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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia
Richard Taruskin

The first composers after Schoenberg to adopt his twelve-tone methods were, naturally enough, his former pupils Berg and Webern. Berg’s first essay using aspects of the new technique was the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and an ensemble of thirteen wind instruments (1925), the first piece he composed after finishing Wozzeck. It was a fiftieth-birthday offering to Schoenberg and, as we saw in chapter 6, its row material incorporated the names Schoenberg Berg and Webern as pitch ciphers. As in some of Schoenberg’s early twelve-tone compositions like the Serenade, op. 24, Berg’s use of tone rows in the Chamber Concerto was sporadic.

The first composition in which Berg attempted a thoroughgoing application of Schoenbergian principles of Reihenkomposition (“serial composition”) was a tiny song Schliesse mir die Augen beide (1925; Berg had already made a “tonal” setting of the same poem by Theodor Storm in 1907). Here Berg adopted a row of a type his own pupil Fritz Heinrich Klein (1892–1977) had “discovered” the year before and published in a quasi-scientific article called “Die Grenze der Halbtonwelt” (“The frontiers of the semitone world”): namely, a symmetrical all-interval series (Ex. 12-17a). Each of the hexachords in the row contains all of the intervals from semitone to perfect fourth (or when inverted, from the perfect fifth to the major seventh), with the self-inverting tritone coming once, in the middle, as the boundary between the two hexachords. As a by-product of the row’s structure, pitches flanking the central tritone (order positions 6/7) form tritone-related—hence self-inverting — pairs: GD♭ (positions 5/8), AE♭ (positions 4/9), CG♭ (3/10), EB♭ (2/11), FC♭ [B] (1/12). One could say that this row maximized the tritone-symmetrical properties of the row on which Schoenberg had built his Suite for Piano, op. 25.


fig. 12-3 Berg and Schoenberg in 1914.

Berg used the row again as the basis for his next major work, the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1926). As he set it out in his sketches this time (Ex. 12-17b), Berg treated the inversions independently, so that every interval from the semitone to the major seventh is represented exactly once. And then (like Schoenberg in the Menuett from his Suite for Piano, op. 25), Berg reordered the set to emphasize its cognates with “tonal” practice: first into a circle of fifths, then into a diatonic scale. When the row is reordered in these ways, the tritone pairs no longer radiate out from the center but occupy analogous positions in the two hexachords (1/7, 2/8, 3/9, 4/10, 5/11, 6/12). Finally (and most “licentiously” with respect to the original order), in various movements Berg exchanged the positions of certain notes so as to produce new rows (Ex. 12-18). Again we see the role of playful “research” or “precompositional work” in the elaboration of the twelve-tone method.


ex. 12-17a All-interval row in Alban Berg, Schliesse mir die Augen beide


ex. 12-17b All-interval row in Alban Berg, Lyric Suite

But all of these idiosyncratic row-manipulations and permutations (as well as equally meticulous rhythmic and tempo calculations) are placed at the service of an expressivity as intense as anything in Wozzeck. The very titles of the six movements in the Lyric Suite—Allegretto gioviale (“jolly allegro”), Andante amoroso (“lovestruck andante”), Allegro misterioso and Trio ecstatico, Adagio appassionato, Presto delirando (“delirious Presto”), Largo desolato (“broken-hearted Largo”)—and the use of musical quotations (including a famous one from the Prelude of Tristan und Isolde in the final movement) have always struck listeners and critics as the makings of a “latent opera,” as Berg s pupil, the critic Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, called it.37 During the 1970s, a group of scholars, working independently, pieced together the opera’s libretto and its dramaturgy.


ex. 12-18 Permutations of Lyric Suite row

One of them, Douglass Green, discovered a sketch that revealed the last movement—the Largo desolato, which contained the Tristan quotation—to be a secret setting of a despairing poem by Baudelaire, De profundis clamavi (“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee” [Psalm 130]), as translated by the German poet Stefan George (Ex. 12-19).38 A year later, George Perle discovered the printed score in which Berg wrote out, for the benefit of his secret lover, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, all of the coded symbolic occurrences of her initials and his (HF/AB = BF/AB♭ as named in German). Looking back at Ex. 12-18, it is easy now to see that the puzzling “licenses” Berg took with the order of the twelve-tone row were all contrived to produce conjunctions of the lovers’ initials (hence, symbolically, the conjunction of their persons).

Hanna Fuchs’s tritone-related initials were already the boundary notes of the original all-interval row “discovered” by F. H. Klein (as were his own), and this is probably what gave Berg the idea for the hidden program. The first permutation, the exchange of A and F♯G♭ in Ex. 12-18b, puts the composer’s initials together. The inversion-plus-permutation in Ex. 12-18c, while keeping HF at the boundaries, produces an initial tetrachord that if transposed up a fourth would give the two sets of initials side by side. The transposition in Ex. 12-18d achieves this, and the three additional boxes identify other places where other transpositions would have the same effect. The elaborate transformation-plus-transposition in Exx. 12-18ef, which corresponds to the section of the movement that contains the Tristan quote, manages to put the symbolic tetrachord at the end, meanwhile folding (or “couching”) AB within HF. As the music of the Largo proceeds to its desolate conclusion, the tetrachord is transposed to pitch levels at which the musical intervals lose their association with the lovers’ initials, as if to suggest their loss of identity in death (or in the ecstasy of love)—a clear reference to the myth of Tristan and Isolde.


ex. 12-19 Largo desolato from Lyric Suite, with Baudelaire-George text underlaid, end

It is fair to ask whether any of this truly enhances the meaning of the Lyric Suite for anyone not a party to the affair. We knew about the presence of Tristan in the Lyric Suite, after all, before we knew about AB and HF. Does the particular reference add resonance to the general, or vice versa? Professor Perle himself has cautioned that to suggest that the meaning of the music is confined to the note symbolism is vastly to diminish it. Only in the case of the last movement, with an actual text that becomes an ineluctable subtext to anyone aware of its presence, do the new discoveries “change” the music (or rather, change the way in which a listener apprehends it). Our purpose in discussing them here is not interpretive but historical: the new discoveries shed additional light on what the earliest practitioners thought to be the advantage of the twelve-tone method, not only in insuring the pervasive presence of a musical Grundgestalt, but also in finding new ways of relating the form and the meaning of a musical composition.

The fact, moreover, that both Schoenberg and Berg were drawn, in their twelve-tone music, to rows that exhibited intervallic symmetries was far from coincidental; for such harmonic symmetries were easily projected, at least conceptually, as structural symmetries to guide the composing hand and govern the resultant form. Berg’s fascination with the liminal—with the border, that is, between the tonal and the atonal—was also well served by the twelve-tone technique, since now the harmonic consonances and occasional linear functions that had impinged (often with parodic effect) on the otherwise nonfunctional motivic texture in Wozzeck could be integrated into the row material itself, becoming part of the Grundgestalt rather than a graft or a hybrid, and thus come closer to the traditional ideal of “organic” unity.

Berg exploited these resonances in his second opera, Lulu (after a pair of plays about a ruthless femme fatale by Frank Wedekind, a German writer born in San Francisco), of which the last act was left unorchestrated at his death. (The act was completed by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha and first performed in 1979.) Berg brought them to an eloquent culmination in his last finished work, a concerto that had been commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner early in 1935, and that Berg wrote as a memorial to his young friend Manon Gropius—the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow by her second husband, Walter Gropius, a famous architect—who died of polio, aged eighteen, in April of that year. Dedicated “to the memory of an angel,” the Concerto makes no secret of its programmatic content, with a third movement that reaches a truly catastrophic climax, and a finale full of the pathos of mourning, and finally of acceptance.

Where the Lyric Suite had managed to educe allusions to works of Wagner and Zemlinsky from its twelve-tone strategies, the Violin Concerto alludes to even more frankly diatonic material: a South Austrian folk song to represent Manon’s carefree early life (and possibly, as some commentators have suggested, Berg’s as well), and a chorale, Es ist genug (“It is enough”), adapted from a striking harmonization by Bach, the text of which, entered in the score at the appropriate point in the finale, has an appropriately funereal import.

What made it possible to integrate this material into a twelve-tone context was the nature of the row, which consists mainly of an alternation of major and minor thirds. As first played by the violin during the introductory measures, it takes the form shown in Ex. 12-20a. By the time it is played, the listening ear has been conditioned, by the passage immediately preceding it (Ex. 12-20b) to interpret it as a succession of triads in a “reverse circle-of-fifths,” followed by a whole tone tetrachord that coincides with the beginning of the chorale tune (Ex. 12-20c).


ex. 12-20a Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, entrance of solo violin (mm. 15–18)


ex. 12-20b Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, mm. 11–15


ex. 12-20c J. S. Bach, harmonized chorale, “Es ist genug!”

The next time the violin enters, it plays the inversion of its initial statement (hence the inversion of the row itself, Ex. 12-20d), and in so doing reveals its extraordinary properties. If the row and its inversion are linked up by reversing the latter (Ex. 12-20e), and if the gap that is left between the A at one end and the F at the other is plugged by the G with which both row forms begin, then a perfectly symmetrical pitch circle is achieved (Ex. 12-20f), in which any prime form of the row coincides with the reversed inversion at a transposition of a major third down, and any inverted row coincides with the reversed prime at a complementary transposition of a major third down. In effect, the reversed rows have been eliminated as an independent form. The row is its own retrograde. Writing out the prime form so that it starts and ends on the Eb, which splits the whole-tone tetrachord down the middle, produces an intervallic palindrome that shows this effect most clearly (Ex. 12-20g).


ex. 12-20d Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, mm. 24–27 (solo violin)


ex. 12-20e Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, symmetrical pitch circle formed by prime and inverted row forms


ex. 12-20f Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, symmetrical circle laid out as a melodic palindrome


ex. 12-20g Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, intervallic palindrome condensed

Several passages in the Concerto exploit these symmetries through transpositions by major thirds, but more conspicuous are the passages in which Berg transposes the row by minor thirds to emphasize cognates between its structure and the structural functions of traditional harmony. The very beginning of the concerto is the best example of this, and its recapitulation at the end to produce the concerto’s final cadence shows that Berg thought of the effect not only as an expressive resource, but also as a structural principle to unify the concerto tonally. (As we have already seen in Wozzeck, though, the distinction between the structural and the expressive in Berg’s music is ultimately as gratuitous as it is invidious.)

The first eight measures, shown in Ex. 12-21a, have a traditional (neoclassical?) “preluding” character, produced by the steadily rocking arpeggios, reminiscent of the old style brisé, the “broken (chord) style” of the baroque lute or keyboard suite. The violin alternates throughout with a harp, standing in for the lute/harpsichord, that is doubled by a group of three clarinets which sometimes follow the harp notes, at other times pull tones out of the arpeggios to sustain them as background harmony. The violin’s first arpeggio, cunningly enough, consists of the four open strings, as if to emphasize the preludizing (or “ricercata”) effect, a mock-aimless improvisation in which one noodles on the instrument in search of an idea.

To isolate the pitches of the open violin strings, Berg “samples” the row, selecting order positions 1, 3, 5, and 7—that is, every other note. The violin’s next arpeggio consists of the complementary sample: 2, 4, 6, and 8. The “chord” produced this time is a whole-tone tetrachord to match the one at the row’s end. The implied progression of the starting pitches—G to B♭—suggests a traditional tonal move from the tonic minor to the relative major, and Berg reinforces the parallel (as well as foreshadowing the eventual key of the Bach chorale in the finale) by deriving the harp’s arpeggios from P3, the row transposed up a minor third. The two row forms are thus juxtaposed in a sort of hocketing counterpoint, as set forth in Ex. 12-21b, which forges a link between them that will hold throughout the Concerto.

The coda of the finale, given in Ex. 12-22, consists of one last full statement of the chorale tune but without its internal repeats. The first phrase (mm. 214–219) is played by the winds; the second (mm. 220–222) by the winds plus pizzicato strings; and the last, falling phrase (F-D-C-B♭), to which the words “Es ist genug” are repeated, is assigned first, molto adagio, to the solo violin, thence to the trumpet (accompanied by the traditional “brass chorale”), and finally, in augmentation, espressivo e amoroso, to the French horns. The accompaniment to the chorale consists of phrases extracted from the row.

At m. 215 the violin is given a sequence of rising whole-tone tetrachords that echo the chorale’s beginning; its flourish before it takes up the tune in m. 222 consists of the first tetrachord of I2 (=R10, positions 4–7). The last chorale phrase is accompanied by ribbons of arpeggios in many transpositions, all of them referable to the array given in Ex. 12-20f. The last of these, in the solo violin (mm. 226–228), after a preliminary pair of notes (D♭-F) that apes the preceding entrance (solo orchestral violin in m. 225) at the fourth, consists of one last statement of the row, at P2, which allows it to end, rather than begin, on G. The French horn, having finished the last chorale phrase, appends a final muted statement of the whole-tone tetrachord, inverted so that it descends to another G. The harp and winds sound the chorale’s tonic for the last time, in an “added-sixth” variant that admits the concluding G as a consonance.

The chord thus created, B♭DFG, had an important poetic resonance: Mahler had ended the finale of Das Lied von der Erde, his “symphony with voices,” on a similar added-sixth chord; that movement was called “Der Abschied” (“The farewell”). But there is an “introversive” echo as well: the chord combines the first pair of notes in each of the opening arpeggios (see Ex. 12-21a). That this reference is intended to function at once as closure and summation on both poetic and tonal levels is confirmed by the explicit echoes of the opening arpeggios in the orchestral violins and the double bass, which supply the concerto’s concluding notes.


ex. 12-21a Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, mm. 1–8


ex. 12-21b Alban Berg, Analytical sketch for Violin Concerto, mm. 1–8

In keeping with the predilections we observed in Wozzeck, Berg used the resources of twelve-tone technique so as to achieve an integration of eclectic ingredients that continually cross the threshold between the functionally tonal and the motivically atonal. His art remained one of affective association, his expressive aims remained traditionally humanistic, concerned with the representation, and possible transmission, of subjective feelings like erotic love (in the Lyric Suite), or grief and consolation (in the Concerto). It was to these ends that Berg sublimated the intellectual curiosity that attracted him to technical tours de force. His obsession with motivic and harmonic symmetries acted as a useful counterfoil to his representational bent, enabling his music to be at once eclectic and economical in a way that interests analysts, and giving his music, to a perhaps greater degree than that of the other early Viennese atonalists, strong appeal on both the poietic and esthesic planes.


(37) Theodor W. Adorno, Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, trans. Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 104.

(38) Douglas Green, “Berg’s De Profundis: The Finale of the Lyric Suite”; George Perle, “The Secret Program of the Lyric Suite”; both in the International Alban Berg Society Newsletter, no. 5 (April 1977).

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012008.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012008.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012008.xml