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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

Again we have come full circle, back to Stravinsky, whose pastiche Octet took Aaron Copland, and many others, by surprise in 1923. Placed against the background of early-twentieth-century maximalism, the surprise was genuine. But given the background we have just traced, it might almost seem predictable. What made it so influential just then? Or to ask the question another, possibly more suggestive way, what made it so timely? The answer lies in a tension that had been dogging maximalist or modernist art from the beginning—that is, ever since those terms have been appropriate describers of artistic aims or artistic products.

Our definition of maximalist art has emphasized the continuation of traditional aims by radically intensified means. Our definition of modernism has emphasized “high self-regard and self-consciousness” (to quote from chapter 1), and “urbanity in every meaning of the word from ‘citified’ to ‘sophisticated’ to ‘artificial’ to ‘mannered.’” From the very beginning, it was obvious that the stance described by modernism was very much at variance with the “traditional” aims of art, if by tradition we mean the romantic tradition, which valued spirituality, sincerity, naturalness, spontaneity, and a host of other qualities that cannot stand the presence of irony (as anything as self-aware as modernism must imply).

This is a tension that maximalist artists had to bear. Some bore it more gracefully than others. Some, notably the French composers of Satie’s and Debussy’s generation, more willingly sacrificed romantic values, to the extent that their art has been described as “dehumanized.” (And recall that among the works that demonstrated their dehumanizing commitment to modernism in chapter 2 were already a couple of pastiche sarabandes!) Others tried tenaciously to have it both ways: to be fully modern, but also fully spontaneous and spiritual and self-expressive. Most conspicuous among these, of course, were artists in the German tradition like Mahler—but even more so the artists, like Schoenberg and Webern, to whom the epithet “expressionist” is applied. That tension or divided consciousness was among the things that drove their art—which, as we have seen, took maximalism to the max—to its extremes.

And yet the irony inherent in modernism could not always be denied or repressed, and in at least one work of Schoenberg’s it gained the upper hand. Not by accident, perhaps, that one work, Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot”, 1912), became the one work of Schoenberg’s maximalist phase to achieve real popularity despite—or more likely because of—its apparent atypicality within his output. Its absence from the discussion of Schoenberg in chapter 6, which placed sole emphasis on the sincerely self-expressive and spiritualist aspects of his work, has surely been a glaring one for anyone who knows it. Now it is time to make good the omission, as the tension between the modern and the romantic approaches its crisis.

The lengthy subtitle of Pierrot lunaire, Schoenberg’s op. 21, is worth quoting, for it is as succinct a description of this very eccentric piece as one is likely to come up with: “Thrice seven poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot lunaire (translated by Otto Erich Hartleben), for a speaking voice, piano, flute (alternating piccolo), clarinet (alternating bass clarinet), violin (alternating viola) and cello.” The source was a then-famous collection (published in 1884) of fifty little poems by a Belgian poet whose real surname was Kayenbergh, all of which concern the antics of the title character, Pierrot. The proverbial whiteface clown whose persona as ever-hopeful but always disappointed lover originated as one of the masked roles in the old commedia dell’arte, Pierrot became a key figure of romantic pathos thanks to the legendary portrayals of the role by the great Parisian mime Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846).

Cracking (Jokes) Under Stress

fig. 8-2 Pierrot Lunaire ensemble at the first performance, 16 October 1912: left to right, K. Essberger, clarinet and bass clarinet; Jakob Malinak, violin and viola; Schoenberg; Albertine Zehme, Sprechstimme; Eduard Steuermann, piano; Hans Kindler, cello; H. W. de Vries, flute and piccolo.

Giraud made a show of going back to a preromantic source by casting his Pierrot poems as “rondels,” adapting to his purpose one of the stiffly stylized late-medieval “fixed forms.” Every one of Giraud’s poems has thirteen lines divided 4 + 4 + 5, of which the first and second come back as the seventh and eighth, and the first comes back again as the last. The use of this strict archaic format, as well as the focus on a masked character and his erratic doings, already recall the esthetics of ironic pastiche as briefly surveyed earlier in this chapter. Giraud’s poems inhabited an odd, rather remote corner of the symbolist domain that crosscut the funny-peculiar and the funny-haha.

Schoenberg greatly increased Giraud’s already considerable ironic distance by resorting to the weird device of melodrama—dramatic recitation to musical accompaniment—rather than conventional singing for his Pierrot settings. This, too, was an eighteenth-century pastiche of a sort, for that was the century in which the melodrama was invented and chiefly flourished. (The earliest use of the device on record is by the Austrian composer Johann Ernst Eberlin in 1753; the first “classic” of the genre is Pygmalion by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, probably written in 1762.) Like many minor genres, melodrama had a specialist composer: Georg Benda (1722–95), a member of a famous Bohemian family of musicians, who worked mainly in Prussia. His first and best-known melodrama (Ariadne auf Naxos, as it happens) was first performed in 1775 and imitated by many composers, including Mozart.

Many German romantic operas, including standard repertory items like Fidelio and Der Freischütz, made occasional use of melodrama, so that it maintained a presence in German theaters, and especially in Vienna, long after its vogue had passed. At the very end of the nineteenth century, the period that formed the immediate background to Pierrot lunaire, there was a sudden flare-up of interest in it. In 1897, at his publisher’s request (thus as a frankly commercial venture), Richard Strauss made a melodrama setting of—or rather, wrote a piano accompaniment to—Enoch Arden, a long, sentimental narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. But several literary-minded composers, mainly German and Czech, took a more serious view of the genre’s possibilities, seeing in it a means for insuring maximum realism and verbal clarity despite the presence of music.

As was typical of Germans, they saw their use of melodrama as the fulfillment of history’s mandate. “Our modern opera is taking a path that must lead to the melodrama,”4 wrote one of its new enthusiasts, Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921). “With the dominant endeavors of our time, which no one can avoid, to bring reality to the stage, one must find a form that is suitable to this trend, and in my opinion the melodrama is that form.” Humperdinck is best known not for his melodramas but for his first opera, Hänsel und Gretel (1893), a work for children based on the famous Grimm fairytale, in which folksongs are given a very skillful Wagnerian treatment. Ever since its premiere it has been a perennial Christmas favorite in many countries. It could be that it was his willed infatuation with melodrama that prevented Humperdinck’s later stage works from achieving comparable popularity.

In any case, Humperdinck’s melodramas are the ones that stood closest to Schoenberg’s, because he was the first to control (or at least try to control) the speaker’s part by the use of a relatively full musical notation that specified both rhythm (exactly) and pitch (approximately). Previously, the words of a melodrama were simply entered above the musical staff. In eighteenth-century works (and also in Strauss’s Enoch Arden), the recitation and the music tended to alternate, as in an “accompanied” recitative, so that there were few problems of coordination. Where the speaker recited along with continuous music, the usual objective was nothing more than to arrive at the end of the passage together. Ex. 8-5, from Humperdinck’s opera Die Königskinder (“The king’s children”, 1910), shows his new method: what looks like an ordinary folklike tune, of a kind that abounds in Hänsel und Gretel, is notated with little xs in place of note-heads, turning the notes so marked into what Humperdinck called Sprechnoten (“speaking-notes”).

Cracking (Jokes) Under Stress

ex. 8-5 Engelbert Humperdinck, Die Königskinder, from Act I

As the composer explained, the Sprechnoten “are used for the purpose of indicating the rhythm and inflection of intensified speech (the melody of the spoken verse) and for placing these passages in agreement with the accompanying music.” As usually interpreted in performance, the notation directs the singer (or speaker) to aim for the notated pitch according to the notated rhythm, but immediately to begin sliding toward the next pitch, as one’s voice does in normal speech. Schoenberg probably picked up the idea directly from Humperdinck; there are little passages of melodrama in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (on which he began work in March 1900), notated precisely according to Humperdinck’s method.

In Pierrot lunaire the practice is characteristically (that is, “expressionistically”) maximalized. Schoenberg transferred the xs from the note-heads to the stems, so that he could apply the technique to half notes and dotted halves. That unnatural slowing down of the tempo of the speaking voice (Sprechstimme), the bizarre expansion of its range by the use of enormous melodic skips, and the extreme chromaticism that replaced Humperdinck’s (or the early Schoenberg’s) folksiness, greatly changed the effect of the melodrama. It now connoted a kind of dementia, “tales told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” expressionism ironically mocking itself.

This perception was greatly enhanced by the accompanying chamber ensemble, modeled incongruously (but in fact very shrewdly) on the sound of a cabaret orchestra. It turned the whole sensation of Pierrot lunaire into one of a deranged nightclub act at the furthest (hence most ironic) remove from the churchy ivory tower environment Schoenberg’s advanced music otherwise inhabited. Early performances, conducted by the composer, featured Albertine Zehme, the actress who commissioned the work and to whom it is dedicated, who declaimed the poems alone onstage under a spotlight, dressed not as Pierrot but as Columbine, the garishly beckoning femme fatale figure in the old masked comedy, and with the orchestra concealed behind a screen. Audiences found it titillating, and after a remarkable initial Berlin “run” to full houses, Schoenberg found himself with a relatively lucrative road show on his hands. He and Frau Zehme toured the piece for more than a decade.

Cracking (Jokes) Under Stress

fig. 8-3 Pierrot Lunaire, poster for the preview (by invitation) and the public premiere.

Its popularity caused the composer’s reverent disciples some consternation. One of them, Egon Wellesz, declared himself “suspicious of people who know only Pierrot lunaire, and admire Schoenberg on the strength of this one work,” and even a little suspicious of the single advanced composition by Schoenberg “that may have a certain effect on even an unpracticed hearer.”5 No fair enjoying dessert without eating your peas! And pay no attention to the jokes, Wellesz seems to be insisting in particular. By and large the grim literature that has grown up around the embattled figure of Schoenberg and his works has followed this advice. But the jokes are plentiful, they are often pretty good, and they constitute what was surely the timeliest and culturally most significant aspect of the score. That unanticipated popularity, suspicious or no, has something important to tell historians.

Ex. 8-6 shows the first quatrain of Mondestrunken (“Moondrunk”), the first in the set of twenty-one melodramas and one of Schoenberg’s most famous compositions, at least in terms of the frequency with which it has been described and analyzed in print. It sets the scene for all the hallucinatory verses to come, showing the “poet” Pierrot swilling “the wine that through the eyes is drunk,” that is, the moonlight that makes him rave. In the unrhymed singing translation given below, the refrain lines are set in italics to show how they return not only here but in every one of Giraud’s rondels. On each recurrence their meaning is somewhat altered by the context.

  • The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
  • at night the moon pours down in torrents,
  • until a spring-flood overflows
  • the silent far horizon.
  • Desires, shuddering and sweet,
  • are swimming through the flood unnumbered!
  • The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
  • at night the moon pours down in torrents.
  • The poet, whom devotion drives,
  • grows tipsy on the sacred liquor,
  • to heaven turning his enraptured gaze
  • and reeling, sucks and slurps
  • the wine that through the eyes is drunk.

The music is very easy to analyze, since its all-important Grundgestalt—the intervallic shape or “cell” that provides the melodic and harmonic raw material—is presented at the very outset in the form of an ostinato in the piano part. It may be very easily traced throughout the piece, sometimes literally repeated, sometimes varied through interpolations (piano right hand in mm. 5–6), intervallic alteration (piano right hand in m. 16) or sequences. Chords to which it directly gives rise are easily spotted (e.g., piano in m. 10).

The reason why the derivation of chords from ostinato tune is so easy is that the first five notes of the ostinato are drawn from a single whole-tone scale, to which the first note plucked on the violin also belongs, thus completing it. We may recall from the previous chapter that completion, whether of a limited set like the whole-tone scale or of the whole chromatic “aggregate,” was an important criterion of coherence for Schoenberg in composing his “pantonal music.” The ubiquitous “atonal triad” makes its anticipated appearances in the harmony (beginning with the piano in m. 7, second beat), and is also subtly prefigured in the ostinato. The ostinato’s last two notes, C♯ and G, can either of them combine with the initial G♯ and the D that falls on the second strong beat to make atonal triads (D–G♯–C♯ or G♯–D–G).

That much is straightforward. But as soon as the voice part is reckoned into the analysis, perplexity and ambiguity prevail. Counting both the piano and the violin parts, the opening ostinato contains nine different pitches, leaving three to complete the aggregate. All three are introduced by the voice part; two of them, A and B, are the first notes the voice “sings,” while the remaining note, F, is given a prominent rhythmic placement (at the beginning of m. 6), and is the longest note the voice has “sung.” Schoenberg, characteristically, is making something of a production out of the first aggregate-completion.

But the importance attached to the specific pitches A, B, and F is flatly contradicted by the Sprechstimme technique, especially considering that Frau Zehme, for whom the settings were written, was notoriously unconcerned with the niceties of pitch, and especially considering that Schoenberg claimed later that despite his fastidious notation, he neither expected nor wanted any greater exactness from the speaker. This may be confirmed by listening to a recording Schoenberg made of Pierrot lunaire, with a different singer, in 1940. Corroboration of another sort can be found in a later melodrama, Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, for speaker, piano, and string quartet, composed in 1942. Here Schoenberg contented himself with a much cruder notation for the speaker, in which only a single staff line is used, and the notes are placed either on it, above it, or below it, to denote rough high, middle and low registers. In the preface to the score, Schoenberg claimed that this notation would have sufficed for Pierrot as well, and that he should have used it then to avoid misconceptions about his intention.

Thus a seemingly important feature of the tonal organization as represented by the score turns out to be entirely chimerical when it comes to actual sound. Schoenberg, so often meanly accused of writing mere Papiermusik (“on-paper music”) or Augenmusik (“music for the eyes,” not the ears), here does it on purpose and, it would seem, in jest. A much more thoroughgoing irony of this kind, and a much funnier one (in a bewildering sort of way), is found in Der Mondfleck (“The moonspot”), no. 18 in the cycle of twenty-one:

  • A snowy fleck of shining moonlight
  • on the back side of his smart new frock coat,
  • so sets forth Pierrot one balmy evening,
  • in pursuit of fortune and adventure.
  • Sudden—something’s wrong with his appearance,
  • he looks round and round and then he finds it
  • a snowy fleck of shining moonlight
  • on the back side of his smart new frock coat.
  • Hang it! thinks he: a speck of plaster!
  • Wipes and wipes, but it won’t vanish!
  • On he goes, his pleasure poisoned,
  • rubs and rubs till almost morning at
  • a snowy fleck of shining moonlight.

Cracking (Jokes) Under StressCracking (Jokes) Under Stress

ex. 8-6 Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire, no. 1, Mondestrunken, mm. 1–18

Now here (Ex. 8-7) is an analyst’s delight: a strict canon at the octave between the violin and the cello, a freer canon (or perhaps a sort of fugue) at the twelfth between the clarinet and the piccolo, and in the piano part a harmonized version of the clarinet-piccolo canon, in doubled note-values (that is, at half the tempo), with the parts inverted, and with a third voice entering in the middle of the texture an octave below the first entry of the subject, so that the orthodox tonal relations of a fugue (E answers B answers E, or I–V–I) are scrupulously maintained. Not only that, but (as shown in Ex. 8-7) in the middle of m. 10 the string and wind parts reverse direction, producing a perfect melodic and rhythmic palindrome, while the piano continues to develop its fugue!

It is enough to boggle the mind, and it has elicited a lot of awestruck hyperbole, like Charles Rosen’s announcement that Der Mondfleck “is one of the most elaborately worked out canons since the end of the fifteenth century.”6 But how elaborately “worked out” is a canon or a fugue that is written in a style that recognizes no distinction between consonance and dissonance, so that harmonically speaking, literally anything goes? The essence of counterpoint has always been its “dissonance treatment.” That, and that alone, is where the skill is required and displayed. What makes Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of Fugue the astonishing tours de force that they are is not just the complexity of the texture, but the fact that that complexity is achieved within such exacting constraints. Take away the constraints and you have rendered the tour de force entirely pointless.

But of course Schoenberg knew that perfectly well—much better than his humorless admirers. Look again at the text: it is all about frenzied but pointless activity. That is a perfect description of an elaborate contrapuntal texture with “emancipated dissonance.” Or to put it the other way around, an elaborate contrapuntal texture with emancipated dissonance is a perfect metaphor for the urgent but ineffectual efforts Pierrot is making. (Notice, too, some traditionally comic word painting: the instrumental parts go into reverse just when the text describes Pierrot “looking round and round.”) From a bogus masterpiece of counterpoint, Der Mondfleck becomes a genuine masterpiece of self-mocking irony. (Once, to a pupil, Schoenberg cracked that “now that I’ve emancipated dissonance, anybody can be a composer.”) Most pertinent of all, perhaps, to the discussion with which this chapter began is the fact that this most ironically distanced item in Pierrot lunaire is the very one that musically (as well as textually) parodies archaic forms. Once again pastiche has served as metaphor for an ironic modernist sensibility. From the unlikeliest of quarters, it seems, namely the “expressionist” camp, we have confirmation of Ortega y Gasset’s diagnosis of modern art (first quoted in chapter 2) as “play and nothing else,” and therefore as “invariably waggish” or jesting, because its primary concern is with style, the “how” rather than the “what” of art. And that, Ortega suggests, is why modern art “avoids living forms” but instead, making an end run around the immediate past, claims kinship with the imagined eighteenth century. “The imperative of unmitigated realism that dominated the artistic sensibility of the last century,” Ortega wrote, including all art that aspires to direct communication of feeling,

Cracking (Jokes) Under Stress

ex. 8-7 Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire, no. 18, Der Mondfleck, mm. 9–11

must be put down as a freak in aesthetic evolution. It thus appears that the new inspiration, extravagant though it seems, is merely returning, at least in one point, to the royal road of art. For this road is called “will to style.” But to stylize means to deform reality, to derealize; style involves dehumanization. And vice versa, there is no other means of stylizing except by dehumanizing. Whereas realism, exhorting the artist faithfully to follow reality, exhorts him to abandon style. An enthuasiast of realist painting, groping for the suggestive word, will declare that it has “character.” And character, not style, is distinctive of nineteenth-century art in all its media. The eighteenth century, on the other hand, which had so little character, was a past master of style.7


(4) Engelbert Humperdinck to a Dr. Distl, 2 November 1898; quoted in Edward F. Kravitt, The Lied: Mirror of Late Romanticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 87.

(5) Egon Wellesz, Arnold Schoenberg: The Formative Years (London: Galliard, 1971), pp. 7–8.

(6) Charles Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 55; or Wellesz: “in the whole range of modern music I have nowhere found [anything] to place beside it” (Schoenberg: The Formative Years, p. 142).

(7) José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, trans. Helene Weyl (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 25.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008003.xml