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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia
Richard Taruskin

These desultory remarks on a few salient features of the Suite for Piano, op. 25, could easily be amplified into a complete analysis of the piece—indeed a more complete analysis, in the sense that it can more fully trace the composer’s decisions in the very act of composing, than in any other kind of music. That analytical transparency, making twelve-tone technique perhaps the easiest of all compositional methods to demonstrate and teach, and which therefore gave it an aura of uprightness in the spirit of scientific “positivism” (open empirical inquiry), was an important spur to its spread, just as its “artificiality” and “arid intellectualism” (the very same qualities, of course, viewed from a less welcoming perspective) incited resistance.

In any case, from the most arcane of compositional methods, “atonal” composition all at once became the most lucid. It withheld no secrets at all from a determined analyst (although the naked ear might still be baffled). Like a scientific proof, a twelve-tone composition proceeded logically, by inference from an axiomatic premise (the row). No music better illustrated the debunking, materialist, objective, and antimetaphysical spirit of postwar disillusion than this ironic descendant of expressionism, of all prewar styles the most subjective and mystique-ridden. And yet the gnawing tension between poietic transparency and esthesic opacity would never be entirely dispelled.

And there was something else, too, that made twelve-tone music permanently controversial. A tiny hint of it comes at the beginning of the Gavotte (Ex. 12-13), in which the prime form of the row is split, at the outset, between the two hands. The right hand plays the first eight notes of Po as a typically grotesque little tune, which the left hand accompanies with notes 9–12. But once the boundary note 12 is reached, it does typical double duty and serves as the fulcrum for a reversal. The B, C, and A that had preceded the B♭ in m. 1 come back in reversed order, producing the beginning of Ro: B♭ A C B, which, as we have long known, in German spells “Bach.” Schoenberg does not pursue Ro beyond this point. Like the extra little incipit in Ex. 12-5, its beginning is there just to “say hello” and make its point.

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-13 Arnold Schoenberg, Suite, Op. 25, Gavotte, beginning

This time the point is made sotto voce, in a witty whisper, for the analysts alone. In the Variations for Orchestra, op. 31 (1928), Schoenberg’s first large-scale “public” twelve-tone composition and anything but a jest, the tandem declaration of innovation and birthright is ostentatious and hortatory. The theme on which the variations are based encompasses one complete complex, so to speak, of row forms: first a prime, next a double mirror or retrograde inversion, third an order mirror or retrograde, and finally a contour mirror or inversion, accompanied by another prime. Ex. 12-14a shows the theme as it first appears in the Variations, played by the cellos (joined at the end by the first violins) and harmonized by another complex of row forms, whose special complementary relationship to the melody it accompanies will be something to return to.

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14a Arnold Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, the theme

Once, in a radio address, Schoenberg stressed the kinship between the drooping contours of his theme and the typically appoggiatura-rich themes of late Romantic compositions by half-jestingly giving it a “tonal” accompaniment (Ex. 12-14b) in “a quite good F major that insistently courts G-flat major.”25 He further commented, “Some people will prefer this treatment to the original. I don’t like it, but that is a matter of taste. Why now, if I can also do it that way, do I write a different accompaniment, which is bound to have a less general appeal? All I can say now is that it is not out of malice.” Rather than malice, of course, it was commitment to “New German” ideals of evolutionary progress that, as always, impelled Schoenberg’s stylistic development. But in the actual music of the Variations he contrived another, far more pointed, reminder of his stylistic heritage. In the Introduction—that is, the section preceding the first statement of the theme—Schoenberg contrived a pair of measures, each of which corresponded, like many measures in the Piano Suite, to a statement of a single row form. Together, they put Po and I1 in counterpoint (Ex. 12-14c). The four circled notes in Ex. 12-14c, which occupy corresponding order positions (1 and 6) in both row forms, are the notes Schoenberg entrusts to the traditionally portentous trombone (having allowed himself many liberties in the order of presentation of I1). When so intoned, and doubled by the cellos using “hairpin” dynamics, the BACH motif is difficult to miss (Ex. 12-14d). It is a sort of time bomb.

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14b Arnold Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, theme as harmonized over Radio Frankfurt in 1931

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14c Arnold Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, prime and inverted row forms

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14d Arnold Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, mm. 24–25

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14e Arnold Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, the row forms in Ex. 12-14c trans-posed to reveal additional BACH ciphers

Back Again To Bach

ex. 12-14f J. S. Bach, main subject from The Art of Fugue

The tone row, indeed, has been covertly tailored to a Bachian purpose. The notes in order positions 2–5 in any statement of the row or its inversion (or in positions 8–11 in any reversed statement) are a transposition of the BACH set (albeit presented in the easily “correctable” order BCAH/HACB; see Ex. 12-14e). Not only that, but as Schoenberg scholar Ethan Haimo has pointed out,26 the notes in order positions 5–9 in Po correspond to the notes in the subject of Bach’s crowning testament of his mastery, the Art of Fugue (see Ex. 12-14f), venerated by all the Schoenbergians as an epitome of “organicism.” The grandiose finale to the Variations, whose 210 measures nearly equal all the rest combined (252), flaunts dozens of BACH allusions, some dramatic (like the ones introduced near the beginning by a double bass recitative in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), some woven into tight contrapuntal textures, others building at the end to a blazing climax. Schoenberg’s Variations aggressively proclaim the composer’s special line of descent from the composer who—and this is in itself significant—was as much everybody’s asserted forebear after the Great War as Beethoven had been before it.

But who was Bach to Schoenberg? Not at all the same man as “kleine Modernsky’s” Papa Bach, whose archaism represented timelessness, and whose abstract mastery represented universality. Schoenberg’s Bach was not a universal figurehead but a national one. Bach, for Schoenberg, was above all a German, indeed the greatest of Germans and the fountainhead of German musical art; hence the special venom with which Schoenberg derided “Franco-Russian” attempts to appropriate him. Schoenberg’s neoclassicism was uniquely laced with nationalism—the particularly embittered nationalism of a defeated and resentful nation.

His writings abound in passages that underscore this connection. “It was mainly through J. S. Bach,” Schoenberg alleged in an essay called “National Music,” “that German music came to decide the way things developed, as it has for 200 years.”27 What vouchsafed German domination, moreover, was precisely the technique that Schoenberg saw himself as having inherited from Bach and, through the twelve-tone system, perfecting: namely, “contrapuntal art, i.e., the art of producing every audible figure from one single one.”28 Lest anyone miss the point, Schoenberg spelled out his truculent claims. First, with respect to twelve-tone music: “If at the climax of contrapuntal art, in Bach, something quite new simultaneously begins—the art of development through motivic variation—and in our time, at the climax of art based on harmonic relationships, the art of composing with ‘twelve tones related only to each other’ begins, one sees that the epochs are very similar.”29 And with reference to himself: “My music, produced on German soil, without foreign influences, is a living example of an art able most effectively to oppose Latin and Slav hopes of hegemony and derived through and through from the traditions of German music”30 —traditions that went “back to Bach,” as the saying went, but a route that in Schoenberg’s insistent view only Germans could legitimately take.

The Variations for Orchestra—one of a number of early twelve-tone pieces by Schoenberg and his pupils to invoke the BACH motif, if by far the most impressive—asserted these claims in a manner that went beyond words. This view of his twelve-tone compositions and their heritage had informed what is now Schoenberg’s most notorious remark, which he made in conversation with his teaching assistant, the musicologist Josef Rufer, in the summer of 1921 or 1922: “Today I have discovered something which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”31 Needless to say, ever since Rufer published it in 1959 this has been one of the most pounced-upon assertions in the history of European music. A representative defense of Schoenberg’s position (by George Perle, already familiar to us as an analyst, and one of many European and American composers who have devoted their careers to enlarging on the Schoenbergian legacy) excuses the rhetorical excess by placing it in historical context. “There was much speculation, in the years immediately following the First World War, on the likelihood that the great Austro-German tradition, to which we still owe the major part of our standard orchestral repertory, was coming to an end,” Perle wrote. “Why should we be surprised that a post-bellum Austro-German composer would hope that that tradition had not ‘had its day’?”32 Others have not found it so easy to overlook the distinction between survival and supremacy, especially after the Second World War, which was fought precisely over the issue of Germany’s claim to world supremacy in an arena much larger than music.


(25) Arnold Schoenberg, “Variations for Orchestra, op. 31,” The Score (July 1960); quoted in Glenn Watkins, Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer, 1988), p. 335.

(26) Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of His Twelve-Tone Method, 1914–1928. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 162.

(27) Schoenberg, “National Music” (1931), Style and Idea, p. 170.

(28) Ibid., p. 171.

(29) Ibid.

(30) Ibid., p. 173.

(31) Josef Rufer, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg: A Catalogue of His Compositions, Writings, and Paintings, trans. Dika Newlin (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), p. 45.

(32) George Perle, “The Dark Side of Musicology” (letter to the editor in answer to R. Taruskin, “The Dark Side of Modern Music,” The New Republic, 5 September 1988).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 May. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012006.xml