the royal theme, summarizes all the intervallic relationships we have noted in the others. Its extremes, C and B, encompassing a descending semitone, reproduce the contiguous contents of motifs 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7; and its third and fourth notes (G + A♭) invert the same interval. Its final interval inverts the nexus of motifs 2 and 4 (associated by color). Its second and fifth notes coincide with the odd interval (a diminished fourth) that defines the contour of motifs 4 + 5, which fill the interval in by a scalewise chromatic descent; and the consonant fifth that stands at the extremities of the opening key-defining triad is inverted and sequentially repeated in motif 6.

Since everything that happens later can be derived from it, motif 1 can be defined as the Grundgestalt of the ricercar, and all the succeeding motifs—indeed the whole ricercar—can be viewed as its “developing variations.” Our heads may be swimming at this point the way they were on concluding the analysis of Ex. 6-13, the first tiny piano piece from Schoenberg’s op. 19. And no wonder, for by dint of his atomistic rescoring of the ricercar Webern has managed to cast Bach, as Schoenberg had already cast Brahms, as a Schoenberg-in-training. Even more to the point, not a few decades but a full two centuries of music history have been cast as prelude to the emancipation of dissonance, which finally freed from all irrelevant constraints the kind of motivic writing Webern has elevated to a primary compositional objective of Bach’s, and an immanent feature of his music (which it took Webern’s interpretation fully to “reveal”).

And yet it should be clear by now that what we have witnessed has been less a revelation than a revision of Bach’s priorities, and that the historical precedent that Webern has cited was in fact of his own ingenious devising. It should also be obvious that refuting the historical claims made by composers or arrangers does not amount (in itself, anyway) to a refutation, or even so much as a comment, on the artistic value of the work they have produced. As listeners, we are perfectly free to welcome Webern’s commitment to pseudohistorical fiction (to put it as bluntly as possible) if we take pleasure in the artistic result.

As historians, we are obliged to be more wary. But we are also obliged to take note of the fiction, since once it was adopted it made real history. Like the dicta of the old New German School, of which it was in its way a maximalization, this strain of tendentious twentieth-century music historiography became in its own right a significant and influential aspect of twentieth-century musical thought. As many of the chapters that follow will attest, it has had a decided impact on the histories of composition, performance, and audience reception, none of which can be fully understood without reference to it.

Mere refutation, then, can never suffice to dispel a mythology. Attention must be paid. The myths must be accounted for, above all as sociological phenomena with ramifications leading beyond music, and beyond esthetics, into matters of general philosophy, history, and politics.


(44) Quoted in Hans Moldenhauer and Rosaleen Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 444.

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. 5 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006023.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 5 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006023.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 5 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006023.xml