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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

The passage in Ortega’s essay subtitled “A Few Drops of Phenomenology” (after the branch of philosophy that inquires into the nature of appearances and perception) can help us understand Berg’s predicament. Ortega imagines a deathbed scene witnessed by the wife of the dying man, his doctor, a reporter, and a painter.6 Their various relationships to the event are analyzed in turn. The author’s conclusion is that as the four witnesses are each more detached from the event emotionally than the last, they are by the same token increasingly observant of it in all its details. It is that maximum detachment that enables the artist “objectively” to channel the emotions of the lived reality into significant form. That form then becomes, for the artist and those who truly appreciate his art as art, the object and the aim of contemplation. And that is irony at its highest and best, no longer to be simply identified with humor. It is the irony that transforms experience into art.

Wozzeck is a monument to that idea—or rather, it reflects the historical moment in which that idea achieved its completest triumph over the earlier, “vitalist” view of art as a mirror reflection or reproduction of lived reality, valuable only to the extent that it transmitted to observers the feelings of a participant. Although dependent for its originating impulse on “lived” reality—in Ortega’s case the great man’s death, in Berg’s the historical crime that had first served Büchner as an inspiration—the artwork becomes a part of objective reality in its own right, with its own independent claim on our attention that arises out of its skillful making. Its effect on us is the product of the artist’s manipulation of his materials, not the “content” alone; and while that is of course true of all art, art is now under an obligation to “show its hand” and make its manipulations known.

This applies even—or especially—to the great expressive climax in Wozzeck, where Berg made his most direct appeal to empathy. The entr’acte between scenes 4 and 5 of act III has its own place in the composer’s list of “inventions.” He called it Invention über eine Tonart, an “Invention on a Key.” It provides a true catharsis after Wozzeck’s tragic death—or rather, a catharsis to mark Wozzeck’s death as tragic—and as such is notably out of character with Büchner’s tight-lipped little play. At once a “slow waltz in the lachrymose tradition of Gustav Mahler” and a “parade of leitmotives”7 (as one critic, who rather deplored its intrusion, put it), it reaches its searing turning point at the moment shown in Ex. 9-12, where a deafening twelve-tone “aggregate sonority” suddenly gives way to an obsessively reiterated V–I bass progression in D minor, thus bringing the “invention on a key” into conformity with the obsessive-compulsive ostinato technique of the other act III inventions.

This apparently “vitalist” interlude, in which ironic distance seems all at once to vanish, has been a focus of critical controversy. Many have resisted what they have seen as the composer’s despotic attempt to force the listener’s sympathy. George Perle has objected to the very concept of an “invention on a key” on purely technical grounds: “It is difficult to see what distinctive features are to be inferred from this title that would differentiate the movement from any other tonal composition.”8 Noting that the other inventions are based on what Berg called “unifying principles” (pitches, chords, rhythms, etc.), Perle notes that musical forms based on such principles “may be either ‘tonal’ or atonal.’ The ‘unifying principle’ implied in the term ‘key,’ on the other hand, belongs to another level of analytical discourse entirely.”

But that is so only if the presence of a key is considered a normal (or a “default”) aspect of music; and that, of course, is not the case in Wozzeck. The act III interlude is (by several orders of magnitude) the biggest of those “tonal” moments that impinge on the atonal world of this opera at strategic intervals like comments from beyond, or without, thus setting up the biggest, most “global” irony of all: what is normal elsewhere is abnormal here and vice versa. The “normal” language of tonality can only be spoken in Wozzeck as a foreign tongue. And the necessary use of so many ironic quotation marks in this paragraph shows how thoroughly inverted or “ironized” the expressive situation has become. Tonality is only available for use here “in quotes,” the subject of special treatment in the form of a technical “invention” along with all those hidden “tonal” forms in the first two acts (the symphonies, the fugues, the gigues, and the gavottes) that turn out to be unrecognizable in the absence of tonality.

Putting Things “in Quotes”

ex. 9-12 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act III, Entr’acte between scenes 4 and 5 (“Invention on a Key”), climax.

But as soon as we respond as “normal” listeners to the stimulus of the interlude’s tonal catharsis, black and white are radically reversed. All the rest of the opera is now placed “in quotes.” The distance of its special world from the “normal” world of music becomes a part of the characterization, a metaphor for Wozzeck’s crazed condition. The reason why audiences respond to Wozzeck “despite” its atonal language turns out to be the same as the reason why atonal music has become popular in film soundtracks as a representational device. Audiences understand it in both contexts as a metaphor for physical or psychological abnormality; it symbolizes stress, aberration, horror. It consummately conveys the terror in Wozzeck; but to summon pity the composer had to resort to an “invention on a key.” In his very success with the atonal idiom, still unequaled and probably never to be surpassed, Berg exposed its limitations. There could be no greater irony, in all senses of the word. What Berg (or rather, what Wozzeck) seemed to be suggesting, unwelcome as the news might be even to Berg himself (to say nothing of his teacher), was that the “emancipation of dissonance” was meaningful only to composers, not to listeners, for whom (no matter at what point the line is drawn or how many harmonies are eventually accepted as “harmonious”) dissonance and consonance nevertheless remained, and would always remain, a meaningful (indeed, a meaning-creating) antithesis. Reaction to this uneasy suggestion—that the all-important emancipation of dissonance might be just another of the twentieth century’s utopian pipe-dreams—must inform what otherwise seems Stravinsky’s insufferably snobbish remark that “what disturbs me about Wozzeck, a work that I love, is the level of its appeal to ‘ignorant’ audiences.”9

Despite its popularity, then, or even because of it, Wozzeck remains a controversial work, both from the standpoint of its historical significance and because of the unresolved tensions between its surface action and its arcane structure. Berg himself was equivocal about the latter problem. In a 1928 talk about the opera he claimed that his recourse to “musical forms more or less ancient” was simply a way of differentiating the different scenes and thus maintaining interest. It was solely his business, he insisted, claiming in conclusion that

No matter how cognizant any particular individual may be of the musical forms contained in the framework of this opera, of the precision and logic with which everything is worked out and the skill manifested in every detail, from the moment the curtain parts until it closes for the last time, there must be no one in the audience who pays any attention to the various fugues, inventions, suites, sonata movements, variations, and passacaglias—no one who heeds anything but the idea of this opera, which by far transcends the personal destiny of Wozzeck. This I believe to be my achievement.10

And yet the published score contradicts this assertion to the extent that “the various fugues, inventions, suites, sonata movements, variations, and passacaglias” are explicitly labeled and even analyzed, so that the reader may be properly impressed with “the precision and logic with which everything is worked out and the skill manifested in every detail.” (Act I, scene 4, for example, in the Doctor’s office, is the one that contains the passacaglia to which Berg makes reference: every one of its twenty-one variations is labeled for the reader.) It was probably with reference to ostentatious analytical labels like these that the American composer Roger Sessions, writing in 1933, could ridicule “an opera whose remarkable feature when heard is its fidelity to the text, its responsiveness to every changing psychological nuance,” but which “proves on examination to be constructed in its various scenes on the external models of classic forms, without, however, the steady and consistent [‘tonal’] movement that gives these forms their purpose and their character.”

Sessions suspected “the presence of a merely speculative element” in Berg’s music,

tending to be completely dissociated from the impression actually received by the ear and the other faculties which contribute to the direct reception of a musical impression, and to produce what is either a fundamentally inessential jeu d’esprit [witticism] of sometimes amazing proportions, or a kind of scaffolding erected as an external substitute for a living and breathing musical line.11

Clearly the words of an unreconstructed vitalist, these. But as we have noted many times, it is sometimes the negative critiques that offer the best perceptions into the relationship between an artwork and its time.

While in his indignation Sessions may have exaggerated the extent to which Wozzeck could be reduced to a jeu d’esprit, he was nevertheless on to something significant about the work and about its time. Berg was fascinated by intellectual games, puzzles, ciphers, and codes of all kinds. (We have already seen an example of this predilection in his Chamber Concerto, in which the themes encode the names of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; see Ex. 6-4.) His music is packed with riddles and hidden symbols. Some of it (like numerological symbolism) reflected Berg’s personal superstitions; some of it had urgent autobiographical significance (like the coding of his initials and those of a secret lover in the music of his Lyric Suite for string quartet). And some of it, to be sure, was simply (merely? purely?) playful.

George Perle, who first decoded the secret love messages in the Lyric Suite, also came across a letter to Schoenberg in which Berg wrote out a harmonic curiosity (Ex. 9-13a) that Perle rather grandly christened the “Master Array of Interval Cycles.”12 All it amounts to is a superimposition of note-rows that proceed from a common starting point by uniform intervals of increasing size. At the bottom of the array is the chromatic scale (proceeding by minor seconds); above that is the whole-tone scale (proceeding by major seconds); above that is an arpeggiated diminished seventh chord (proceeding by minor thirds); then an arpeggiated augmented triad (proceeding by major thirds), and so on.

The array has fascinating properties indeed. Once past the initial unison, every chord formed by the superimposition is intervallically symmetrical: first a cluster of semitones, then a whole-tone aggregate, then a diminished seventh chord, then an augmented triad, and so on. And since once the tritone is passed the intervals all recur in their inverted form, the array (when pushed through twelve progressions) becomes a palindrome as well. Berg was in effect stumbling playfully on the same intersection of symmetries that (as we learned in chapter 7) was the object of Bartók’s—and, later, Perle’s—diligent research.

And once he’d stumbled on it, it went right into Wozzeck (Ex. 9-13b), and into one of the most serious scenes at that: Wozzeck’s agonized confrontation with Marie in the middle of act II. One cannot say that the presence of this curiosity in any way compromises the seriousness of the scene as far as the listener is concerned; but its presence certainly does confirm Ortega’s diagnosis of the modern art of the 1920s as essentially “jesting,” even when serious, and therefore ironic. The very fact that Berg took delight in loading his opera with so much hidden brainy baggage — from “ancient forms” to interval arrays to number symbols and more — is an aspect of that jesting, ironic stance, and (more seriously) of the emergent divide between “research” and “communication” as composerly ideals.

Putting Things “in Quotes”

ex. 9-13a Alban Berg’s “master array”

Putting Things “in Quotes”

ex. 9-13b Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act II, scene 3, incorporation of the “master array”

The delight that the research aspect of Berg’s work has afforded analysts — to the point where many studies of Wozzeck have completely ignored the opera’s dramatic aspect and concentrated solely on its fascinating “poetics” or making—is another symptom of that irony, and that divide. Modernist music, increasingly, meant one thing to audiences, another to professionals: the “poietic” and the “esthesic” were drifting apart. Some have regarded this as a liberation, others as a tragedy. The aspect of Wozzeck that many find miraculous is the way in which Berg managed, particularly in act III, to yoke poietics and esthesics to a common purpose. The purposes are measurably less common in the earlier acts of the opera, and there are many later modernist works in which there is no discernable connection between the two, even works in which there seems to be no discernable esthesic component at all.

Berg never approached such an extreme. His “research” (except, perhaps, in his Chamber Concerto) never became an end in itself. But the ends to which it was the means were not only communicative. In a commentary on Berg’s jeux d’esprit that was far less contentious but no less insightful than Sessions’s, the literary critic Herbert Lindenberger, who began his career with a study of Büchner, compared Berg’s “form-consciousness” in Wozzeck to other manifestations of “classicism” in the art of the 1920s. These included Stravinsky’s, of course, but also, as Lindenberger reminds us, the literary work of writers like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.

He quotes Eliot’s defense of Joyce’s novel Ulysses, in which (as in Wozzeck) naturalistic content is presented within, and through, a framework of recondite technical tours de force and jeux d’esprit. That frame, in Joyce’s case, was derived from Greek mythology, and in particular from Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce, like Berg, had been accused of turning art into mere wit; but Eliot suggested that his method was “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”13 Lindenberger very reasonably compares Joyce’s method as described by Eliot to “the function of the tight musical forms which Berg employs to contain the chaotic and characteristically modern materials that he found in Büchner’s play.”14 This comparison brings Wozzeck within the purview of another, more famous, dictum of Eliot’s: “It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it.”15 But what Eliot propounds as a universal principle, it is now easy enough to see, was more a symptom of an obsession peculiar to his time, a time when artists in all media, including many (like Schoenberg and Stravinsky) who regarded one another as esthetic antagonists with nothing at all in common, but all reeling together at the futility, the anarchy, the loss of faith, and the havoc wrought by the most needless and destructive of all wars, took refuge together in a consoling order they had purchased by a huge investment in irony.


(6) José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, trans. Helene Weyl (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 14–19.

(7) Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 231.

(8) George Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg, Vol. I: Wozzeck (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), p. 89.

(9) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), p. 24.

(10) Alban Berg, “A Word about Wozzeck” (Das Opernproblem, 1928); Composers on Music, ed. Sam Morgenstern (New York: Bonanza Books, 1956), p. 462.

(11) Roger Sessions, “Music in Crisis: Some Notes on Recent Musical History,” Modern Music X (1932–33): 75.

(12) See George Perle, “Berg’s Master Array of Interval Cycles,” Musical Quarterly LXIII (1977): 1–30.

(13) Quoted in Herbert Lindenberger, Georg Büchner (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), p. 129.

(14) Lindenberger, Georg Büchner, p. 129.

(15) T. S. Eliot, “Poetry and Drama”; quoted in Kerman, Opera as Drama, p. 8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009005.xml