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Tonality 1900–1950

Concept and Practice


Franz Steiner Verlag

Edited by Felix Wörner,

Ullrich Scheideler and Philip Rupprecht
Tonality 1900–1950
Edited by Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler and Philip Rupprecht
Tonality 1900–1950
Concept and Practice

Edited by Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler

and Philip Rupprecht

Franz Steiner Verlag

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Contributors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

Tonality as Concept and Category

Joseph Auner
Weighing, Measuring, Embalming Tonality: .
How we Became Phonometrographers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

Richard Cohn
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47

Wolfgang Rathert
The Legacy of German Rule: Some Reflections on Another Musical .
Iceberg in the Transatlantic Relationships of Music History. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63

Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz
and in His Late Writings. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

Tonality in Austro-German Theory

Markus Böggemann
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

Stephen Hinton
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility. . . . . . . . . . 113

Felix Wörner
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept
of Tonality. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
6 Contents

Practices of Tonality

Marianne Wheeldon
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud .
and Koechlin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143

Mark Delaere
“Autant de compositeurs, autant de polytonalités différentes”: .
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s . . . . . . . . 157

Volker Helbing
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red: Tonal and .
Formal Dramaturgy in the Third Movement of Ravel’s Sonate
pour violon et violoncelle. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173

Alain Frogley
Tonality on the Town: Orchestrating the Metropolis .
in Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187

Ullrich Scheideler
Between Archaism and Modernism: Tonality in Music .
for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203

Philip Rupprecht
Among the Ruined Languages: Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 . . . . 223

Beth E. Levy
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247

Daniel Harrison
Samuel Barber’s Nocturne: An Experiment in Tonal Serialism. . . . . . . . . . . . . 261

Joseph Auner is Chair and Professor of Music at Tufts University. His scholarly
work focuses on Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, turn of the century
Vienna, Weimar Berlin, and music and technology. He is the author of Western
Music in Context: A Norton History, Music of Twentieth and Twenty-First Centu-
ries (Norton, forthcoming), A Schoenberg Reader (Yale, 2003), Postmodern Music/
Postmodern Thought (with Judy Lochhead; Routledge, 2001), and the Cambridge
Companion to Schoenberg (with Jennifer Shaw; Cambridge, 2010).

Markus Böggemann is Professor of Historical Musicology at the University of

Kassel and was previously Lecturer at the University of Arts in Berlin and Assist-
ant Professor of Musicology at Potsdam University. His publications include the
monograph Gesichte und Geschichte. Arnold Schönbergs musikalischer Expressio-
nismus zwischen avantgardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historismusproblem
(Vienna, 2007), writings on the cultural context of the Viennese school, analytical
studies, and essays on contemporary music.

Richard Cohn is Battell Professor of Music Theory at Yale University. His work
on chromatic harmony has been the topic of a series of summer seminars convened
by the late John Clough, and has been developed in about a dozen doctoral dis-
sertations. He recently completed Audacious Euphony: Chromatic Harmony and
the Triad’s Second Nature (Oxford, 2012). In preparation is a general model of
meter with applications for European, African, and African-diasporic music, and a
co-edited collection on David Lewin’s phenomenological writings. Cohn also edits
Oxford Studies in Music Theory.

Mark Delaere is Professor of Musicology at the University of Leuven. His re-

search covers music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a special
focus on the interaction among the analysis, history, theory, and aesthetics of music.
Book publications include Funktionelle Atonalität (1993), New Music, Aesthetics
and Ideology (1995), and Pierrot lunaire (with J. Herman, 2004). He is currently
preparing a book on early serial music to be published in the series Analysis in Con-
text: Leuven Studies in Musicology.

Alain Frogley teaches music history at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and
in Spring 2008 was Visiting Professor at Yale University. In 2005–06 he was a
Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. A contributor to the revised
New Grove, Frogley has also edited Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge, 1996),
and authored a monograph on Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony for the Oxford
University Press series Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure (2001).
8 Contributors

Daniel Harrison is the Allen Forte Professor of Music Theory at Yale University,
where he is also Chair of the Department of Music. His book on late nineteenth-
century chromaticism, Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music (Chicago, 1994),
won the Young Scholar Award from the Society for Music Theory. He has published
on tonal-music topics in Journal of Music Theory, Music Theory Spectrum, Musical
Quarterly, Theory and Practice, and Music Analysis, among other venues. He has
also published on the music of The Beach Boys in Understanding Rock (Oxford,
1997), a collection of essays on pop music.

Volker Helbing is Professor of Music Theory at Hanover University of Music,

Drama, and Media, and was previously Visiting Professor at the Berlin University
of the Arts and Trossingen University of Music. His publications include a mono­
graph on Ravel entitled Choreographie und Distanz. Studien zur Ravel-Analyse
(Hildesheim, 2008), a chapter in Unmasking Ravel: New Perspectives on the Music
(Rochester, 2011), and several essays on late twentieth-century European compos-

Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen is Ordinarius in Musicology at the University of

Zürich. He is co-editor of the Archiv für Musikwissenschaft and of Schubert: Per-
spektiven. He has published widely in music history, aesthetics, and the interpreta-
tion and reception history of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Most recently, he
co-edited Johann Sebastian Bach und die Gegenwart (with Michael Heinemann;
Cologne, 2007), Werk-Welten: Perspektiven der Interpretationsgeschichte (with
Andreas Ballstaedt; Schliengen, 2008), and Bruckner-Handbuch (Stuttgart, 2010).

Stephen Hinton is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford

University, where he has also served as Senior Associate Dean for Humanities and
Arts and chair of the Music Department. His publications include The Idea of Ge-
brauchsmusik, Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera (Cambridge Opera Handbook),
the critical edition of Die Dreigroschenoper for the Kurt Weill Edition (edited with
Edward Harsh), Kurt Weill: Gesammelte Schriften (edited with Jürgen Schebera,
expanded 2nd edition, 2000), a volume in the Hindemith Collected Works, and
most recently Kurt Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (Berkeley, 2012).

Beth E. Levy is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of California,

Davis. She has recently finished a book titled Frontier Figures: American Music
and the Mythology of the American West, and has published articles in American
Music, repercussions, and the Journal of Film Music. Her contribution to Copland
and His World (edited by Carol Oja and Judith Tick; Princeton) won the Irving Lo-
wens Award for the best article on American music in 2005.

Wolfgang Rathert is Professor of Musicology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Univer-

sität and his main research concerns music of the twentieth century to the present.
He has published Charles Ives (Darmstadt, 1996) and Musikgeschichte USA (with
Berndt Ostendorf; Mainz, 2012), and edited the Chamber Music of Kurt Weill for
Contributors 9

the Critical Edition (with Jürgen Selk; Weill Foundation, 2004). He is a member of
the advisory board of the journal Musik-Konzepte.

Philip Rupprecht is Associate Professor of Music at Duke University. His publica-

tions include Britten’s Musical Language (Cambridge, 2001); “‘Something slightly
indecent’: British composers, the European avant-garde, and national stereotypes
in the 1950s” (Musical Quarterly, 2009); “Thematic drama,” in Peter Maxwell Da­
vies Studies (Cambridge, 2009); and “Agency effects in the instrumental drama of
Musgrave and Birtwistle,” in Musical Narrative After 1900, ed. Michael Klein and
Nicholas Reyland (Indiana, in press). He is preparing Avant-Garde Nation: British
Musical Modernism, 1956–1979, and Rethinking Britten (forthcoming, 2013).

Ullrich Scheideler is Head of Music Theory at Humboldt-University in Berlin and

a former editor of the Arnold Schoenberg Critical Edition. His publications include
Komponieren im Angesicht der Musikgeschichte. Studien zur geistlichen a-capella-
Musik in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts im Umkreis der Sing-Akademie
zu Berlin (Berlin, 2010), the critical editions of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Die
glückliche Hand (Mainz, 2005), and Autorschaft als historische Konstruktion (with
Andreas Meyer; Stuttgart, 2001).

Marianne Wheeldon is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of

Texas at Austin. Her research interests include the music of Claude Debussy and
musical culture in Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century. She is the au-
thor of Debussy’s Late Style (Indiana, 2009) and editor of Rethinking Debussy (with
Elliott Antokoletz; Oxford, 2011). She is currently preparing a book on Debussy’s
posthumous reputation in the 1920s and 30s, an article from which appeared in
Journal of Musicology (2010).

Felix Wörner is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of North

Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the history of music theory and
aesthetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His publications include a
monograph on the early twelve-tone works of Anton Webern (Bern, 2004), and
articles in Musiktheorie, Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie, and Mit-
teilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung, among others. His most recent publications are
“Otakar Hostinsky, the Musically Beautiful and the Gesamtkunstwerk,” in Eduard
Hanslick: Aesthetic, Critical and Cultural Contexts, ed. Nicole Grimes, Siobhán
Donovan and Wolfgang Marx (Rochester, forthcoming) and “Transmitting Schoen-
berg’s Legacy into a New World” in Crosscurrents: American and European Music
in Interaction, 1900–2000, ed. Felix Meyer, Carol Oja, Wolfgang Rathert, and Anne
C. Shreffer (Woodbridge, forthcoming 2012).
Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

Tonality, 1900–1950: our title aligns a very broad category of musical experience
with a quite specific historical moment. The rhetorical strategy is deliberate, slightly
polemical even. We begin by recognizing that tonality—or the awareness of key in
music—achieved crisp theoretical definition in the early twentieth century, even as
the musical avant-garde pronounced it obsolete. The notion of a general collapse
or loss of tonality, ca. 1910, has remained influential within music historiography,
and yet the textbook narrative sits uneasily with the continued flourishing of tonal
music throughout the past century. Tonality, from an early twenty-first century per-
spective, never did fade from cultural attention, yet it remains a prismatic forma-
tion—defined as much by ideological and cultural valences as by more technical
understandings of musical practice.
The history of twentieth-century art music has often been told as a story of in-
novations in technique, and it is in the early years of the period that the narrative
appears most dramatic. Talk of expressive crisis and stylistic rupture, of revolution
rather than smooth continuity, dominates many histories of musical style or musical
technique.1 The venturing into an atonal idiom by Arnold Schoenberg and his pu-
pils around 1910, or the appearance of twelve-tone composition after 1923, invari-
ably figure as pivotal developments in the history of Western music as a whole. In
a 1933 lecture Webern examined tonality “in its last throes” in order to prove “that
it’s really dead.”2 The sense of an inevitable and possibly irrevocable abandonment
of tonality governs Schoenberg’s own references to “emancipation of the disso-
nance,” or Boulez’s later description of the Viennese composer’s atonal counter-
point as “freed from its slavery to tonality.”3 Atonal music, for its first listeners, was

1 Among widely circulated historical surveys, see for example Marion Bauer, Twentieth Century
Music (1933; New York: Putnam, 1947); Adolfo Salazar, Music in Our Time (New York: Nor-
ton, 1946); H. H. Stuckenschmidt, Neue Musik (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1951); Paul Collaer, A His-
tory of Modern Music, trans. Sally Abeles (Cleveland: World, 1961); André Hodeir, Since De-
bussy: A View of Contemporary Music, trans. Noel Burch (New York: Grove, 1961); William
W. Austin, Music in the 20th Century (New York: Norton, 1966); Hermann Danuser, Die Musik
des 20. Jahrhunderts (Laaber: Laaber, 1984); Bryan R. Simms, Music of the Twentieth Century
(New York: Schirmer, 1986); Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: Norton,
1991); Arnold Whittall, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1999); Richard Taruskin, The Early Twentieth Century, vol. 4, The Oxford His-
tory of Western Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2 Anton Webern, The Path to the New Music, ed. Willi Reich, trans. Leo Black (Bryn Mawr:
Presser, 1963), 47.
3 Schoenberg, “My Evolution” (1949), in Style and Idea: Selected Writings, ed. Leonard Stein,
trans. Leo Black (London: Faber, 1975), 84, 91; Pierre Boulez, “Arnold Schoenberg” (1961),
12 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

something radical; like Cubism in painting (a “harmony of asymmetrical lights”),4

it was first understood as a genuinely new art, rather than as a reworking of earlier
paradigms. Schoenberg himself in a January 1910 program note wrote of being
“conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.”5 The
image of limits breached has persisted for later historians. William Austin in the
1960s wrote of “a sort of spaceship, the twelve-tone technique,” carrying its creator
“out into the abyss.” Paul Griffiths, 40 years later, in A Concise History of Western
Music, puts the point more simply in the title of his chapter on atonality—“To Be-
gin Again.”6 Most recently, the advent of atonality (born: 1909) has been marked
as a historical event.7
But there is another story to be told about the 1900–1950 period. It begins
by acknowledging the obvious continuity of tonal music throughout these years,
in an established art-musical canon—encompassing Sibelius, Debussy, Copland,
Prokofiev, Poulenc, Tippett, and any number of figures—whose music patently af-
firms tonal centers (not to mention the vernacular and theatrical works of Gershwin,
Porter, Ellington, and countless others). Later movements operating under the ban-
ners of New Tonality, New Simplicity, or the post-modern have returned musicians’
concern with asserting a home key to the center of cultural debate in American and
European music. As composers as diverse as Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt, and Alfred
Schnittke have achieved wide popularity since the 1960s, musicology has called
into question the categorical tonal/atonal divide, especially when mapped onto an
evolutionary view of music history. Charles Seeger, already in 1929, dismissed
historically motivated views of music’s pitch realm with a common-sense appeal
to audience tastes: “Just as one can weary of too much tonality, so one can weary
of too little.”8 Closer to the present, views surrounding the advent of atonality are
changing; Schoenberg’s renunciation of tonality, Charles Rosen noted, had to be
thorough, for “no one was so deeply attached as he to certain aspects of it.” Even
in Schoenberg’s own music, the idea of a sharp break with former tonal practice
has been modified by recognition of his “ongoing extension and transformation” of
prior techniques.9

in Stocktakings From an Apprenticeship, trans. Stephen Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1991), 281.
4 Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Peintres Cubistes (1913), in A Cubism Reader: Documents and
Criticism, 1906–1914, ed. Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chi-
cago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 477–514, citing 481.
5 “Bin ich mir bewuβt, alle Schranken einer vergangenen Ästhetik durchbrochen zu haben…”
Cited in Danuser, Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts, 35; trans. in A Schoenberg Reader, ed.
Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 78.
6 Austin, Music in the 20th Century, 38; Paul Griffiths, A Concise History of Western Music
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 231.
7 See the symposium 100 Jahre Atonalität: Herausforderung für die Musiktheorie, in Jahrbuch
des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preuβischer Kulturbesitz, ed. Simone Hohmaier
(Mainz: Schott, 2009).
8 Charles Seeger, “Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music,” in Studies in Musicology II,
1929–1979, ed. Ann M. Pescatello (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 125.
9 Charles Rosen, Schoenberg (Glasgow: Collins, 1976), 42; Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Trans-
formation of Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 7.
Introduction 13

Much turns on the circulation of metaphor. Figures of tonality’s exhaustion or

death tug firmly against images of immutable nature; tonality is a proto-geometric
space, or else a shared lingua franca; its loss spells crisis, its recovery a return to
cultural vitality.10 The role of tonality in music historiography, as Michael Beiche
has shown, is a highly mutable one, and by the early twentieth century the term in-
variably encompasses the relation to a new conceptual opposite, atonality. The his-
torical course of tonal music, as Bryan Hyer writes, has been understood largely in
terms of a proto-cadential master narrative “directed toward its own end.” The story
unfolds in genetic accounts of growth or decay, and in the technological allegory in
which tonality “collapses, breaks down or wears out from over-use.”11 Vivid meta-
phors, in their turn, are a salutary reminder that music theory—a discourse seeking
ordered representations of what can be heard and understood—is constrained by
verbal language.12
Striking, in the 1900–1950 period, is the extent to which the discovery of “new”
musical resources by composers coincides with a spate of theoretical reflection on
earlier tonal repertory, most notably from Austro-German writers. Schoenberg’s
own Harmonielehre was first published in 1911, on the heels of his least tonal
sounding compositions, and in close proximity to a Harmonielehre (1906) and a
Kontrapunkt (1910) by the Viennese theorist Heinrich Schenker. Schenker’s theory
of voice leading—the counterpoint of an Urlinie with supporting Bassbrechung,
creating a deep structure, the Ursatz—was transplanted posthumously by his stu-
dents to the USA, where it achieved widespread influence among English-speaking
theorists and analysts. Ernst Kurth’s treatises, with their emphasis on leading-tone
motion and the energetic flow of chromatic tonal music, date from this same period.
For German-speaking musicians, on the other hand, it was Hugo Riemann’s prolific
writings, offering an evolving theory of chordal functions within a key, that as-
sumed by far the greater influence and pedagogical dissemination. Towards the end
of his long career, Riemann reacted against the scientific methods of an emergent
field of ethnomusicology, arguing in a 1916 study for tonality’s historical develop-
ment from folk-melodic repertories towards the diatonicism of modern European
art music.13 Such a study could be construed as an edifice against incomprehensibly
atonal new music, or else as a teleological and Euro-centric view of world music.

10 The metaphoric lexicon is parsed in Lloyd M. Whitesell, “Twentieth-century Tonality, or,

Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” in The Pleasure of Modernist Music, ed. Arved Ashby (Rochester:
University of Rochester Press, 2004), 103–20.
11 Michael Beiche, “Tonalität,” in Terminologie der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Hans Heinrich
Eggebrecht (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1995), 412–33, esp. 425; Brian Hyer, “Tonality,” New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Mac-
millan, 2001), 25:591.
12 On epistemologies of the aural, see Jairo Moreno, Musical Representations, Subjects, and Ob-
jects: the Construction of Musical Thought in Zarlino, Descartes, Rameau, and Weber (Bloom-
ington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
13 See Hugo Riemann, Folkloristische Tonalitätsstudien (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1916); also
Matthew Gelbart and Alexander Rehding, “Riemann and Melodic Analysis: Studies in Folk-
Musical Tonality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Riemannian Music Theories, ed. Edward
Gollin and Alexander Rehding (New York: Oxford, 2011), 140–64.
14 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

Either way, Riemann’s theory (much like Schenker’s, for that matter) was strongly
implicated in discourses of cultural nationalism. A rounded concept of tonality, it
seems important to affirm, can scarcely be thought apart from a complex of value
judgments and claims toward cultural identity.
Between 1900 and 1950, concepts of tonality define themselves amid the wider
trans-Atlantic transmission—and ensuing modifications—of a range of theoretical
concepts and compositional practices. Schenker’s well-known “Americanization”
was by no means the first such transplant from the old world to the new; numerous
other Austro-German theorists made the passage. Amid this historically continu-
ous diaspora—stretching at least from Bernhard Ziehn’s arrival in Chicago in 1868
to Schoenberg’s college teaching in Los Angeles after 1936—the conceptual field
encompassed by the basic term tonality, inevitably, covers a range of aesthetic and
epistemic commitments. A perennial conceptual tension arises: that between acous-
tical definitions of relations between pitches (in a scale, for example), and a meta-
physical concept of tonality grounded in the listener’s consciousness. A separation
between physical and anthropological views of tonality is clearly evident in Fétis’s
1844 Traité, and one might claim that it is only with due attention to cultural con-
text and the diverse premises of competing scholarly traditions that any concept of
tonality comes into clear focus.14
The series of historically defined transformations identified in Fétis’s influen-
tial account of tonalité bears affinities to the clearly historicist program that grounds
much later tonality theorizing. Carl Dahlhaus’s categories of melodische and har-
monische Tonalität, for instance, expounded in publications of the 1960s, asserted
considerable influence on Anglo-American scholars,15 even if the commitment to
an eclectic and historically mediated notion of tonality remains at odds with more
structuralist conceptions.16 But the tension between tonality as a kind of Saussur­
ian langue (a set of underlying and broadly valid structural rules) and tonality as
parole (a more historically contingent and localized way of speaking) is hard to
escape, even within the oeuvre of a single scholar. The point is clear if we return

14 François-Joseph Fétis, Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l’harmonie (Paris:

Schle­singer, 1844; 11th ed., Paris: Brandus, 1875). On Fétis’s engagement with German ­idealist
thought, see Thomas Christensen, “Fétis and Emerging Tonal Consciousness,” in Music Theory
in the Age of Romanticism, ed. Ian Bent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 37–
56. Fétis’s writings owe much to earlier French theorists’ formulations, notably the 1810 dis-
cussion of modalité and tonalité by Alexandre Étienne Choron. See his “Sommaire de l’Histoire
de la Musique,” in Dictionnaire historique des Musiciens, ed. Choron and F. J. Fayolle (Paris:
Valade, 1810; 2 vols., repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1971), 1:xxxvii–xxxix.
15 See Dahlhaus’s dictionary articles “Tonalität,” for Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed.
Friedrich Blume (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1966; also repr. in the 1998 2nd edition); and “Tonality,”
in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan,
1980), 8:51–55; and his Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalität
(Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1967); translated by Robert O. Gjerdingen as Studies on the Origins of
Harmonic Tonality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
16 On the reception of Dahlhaus’s tonality scholarship, see Alexander Rehding, “Dahlhaus
zwischen Tonalität und Tonality,” in Carl Dahlhaus und die Musikwissenschaft: Werk, Wirkung,
Aktualität, ed. Hermann Danuser, Peter Gülke, Norbert Miller, and Tobias Plebuch (Schlien-
gen: Edition Argus, 2011), 321–33.
Introduction 15

once more to Riemann, acknowledging now the discrepancies between his unified
theory of Tonalität—grounded in traditional fifth-based chord relations—and the
inconvenient centrality of enharmonic third relations revealed in his own analy-
ses of Beethoven piano sonatas. Riemann’s central categories of tonal function,
as Alexander Rehding has shown, prove inadequate to the harmonic exigencies of
Beethoven’s chordal maneuvering. Tonality remains caught between structural rule
and historical repertory.17
If Riemann’s theories of chordal function failed to take hold outside German-
speaking countries in the early twentieth century, they have belatedly inspired one
more phase of trans-Atlantic music theory—in this case, the remarkable efflo-
rescence of so-called neo-Riemannian work, both formal and analytic, by Amer-
ican music theorists in the past two decades. Tonality, here, arises in sequences
of transformations among triads within a Tonnetz, the grid-like network of tonal
relations arranged according to common tones familiar from several nineteenth-
century theoretical writings.18 The “parsimony” of smoothly stepwise voice lead-
ing between Tonnetz positions well matches the chromatic situation in later Ro-
mantic music—Wagner’s Parsifal, for example—a repertory obviously still triadic
but “not altogether tonally unified” in ways familiar in earlier diatonic music.19
A neo-Riemannian perspective increasingly promises new insights into a wealth
of triadic music written after 1900, too. Analyses of works by Vaughan Williams,
Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten in the present volume attend particularly to a triadic
language operating beyond traditional tonic-dominant schemes, one in which the
security of the older consonance/dissonance binary is compromised at moments
of functional ambiguity. Where familiar major and minor triads group themselves
into symmetrical hexatonic progressions, a newly uncanny (unheimlich) discourse
of “home” or tonal center emerges, and extant concepts of the distance between
chords are up-ended.20 This soundworld, enticing to many early twentieth-century
composers, is amenable to heuristic analyses that broaden the explanatory reach of
an evolving branch of tonal theory.
When attention turns away from tonality as rule to its living presence as reper-
tory, the sheer breadth of the post–1900 tonal field is undeniable. The well-worn
pedagogical notion of a diatonic common practice linking composers from Bach to
Brahms appears unsatisfactory to listeners facing the chromatic fluency or mod­al

17 Alexander Rehding, “Tonality between Rule and Repertory: Or, Riemann’s Functions—
Beethoven’s Function,” Music Theory Spectrum 33 (2011): 109–23.
18 See especially Richard Cohn, “Introduction to Neo-Riemannian Theory: a Survey and a His-
torical Perspective,” Journal of Music Theory 42 (1998): 167–80. In addition to the Gollin-
Rehding Oxford Handbook, three recent publications suggest a consolidation of this theoretical
paradigm: Steven Rings, Tonality and Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press,
2011); Dmitri Tymoczko, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended
Common Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), and Richard Cohn, Audacious
Euphony: Chromaticism and the Triad’s Second Nature (New York: Oxford University Press,
19 Cohn, “Introduction,” 167.
20 On the numinous semantic trappings of hexatonic music in the nineteenth and twentieth centu-
ries, see Cohn, Audacious Euphony, 20–24.
16 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

flexibility of Schubert, in whose music the centrality of a single tonic function ap-
pears less self-evident.21 Whether it is possible to chart the territory beyond an
era of seeming linguistic communality remains an open question. In the present
context, we do not claim to present anything so grand as a paradigm shift in our
historical view of something called tonality. Yet there are signs of an evolving fer-
ment in theorists’ understanding of the broader historical trajectory of music’s pitch
language—for example in the recognition of a nineteenth-century “second” prac-
tice favoring duality of key center, in the notion of separate diatonic and chromatic
languages, or in the broader contention that tonal music presents an “extended”
common practice, stretching from early polyphony through present-day vernacular
It is clear that recent commentators have moved a long way beyond the at-
times bewildered reactions of early twentieth-century theorists to the stylistic trans-
formations of the period. Schenker’s unprecedented insights into the contrapuntal
basis of earlier tonal music were accompanied by his famously hostile dismissal of
Stravinsky’s polyphony (“inartistic and unmusical”).23 Concurrently, Schoenberg’s
most chromatic scores were being explained with reference to traditional tertian
harmony and conventional chord functions.24 Casting a quizzical glance over a pe-
riod of “unprecedented confusion,” the English critic Edwin Evans in 1925 sensed
that the advent of twelve-note chromatic music did not necessarily “imply either
the abolition or even the desuetude of the tonalities as we know them,” only the
student’s age-old need to “probe the mysteries of harmony as the aspiring painter
probes those of colour.”25
The various practices comprising the field of “Tonality 1900–1950” resist any
simple taxonomy. And while reports of tonality’s demise are, we maintain, exag-
gerated, it is easy to sense a genuine transformation of outlook among composers
and listeners. Works such as Stravinsky’s Symphony in C of 1940 or Hindemith’s
Sinfonietta in E (1949), by title alone, knowingly draw attention to the problem of
key emphasis as a central value in musical language. The designation “in C,” in a

21 “Schon in dieser so wohlklingenden und dem vordergründigen Ohr eindeutig tonal gesichert
erscheinenden Musik Schuberts ereignet sich als sanfte Revolution ein erstes Infragestellen der
Tonika als Funktionszentrum” (“In this music of Schubert, so gorgeous and so tonally secure to
the foregrounded ear, the position of the tonic as functional center is placed into question for
the first time, like a soft revolution”); Diether de la Motte, Harmonielehre (Kassel: Bären­reiter,
1976), 167; trans. from Cohn, Audacious Euphony, 205.
22 See, respectively, The Second Practice of Nineteenth-Century Tonality, ed. William Kinderman
and Harold Krebs, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996); Cohn, Audacious Euphony,
chapter 9; and Tymoczko, A Geometry, chapter 6.
23 “Meine Beweisführung gibt mir das Recht zu sagen, Strawinskys Satz sei … durchaus schlecht,
unkünstlerisch und unmusikalisch.” Heinrich Schenker, “Fortsetzung der Urlinie-Betrachtun-
gen,” in Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (Munich: Drei Masken Verlag, 1925–30; repr. Hildes­
heim: Georg Olms, 1974), 2:39. Schenker’s assessment concludes his analysis of an excerpt
from Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto.
24 See, for example, the analysis of cadence and function in Schoenberg’s Klavierstück, Op. 11,
No. 1, in Edwin von der Nüll, Moderne Harmonik (Leipzig: Kistner & Siegel, 1932), 102–6.
25 Edwin Evans, “Atonality and Polytonality,” in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music,
ed. Walter Willson Cobbett (London: Oxford University Press, 1929–30), 1:46, 47.
Introduction 17

century perceived to be wary of tonality, carries seemingly unavoidable historical

baggage, whether the composer is Stravinsky or Terry Riley. Even if one accepts
claims for unbroken historical ties between nineteenth-century tonal music and
what followed, tonality after 1900 ceases to represent a quasi-natural foundation of
music. It becomes, instead, a musical technique: “not an end in itself, but a means to
an end.”26 Echoing Adorno’s conclusions about art in general, one might well argue
that nothing concerning tonality is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its
relation to the world, not even its right to exist.27 To speak so conclusively, though,
is to run the risk of ignoring a number of salient threads of compositional practice
in the first half of the twentieth century—threads we will identify here only briefly
and synoptically.
Tonality in the early twentieth century derives meaning and function frequently
through a conscious artistic opposition to nineteenth-century aesthetic values.
Stravinsky captured the sea-change memorably in 1924: “My Octuor is not an ‘emo-
tive’ work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are suf-
ficient in themselves.”28 His quotation marks do away with the emotional trappings
of musical romanticism—a concern with subjective expression, or the sounding
depiction of myth, society, religion, and philosophy.29 Busoni’s call for a “Young
Classicism” of “strong and beautiful forms” found realization in a schematic op-
position of diatonic and chromatic elements in his own music.30 The rage for a kind
of audacious simplicity in pitch choices, meanwhile, is as idiomatic to the explicitly
white-note side of Stravinsky’s middle period as to the eighteenth-century pastiche
effects in early Poulenc, Milhaud, and others among Les Six. The self-conscious
search for clarity and comprehensibility is bound up with a second facet of tonal-
ity in this period—its prominent role in works of functional (rather than absolute
or programmatic) music. In the Gebrauchsmusik of Hindemith, Eisler, and Weill,
modal or neo-triadic materials aim to address a wide public in an easy, pop-inflected
vernacular. For Shostakovich and Prokofiev, in the 1930s and beyond, pitch choices
were actively and publicly the object of Soviet-era ideological strictures.
A fuller survey of early-to-mid twentieth-century tonalities—plural—might go
on to identify the revival of folkloric melodic tonality in composers as diverse as
Bartók, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, or Copland. Further mapping of the ter-
ritory, likewise, would require that we acknowledge the interplay of tonal and
“post-tonal” or even serial languages in music that is essentially eclectic in its con-
structive means. Berg’s appropriations of Bach amount to what Mark DeVoto calls

26 Schoenberg, “Opinion or Insight?” (1926), in Style and Idea, 259.

27 See the opening sentence in Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, in his Gesammelte
Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 7:9; and Adorno, Aes-
thetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997),
28 Stravinsky, “Some Ideas About my Octuor” (1924), in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: the Com-
poser and his Works, 2nd ed. (London: Faber, 1979), 575.
29 On this paradigm, see Hermann Danuser, Weltanschauungsmusik (Schliengen: Edition Argus,
30 Busoni, letter to Paul Bekker, cited in Jim Samson, Music in Transition: a Study of Tonal Ex-
pansion and Atonality, 1900–1920 (London: Dent, 1977), 28.
18 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

“nostalgic tonality,” operating both as audible gesture and as a structuring frame-

work that holds even amid densely chromatic textures.31 Britten’s compositional
allusions to Purcell or Dowland, similarly, control the larger progress of luminous
triads. By mid-century, Britten—like Frank Martin, Samuel Barber, Alberto Ginas-
tera and others—is apt to arrange major and minor triads according to idiosyncratic
twelve-tone schemes, thereby staging a delicate reconciliation of compositional ap-
proaches once deemed mutually exclusive.
Some obvious features of earlier tonal practice continue to flourish through-
out the twentieth century in radically different stylistic settings—the assertion of a
home tonic or key-note; a favoring of plain triads as a central chordal resource; the
prominence of scales as an audible basis for melodic invention. But if one seeks a
fuller syntactic model of tonality—the rigorous hierarchy of structural and embel-
lishing events in Schenker’s Schichten, for example—one is bound to admit that
tonality after 1900 lacks the kind of linguistic familiarity and security observable
in music of earlier periods. Fétis’s historical narrative, with its orderly progression
of epochs—from a tonalité ancienne of plainchant through the tonalité moderne of
Monteverdi and, later, of Mozart and Rossini—whatever its resonances for early
nineteenth-century music, hardly speaks to the musical landscape after 1900. To-
nality, to recall our starting point, isn’t exhausted or dead; a canon of artworks con-
firms it was never really abandoned. What seems most clear, surveying the first half
of the twentieth century, is that the storms of progress define no coherent historical
succession in the field of musical tonality. It seems more accurate to speak of a
cosmopolitan simultaneity of musical languages—an old notion in music-historical
circles, though one more frequently applied to the art of the later twentieth centu-
ry.32 The time has come to attend more closely to continuities among a spectrum of
musical styles—all “tonal,” to varying degrees—spanning the years 1900–1950. It
may be that only from the longer perspective of the early twenty-first century are we
ready to recognize tonality in the period of its much-reported demise.

Concept and Practice: in arranging the fifteen essays of this volume, we have—as
the subtitle suggests—sought to balance broader conceptual reflections with the
particularity of individual case studies. Confronting the contingent and diversified
practice of a rich half-century of tonal music, we (like Melville’s narrator) felt that
this was the kind of enterprise for which “a careful disorderliness” furnished the
only true method.33
A first cluster of chapters, “Tonality as Concept and Category,” attempts to
delineate and explore the basic field of inquiry. Four writers address the big ques-
tions grounding all tonality-talk—the influence of new musical technologies; the

31 Mark DeVoto, “Harmony,” in New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 368.
32 See Leonard B. Meyer, Music, The Arts and Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1967), chapter 9.
33 See Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, chapter 82.
Introduction 19

listener’s role in identifying tonality effects; and the geographical and historical
transmission of several concepts of tonality, most especially between Austro-Ger-
manic culture and the US. Joseph Auner’s essay, “Weighing, Measuring, Embalm-
ing Tonality: How we Became Phonometrographers,” explores inventions in sound
technology and science of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century as direct
influences on the imagination of composers, performers, and theorists. Drawing on
an eclectic array of writings, Auner proposes a set of hypotheses for how tonality
has been and continues to be thought—his categories of “weighing,” “measuring,”
and “embalming” (inspired by remarks of Satie) provide suggestive ways for un-
derstanding mechanical mediations of the sonic. Technology, in this reading, has
served as a catalyst for “new conceptions of individual harmonies, their relationship
to each other, and the radically expanded sphere of sound in which music came to
be understood.”
Tonality has invariably been defined either as an effect of the listener’s cogni-
tion or as an intrinsic property of music. Richard Cohn, in “Peter, the Wolf, and the
Hexatonic Uncanny,” starts from a definition of tonality as something invested in
listeners (“this for me sounds tonal”) rather than in any listened-to musical object.
The ontological query is pursued, however, through close analytic parsing of a sin-
gle work. Revealing the musicalized folk-tale Peter and the Wolf to be rife with
triads moving by smooth chromatic (“parsimonious”) voice leading—rather than
by more standard diatonic progressions—Cohn gets at the uncanny and disturbing
harmonic forces that roam Prokofiev’s 1936 score. Within a hexatonic framework,
the Tarnhelm progression between triads and its major-mode form (the Taruskin)
provoke doubts as to the security of the categorical boundaries, consonance and
dissonance. Tonality, Cohn concludes, “frames … but does not saturate” the dan-
gerously liminal world of Peter and the Wolf.
The transmission of concepts of tonality, both across history and by geographic
displacement, is explored in Wolfgang Rathert’s chapter, “The Legacy of the Ger-
man Rule.” Rathert’s concern is with “Trans-Atlantic” relationships in music his-
tory as they developed in the US under the extensive influence of ideas originating
in the Austro-German cultural sphere. The compositional and theoretic Ultra-Mod-
ernism of Charles Seeger and Henry Cowell in the 1920s provides the first of three
case studies of cultural encounters with Germanic thought that bore new fruit when
transplanted abroad. In the second, Rathert traces Schenker’s impact on Ameri-
can musicians in the 1930s, through the specific lens of Roger Sessions’s reviews
of the Viennese theorist’s writings and of Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz.
Schoen­berg’s reversion to tonal composition around this time, lastly—a relaxing of
“the antithesis between suppressed tradition and lawless innovation”—situates one
phase of his compositional activity within its biographic and geographic context.
Inscribed on the history of tonality, Rathert shows, are personalized histories of
students, emigrants, and exiles.
Modifications of the category of nature in Hindemith’s concept of tonality over
two decades again betray a precisely localized history, considering his emigration
to the US in 1942 and his later return to Europe. Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen’s ac-
count traces how a concept of tonality might change significantly within the theo-
20 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

retical work of a single author. With close attention to the texts of the Unterweisung
treatise, both in its original German form and in English translation, Hinrichsen in-
vestigates the reception of Hindemith’s tonality concept. That reception, he shows,
was itself governed by the complexities of the composer’s own career at home and
“Tonality in Austro-German Theory” forms the subject of part two, which is
dominated by the imposing figure of Schoenberg, viewed here as the author of a
treatise that was a milestone in theoretical discourse about tonality. Markus Bögge-
mann’s chapter, “Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre,” emphasizes
the flexibility of Schoenberg’s rhetorical strategies with regard to the core concept
of tonality. The book’s argument, Böggemann notes, is structured around two com-
peting concepts—historical and natural—of tonal organization. That Schoen­berg in
the Harmonielehre found it impossible to ground tonality in any single normative
concept confirms music theory as another site of post-1900 modernity—a period of
inescapable relativism of categories, norms and premises. Stephen Hinton’s chapter
on “Psychology and Comprehensibility” in the Harmonielehre compares the 1911
first edition with the third revised edition (1922). Hinton scrutinizes both texts in
order to trace the development of two central ideas—the so-called “emancipation
of dissonance” and the notion of Fasslichkeit (“comprehensibility”)—each closely
bound up with Schoenberg’s evolving compositional aesthetic.
Felix Wörner, in “Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept
of Tonality,” reconstructs the discursive foundations of Kurthian energetics. Kurth’s
premise that sound (Klang) in music is only an inadequate representation of inner
forces leads him to conclude that tonality is not given through the musical material
itself. Kurth’s theoretic formulations, as Wörner notes, are indebted to such diverse
philosophical concepts as Dilthey’s psychological hermeneutics, Bergsonism, and
Gestalt theory. Tonalität, for Kurth, enacts the “crisis” of romantische Harmonik,
presenting a highly flexible and ever-changing constellation of constructive and
destructive forces which must themselves be reenacted through musical listening.
If there is a plurality of the discourses surrounding tonality after 1900, even
within the restricted orbit of Austro-German theory, the plot only thickens when
attention turns from conceptual matters to individual composers and their works.
“Practices of Tonality”—the third and final section of Tonality 1900–1950—
presents eight case studies, grouped loosely according to cultural-geographical mi-
lieu: one essay treats German composers, three writers focus on French music, two
on British composers, two more the scene in the US.
French music, especially after 1918, witnessed broad discussion of aesthetics,
invariably inflected by cultural and political forces. Marianne Wheeldon, in her es-
say “Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin,” views
tonalité as one salient element in a larger cultural field, along with atonality, and
polytonality. The meanings of such terms, Wheeldon observes, in the French musi-
cal world of the 1920s and 30s derived “not only from how they were defined with
regard to one another, but also in how they were deployed in the various ‘position-
takings’ of composers, for whom the establishment of a distinct French musical
identity was key.” Her discussion frames tonality as a term in public, journalistic
Introduction 21

circulation in particular institutional and professional settings, as well as a term of

proto-philosophical significance. Mark Delaere’s chapter, “Autant de compositeurs,
autant de polytonalités différentes,” complements Wheeldon’s by tracing polyto-
nality as a system of composition in the writings and compositions of Milhaud and
Koechlin, and also in the work of less familiar figures such as Georges Monier,
Marcel Dupré, and Armand Machabey. Volker Helbing’s study of the third move-
ment of Ravel’s Sonate pour violon et violoncelle (1921) revealingly links analy-
sis of the composer’s modally inflected harmonic language to his articulation of a
dramatic form. In an aesthetic of nuance and transformation, as Helbing’s account
makes clear, Ravel traces a forceful narrative of peripeteia and catastrophe.
Alain Frogley’s study, “Tonality on the Town: Orchestrating the Metropolis
in Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony”—one of two chapters with a Brit-
ish focus—offers a hermeneutic reading of a score whose finely balanced dialectic
between diatonic tonality and various anti-tonal elements engages the anxieties sur-
rounding urbanized life in the early twentieth century. The score’s brash hexatonic
modernity serves as a foil to more pastoralist idylls, visions evoked by pentatonic
means. This twilit harmonic idiom, as Frogley argues, can be understood in the con-
text of an array of responses by social commentators, novelists, poets, and paint-
ers—from Baudelaire to Kraus, Renoir to Sickert—to the experience of modern
daily life.
In “Between Archaism and Modernism: Tonality in Music for Amateurs in
Germany around 1930,” Ullrich Scheideler examines a brief moment in music his-
tory when a self-consciously tonal language was cultivated amid the shifting aes-
thetic currents of Neue Sachlichkeit. In both Weill’s Der Jasager (1930) and Bruno
Stürmer’s Feierliche Musik (1931), an archaic tone is achieved by a modal rework-
ing of Baroque dance forms. Clear tonal goals, in Hindemith’s Plöner Musiktag
(1932), are affirmed even within a resolutely polyphonic idiom of non-traditional
chord structures. While a 1931 essay of Adorno’s had criticized purveyors of “neue
Tonalität” for historical naiveté, Weill, Stürmer, and Hindemith, in distinctive ways,
were creating tonal music as an agent for building community among amateur play-
ers and listeners.
In “Among the Ruined Languages: Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940,”
Philip Rupprecht begins by noting that the teenage Benjamin Britten’s familiar-
ity with Schoenbergian atonality bore compositional fruit in a little-known 1930
Sextet for Wind. Sketching British critical awareness of atonality and polytonality
in the 1910s and 20s (including the pre-1914 fascination with Scriabin), Rupprecht
reconsiders the aesthetic context for Britten’s later, emphatically triadic scores. In
Les illuminations (1939) and the Michelangelo Sonnets (1940), key sense emerges
through hexatonic symmetries rather than conventional chord functions. Tonality
never seems “lost” in Britten, and by mid-century, his continued embrace of triadic
euphony set him apart from what Hans Keller dubbed “the anti-diatonicism of the
Two final contributions to this volume offer a suggestive sampling of the rich
tonal compositional practices of the US. Beth E. Levy, in “Roy Harris and the Cri-
sis of Consonance,” explores Harris’s development of his own theory of tonality,
22 Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht

and his response to serialism in the 1930s. Harris, as Levy notes of the 1936 Piano
Quintet, conceived of a twelve-tone music that could “strengthen the gravitational
pull of the tonic rather than breathing the air of other planets.” As the composer’s
own testimony makes clear, his ideas of tonality were inextricably bound up with
personal experiences of the physical world. Another tonally oriented flirtation with
serial techniques is documented, finally, in Daniel Harrison’s chapter, “Samuel Bar-
ber’s Nocturne: An Experiment in Tonal Serialism.” Barber, for all his well-known
ambivalence to serial techniques, undertook in the Nocturne an uncharacteristi-
cally rigorous experiment in using multiple rows of cyclical intervallic content. The
likely model, as Harrison suggests in a detailed analysis, was not Schoenberg, but
Berg, a composer who had also sought to reconcile all-chromatic structures with
conventional overtone-rich harmonies.
The chronological sweep of the eight case studies spans Vaughan Williams’s
London Symphony (1913) and Barber’s Nocturne (1959). Clearly, it would take
a much larger group of contributors to document the fully international extent of
tonal music in the first half of the twentieth century, with due attention to many
other figures—Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, among others—whose music was cre-
ated, heard, and understood (to varying degrees) as “tonal” after 1900. The mutual
interference of compositional imagination and the rule of theory suggest the pos-
sibility of a recuperative history of tonal music, and of alternate canon formations.
For now, though, we must rely on synecdoche, and the prospect of future scholarly
investigation of tonality—as conceived and as practiced.

The editors gratefully acknowledge generous financial support for the confer-
ence Tonality 1900–1950: Concept and Practice, held October 1–2, 2010 at UNC
Chapel Hill and Duke University, from a number of donors: the National Endow-
ment for the Humanities; the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung; the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, College of Arts and Sciences; and Duke Univer-
sity’s Department of Music. The conference brought together a distinguished roster
of scholars, including all contributors to the present volume. Preparation of the
book has been made possible by a two-year research and publication grant from the
TransCoop Program of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; and by a grant
from the Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science at UNC Chapel
Hill. We are particularly grateful to the following colleagues for their support at
various stages: William Andrews, Tim Carter, Hermann Danuser, Edward Gol-
lin, Jane Hawkins, Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, Brian Hyer, Stephen Jaffe, Severine
Neff, Carol Oja, Terry Rhodes, Christian Martin Schmidt, Gayle Sherwood Magee,
and Anne C. Shreffler. Susan S. Williams facilitated many administrative issues
over the entire period of this collaborative project. Ben Haas was indispensable at
all stages in preparing the manuscript for publication. At Franz Steiner, we are most
grateful to Thomas Schaber and Harald Schmitt.
Tonality as Concept and Category
Weighing, Measuring, Embalming Tonality: .
How we Became Phonometrographers
Joseph Auner

In his peculiar little essay from 1912, “What I am,” Satie denies being a musician,
describing himself instead as a “phonometrographer,” inspired by science and dedi-
cated to weighing and measuring sounds. He writes:
… I enjoy measuring a sound much more than hearing it. With my phonometer in my hand, I
work happily and with confidence.
What haven’t I weighed or measured? I’ve done all Beethoven, all Verdi, etc. It’s fascinating.
The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B-flat of medium size. I can assure you that I
have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him.
On my phono-scales a common or garden F-sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor
whom I also weighed.
Do you know how to clean sounds? It’s a filthy business. Stretching them out is cleaner; index-
ing them is a meticulous task and needs good eyesight. Here, we are in the realm of phono­

With what at first seems like a series of one-liners, Satie in fact opens up a wide
range of questions concerning the impact of science and technology on the new
ways of hearing and thinking about sound, the materials of music, and the nature of
tonality that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is as if through
the use of his phonoscope a musical sound is forcibly extracted from the sacred
sphere of art and turned into an object to be manipulated and probed, with rather un-
settling results. And not only is the musical sound transformed by the process, but
so is the person on the other end of the phonoscope. Satie’s disavowal of his identity
as a musician—no doubt alluding to his many teachers and critics who derided his
competence—was more than a one-off joke; during this period he repeatedly asked
to be introduced at concerts as a “phonometrographer.”2 Moreover, it is clear that
he did not believe the eye- and ear-opening experience of the phonoscope should be

1 Erik Satie, “What I Am,” in A Mammal’s Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie, ed. Or-
nella Volta, trans. Antony Melville (London: Atlas Press, 1996), 101. The essay has also been
discussed in Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2001), 193–94; and Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in
Music, Literature, and Other Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 192–94.
2 Robert Orledge, Satie the Composer (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990),
118. Peter Dayan points out that in the original publication of “What I am” in the Revue musi-
cale S.I.M. 8, no. 4 (15 April 1912), Satie added a footnote referring to a description of himself
the previous year by the critic Gérard Poueigh as a “clumsy technician, but a subtle one, a
seeker after new sonorities, sometimes exquisite, sometimes bizarre.” Peter Dayan, Art as Mu-
26 Joseph Auner

limited to artists or to the elite; as soon as he sees the revolting Bb, he at once calls
his servant in to take a look.
In this essay I will argue that many of the composers who defined musical
modernism in the first half of the twentieth century might also be thought of as pho-
nometrographers, with ears and minds remade by recording, phonography, player
pianos, and the burgeoning sciences of sound. The last two decades have seen an
explosion of scholarship on the impact of these and other technologies on many
aspects of musical composition, performance, reception, and the history of hearing
in classical and popular music around the world.3 Scholars in other disciplines have
also been exploring the impact of sound technology, film, and radio on literature,
art, phonetics, and the history of the senses. As Jonathan Sterne has written, “The
history of sound reproduction is the history of the transformation of the human
body as an object of knowledge and practice.”4 While earlier technological revolu-
tions had focused on extending limbs and muscles in the search for “physical speed
and power,” Friedrich Kittler and Steven Connor have written of the period be-
tween the invention of the telephone and the beginning of World War II as a second
phase dedicated to extending the reach of the central nervous system, one carried
out by the development of technologies designed to enhance the senses, including
such inventions and writings as listed in Fig. 1.5

1857 Phonautograph, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

1862 Helmholtz, On the Sensation of Tones (Eng. trans. 1877)
1867 Tyndall, On Sound
1876 Telephone, Bell (three million in use by 1904)
1877 Phonograph, Edison (large commercial market by 1890)
1885 Electric Siren
1889 Universal Exposition, Paris, Galerie des machines
1897 Telharmonium, Cahill, (Telharmonium Hall, NYC, 1906)
1897 Oscilloscope (improved version 1911)
1899 Wireless Telegraph
1904 Welte-Mignon Reproducing Piano
1906 Radio
1913 Oscillator
1917 Condenser Microphone

sic, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art from Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond (Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2011), 40.
3 I have developed ideas related to the discussion of tonality here in connection with our relation-
ship to the recorded voice in, “Losing Your Voice: Sampled Speech and Song from the Uncanny
to the Unremarkable,” in Throughout: Art and Culture Emerging with Ubiquitous Computing,
ed. Ulrik Ekman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming).
4 Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2003), 50.
5 Steven Connor, “The Modern Auditory I,” in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renais-
sance to the Present, ed. Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1997), 204–5; Friedrich Kittler,
Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
How we Became Phonometrographers 27

1924 Electrical Recording

1928 Theremin, Ondes Martenot
1930 Spectrograph
1934 Magnetic Recording Tape
1935 Long Playing Phonograph

Figure 1: Some Important Landmarks in Sound Technology and Science

I would argue that the impact of this second technological revolution on the devel-
opment of harmony has been largely overlooked in the established historical nar-
ratives focusing on musical style, compositional technique, the history of theory,
and aesthetics. In what follows I will turn Satie’s phonoscope on some familiar
topics and figures to consider how these and other sound technologies in the early
decades of the twentieth century may have influenced how composers, musicians,
and theorists heard, worked with, and reimagined the basic building blocks of tonal
harmony. Though he does not pursue the observation at length, Michael Chanan is
one of the few to speculate on the connection, writing, “Is it only a coincidence that
over the same period as the introduction of the new technology of reproduction, the
Western musical tradition experienced a revolution in its every aspect? Figures like
Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók and Stravinsky turned it inside out and
upside down.”6
More than just a temporal coincidence, these and other modernists interacted
with sound technologies in manifold ways as has been frequently discussed. One
could cite the role of the phonograph and other recording and measuring devices
in ethnographic fieldwork for Bartók, Janáček, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and others;
Taruskin points out that Stravinsky insisted on working with phonographically tran-
scribed folk song collections.7 There is also evidence of the impact of recordings
of exotic and folk music on Mahler, Stravinsky, and McPhee. Surprisingly early
on composers including Weill, Hindemith, and Cage began to explore ways to use
phonographs themselves as compositional tools. Many composers were involved
to varying degrees with player pianos, including Debussy, Stravinsky, Antheil, and
Mahler, who in 1905 wrote in the Welte-Mignon studio guest book after recording
on their elaborate system, “In my astonishment and admiration, I join with those
who preceded me.”8 New instruments also attracted broad attention, including Bu-
soni’s interest in the Telharmonium, the noise machines of the Italian Futurists, and
Ives and Cowell’s interest in the Theremin and other early electronic instruments.
Schoenberg too, who plays an important role in what follows, was deeply influ-

6 Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music (Lon-
don: Verso, 1995), 20.
7 Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1996), 1:733.
8 Liner notes to Mahler Plays Mahler: The Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls. Kaplan Foundation, 1993.
For a wide-ranging study of the impact of the player piano see Christine Fena, “Composing the
Land of Sewing Machines and Typewriters: American Modernist Music and the Piano in the
Machine Age 1918–1933” (PhD diss., Stony Brook University, 2011).
28 Joseph Auner

enced by overtone theory, wireless telegraphy, the radio, mechanical instruments,

and recording technology.
Such technologies are sometimes part of the story of the development of these
composers’ musical thought, but it may be that they are more central than has been
recognized. It is striking to consider, for example, how much attention has been
paid to the impact on Debussy, Ravel, and others of the opportunity to hear Java-
nese Gamelan and other exotic musics at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris.
But the major sensations of the event were at the Galerie des machines where,
under thousands of electric lights, one could listen to live musical performances
from theaters in Paris transmitted by telephone lines; the largest exhibition space
was given over to Edison’s Phonograph.9 Debussy wrote in 1913, “The century of
aeroplanes has a right to a music of its own. Let those who support our art not be left
to waste away in the lowest ranks of our army of inventors, let them not be outdone
by the genius of engineers!”10
In what follows I will use the categories of weighing, measuring, and em-
balming to frame hypotheses about possible connections between what I will call
a phonometrographic attitude and new conceptions of individual harmonies, their
relationship to each other, and the radically expanded sphere of sound in which
music came to be understood. In making such speculations I do not mean to imply
a narrow technologically deterministic model linking the introduction of specific
devices to changes in musical style. On the contrary, in every case compositional
developments were shaped by multiple historical factors, with technology often
providing a catalyst for trends already long in place. Similarly, influences do not
move just in one direction; science and technology have themselves been shaped by
musical and cultural developments. I also am aware of the danger in what follows
of reifying a notion of tonality that was itself very much in flux during this period.
Indeed, perhaps a more interesting question than the one I am posing here would
be the degree to which the formulation of tonality as a concept was itself shaped
by the context of sound and recording technologies. As Brian Hyer notes, “Before
1910 […] tonality—as a construct that informs the production and consumption of
music—had a modest historical provenance.”11

9 Annegret Fauser, Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (Rochester: University of
Rochester Press, 2005), 279–312. In an article on Debussy that anticipates my phonometro-
graphic approach here, David Lewin notes in a footnote the “importance of the coincidence the
phonograph, a well-nigh indispensable adjunct for cognitive studies in ethnomusicology, was
introduced to the European intellectual world on precisely the same occasion” at which so
much exotic music was featured. David Lewin, “Some Instances of Parallel Voice Leading in
Debussy,” 19th-Century Music 11 (1987): 70, n. 9.
10 Cited in Robert P. Morgan, ed., The Twentieth Century, vol. 7 of Source Readings in Music
History, ed. Oliver Strunk and Leo Treitler, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1998), 163. Kittler
observes, “composers of 1880, however, are allied with engineers.” Kittler, Gramophone, Film,
Typewriter, 24.
11 Brian Hyer, “Tonality,” in Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, ed. Thomas Chris-
tensen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 746.
How we Became Phonometrographers 29

My focus will be on the first half of the century, but there are clear connections
to our musical world today, a world in which we have all, to some degree, become
phonometrographers ourselves.


When Satie wrote about weighing the B he was anticipating one of the most com-
mon observations about the impact of recording, namely the transformation of eva-
nescent sounds into objects that could be seen and touched, now a familiar concept
thanks to Pierre Schaeffer’s term Musique concréte. Mark Katz’s list of recording
effects in Capturing Sound includes the categories of tangibility, portability, and
manipulability.12 Steven Connor has written of the sense of hearing as a kind of
touch, citing the hearing-impaired Thomas Edison’s claim in 1913 to have bitten
down on the wood of the phonograph in order to hear the faint overtones: “The
sound-waves thus came almost directly to my brain. They pass through only my
inner ear.”13 But Satie’s notion of weighing implies considerably more than just
thinking about sounds as objects, also pointing to new ways of analyzing how the
sound object was constituted, how one should determine the boundaries between
consonance and dissonance and music and noise, and what one should do with these
newly understood sound objects once they were identified.
It is not clear precisely what devices Satie had in mind with his lexicon of tech-
nologies in the essay, including the “Phonometer,” “Phonoscope,” “Phono-scales,”
“Motodynamaphone,” and the “Kaleidophone-recorder” he reports using to write
his Cold Pieces (Pièces froids) in seven minutes. Satie may have known of one of
the earliest such devices, Édouard-Léon Scott’s Phonautograph from 1857, which
used a bristle attached to a diaphragm to record sound waves on to lamp-blackened
paper.14 Although Scott’s invention could not play back these tracings, they have
recently been reconstructed to unveil the earliest known recordings, including a
voice singing the first line of the French folk song “Au clair de la lune, mon ami
By 1880 there were several devices called Phonometers, including one patented
by Edison, that were used to measure the intensity, duration, and location of sound,
cure stammering, and help ships navigate in the fog. The inaugural issue from No-
vember 1896 of the New York Journal The Phonoscope described its purview as
“Talking Machines, Picture Projecting and Animating Devices, and Scientific and

12 Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2004).
13 Steven Connor, “Edison’s Teeth,” in Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Mo-
dernity, ed. Veit Erlmann (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 169.
14 See Sterne, The Audible Past, 31–51; David Pantalony, Altered Sensations: Rudolph Koenig’s
Acoustical Workshop in Nineteenth-Century Paris (New York: Springer, 2009), 41–47; and
Katherine Bergeron, Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Epoque (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2010).
15 Arved Ashby, Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2010), 123–25.
30 Joseph Auner

Figure 2: Dayton Miller, Photographs of Sound Waves, Phonodeik, The Science

of Musical Sounds, 1916

Amusement Inventions Appertaining to Sound and Sight.” In its pages one could
read articles and advertisements for the phonograph, gramophone, graphophone,
metaphone, artograph, radiophone, the sympsychograph, and many other devices.
The Phonoscope thus also points to the degree to which the phonometrographic at-
titude embraced all the senses.
That sound was produced by vibration has been known since Pythagoras, and
many scientists in the nineteenth century including Fourier, Doppler, Ohm, and
Helmholtz had described physical laws of harmonics and waves, but devices like
Scott’s Phonoautograph were the first to actually capture and, thanks to Edison, by
1877 to allow the reproduction of sound. The ability to see sound waves also shifted
attention from the centuries old focus on the ratios between different frequencies
to the nature of the vibrations themselves.16 The Phonodeik, invented in 1908 by
Dayton Miller, preserved the sound vibrations on film by means of a diaphragm at-

16 Alexander Rehding has written of the intense interest aroused with the invention of the siren in
1819 which challenged established ideas of the nature of pitch, and which resulted in Helmoltz
differentiating, “Klang, the physical impression of the periodic movement of air molecules that
constitute the soundwave, and Ton, the perceptual impression of the periodic vibration in the
ear.” Rehding, “Of Sirens Old and New,” in Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music and Sound
How we Became Phonometrographers 31

tached to a mirror that moved a beam of light (Fig. 2). In his influential 1916 book
The Science of Musical Sounds, he published images of the sound waves from vari-
ous moments in the Sextett from Lucia di Lammermoor, showing the differences
between, from the top down, an octave, a single note (notably a Bb), two voices
singing a major third, and all six voices singing an Eb-major triad. Douglas Kahn
has discussed Miller’s interest in building complex waveforms up from the addition
of simpler shapes, as well as the idea of turning lines from nature into sound, such
as a wave form created by multiple versions of Beethoven’s profile.17 Harry Partch
in his Genesis of a Music (first published in 1949) refers to Miller’s Phonodeik im-
ages and writings as important inspirations for his efforts to create new instruments
“capable of expressing an infinite range of ideas and of infinite mutability […].”18
The notion that the world of sound waves embraced such an infinite diver-
sity can be linked to the technology at the core of all these devices: a tympanic
membrane that transduces the sound vibrations from the air into another medium.
Sterne has discussed how Bell’s early work on the telephone in 1874 started with
a membrane from an actual human ear, to which a stylus was attached that would
etch vibrations on to smoked glass. This represented a major change of direction
in the pursuit of sound reproduction from the earlier focus on devices based on the
mouth, such as Wolfgang von Kempelen’s 1791 design for a Vox Humana that used
a keyboard to control mouth-shaped resonators.19
But more importantly for our purposes, Sterne identifies tympanic hearing as a
crucial turning point in our conception of sound; instead of categorizing sounds in
terms of their manifold sources (voices, instruments, natural events, etc.), a focus
on the transductive properties of the membrane allowed all acoustic phenomena to
be understood as vibration. He writes: “sound became a waveform whose source
was essentially irrelevant; hearing became a mechanical function that could be iso-
lated and abstracted from the other senses and the human body itself.”20 Kittler
writes similarly: “The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained
immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic
events as such.”21 Such a conception of sound as a waveform has now become sec-
ond nature due to the ubiquity of programs like “ProTools” or the ringtone editing
tool in “iTunes.” But Satie’s “What I am” makes clear that such ways of thinking
about sound were already widespread at the turn of the twentieth century.
The realization that musical soundwaves were a subset of the larger sphere of
all vibrations had many ramifications for an understanding of tonality, which like-
wise could be understood as a subset of a larger sphere of frequencies and wave-

Studies, ed. Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcom-
17 Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2001), 95–99.
18 Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music: An Account of a Creative Work, its Roots and its Fulfillments,
2nd ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 95.
19 Bernd Pompino-Marschall, “Kempelen et al.: Remarks on the History of Articulatory-Acoustic
Modelling” ZAS Papers in Linguistics 40 (2005): 145–59.
20 Sterne, The Audible Past, 23.
21 Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 23.
32 Joseph Auner

forms. Helmholtz had already drawn the conclusion that, while there were physical
and anatomical factors involved, the borders of consonance and dissonance and the
structure of scales were not based on natural laws, but were historical and cultural,
as he wrote: “the result of esthetical principles, which have already changed and
will still further with the progressive development of humanity.”22 We can see man-
ifestations of this conception of sound as waveforms in both the new interest in de-
vices that would capture and create infinite gradations of pitch as well as composers
increasing interest in questioning the boundaries between musical sound and noise.
Around the turn of the century composers, scientists, and engineers developed
devices like the Telharmonium that, as Busoni wrote in his Sketch of a New Aes-
thetic of Music (1907), could precisely produce an “infinite gradation of the octave.”
Three decades earlier the German physicist Rudolph König developed a widely ex-
hibited device that used nearly 700 adjustable tuning forks that could produce more
than 800 different frequencies between 16 and 4096 Hz.23 The Intonarumori of the
Italian Futurists can also be linked to this new understanding of sound as vibration.
Pratella, for example, described the orchestra of the future as “a sonorous universe
in a state of constant mobility.” As Robert Morgan has discussed, the Italian Futur-
ists insisted in the Art of Noises in 1913, that “the limited circle of pure sounds must
be broken and the infinite variety of ‘noise-sound’ conquered,” thus aspiring to an
image of composition like a “musical poem with the power of the machine and the
victorious reign of electricity.”24 Thomas Levin writes of the origins of sound syn-
thesis and its connection with film sound research and the efforts to develop a script
that would encompass all sounds.25
But a more direct challenge to traditional conceptions of tonal harmony and
theory came from the use of the phonograph for ethnographic field recordings, al-
ready common around the turn of the century, involving figures like Hornbostel,
Kodály, Janáček, and Bartók who compared listening to a recording to “examining
music objects under a microscope.”26 In contrast to a reliance on transcription into
conventional notation, the tympanic membrane of the phonograph captured all the
nuances of pitch and rhythm, thus documenting the existence of very different tun-
ing systems. Rehding has discussed how Riemann as a result viewed phonography
as dangerous, capturing as it did “indications of individual intervals that contra-
dicted our habitual intonations.” Riemann wrote in his 1916 essay Folkloristische
Tonalitätsstudien: “The annoying result of this research of comparative musicology

22 Robert Beyer, Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics (New York: Springer,
1999), 69; and see The Audible Past, 63–67. Leon Botstein discusses the impact of Helmholtz’s
writings in “Time and Memory: Concert Life, Science, and Music in Brahms’s Vienna,” in
Brahms and His World, ed. Walter Frisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 3–22.
23 Pantalony, Altered Sensations, 69.
24 Robert P. Morgan, “‘A New Musical Reality’: Futurism, Modernism, and ‘The Art of Noises,’”
Modernism/Modernity 1, no. 3 (1994): 129–51.
25 Thomas Levin, “‘Tones from out of Nowhere’: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archeology of
Synthetic Sound,” Grey Room 12 (2003): 32–79. And see Marc Battier, “Phonography and the
Invention of Sound,” in Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections, ed. Mine
Dogantan-Dack (London: Middlesex Press, 2008), 100–118.
26 Chanan, Repeated Takes, 10.
How we Became Phonometrographers 33

was, first and foremost, to shake up the very foundations of music theory, gradu-
ally solidified as they had over the course of millenia.”27 And it is also clear that
at the same time there were many examples of composers having their musical
worlds shaken by recordings of exotic music, including Mahler and Chinese music,
Stravinsky and Japanese music, and a few years later Colin McPhee’s encounter in
1929 with recordings of Balinese music that friends had brought back from travels
in Indonesia.
It is striking that the rise of this equalizing tympanic conception of all sound as
vibration paralleled what Morgan has described as the “shift in modern music from
the background to the foreground, from substructure to surface,” especially clear
in works of Schoenberg and Scriabin.28 He describes Schoenberg as sacrificing “a
traditional background to allow the compositional foreground to speak more freely,
unencumbered by the constraints of a conventional syntax.” In reference to Schoen­
berg’s idiosyncratic analyses of earlier music in the Harmonielehre, he writes:
“What for Bach and Mozart were passing “accidents”—the result of surface contra-
puntal elaborations firmly tied to an unmistakably inferable triad background—have
become for Schoenberg absolute entities warranting theoretical investigation and
explanation in their own right.”29 But we could also read Schoenberg’s interest in
reevaluating these vertical slices from earlier music as a manifestation of the pho-
nometrographic impulse to hear and weigh sounds like a recording device would.
In the music and thought of Schoenberg we can see many ramifications of these
new ways of thinking about sound, as his pupil Heinrich Jalowetz wrote in 1912,
“For Schoenberg as well as for science, the physical basis in which he is trying to
ground all phenomena is the overtone series.”30 Most obviously, his conception of
the emancipation of the dissonance in the Harmonielehre referred to the harmonic
series to argue that dissonances were only more remote consonances. The final
chapter considers “Chords of Six or More Tones,” which accepts in principle any
combination of notes, including all twelve at once. Schoenberg finishes up with
the remarkably open ended notion of Klangfarbenmelodie, which explicitly insists
that pitch and timbre are manifestations of the same phenomenon of vibration.31 It
is noteworthy that both Schoenberg and Kandinsky at this time were creating syn­
aesthetic works that extended the spheres of vibration to the other senses as well.
As he was beginning work on his opera Die glückliche Hand in 1910, Schoenberg
wrote to Alma Mahler of his goal of combining “colors, noises, lights, sounds,
movements, looks, gestures—in short, the media which make up the ingredients of
the stage.”32 In On the Spiritual in Art (1911), Kandinsky explains synaesthesia in

27 Alexander Rehding, “Wax Cylinder Revolutions,” Musical Quarterly 88 (2005): 132.

28 Robert P. Morgan, “Musical Time/Musical Space,” Critical Inquiry 6 (1980): 534.
29 Robert P. Morgan, “Secret Languages: The Roots of Musical Modernism,” Critical Inquiry 10
(1984), 454–56.
30 Cited in Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 24.
31 Alfred Cramer has discussed Schoenberg’s conception of Klangfarbenmelodie from the per-
spective of contemporaneous writings on Klang and timbre by Ernst Mach and others. Alfred
Cramer, “Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie: A Principle of Early Atonal Harmony,” Music
Theory Spectrum 24 (2002): 1–34.
32 John C. Crawford, “Die glückliche Hand: Further Notes,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg
34 Joseph Auner

terms of vibrations that propagate “along corresponding paths leading away from
the soul to other sensory organs (in this case the eye). This effect would seem to be
an echo or resonance, as in the case of musical instruments, which without them-
selves being touched, vibrate in sympathy with another instrument being played.”33
A crucial manifestation of this conception of sound for the present context,
is the tendency in the music of Schoenberg and many others during these years
for chords to function as freestanding objects rather than as elements in a pro-
gression. In Between Romanticism and Modernism, Dahlhaus writes of what he
calls the “individualization of harmony,” a consequence of a wide range of “Is-
sues in Composition” in the second half of the nineteenth century: “Relieved of the
responsibility for the large-scale formal structures, the harmony serves instead to
establish the unique identity of one instant in the music.”34 Tracing Stravinsky’s
roots in the traditions of Russian music, Taruskin describes harmonies in the Rite
of Spring as “hypostatized, turned into stone, timbrally and registrally so fixed that
even transposition—let alone transformation or transition—were inconceivable.”35
But I would argue that the phonometrographic attitude also played a major role in
this approach to harmony. Compare for example, Albright’s discussion of Satie in
reference to the phonometrography essay and “furniture music,” where he describes
Satie as “the first great materialist of music,” with music of a “disconcertingly high
specific gravity, a strange leadenness” that “doesn’t develop, doesn’t cue emotions,
but just lies there furnishing the ear.”36
The idea of a chord as a static vibrating object is literally explored in one of the
earliest atonal pieces, Schoenberg’s song Am Strande, originally considered as part
of Op. 14, and composed in 1908 or 1909.37 Much of the piece is anchored around
the untransposed collection, C-E-F-B, which appears in half of the song’s twenty
measures (Fig. 3). As he would do again in the first movement of Op. 11 composed
in 1909, he includes a passage where the notes of the chord are silently depressed to
allow harmonics to ring. We first hear the fundamental tones resonating in response
to the sustained harmony an octave below, but then the motive in bass (C#, D, G)
excites more distant overtones.
Just how deeply Schoenberg thought about such acoustic effects can be gleaned
from his discussion of resonance in the Draft of a Will he wrote in 1908 in response

Institute 4 (1980): 73.

33 Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo, 1994), 158.
34 Carl Dahlhaus, “Issues in Composition,” Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies
in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980),
35 Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, 1:957.
36 Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, 193. In related terms Erica Scheinberg discusses a concert of
“Stehende Musik” organized by Stefan Wolpe and the Novembergruppe in the context of An-
dreas Huyssen’s formulation of the “technological imagination.” Erica Scheinberg, “Music and
the Technological Imagination in the Weimar Republic: Media, Machines, and the New Objec-
tivity” (PhD diss., UCLA, 2007), 79.
37 Jennifer Shaw, “Zwei Lieder für eine Singstimme und Klavier Op. 14,” in Arnold Schönberg:
Interpretationen seiner Werke, ed. Gerold W. Gruber (Laaber: Laaber, 2002), 1:181–95.
How we Became Phonometrographers 35

Figure 3: Arnold Schoenberg, Am Strande, mm. 1–9. Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna

to his wife’s infidelity. He explains his lack of awareness of her relationship with
the painter Richard Gerstl, because it was so foreign to his nature:
I don’t actually know anything about it. I must have slept through it or have forgotten it, per-
haps I didn’t notice it at all. If I sing a pure note A into my piano, then all the strings that contain
A also ring. But if I sing a wrong note, higher or lower, the reverberation is much weaker. Obvi-
ously only some distant overtones resonate—musically wrong, useless—but I believe that the
well-tempered piano really doesn’t know anything about them; it can forget them; they don’t
penetrate into its harmonic musical nature.38

In his correspondence with Busoni in 1909 he similarly described the reception

of his music in terms of vibration and resonance: “the work of art will only have

38 Joseph Auner, A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2003), 55.
36 Joseph Auner

an impact on those who are like-minded. On those who possess a receiving organ
which corresponds to our transmitting organ. As with wireless telegraphy.”39 In
many writings during the years from 1908–1912 he characterized the act of compo-
sition as a kind of seismographic transcription of his unconscious sensations. As he
began Pierrot in March 1912 he wrote: “The sounds here truly become an animal-
istically immediate expression of sensual and psychological emotions. Almost as if
everything were transmitted directly.”40 As I have discussed elsewhere, it was only
when he lost faith in his ability to achieve this vision of direct transmission as well
as the listeners’ ability to resonate appropriately, that he began to turn his attention
to other ways of ensuring comprehensibility and coherence.41


The new sound technologies also had a major impact on the temporal aspects of
music, as Kittler has noted: “What phonographs and cinematographs […] were able
to store was time: time as a mixture of audio frequencies in the acoustic realm and
as the movement of single-image sequences in the optical.”42 Katz and others have
discussed how musicians in all styles began to write pieces to fit the temporal con-
straints of the spiraling grove of 78s, with Stravinsky’s Serenade in A as a famous
example. But I want to consider more generally what sound technologies may have
suggested to composers for a way of hearing these newly considered musical ob-
jects discussed above as points on a timeline that could itself be precisely measured,
stretched out—as Satie notes—or compressed, or run in different directions. Just
as importantly, this aspect of Satie’s “phonotechnique” also opened up new ways
of listening to all those accidental sounds that happened between the originally
intended musical events.
It is perhaps easiest, for those of us who still remember it, to consider the idea
of measuring sound in terms of magnetic recording tape, which like a measuring
tape can be stretched out before us. In his 1957 essay on “Experimental Music,”
Cage noted that since “so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds,”
counting was no longer necessary: “magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are
in time itself, not in measures of two, three, four, or any other number.”43 Music
software like “Live” and “GarageBand” now makes it commonplace to measure
and manipulate sounds at a microtemporal level, as our place is marked by the
cursor scanning across the screen.44 But already by the 1890s wire recorders were

39 Ferrucio Busoni, Ferrucio Busoni: Selected Letters, ed. and trans. Antony Beaumont (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 383.
40 Auner, A Schoenberg Reader, 112.
41 Joseph Auner, “‘Warum bist du so kurz?’—Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra
(1910) and the Problem of Brevity,” in A Festschrift for Jan Maegaard (Frederiksberg: Eng-
strøm & Sødring, 1996), 43–63.
42 Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 3.
43 John Cage, “A History of Experimental Music in the United States,” in Silence: Lectures and
Writings (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 70.
44 And see Mark Hansen, “Ubiquitous Sensation: Towards an Atmospheric, Collective, and Mi-
How we Became Phonometrographers 37

being used, and before that player piano rolls, that made visibly and tangibly clear
that musical sounds took place within a scrolling span of time.
In a 1950 letter to Boulez, Cage wrote, “Composition becomes ‘throwing sound
into silence,’” but a half century earlier many works by Debussy and Mahler already
give the sense of music embedded in a length of silence, such as the opening of the
“O Mensch” movement in Mahler’s Third Symphony with its disassociated pitches
and triads floating in a dark space, or Debussy’s collage-like “Nights in Grenada”
from Estampes which he recorded on the Welte-Mignon piano in 1913. Writing of
Stravinsky’s attraction to “mechanical performance media,” Taruskin describes the
Étude for Pianola from 1916 as the “paradigm of drobnost’,” or splinterdness, the
quality of being a sum-of-parts, closely related to another of his analytical catego-
ries, nepodvizhnost’, or immobililty. He describes the etude with its intercutting
ostinati in terms of collage, Moment form, and “a kind of vertical slice through
time, calculated to give the impression of a cacophony of simultaneous musics, the
whole unfolding in a sort of instantaneous ‘specious present.’”45 One of the most
vivid enactments of musical sound as an object existing on a time continuum is in
the last movement of Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924). Comparing his use of the
“time canvas” to Picasso’s use of blank spaces, Antheil writes, “I did not hesitate,
for instance to repeat one measure one hundred times; I did not hesitate to have
absolutely nothing on my pianola rolls for sixty two bars.” In what he characterized
as “the first piece of music that has been composed out of and for machines,” the
frenetic activity at several points comes to an alarming pause.46
A phonometrographic perspective on the technique of throwing sounds into a
scrolling silence opens up new perspectives on the spatial quality of many twentieth
century works that Morgan and others have discussed in reference to the music of
Ives, Varèse, and many others. Thinking in terms of a length of wire, piano roll, or
film also suggests connections to the importance of reversibility and the equiva-
lence of musical space so central to Schoenberg’s creation of the method of twelve-
tone composition. In his essay on “Composition with Twelve Tones,” Schoenberg
emphasizes the tangible quality of the row, which like a physical object can be
recognized from any perspective: “Just as our mind always recognizes, for instance,
a knife, a bottle or watch, regardless of its position, and can reproduce it in the
imagination in every possible position.”47 In one of Schoenberg’s first twelve-tone
pieces, the Sonnet from the Serenade, Op. 24 (1922–23), he actually materialized
the row in the form of a slide rule that could be moved back and forth to help him
to visualize the rotations of the row used to construct the vocal line. In Mondfleck
from Pierrot Schoenberg had already written a strict palindrome, signaling in the
manuscript just how literally he conceived it like a recording running in reverse by

crotemporal Model of Media,” in Throughout: Art and Culture Emerging with Ubiquitous
Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming).
45 Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, 2:1452–53.
46 Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, 229, 236.
47 Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve Tones” (1941), in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard
Stein, trans. by Leo Black (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 223.
38 Joseph Auner

writing some of the performance directions in mirror script.48 Inspired in particular

by film, as in the palindromes in Lulu, Berg explored the idea of reversibility in
many works including the Chamber Concerto and Der Wein, where the music liter-
ally runs backwards.49 As Berg demonstrates in these pieces, twelve-tone music is
ideally suited for reversibility, preserving most of its essential features regardless
of direction, as opposed to tonal music, in which the meaning of progressions is
largely dependent on their order.
The twelve-tone idea also of course included the insight that a row of inter-
vals could preserve its identity independent of its rhythmic presentation or tempo.
Throughout the Sonnet movement we hear the row at many speeds, as if one were
moving the slide rule back and forth faster or slower. While obviously musicians
have employed augmentation and diminution since some of the earliest notated
music, I would argue that variable speed playback of sound technologies introduced
a new dimension in how such manipulations were conceptualized. Many player pi-
anos made it possible to adjust the tempo during playback to recreate a more natural
sense of phrasing. For the Welte-Mignon piano, tempo control was so flexible that it
can be very challenging to determine now what the precise playback speed should
be. Unlike the player piano, which would of course preserve the same pitches and
proportions between events regardless of the tempo chosen for the recreation of
the piece, recordings on wire recorders, the phonograph, and gramophone, register
a change of tempo also as a change of pitch. In his essay on parallel voice leading
in Debussy, David Lewin describes a peculiar progression in the prelude, Can-
ope—the title of which refers to funeral urns from the ancient city of Canopus—as
evoking the image of the composer suddenly noticing “his phonograph running
down as it is playing its record of Egyptian organum,” and then winding it back
up.50 This pitch- and time-shifting feature was sometimes used intentionally, as was
the case with slowing down field recordings to aid in transcription as Hornbostel
recommended.51 Katz has discussed a set of vocal and instrumental “Trick record-
ing” pieces Hindemith composed in 1930 in which he built up complex texture by
recording himself playing instruments and singing at different speeds.52
Arguably the most significant ramification of measuring time through record-
ing technology was the realization that there was in fact no silence between the
musical sounds. We associate this insight particularly with Cage and his experience
of hearing the sounds of his own body in the anechoic chamber, but this aspect
of phonometrography had earlier manifestations. Here too, film has received the
most attention, building on Benjamin’s formulation of “unconscious optics,” which
described how film opened up a vast new range of experience, “by focusing on

48 Reinhold Brinkmann, “What the Sources Tell Us … A Chapter of Pierrot Philology,” Journal
of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 10 (1987): 25–27.
49 For more on the impact of film, see Rebecca Leydon, “Debussy’s Late Style and the Devices of
the Early Silent Cinema,” Music Theory Spectrum 23 (2001): 217–41, and Jeremy Tambling,
Opera, Ideology, and Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987).
50 Lewin, “Some Instances of Parallel Voice Leading in Debussy,” 67.
51 Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 35.
52 Katz, Capturing Sound, 100–101.
How we Became Phonometrographers 39

Figure 4: Leoš Janáček, Circular Representation of City Sounds, from “Strolling” (1927)
in Janáček Leaves from His Life, eds. Villem and Margaret Tausky
(London: Kahn and Averill, 1982), 138–39

hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the

ingenious guidance of the camera.”53 In the same way, the tympanic membrane
of the microphone captured both intentional and unintentional sounds. Ashby and
others have discussed how the specific acoustics of a room, the timbres of specific
instruments, and extraneous noises all became bound up with aural phenomenon of
the recording.54
But this way of listening, in which all sounds had a place, soon did not re-
quire mechanical mediation, as can be seen in a striking representation of the urban
soundscape Janáček included in an essay from 1927 about walking in the streets
of Prague.55 Janáček’s musical image of the city with its tram noises, horns, and
voices—all circling dizzyingly and endlessly around him—strikingly anticipates
works based on loops of sampled street noises such as Steve Reich’s City Life as
well as a vast range of hip hop production that has shaped the global soundscape
(Fig. 4). In the measured spans of time of the phonometrographer any sounds can
find a place, even tonal harmonies. Satie’s “Realist Ballet,” Parade (1917), with its
futurist soundscape of typewriters, roulette wheels, and gunshots offers a vivid re-

53 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illumi-
nations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 236.
54 Ashby, Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction, 42–45.
55 Leoš Janáček, “Strolling” (1927), in Leaves from His Life, ed. Villem and Margaret Tausky
(London: Kahn and Averill, 1982), 138–39.
40 Joseph Auner

alization of the equalizing process of tympanic hearing as the piece unfolds in time.
This can be perceived as a loss, as in George Auric’s preface to the score where he
writes that Parade “very humbly yields to the same reality that drowns the nighten-
gale’s song under the rumble of streetcars.” Benjamin wrote in related terms of the
way in which technology penetrates so deeply into the shooting of a sound film that
only careful cutting and camera placement can create the effect of an equipment-
free reality, which thus becomes “the height of artifice.” In film, as a result, “the
sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.”56 But by
the time we get to Cage it was possible to regard tonal harmonies in turn as a kind
of orchid in the land of technology. As he notes in the “Experimental Music” essay,
“it goes without saying that dissonances and noises are welcome in this new music.
But so is the dominant seventh chord if it happens to put in an appearance.”57


As we have seen above, when Satie weighed and measured the B with his phono-
scope he found it to be revolting, though he does not tell us why. Satie’s output is
full of unpleasant and disagreeable images of many sorts, such as the Desiccated
Embyros or the Unappetizing Chorale in Sports and Divertisements, written for the
“Shriveled up and the Stupefied.” I would argue that this tendency can be linked to
the phonometrographic attitude, which connected the materials of tonal harmony
to the extensive discourse associating recording technology with death, preserva-
tion, embalming, and, as Sterne argues, “the nineteenth century’s momentous battle
against decay.”58
Kittler cites a German monograph from 1902, “On the Care and Usage of Mod-
ern Speaking Machines,” which describes the wax cylinder’s ability to transport
us “back in time to the happy days of youth” by preserving the voices of “Cher-
ished loved ones, dear friends, and famous individuals who have long since passed
away.”59 Recording was seen as offering not only a way of preserving the voices of
the dead, as Edison proposed, but also as a way of capturing through ethnographic
fieldwork permanent records of what were regarded as “dying cultures” around the
world. Rehding cites the pioneering ethnomusicologist Hornbostel’s warning from
1905: “The danger is great that the rapid dissemination of European cultures will
destroy the remaining traces of ethnic singing and saying. We must save whatever
can be saved before the airship is added to the automobile and the electric express
train and before we hear tararabumdieh in all of Africa.”60 Such connections further
illuminate the elegiac tone and frozen harmonies at the end of Mahler’s Das Lied

56 Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 233.

57 John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1957), in The Twentieth Century, ed. Robert P. Morgan, vol.
7 of Source Readings in Music History, ed. Oliver Strunk and Leo Treitler, rev. ed. (New York:
Norton, 1998), 34.
58 Sterne, The Audible Past, 292; and see Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 13.
59 Ibid., 55.
60 Rehding, “Wax Cylinder Revolutions,” 329. “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay” was a hit vaudeville
How we Became Phonometrographers 41

von der Erde, which was inspired in part by the phonographs of Chinese music that
a friend purchased in Vienna at a shop near St. Stephen’s cathedral.
But if composers heard recordings of exotic music as remnants of a vanishing
past, to what degree did they start to hear their own musical traditions as just one of
the many musical languages that had come and gone over time? Sterne cites Johan-
nes Fabian’s observation from Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its
Object that ethnography “promoted a scheme in terms of which not just past cul-
tures, but all living cultures were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream
of time, some upstream, others downstream.”61 It is striking how quickly the piling
up of recordings of music became an object of concern in this process of decay. We
have seen above that Satie wrote in 1912 of having already weighed and measured
“all Beethoven, all Verdi.” Using surprisingly similar metaphors, Debussy wrote
the next year about the Salon de Phonographe in Paris where one could go and
listen to recorded selections through ear tubes: “In a time like ours, when the gen-
ius of engineers has reached such undreamed of proportion, one can hear famous
pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer. It only costs ten centimes,
too, just like automatic weighing scales. Should we not fear this domestication of
sound, this magic preserved in a disc that anyone can awaken at will? Will it not
mean a diminution of the secret forces of art, which until now have been considered
In 1919 Schoenberg anticipated aspects of our own culture of sampling, mash­
ups, and remixes in a sketch for his parody of Pfitzner’s Palestrina that included
a scene of a composer digging through stacks of records trying to figure out how
to compose.63 In Pfitzner’s 1917 original, Palestrina, who is despairing about the
dangerous new directions in music, is visited by spirits of past musical masters
and then by a chorus of angels who dictate his new mass to him during the night.
In Schoenberg’s parody, intended for a comedy night at the Society for Private
Musical Performances, Pfitzner is visited by the Modern Masters, Strauss, Ravel,
Stravinsky, while the angels are replaced by critics dictating to a group of secretar-
ies. What is striking in both the original and the parody is the phonometrographic
idea of both ancient and contemporary music and styles being embalmed and ready
for playback.
But with the piling up of recorded sound there was also a sense of music crum-
bling into immobile blocks. Writing in 1938 in “On the Fetish Character of Music,”
Adorno described what he called the atomization of listening caused by the radio
and phonograph, which result in music being heard as a potpourri or collage: “there
exists today a tendency to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as if it were a set

song from the 1890s. Chanan cites Bartók and Hindemith warning Arab colleagues at a 1932
conference in Cairo of the dangers of Westernization. Chanan, Repeated Takes, 91.
61 Sterne, The Audible Past, 311.
62 Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel: Music, Records, and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 44–45.
63 Joseph Auner, “Composing on Stage: Schoenberg and the Creative Process as Public Perform-
ance,” 19th-Century Music 29 (2005): 64–93.
42 Joseph Auner

of quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth.”64 In Der Freie Satz published three years
before, Schenker contrasted true linear progressions which mirror the human soul
with “today’s idol, the machine! It simulates the organic, yet since its parts are
directed toward only a partial goal, a partial achievement, its totality is only an ag-
gregate which has nothing in common with the human soul.”65 It is striking how
quickly Satie makes the leap in “What I am” from weighing the masterpieces of
the tonal tradition from Beethoven to Verdi to the minute study of isolated indi-
vidual pitches. It is as if the phonoscope breaks down the links between the physical
stimulus of sound and the cognitive structures had been built up to process them,
leaving us only with the revolting B and the obese F#, disturbingly extracted from
any context.
As Albright has discussed, Satie’s music with its “disconcertingly high specific
gravity,” is full of passages that become “profoundly fixed, as if pounded in with a
pile driver.” These often take the form of static loops that threaten to go on forever,
as in the 840 repetitions of Vexations, for which the pianist is to prepare “by serious
immobilities.”66 But in Satie, major and minor triads are the sounds that are most
likely to become stuck in time, like the eighteen G-major triads at the end of the
first of the Desiccated Embyros. Satie underscores the hopelessness of achieving
the “grandiose” and “imposing” effect with such fossilized resources in his note to
the pianist, “do your best.”
The only substantial passage with functional progressions in Parade is the long
quotation from Irving Berlin’s “That Mysterious Rag” (published in Paris in 1913),
which stands out from the surrounding loops as if quarantined. The alarming results
of the phonometrographic way of hearing tonality may have suggested this particu-
lar song, with its lyrics: “Once you met it, you’ll regret it, Just because you will
never forget it, If you ever wake up from your dreaming, A-scheming, eyes gleam-
ing, Then if suddenly you take a screaming fit, that’s it! That mysterious ra-ag.”67

Today we are habituated not only to the vast archives of recorded works, but also
to the easy access provided to the basic building blocks of music. Programs like
Reason offer dizzying whirlpools of carefully embalmed samples of instruments,
voices, drum loops, and even a few triads and seventh chords. Rather than despair-
ing like Schenker, a great many musicians working around the world in styles like
minimalism, postminimalism, R&B, hip hop and its many offshoots, and electronic

64 Chanan, Repeated Takes, 118.

65 Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition, ed. and trans. Ernst Oster (New York: Longman, 1979),
xxiii–xxiv. The notion of music falling into parts suggests connections with the intensive inter-
est in phonetics in connection with research on the telephone and education of the deaf. See
Mara Mills, “Deaf Jam: From Inscription to Reproduction to Information,” Social Text: The
Politics of Recorded Sound 28, no. 102 (2010): 35–58.
66 Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, 193.
67 Nancy Perloff, Art and the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie (Ox-
ford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 137–40.
How we Became Phonometrographers 43

dance music seem perfectly content with triads that have stopped dead in their
While we can’t reconstruct precisely what that B might have looked like
through Satie’s Phonoscope, Leif Inge’s 9 Beet Stretch has used sound technology
along the lines Satie suggested to open up a similarly surprising vantage point on
some very familiar harmonies.68 The piece consists of a recording of the Ninth
Symphony slowed down so that it lasts 24 hours, continuously looping online on
several websites. Such sound stretching is becoming more commonplace with other
recent examples receiving wide attention including “Justin Bieber slowed down
800%,” or Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Inception (2010), which features a sam-
ple of the French singer Édith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (1960) stretched
out into an ominous, murky cluster. In the case of 9 Beet Stretch, the effect is of
sending Beethoven’s work across nearly 200 years of history, perhaps attempting to
clean it off, as Satie proposes, from all that it has been through. At the same time it
short-circuits historical narratives like Ligeti’s “Metamorphoses of Musical Form,”
which justified textural music through an evolutionary process from the church
modes to integral serialism and indeterminacy. Instead the phonoscope reveals what
sounds like a work of Ligeti already there hiding between the notes of Beethoven’s
With the touch of a button the technology thus brings Beethoven’s harmonies
in line with our own world of sound art, soundscapes, and aural culture, a world in
which any and all sounds and noises from any point on the globe can be considered
musical. A world in which, as presented in John Holland’s Acoustic Wave Spectrum,
tonal harmony and indeed all musical sound are just a tiny subset of a unitary sphere
of vibration spanning the range from the million year galactic cycles to the nano-
dimension of particles and string theory.69
If we have all become phonometrographers, with all the losses that entails,
Satie ends his essay “What I am” on an optimistic note, reminding us also of what
we have gained in the process. He concludes: “I think I can say that phonology is
superior to music. There’s more variety in it.”

Special thanks to Arved Ashby, Jane Bernstein, Mark DeVoto, Christine Fena,
Brian Kane, Mark Katz, Alessandra Lampana, Beth Levy, Robert Morgan, Alex
Rehding, Philip Rupprecht, Janet Schmalfeldt, Benjamin Steege, Jonathan Sterne,
and Felix Wörner.

68 Leif Inge, 9 Beet Stretch (2005),

118. Discussed in Alexander Rehding, “The Discovery of Slowness in Music,” in Liminal Au-
ralities: at the Thresholds of Listening, ed. Sander van Maas and Kiene Brillenburg Wurth
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
69 John Holland, “Acoustic Wave Spectrum,”
44 Joseph Auner


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Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny
Richard Cohn

Pitches are properties that tones are heard (mentally represented) as having; if you like, pitches
are properties ascribed to tones in auditory perception by normal observers under normal listen-
ing conditions (whatever those are) […]. Talk about the pitches of tones, or about pitches per
se, [is] elliptical for talk of hearing tones as having certain pitches.1

One might well ask: whose hearing are we talking about? And yet, we aren’t in-
clined to ask. Pitch ascription is consistent across communities of listeners. “This
pitch is a B” is elliptical not only for “I hear this frequency as representing B,”
but also for “ … and I expect that you, as a member of my listening community,
will hear it in the same way (even if you have no language in which to express that
perception).” This assured intersubjectivity affords ontological parsimony: we can
live, under ordinary circumstances, with the fiction that pitch is invested in the tone
itself, and elide the intermediary listener out of the model.
There are consequences for tonal ontology. Since tonality is constituted of
pitches, it follows that tonality is equally invested in the listener rather than the
listened-to musical “object.” Talk of tonality is elliptical for talk of hearing a com-
position as organized about a tonic. “This composition is tonal,” or “in B major,” is
elliptical for “I hear it as tonal, and anticipate that, you, a member of my listening
community, share my propensity to organize these perceptions in this way.”2 Tonal-
ity is an interpretive response, and not an intrinsic property of the music.3
Is this a significant claim, or a trivial one? Elliptical speech is ordinary speech,
not a special case. “X is an apple” is shorthand for “X is a member of the category
that (in English) we refer to by the term apple.” Such locutions tie the tongue into
pedantic knots; worse, they threaten an infinite regress, since category instantiates
the category of categories, and so forth. We gladly sacrifice precision in order to
permit speech to proceed unimpeded; we all know what we mean, anyway. If in-
vesting tonality in the musical artifact is a fiction, it is a perhaps useful one, without

1 Diana Raffman, Language, Music, and Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 8.
2 An equivalent claim about meter is standard; see, for example, Justin London, Hearing in Time:
Psychological Aspects of Musical Meter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4.
3 Compare Brian Hyer, “Tonal Intuitions in Tristan und Isolde” (PhD diss., Yale University,
1989), 19. See also Marion Guck, “Analysis as Interpretation: Interaction, Intentionality, In-
vention,” Music Theory Spectrum 28 (2006): 191–209; David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Mu-
sic and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 143; and Steven
Rings, Tonality and Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 42.
48 Richard Cohn

pernicious consequence under ordinary circumstances, like investing day’s end in

the setting sun rather than the turning earth.
This would be the case if tonality were a classical category, with necessary and
sufficient conditions for membership and crisp boundaries. But there is a significant
class of compositions that bear only some of the characteristics that are proper to
tonality. Such compositions evoke tonal expectations in the mind of the listener,
without permitting determinate tonal interpretations of all of the events that consti-
tute them. To come to analytical grips with compositions of this class, and with the
sensations that they provoke in us, we need to view them against the backdrop of
compositions that are prototypically tonal in all of their aspects. In a prototypically
tonal composition, a triad is sounded, and the acculturated ear takes it as a mero-
nym for a tonal system.4 Hearing a triad, one imagines it embedded in a diatonic
collection. One further imagines that sector confirmed by a cadence that defines
its boundaries.5 Having successfully “attuned our ear to the key,”6 each pitch in
the composition is evaluated with respect to that tonic. That evaluation takes the
form of a determinate scale-degree assignment, either directly with respect to the
tonic, or at some higher order of recursion: one hears each note as representing a
determinate scale degree with respect to some tonic that represents a determinate
scale degree with respect to some tonic that represents … the global tonic. This is
a strict standard, but there are thousands of compositions that are absolutely well-
formed with respect to it. Indeed, our standard analytic modalities for tonal music
are fashioned for the specific purpose of recording that aspect of our experience,
in the form of Roman-numeral strings or Riemannian functions or Schenkerian
graphs. In such cases, our fictitious investment of tonality in the musical artifact is
never called to account.
Prototypicality can give way in a number of ways, and in a number of dimen-
sions. The cases that I have written about are those that concatenate consonant
triads, which serve as elements of continuity with the classical tradition. In some
cases, the principles of tonality evoked by those elements can be heard to be over-
ridden by a logic with greater force. One example is the diatonic sequence, which
the nineteenth-century Belgian/French theorist François-Joseph Fétis heard as tem-
porarily substituting a principle of uniformity that overrides those of tonality. “The
mind, absorbed only in the contemplation of the progressive series, momentarily
loses the feeling of tonality, and regains it only at the final cadence, where the nor-
mal order is reestablished.”7 Other cases involve triads that are strewn through the

4 This account of prototypicality is historically deep and has considerable psychological support,
as documented, for example, in Carol Krumhansl, Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). It is not, however, universally accepted. See, for
example, Dmitri Tymoczko, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended
Common Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 5.
5 Candace Brower, “Paradoxes of Pitch Space,” Music Analysis 27 (2008): 51–106; Richard
Cohn, Audacious Euphony: Chromaticism and the Triad’s Second Nature (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2012), chapter 8.
6 Gottfried Weber, Versuch einer geordneten Theorie der Tonsetzkunst (Mainz: B. Schott, 1817–
7 François-Joseph Fétis, Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Harmony, trans. Peter
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 49

sectors of diatonic key space. Such passages evoke a desire for tonic, due to Weber’s
principal of inertia, which seeks to situate individual triads within their eponymous
diatonic systems. But they do not fulfill it, often for long periods of compositional
time. Their constituent triads do not communicate with each other: as Fétis put it,
“no attraction is in evidence, because every perfect chord is a harmony of repose.”8
In the absence of Fétis’s law of uniformity, what is likely to come to the fore as a
local syntactic driver is common-tone retention and small-interval voice-leading.
In yet a third, stronger case, uniformity and voice-leading parsimony collude,
with the result that the logic of tonality is not merely pushed to the side; it be-
comes shot through with paradoxes and contradictions. The prototype is the chro-
matic sequence, a series of transpositions by a constant (measured in chromatic
semitones).9 If that constant is a divisor of twelve, then the result is an equal divi-
sion of the octave. In these cases, the law of uniformity breaks down the principles
of tonality by inducing two conflicting perceptions: that the bounding pitches are
octave-related, and hence represent identical diatonic scale degrees; and that the lo-
cal transpositional intervals are identical, which implies that they traverse an identi-
cal number of diatonic steps.
Underlying this conflict is Agmon’s Principle: presented with two pitches in
a context-free environment, we assign them to a diatonic rather than a chromatic
interval.10 When the octave is equally divided into three- or four-semitone seg-
ments, Agmon’s Principle dictates that we hear the bounding interval as seven
diatonic steps (an octave); it also dictates that we hear each local interval as two
diatonic steps (a third). These perceptions are in conflict. If the bounding interval
is an octave, one of the local intervals is a non-diatonic dissonance (a diminished
fourth or augmented second). If each local interval is a third, then the bounding
interval is a non-diatonic dissonance, a diminished ninth in the first case, an aug-
mented seventh in the second.11 Such conflicts imperil tonic identity, scale degree,
function, and the consonance/dissonance binary—i.e., everything upon which tonal
judgments are secured.
In all of these cases where tonal expectations are temporarily overridden or
placed into conflict, listeners have a strong incentive to divest from tonal logic and
give over to the logic of uniformity, or of parsimonious voice leading in chromatic

M. Landey (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2008), 27–28.

8 Ibid., 163.
9 Ernst Kurth, Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners Tristan (Bern: P. Haupt, 1920);
Gregory Proctor, “Technical Bases of Nineteenth-Century Chromatic Tonality: A Study in
Chromaticism” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1978).
10 Eytan Agmon, “Diatonicism, Chromaticism, and Enharmonicism: A Study in Cognition and
Perception” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 1986), 185; David Temperley, The Cog-
nition of Basic Musical Structures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 128.
11 For those readers who associate arithmetic with higher-order calculation, I need to stress here
that the mathematics is not far from the first level of pre-articulate subitization. The 2 + 2 + 2 =
7 paradox is not so far from the order that infant cognitivists research, when they overtly place
two dolls behind a screen, covertly remove one, pull up the curtain, and record the astonishment
that passes across the cherubic visage. See Karen Wynn, “Addition and Subtraction by Human
Infants,” Nature 358 (27 August 1992): 749–50.
50 Richard Cohn

space, or both in some combination. And here is the real attraction of the propo-
sition that tonality resides in the listener. To invest tonality in the musical artifact
compels us to ascribe tonality, or its absence, to the composition in its entirety. Does
a sequential or pan-triadic segment disqualify the composition as tonal? If so, then
our tonal responses must be sidelined for the entire composition: the composition
is not tonal. If not, then we must shoehorn the tonally transgressive events into the
tonal model, no matter how awkward or tendentious the result. It is this latter stra-
tegy that is implicitly adopted by textbooks of tonal harmony with near unanimity,
as they encounter the chromatic pan-triadicism of Schubert and beyond.
Restoring the listening subject to models of tonality allows us to explore our
responses to triadic music, as tonality combines and competes with other logics of
triadic composition, and to track the tension curves as our attuning capacities are
incrementally destabilized and frustrated. This view was already well-described by
Fétis, who conceived of classical tonality (“transitonality”) as a category whose
constituent elements are not integral “pieces”— compositions or complete move-
ments — but rather musical moments. The faculty of (transi-) tonal listening is
capable of spontaneous suspension and reengagement without notice or fuss, like a
carpenter exchanging a screwdriver for a hammer.


In a 2004 article, “Uncanny Resemblances: Tonal Signification in the Freudian

Age,” I studied hexatonic poles, which problematize tonal determinacy in the jux-
taposition of only two triads, rather than through an entire series as in the case of
the equal division of the octave.12 An example is the juxtaposition of E major and
C minor, in either order (Ex. 1a). “Hexatonic” refers to the six-tone collection that
is formed by their union (Ex. 1b).13 “Pole” indicates that these two triads are maxi-
mally distant within that collection, by virtue of sharing no common tones. “Un-
canny Resemblances” presents a number of passages that use such juxtapositions to
call forth some aspect of the uncanny, or are interpreted as doing so by performers
or listeners.
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) (f) (g)
˙ ˙ ˙
& #˙˙˙ bn˙˙˙ b˙ n˙ n˙ #˙
˙˙ #˙˙˙ #‹˙˙˙ #˙˙˙ n˙˙˙ b˙˙˙ ˙˙
˙ ##˙˙ n˙˙ ##˙˙˙ ‹˙˙
triad? triad? triad?

Example 1: a. A hexatonic pole; b. A hexatonic scale; c. Hexatonic pole

with diatonic semitones; d. Taruskin; e. Taruskin with diatonic semitones; f. Tarnhelm;
g. Tarnhelm with diatonic semitones

12 Richard Cohn, “Uncanny Resemblances: Tonal Signification in the Freudian Age,” Journal of
the American Musicological Society 57 (2004): 285–323; see also Richard Cohn, “Hexatonic
Poles and the Uncanny in Parsifal,” Opera Quarterly 22 (2006): 230–48.
13 In scalar form, this collection alternates semitones and minor thirds. It combines two semitone-
related augmented triads, as indicated by the stems in Ex. 1b.
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 51

The progression is not an arbitrary sign, but rather has iconic status (in the Peircian
sense), acquiring its semiotic power through homology rather than solely through
convention. Hexatonic poles destabilize the consonant status of one or both constit-
uent triads. Agmon’s Principle dictates that, presented with two semitonally related
pitches, we evaluate them by default as a minor second rather than as a chromatic
inflection of a unitary scale degree. Motion from a triad to its hexatonic pole in-
volves semitones moving in contrary motion. The interval comprising the perfect
fifth, here E to B, is thus heard to grow by two diatonic degrees. What is notated as
the consonant E to C is perceived as D to C. But that is a dissonant interval; and
so the second chord must be a dissonant chord (Ex. 1c). The ear is caught between
the desire to hear the chord as a consonant triad or as a species of diminished sev-
enth. The progression thus erodes a cardinal musical binary, between consonance
and dissonance. Such leaks in boundaries that one had thought secure are a mark of
the uncanny. For music theorists of Freud’s era, the consonance/dissonance binary
was the musical equivalent of reality/illusion or life/death, the boundaries whose
erosion are most prone to arouse an uncanny response. A consonant chord is a real
entity, with the ability to propagate a key; a dissonant chord is an inert coincidence
of neighbor and passing tones, with no such capacity; it lacks reality.14
Although hexatonic poles represent the most intense way to induce a diatonic
paradox using two consonant triads, there is another genus of triadic progression
that induces a milder version of the same effect: when two triads of the same mode
are root-related by major third. This genus come in two species: the major version,
or the Taruskin; and a minor version, the Tarnhelm. In a chapter entitled “The Music
Trance,” Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music devotes considerable
attention to the case when a tonic major chord leads to the VI chord of its parallel
minor, as at Ex. 1d. The progression “marks a kind of boundary between inner and
outer experience, and its sounding came to signify the crossing of that edge, endow-
ing the music on the other side with an uncanny aura.”15 Taruskin does not say why,
leaving the impression that the progression is an arbitrary signifer that acquires
its semiotic force by convention. My analysis of hexatonic poles suggests that the
trance-inducing capacity follows from the contrary motion, which erodes the con-
sonance/dissonance boundary as with hexatonic poles. The new root, C, is heard as
approached from its leading tone, B; the new fifth, G, is heard as approached from
its 6̂ , A. The minor third of the first chord is revealed as an augmented second,
undermining the first chord’s status qua triad (Ex. 1e). These voice-leading proper-
ties are also present in the minor species, of which the locus classicus (although
far from the earliest example) is the Tarnhelm motive from Wagner’s Ring Cycle
(Ex. 1f). D# moves up to its 6̂ , E, and G# down to its leading tone, which is F!
Fx, not
G (Fig. 1g). If the resulting interval is a diminished seventh, how can the “E-minor”
triad be a consonance?16

14 This idea is developed considerably in Cohn, “Uncanny Resemblances.” F!

15 Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music (New York: Oxford University Press,
2010), 3:69.
16 This enharmonic indeterminacy is reflected in Wagner’s preliminary sketches. See Warren
Darcy, Wagner’s Das Rheingold (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 168–69.

52 Richard Cohn

What establishes these three progressions as a class, beyond their major-third

root relations and chromatic status, is their participation in a hexatonic collection
(through presentation of at least five of its tones), and the contrary motion of their
voice leading. Under least-motion conditions, every other triadic progression in-
volves similar motion: all of the moving voices move in a single direction. The
contrary semitonal motion of these three progressions gives them the unique capac-
ity to provoke paradoxes, to undermine the security of categorical binaries, and
thereby to raise doubts concerning that which listeners treasure as most stable: the
consonance of major and minor triads.17


The Taruskin and the hexatonic pole are exploited early and often, and the Tarnhelm
used at a particularly hair-raising moment, in one of the best-loved and enduring
compositions from the first half of the twentieth century: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter
and the Wolf, a “Symphonic Tale for Children; for Narrator and Orchestra” from
Although Prokofiev referred to the composition as a fairytale (skazka),18 its
imaginative elements are more subtle than the levitations and transubstantiations
characteristic of that genre. They first become evident in the linguistic capacities of
the small animals, who use human speech to chatter with each other as well as in
their interior monologues. More overtly uncanny is the final action of the narrative,
when the duck, whom we had presumed to have perished, “could be heard quack-
ing inside the wolf’s stomach, because the wolf had been in such a hurry that it had
swallowed the duck alive.” This is the uncanniness of Jentsch and Freud: “Many
people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to … the return of
the dead. …”19 And then there’s the lone wolf, who is viscerally scary, especially
for children, but also is associated with the supernatural in the local context of Rus-
sian folk-tales, as incarnation of the malevolent forest-spirit.20 Peter’s capture of
the wolf suggests a mastery of the external world of spirits and unsensed forces, as
well as of the internal and entirely rational terror that a wild and hungry beast with
sharp fangs might inspire.
Peter comes to this contest, evidently, from a subject position associated with
bourgeois comfort and protection. Peter lives with his grandfather in a country
house protected by a stone wall. The property is not small: Peter must run from the
gate back to the house to gather a rope. Although these circumstances are not ones

17 For a broader perspective on this problem, see Cohn, Audacious Euphony, chapter 2.
18 Catriona Kelly, “At Peace with the Wolf? Prokofiev’s ‘Official’ Soviet Works for Children,”
Three Oranges 12 (2006): 4.
19 Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” in An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, vol. 17 of The
Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey
(1917–19; London: Hogarth, 1955), 241.
20 Linda J. Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989), 66–67. Also anoma-
lous to the tale is the early-morning appearance of a nocturnal creature.
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 53

one would immediately mark as salutary in Stalinist Russia, they recall the com-
poser’s pre-Soviet childhood on a large estate managed by his agronomist father.21
These are among the circumstances in which sensations of the uncanny are most
likely to arise. While the stone wall represents a prophylactic against the external
world, its gate is an aperture through which that world can intrude, or through
which children and ducks might innocently go out to meet it.
Peter’s theme, which begins the composition, can be interpreted as a musical
allegory of these elements and their relations. The theme arpeggiates C major for
two measures, moves to a half cadence at the end of a four-measure antecedent,
and concludes with an authentic cadence in the dominant at measure 8. It thus has
the form and dimensions of a modulating period. Moreover, each of its four instru-
mental groups plays the textural role that it would bear in the gallant era. The first
violin sounds the melody; the cello (later contrabass) produces a slower series of
harmonic roots; the viola (later joined by the cello) performs an Alberti pattern; and
the second violin alternately fills out the harmony with sustained notes, and doubles
the first violin at a diatonic third below.
In the aspects just described, Peter’s theme portrays the comfortable bourgeois
home in three different respects. Its participation in the syntax of diatonic tonality
is sufficient to conjure home-like associations. The affiliation of the tonic with the
musical home dates to the middle of the eighteenth century;22 by now, we are quite
at home with the idea that tonic is a musical home. The particular key of C major is
a “home of homes,” by virtue of its historical priority and its status as the “natural”
default against which degrees of softness and hardness are measured. Finally, the
galant era signified by the theme’s instrumentation, form, rhythm, and texture has
been assigned the value of chronological home by the educational and social insti-
tutions that have supported the classical-music canon ever since its consolidation in
the early nineteenth century.
Other aspects of Peter’s theme are less home-like. The initial harmonic pro-
gression at the half-way point of the four-measure antecedent executes a Taruskin,
moving chromatically to an A major triad. Despite the characteristic contrary mo-
tion (G → A balanced by E → E), we might pass this off as an innocent little piece
of modal mixture, but for the characteristic gesture on the off-beats of measure
3. Both violins here attempt an arpeggiation but fall a semitone short: G/B rather
than A/C. The outer voices at measure 3 thus project A minor, the tonic’s hexa-
tonic pole, rather than the more tonally prudent A major. The B is both the leading
tone, and the minor third of A, but it can’t be both at the same time without un-

21 Dorothea Redepenning, “Prokofiev, Sergey,” in Grove Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusic­ (accessed March 9, 2011). Catriona Kelly, a
scholar of Stalinist-era literature, points out (in private correspondence) that Alexei Tolstoy’s
adaptation of Pinocchio, from the same year, depicts children in similar circumstances. During
the 1930s, Stalin supported the depiction of luxury in order to provide citizens with an aspira-
tion. Simon Morrison (also in private correspondence) notes that many loyal Bolsheviks were
rewarded with the management of rural estates built during the Tsarist era.
22 Brian Hyer, “Tonality,” in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, ed. Thomas Chris-
tensen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 732.
54 Richard Cohn

dermining its scale-degree identity and the consonance/dissonance boundary. The

innocent “wrong notes” represent the first phase of a process in which hexatonic
poles emerge from the tonal fabric with increasing boldness. The second stage of
that process occurs at the analogous point of the consequent phrase, where E ma-
jor, from which that phrase launches, proceeds directly to its hexatonic pole. Here,
Prokofiev accelerates the harmonic rhythm, as if hastening by the uncanny visage.
A cadence one measure later recuperates and masters this B minor as the mediant
of G major.
After Peter’s theme repeats, a scalar passage in octaves traverses a C-major
scale at measure 17, and then transforms most of its components up a semitone into
C minor. A reversal of the transformation triggers a perfect cadence in C major at
measure 20. We learn, through their frequent omission in later presentations, that
these measures are not inherent to Peter’s theme. They have the status of an optional

C# G#

D A E B F#

F C antecedent

Ab ? Eb Bb

Cb Gb

Example 2: Peter’s theme on the Tonnetz, with diatonic encapsulation

Example 2 traces Peter’s theme and its extension on a segment of the Tonnetz, a pla-
nar geometric figure popular among German theorists during the second half of the
nineteenth century. The three axes are generated by the consonant interval classes:
perfect fifth on the horizontal, and major and minor thirds on the diagonals. Each
triangle represents a major or minor triad. The superimposed parallelogram traces
the seven natural tones. The six encapsulated triangles represent the consonant tri-
ads of C major.23 Musical activity within those confines is safely inured from the

23 Hugo Riemann, “Ideas for a Study on ‘The Imagination of Tone,’” trans. Robert W. Wason and
Elizabeth West Marvin, Journal of Music Theory 36 (1992): 102; Brower, “Paradoxes,” 72;
Cohn, Audacious Euphony, chapter 8.
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 55

external chromatic universe, and is governed by the familiar syntactic protocols of

classical diatonic tonality.
The figure depicts the initial Taruskin to A major by a southwest arrow that
exits the parallelogram. The A minor implied by the outer voices of measure 3
extends that vector by one further degree. The question mark and double-headed
arrow indicate the liminal status and quick retraction of that harmony. The motion
now proceeds rightward to E major, entering the sector of the consequent phrase.
By analogy with the antecedent, motion from E major also proceeds southwest, to
C minor, penetrating deeply into the chromatic forest. But through a piece of enhar-
monic magic (indicated by the broken arrow), C minor is reinterpreted as B minor,
just outside the chromatic wall, and adjacent to the dominant where it can safely
cadence. The codetta is then depicted as a chromatic trip in the northern direction,
inverting about the E that is common to both C major and C# minor.

C# G#

D A E B F#


Ab ? Eb Bb
se q

Cb Gb

Example 3: Peter’s theme on the Tonnetz, with hexatonic alleys

Example 3 redraws Example 2, but removes the parallelogram and substitutes lines
along the major-third axis, representing augmented triads. Adjacent walls form hex-
atonic collections, and bound alleys within which triads form hexatonic regions.
Until its last measure, harmonies of the antecedent phrase are contained within
the “tonic” alley, presenting all six tones of that hexatonic collection. To its right
is the alley of the dominant, in which Peter’s consequent unfolds. To its left is the
subdominant alley, traditional territory for a coda. Although C minor, the hexatonic
pole of F major’s subdominant, would seem to have few subdominant credentials,
the S-D-T cadential rhetoric of mm. 17–20 allows it to fill that role convincingly.
56 Richard Cohn

Db Ab
C# G#

D A E B F#


Ab ? Eb Bb

Cb Gb

Example 4: Character keys, in relation to triads of Peter’s theme

With a single exception, each triad of Peter’s theme serves as a platform upon
which one of the character themes is launched, as shown in Ex. 4. Three charac-
ters are initially presented in the tonic alley: Peter and the bird in C major, and the
unfortunate duck in A. Three further characters are initially in the dominant alley:
the grandfather in B minor, the cat in G major, and the wolf in G minor, the latter’s
modal variant. The late-arriving hunters are assigned D major, a modal and enhar-
monic variant of the late-arriving C minor in Peter’s theme.
A number of further stages in the story’s hexatonic tonal progress can now be
explored, score in hand. Locations in the score are indexed by rehearsal numbers,
in bold face.

° œ œ œ œ bœ œ œ bœ nœ œ œ nœ bœ œ œ bœ nœ œ œ nœ bœ œ œ bœ nœ œ œ nœ bœ œ œ bœ


° œ
Vln. pizz.

¢& œ ‰ bœ ‰ œ ‰ œ ‰ œ ‰ œ ‰ ‰ bœ ‰
C+ ab- C+ ab- C+ ab-
Example 5: The bird’s fioratura at 2

2. Immediately following the conclusion of Peter’s theme, the narrator intro-

duces the bird. The solo flute’s C-major fioratura, presented as Ex. 5, is inflected
by the tones of its A-minor hexatonic pole. As these tones fall on weak beats and
are accompanied by dissonant pedal G, they are local neighbors that never threaten
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 57

to fuse into a triad. Of all the creatures of the forest, the bird is the most in charge
of his dark side, and thus best primed for effective action against the wolf. When
Peter’s theme is presented now in the subdominant, the hexatonic pole of its conse-
quent phrase (at 5) leads A major to E minor. Rather than accelerating the harmonic
rhythm as in the opening presentation, here Prokofiev lingers on E minor for an ex-
tra measure. This represents a stage in the aural emergence of hexatonic poles, with
their associated dangers. The particular pairing of A major with E minor prepares
the musical portrait of the narrative’s darkest aspects, which involve the juxtaposi-
tion of just those particular triads.
6. Next we are introduced to the duck, depicted by an oboe that securely squats
on A major. When his music first waddles away from that key, just before 7, it tel-
escopes the harmonic course of Peter’s theme, returning to C major. The bird takes
up that key as before, but immediately flies down in the duck’s A major, in which
key their quarrel begins at 9. A chromaticized 5–6 sequence leads from that key to
an alternation between E-major and E-minor triads at 10, terminating with the latter.
Having travelled to the hexatonic pole of its characteristic A major tonic, the duck
will soon go down a similar tonal road in more dire circumstances.
After the clarinet twice presents the cat’s theme, an action sequence temporarily
accesses a different tonal universe: the octatonic world of Stravinsky’s Petrushka,
whose characteristic superposition of F major and C major is precisely the har-
monic field at 13. F major emerges alone, as dominant of B major, from which a
third presentation of the cat’s theme is launched.
15. Grandfather’s B minor is the first thematic material in minor. Peter ignores
him, presenting his music in the tonally distant key of B major, but grandfather
leads him home in B minor, locking the gate with a cadence. In Peter’s theme, B
minor’s adjacency to the dominant constituted an easy portal back to safety. B
major, on the other hand, is an incautious choice, as it stands adjacent to G minor,
a dangerous key.

°? bc ˙ œ œœ œ œœ œ œ œœ # œœ œœ œn ˙ b˙ n˙

b ˙ œ œ œœ œ n˙ ˙ & nœ n œ nœ œ œ œ œ n œ œ œ œ œ œ œ nœ œ œ œ ? ˙
b œ n œ b œn œ b œ œ œ n œ b œ n œ b œ œ œ # œ œ œ œ œ
?b œ#œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ n˙ ˙
¢ bc˙ &
œ # œ n œ# œ n œ œ œ œ bœ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ ˙
f-/A+ Db+/a-
Example 6: Wolf’s mastication theme, with hexatonic poles, at 19

19. The visceral power of the wolf’s G-minor music is due in part to Prokofiev’s
skill as an orchestrator: not only the shimmering cymbal and tremolo strings, but
also the three horns, whose low register and closely spaced minor triads evoke the
(at that time) incomparable power of the diesel train.24 But tonal events contribute
to the effect. The transition from grandfather to wolf at 20 is a direct Tarnhelm pro-

24 An internet site dedicated to the sounds of diesel air horns presents a variety of closely-spaced
minor triads, most to within a whole step of g minor, although an octave higher than the pitches
with which the horns depict the wolf.
58 Richard Cohn

gression, from B minor to G minor, with contrary motion voice leading from F→G
and B→B. The theme itself is a musical portrait of mastication, moving in contrary
motion between strong-beat triads (mostly minor) and weak-beat semitonal neigh-
bors. The latter initially form diminished triads, then French sixths,25 and finally a
series of hexatonic poles, indicated in Ex. 6.
20. The hunting of the duck selectively reprises the action music at 9–14: the
quarrel between bird and duck, and the predatory slinking of the cat. The chromatic
5–6 sequence from the duck’s A major, this time with the fioritura supplied by the
duck’s oboe rather than the bird’s flute, leads as before to E major and then to E
minor. What ensued in the earlier action music was the cat’s theme, followed by the
Petrushka music that accompanied the cat’s pounce and the bird’s escape. The posi-
tion of the cat’s theme is here occupied by a six-measure prolongation of E minor,
with added sixth, leading immediately to six measures of Petrushka music. The
consummatory gulp occurs to a sustained C-minor triad, which leads to a {C-E-A}
augmented triad, and to a reprise of the duck’s music, but with muted strings sym-
bolizing the lupine membranes that now intervene between the quacking duck and
our listening ears. Example 7 depicts on the Tonnetz the uncanny route from the
duck’s free but frantic A major of 21 to his desperately confined A major of 24. 26

A# C

F# C# Ab duck jumps out Eb

E getting closer

catching up...
Ab Eb
Example 7: Wolf chasing and swallowing duck, on the Tonnetz

25 In one case, the contrary motion is idealized: the D splits into the augmented sixth C#/E, al-
though literally the E is approached by leap from above in the second horn.
26 The F# triad that sounds as part of the Petrushka chord on the strong measures, and supports a
dominant seventh on the weak measures, is external to the cycle.
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 59

25. The extended climactic episode that leads to the capture of the wolf is re-
plete with hexatonic progressions, hexatonic poles, and dissonant harmonies that
are subsets of hexatonic scales. The wolf paces and masticates in F minor, conclud-
ing on an implied B minor. This leads immediately to its hexatonic pole, D major,
the key in which Peter’s theme is quoted as he watches the wolf. The liquidation
of Peter’s theme over a B-major triad leads immediately to its hexatonic pole, a
reprise of the wolf’s music in G minor at 31. The mastication theme is followed by
a two-chord cadential “snap” progression, which recurs throughout the span of the
wolf’s capture. The cadential chords contain major triads in dominant-tonic rela-
tion, enhanced by dissonant major sevenths. The chord in dominant position bears
a sharped fifth as well, composing a pentachord from the union of two Taruskin-
related triads (C major and E major upon initial presentation).
33. After the wolf’s last cadential snap in C major, Peter fashions his lasso
over a violin cadenza that suggests C minor, and then snares the wolf on an Ab-
minor triad. The two triads that straddle the monophonic cadenza are related by
yet another hexatonic pole, the one embedded into the bird’s opening fioritura. The
A-minor triad pulsates for one measure, and then is placed into periodic alternation
with a pulsating G dominant seventh. Although this chromatic juxtaposition is not
hexatonic, it does contains two sly references, one internal and one external. The
internal reference is to the optional tag at the end of the initial presentation of Pe-
ter’s theme, which similarly juxtaposed a major and minor triad that share a third.
The external reference is to the Fate motive from Wagner’s Ring cycle, which pairs
a minor triad with a dominant seventh whose third it shares.
40. The musical processes are markedly simplified during the narrative’s de-
nouement. Table 1 synopsizes the narrative and tonal plan. After the wolf is sub-
dued, the hunters emerge from the forest. Their theme, presented long after those of
the other characters, is built on an alternation between D-major and C-major triads.
Of these, the D has more claim to status as local tonic: it is presented in root posi-
tion on the downbeat, whereas C is presented in six-four position on the third beat.
The source of this tonic is the codetta at mm. 17–20. This association is clarified by
the C-major cadence before 40, and its intensified repetition before 41, which rhe-
torically heighten the tag’s cadence at m. 20. The allegorical interpretation of this
association falls out easily: the hunters and the little tag theme are both extraneous
pieces of pomp. Just as Peter can capture the wolf quite well without the aid of the
hunters, so too can his theme exist quite well without the musical bauble to which
it is initially attached.
60 Richard Cohn

Rehearsal . Action/Theme Key (major

# unless indicated)
36–37 Wolf tries to escape atonal  C
38 Hunters C
39 D  C
40 D  C#  C
41 Peter’s theme as waltz A
42 E
43 Triumphal C
44 procession Peter C
45 Hunters C
46 Wolf E minor
47 Hunters D  C
48 Grandpa/Cat B
49–50 Peter C
51 Bird 
D C
52 C  E minor
53 Duck A
54 Final cadence atonal  C

Table 1: Narrative and Tonal Script for the Procession

The right column of Table 1 emphasizes how closely the final quarter of the com-
position clings to C major. Most of the music is firmly in, or leads quickly back to,
that tonic.
There are three exceptions: Peter’s waltz, which uses Taruskin progressions
through the major keys of a hexatonic cycle; grandfather and cat, transposing a
semitone a down to B major in accordance with their characteristic keys; and E
minor, the only minor tonic in the final pages of Peter and the Wolf. E minor, the
hexatonic pole of A major, was the duck’s tonal destination while squabbling with
the bird and fleeing the wolf. Here that key is assigned to wolf himself, now captive
like the duck who fled him. At 46, E minor sets the mastication music of the now
domesticated wolf. The key returns at the end of the procession, at 53.
This is not just any E minor: orchestrational features suggest its association
with E minor as it was first presented just before 11, as duck and bird squabble and
the cat begins to slink. In that earlier passage, the root and third are eliminated, but
E minor is still virtually present as marcato B pendulates in the high strings. The
entire E-minor triad pendulates, marcato in the high strings, as the captive wolf
is paraded by. What we are being primed for is one final hexatonic pole: E minor
is directly followed by a gauzy presentation of the duck’s theme in A major. The
scene perhaps parodies the end of Wagner’s Parsifal, where a processive ritual is
interrupted by one last uncanny stage action, Kundry’s “de-souling,” accompanied
by one last hexatonic pole as the curtain drops. The duck having had his say, the
entire orchestra now accelerates through a dissonant, atonal wedge to a final C-
major cadence.
Peter, the Wolf, and the Hexatonic Uncanny 61


Peter and the Wolf, at those moments when it is not dissonant and atonal, is largely
populated by consonant triads, especially major ones. (Seventh chords, especially
those that contain tritones, are surprisingly rare; they tend to occur only at cadences
and to portray special effects, such as the cat’s tree climb.) Triads are sometimes
framed as tonics by their dominants and subdominants, projecting diatonic systems,
but just as frequently enter into chromatic major-third relations, which project hex-
atonic organization. Hexatonic poles and modally matched Taruskins occur early,
late, often, and at moments of high drama. Peter is thus saturated with the sound of
contrary-motion voice leading, which at each presentation projects a paradox that
threatens to undermine the secure sense of the local tonal home. Sometimes those
projections are fleeting and innocuous, as in Peter’s antecedent phrase or the bird’s
fioritura, where A minor is merely suggested. Sometimes they are rapidly recuper-
ated, as in Peter’s consequent. Sometimes, a rhetorical flaring delays the moment
of recuperation, as in the A minor on which Peter traps the wolf. In the most un-
canny or terrifying moments, the flare persists unextinguished: the hexatonic pole
or Tarnhelm progression establishes a new local tonic that undermines the conso-
nant status of its predecessor, as in the two G-minor appearances of the wolf theme,
or the A-major swan song of the embellied duck. The more perilous or fantastic the
circumstance, the more explicit and unrecuperated the contrary motion, the more
indeterminate the consonant status of the local triad, and the more insecure its rela-
tion to the global C-major tonic.
Tonality frames Peter and the Wolf but does not saturate it.27 Tonal sensibili-
ties stimulate expectations that condition responses to its most emblematic mo-
ments and dramatic effects. Exploring those responses requires the terms, concepts,
and representational modes associated with classical tonality, but not those alone.
Does that make Peter a tonal composition? Yes and no, which is to say, perhaps
maybe and partially sometimes. If I equivocate, perhaps it is because the question
is malformed or misdirected; because tonality is a property that only seems to at-
tach directly to compositions; because Peter and the Wolf, like thousands of its ilk,
illuminates the presence of the listening and interpreting subject who has, all along,
been transparently interposed between the property and the music; and because
that subject is more capable of spontaneously suspending and reengaging his or her
tonal sensibilities than our analytic modes have been prone to document.


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ford University Press, 2012.

27 The framing/saturating distinction is due to Asher Yampolsky.

62 Richard Cohn

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The Legacy of German Rule – .
Some Reflections on Another Musical Iceberg .
in the Transatlantic Relationships .
of Music History
Wolfgang Rathert

(Some) Preliminaries

Our knowledge about the transmission of continental music theory to the colonies
and the United States from the beginning of the eighteenth to the middle of the
twentieth century has considerably increased during recent decades.1 And yet, re-
search on the exact transmission and reception of so-called “German Rule”—that
is, the spread of German music and music theory as the be-all and end-all of Ameri-
can art music from the mid-nineteenth century on—is bound to remain a fascinat-
ing task for future transatlantic musicology. In the nineteenth century, German art
music was played in all major East Coast cities and formed the established canon
of such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.2 But
what about the reception of German theorists, who were available in translation in
the case of Riemann and Richter and transmitted orally in other cases? Similarly,
we know comparitavely little about the biographical background and the further
professional activities of the many German musicians emigrating to the States after
1848, such as Adolf Weidig, a Hamburg-born student of Riemann who moved to
Chicago in 1892 and became the first important teacher of Ruth Crawford Seeger
at the American Conservatory. She would later say, full of admiration, that he had
“an unusual balance between necessary discipline and necessary allowance for
individuality.”3 Whatever the case, it is clear that German musical culture was suc-
cessfully exported on many levels and helped to establish American art music as
a cosmopolitan if stylistically bland sub-category of its European counterpart. As
early as 1855, John Knowles Paine, who had studied organ with August Haupt
in Berlin, presented an expertly crafted if anachronistic journeyman’s effort with
his Mass, situated stylistically in an idealized eighteenth century. He regarded his

1 Cf. the excellent overview in Sherman Van Solkema and Bryan R. Simms, “Theory,” in New
Grove Dictionary of American Music, ed. H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, 4:370–77.
New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986. I am most grateful to Prof. Brian Hyer for
valuable information about further influences in the early nineteenth century, which he pro-
vided to me during the conference.
2 See Nancy Newman, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society in Nine-
teenth-Century America (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2010).
3 Joseph N. Straus, The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995), 206.
64 Wolfgang Rathert

teaching activities at Harvard as a bastion of European (and especially German)

music amidst a culture dominated by light musical entertainment. Horatio Parker,
who had studied with Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger in Munich, taught in much the
same spirit at Yale. In Parker’s case we are precisely informed about the musi-
cal tools he acquired in Munich and transmitted to the United States, not only to
Charles Ives, but later to Roger Sessions as well. These tools consisted of a classi-
cally tinged sense of form, a command of the standard genres, a thorough ground-
ing in counterpoint, and, of course, a respect for the traditional limits of tonality
(although Parker’s music harbors many a Wagnerianism missing in Rheinberger).4
In contrast, George Chadwick—who had also studied with Rheinberger and previ-
ously in Leipzig—was attracted from the very outset to French culture and later to
verismo. Yet when Chadwick came to revise the curriculum of the New England
Conservatory (which he headed from 1897 on), he generally adhered to German
models, focusing on the great masters of the past and their compositional doctrines.
Still, in combining theory, practice, and history, Chadwick was more open toward
contemporary musical life than the teaching staff of such German institutions as
the Berlin Hochschule, which was notorius for its uninspiring, almost bureaucratic
way of teaching music theory.5 (In a fit of despair, the young Leo Blech—another
student of the Hochschule and later one of Germany’s most distinguished conduc-
tors—once called it a “spiritual slaughterhouse.”) But there was no doubt about the
task that the New England Conservatory swore to uphold: it was the same idealistic
defense of musical culture whose culmination was to be found in Germany. To
quote the opening sentence of the Conservatory’s early course catalogue: “Music,
more than any other art, has fallen into the hands of charlatans.”6
Other centers of European influence, such the National Conservatory headed in
Washington D.C. by Dvořák after 1893, likewise employed teachers with German
backgrounds. One was Rubin Goldmark, a nephew of Karl Goldmark. Though born
in New York, Rubin Goldmark studied with Robert Fuchs in Vienna and became
the first teacher of Copland and Gershwin before they were exposed to other in-
fluences—Copland to the French influence of Nadia Boulanger, and Gershwin to
that of Joseph Schillinger, whose universal and rigorously mathematical system
later drew the admiration of Henry Cowell. From 1871 on, the Erfurt-born Bern-
hard Ziehn flourished in Chicago. Ziehn was the diametrical opposite of Riemann
and one of the most acute theorists of his day. Though his activities were at first
limited to church music, his long-distance impact—a phenomenon that has eluded

4 See E. Douglas Bomberger, “Layers of Influence: Echoes of Rheinberger in the Choral Works
of Horatio Parker,” in Josef Rheinberger: Werk und Wirkung: Bericht über das Internationale
Symposium anlässlich des 100. Todestages des Komponisten, veranstaltet von der Gesellschaft
für Bayerische Musikgeschichte und dem Institut für Musikwissenschaft der Universität Mün-
chen, München, 23.–25.11.2001, ed. Stephan Hörner and Hartmut Schick (Tutzing: Schneider,
2004), 225–42.
5 Siegfried Ochs, Geschehenes, Gesehenes (Leipzig and Zurich, 1922), 79–80.
6 See the catalogue for winter term 1871, reproduced under the English language version of
Wikipedia. Wikipedia contributors, “New England Conservatory,”
wiki/File:1871_NewEnglandConservatory_WinterTerm_BostonMusicHall.png (accessed June
11, 2011).
The Legacy of German Rule 65

study to the present day—extended far into the modern age, even reaching Busoni
and Schoen­berg. Particularly remarkable was his teaching method, already laid out
in his textbook of harmony and modulation in 1888.7 Dispensing with deductive
axioms, he instead discussed specific instances from various historical ages. Ziehn
worked his way speculatively and spectacularly through the canon; composing was,
for him, more a scholarly than an artistic activity. This set him apart from Riemann,
whose theory was aimed at artistic content, and still further from Schenker and his
penchant for organicism.
There have been no reliable estimates of how many nineteenth-century German
teachers taught privately in the United States. George Ives, the father of Charles,
studied in New York with Carl (Charles) Foeppl(e), a German organist and theo-
rist.8 To this, we must add the all-encompassing if diffuse influence of German
theory via the work of newspaper journalists and John Sullivan Dwight’s influential
music periodical. Their impact continued to be felt until America entered the First
World War. A useful gauge of this influence can be found in Charles Ives’ contradic-
tory (and highly amusing) statements in his Memos: In the same breath, Ives both
heavily rebels against the dry and academic “German Rule” infused by his Yale
professor Horatio W. Parker and glorifies Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as high
priests of musical art.9 Ives’s withering attacks on “soft ears” and his well-known
tirades against Richard Strauss and Max Reger—the former as decadent, the latter
as the quintessence of musical Teutonicism—take up arms against what he con-
sidered an obsolete culture of music and performance. For this reason, his Fourth
Symphony (1911–1916) is a kind of oxymoron: it contains Ives’ most advanced ex-
perimental piece (the so-called “Comedy”), follows with a fugue symbolizing mu-
sical academia, and ends with a hymn-like march surrounded by a faint background
of percussive noise that culminates in a solemn tonal cadence without any sense of
irony. Was Peter Burkholder right to view Ives as an involuntary but staunch adept
of European music? The question is directed toward the historical mindset behind
the music: was the major-minor tonal system an incontrovertible reality for Ives,
or merely an artistic device? Or was Ives, like Schoenberg, already deeply imbued
with an acoustical theory of music that viewed tonality with detachment from other
vantage points?
The First World War brought about an interruption to “German Rule”, for
French music was already beginning to obtain a stronger foothold in Boston around
1900. Beginning in 1920, the leading young composers born around the turn of the
century preferred to travel to Boulanger in Paris. But German theory, like German
music, remained present in their minds and compositional output. In the United
States, as in Europe, the reception and transformation of “German Rule”—the ideal

7 Bernhard Ziehn, Harmonie- und Modulationslehre (Berlin: R. Sulzer, 1888). An enlarged Eng-
lish version was released as Manual of Harmony: Theoretical and Practical (Milwaukee, WI:
William A. Caun Music Co., 1907).
8 See David Eiseman, “George Ives as Theorist: Some Unpublished Documents,” Perspectives
of New Music 14 (1975): 139–47; and Carol K. Baron, “George Ives’s Essay in Music Theory:
An Introduction and Annotated Edition,” American Music 10 (1992): 239–88.
9 See Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. John Kirkpatrick (London, Calder & Boyars, 1973): 115–22.
66 Wolfgang Rathert

of tonal music in theory and practice, honed to stylistic perfection by historical

awareness and a rigorous adherence to rules—progressed in a complex interplay of
competing currents and countercurrents. Nonetheless, its consequences were quite
different. In Europe, this ideal had already been called into question during the con-
flict between the “New German School” (Neu-Deutsche Schule) and the classicists
in the nineteenth century, when the writings of Fétis and Helmholtz were influential
in the humanities and natural sciences as well. The situation in the United States
was at once simpler and more complex: On the one hand, there was no comparable
polarization into ideological camps; on the other, there were more decisive attempts
to break free of the old tonal system. In both cases, the power of tradition—or
what Harold Bloom has called the “anxiety of influence”—was at work. In fact,
the Europeans equated tradition with a tonal theory and practice that predominated
between 1600 and 1900. This equation was by no means self-evident in the colo-
nies, or later in the United States, where the social and religious function of music
was paramount. (This explains why around 1770 William Billings posed as a fierce
opponent of rules: it had less to do with the aesthetic of genius than with a funda-
mentally different attitude toward music.) In the nineteenth century, this posture
was overwhelmed and suppressed by the European aesthetic. It was not until the
end of the century, at the zenith of German influence, that there arose an opposition
whose radicality can be measured in its degree of independence from Europe, but
which was less aesthetically constricted. This is apparent in many Ives works that
continue to use traditional tonality to surprising effect, unconcerned by the state of
musical progress. It has earned him accusations of iconoclasm and of a perceived
lack of the theoretical and historical reflection appropriate to a twentieth-century
composer. Obviously, the use of traditional tonality to uncannily mythic effect—as
in the famous string chorale of The Unanswered Question—was part of a integral
strategy whose opposite extremes (sometimes found in the same work), were noise
or the forbidden paradise of popular sounds. Thus the “Ives Case” unveils a central
problem faced not only by American composers but by their post-war European
counterparts—namely, how to deal with the legacies of the past.
Three constellations illustrate the productive and contradictory repercussions
that the confrontation with German classical-romantic music held out for American
modernism. (Naturally, the influence of the German tradition on American popular
music requires a separate discussion.)10 Here the terms “German” and “American”
call for explication and refinement. In the minds of late-nineteenth-century Ameri-
can composers and audiences, “German” meant the preponderance and influence
of European musical culture per se. It was the quintessence of the exemplum clas-
sicum—the timeless masterpiece, sacrosanct and impervious to criticism. But as
such, it was also associated with an unpleasant suprematist claim that belittled the
musical writings and works of all other nations. If Beethoven’s music still embod-
ied the ideal celebrated in John Sullivan Dwight’s transcendentalist Beethoven cult

10 Donald Johns has discussed the influence of traditional harmony on popular music in Donald
Johns, “Funnel Tonality in American Popular Music, ca. 1900–1970,” American Music 11
(1993): 458–72.
The Legacy of German Rule 67

(and followed by Ives),11 Wagner’s complex tonal language, with its latent aboli-
tion of tonality, was already seen as a danger. And finally, German musicology laid
claim to an all-embracing study of music, even if its encyclopedic approach was
actually a legacy of the French Enlightenment and Riemann followed in the foot-
steps of Fétis. The preponderance of German music can be heard in every statement
by American composers and theorists, progressive and conservative alike. Whether
Ives or Sessions, Cowell or Thomson, they all presuppose it, either to thrust it aside
or to develop it further.
In our context, “American modernism” should be regarded less as a national
tag than an aesthetic posture also adopted by European composers living and teach-
ing in the United States. The openmindedness of America’s musical life—its toler-
ance and generosity toward the new vs. its indifference toward anything failing to
serve the cause of entertainment or found outside the canon—proved to be favo-
rable for the implementation and dissemination of ideas and perspectives that had
encountered resistance or wholesale rejection in Germany. Under the conditions of
American musical culture, Hindemith’s style of writing (an up-to-date version of
Schenker’s ideas) and Schoenberg’s return to tonality underwent a “progressive”
acceleration. Conservative German compositional positions could evolve undis-
turbed in the United States, from whence they probably had a stronger impact on
post-1950 music history than would have been the case in their country of origin.
Three case studies will serve to illustrate these thoughts: first, the ultramodern
concept of dissonance advanced by Charles Seeger and Henry Cowell; second, the
influence of Schenker’s theories on Hindemith and Sessions (a transatlantic point
of contact that failed to produce a convergence); and third, Schoenberg’s rever-
sion to tonality during his American exile, as seen from the vantage point of post-
modernism. In all three instances, we can see how the paradigm of “German Rule”
remained in force, whether in the form of deliberate negation (of consonance), as
a vehicle for teaching and composing, or finally, in Schoenberg’s case, as a relaxa-
tion of the antithesis between suppressed tradition and lawless innovation. All three
positions are crucial prerequisites for the cosmopolitan history of post-war music,
where traditional tonality and the compositional techniques associated with it led to
post-modernism, albeit as metaphors for a post-historical awareness among com-
posers and listeners. In retrospect, we might ask whether this sort of awareness—a
“pre-modernist” awareness, if you will—had been latent in American music history
at least from the mid-nineteenth century. It is incontestable that the idioms and
stylistic postures of German composers had already changed in the 1920s under the
impact of jazz. But the post-1933 émigrés realized quickly that a return to “German
Rule” furthered rather than hindered their influence on American modernism. This
strategy presupposed certain compromises in the émigré’s own music; namely, they
had to adapt to the aforementioned social and aesthetic functions that American
listeners expected of music. It is no coincidence that Schoenberg’s most success-
ful work in the United States was his arrangement for string orchestra of Verklärte

11 See Michael Broyles, Beethoven in America, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011,
68 Wolfgang Rathert

Nacht, whose tonal language and post-Wagnerian expressive burden reminded

American listeners of Hollywood film music. Little did they realize, or even think
it relevant, that Hollywood made use of Schoenberg’s topoi rather than vice versa.

1) Seeger, Cowell, and Ultra-Modernism

The confrontation between the ultra-modernists and German music formed part
of a larger process of realignment toward Europe that included its music, its mu-
sic theory, and the musicology that described it. The catalyst in this process was
Charles Seeger, whose intellectual development was marked by a passionate effort
to penetrate music in its entirety. Feeling his training at Harvard to be insufficient,
he traveled to Europe in order to imbibe the impulses of French and German mod-
ernism in Munich and Paris and to embark on a conductor’s career in Cologne—a
career that was to be crowned with the performance of his own “genuine” Ameri-
can opera. Established in Berkeley, he became ceaselessly active as a composer
and scholar during the First World War. One of his students was the young Henry
Cowell, whose seminal book New Musical Resources, completed by 1919, was
evidently the fruit of their mutual inspiration. This book combines approaches from
physics and constructivism into a fascinating panorama of previously overlooked
possibilities in musical composition. What is relevant in the context of my essay,
however, is their position on tonality: was it to be rejected, surmounted, or ex-
panded? Later Cowell recalled:
[W]hen I had my first formal meeting with Seeger […] in the fall of 1914, I remember so well
his pleasure and excitement at discovering polytonality, dissonant harmony and counterpoint,
and atonality, in the music I showed him. These were new terms to me, though such music was
not. That first day Seeger showed me Schoenberg’s Opus 11, with the tactful remark: “You
might like to see how someone else has handled similar problems.”12

Seeger’s concept of “dissonant counterpoint” was developed in these years—a con-

cept that would bear impressive compositional fruit in the music of Carl Ruggles
and Ruth Crawford, who would later become Seeger’s wife. At first glance, it seems
to be an American equivalent of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, a breakthrough
to a musical language divested of any inkling of tonality. Initially, Seeger regarded
it as a purely theoretical game that derived “dissonant counterpoint” from the rules
of sixteenth-century polyphony, merely interchanging the functions of consonance
and dissonance. Two things are crucial here: the positing of a historically definable
“Urtonality,” and the acknowledgment of a need for compositional “regulations.”
In the early 1920s, Cowell supplied a familiar explanation for this march toward the
emancipation of dissonance—namely, it resulted from the successive conquest and
incorporation of higher partials in the overtone series, which led ineluctably from

12 Quoted from Ann M. Pescatello, Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music (Pittsburgh: Uni-
versity of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 65. According to Pescatello, Cowell’s comments were de-
scribed in a 1960 letter from Sidney Robertson Cowell to Charles Seeger regarding Cowell’s
interview with Hugo Weisgall in the Music Quarterly, October 1959.
The Legacy of German Rule 69

medieval organum to the present-day music of Schoenberg and Ornstein.13 The He-
gelian telos of a relentless “tendency of the material” rests on a well-known ground-
ing in physics. Drawing on a line of argument from Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre,
Cowell refers to consonance and dissonance as “relative terms with a psychological
distinction.”14 In other words, the process of becoming accustomed to dissonance
entails a growing sophistication on the part of the aural faculty. (In terms of the
psychology of perception, dissonance becomes consonant, thereby allowing conso-
nances such as the open fifth to become “dissonant” archaisms.)
Cowell and Seeger were not concerned with a “revolution,” but with enhancing
human sensory perception. They did so, however, by systematically examining all
possible combinations of the musical material. Seeger later described this process
in what he intended to publish as a selection of essays under the title Principia
Musicologica using a term from linguistics: inflections. “Consonance and disso-
nance are the names given, from a structural viewpoint, to what has been called,
from a functional viewpoint, inflection of the pitch function.”15 We find ourselves
in the realm of a universal field theory inspired by the project of a holistic science
of music as proposed by Guido Adler, a figure Seeger had intensively studied.16
Seeger’s combination of empirical psychology and an epistemological cum linguis-
tic approach makes use of a mode of discourse that dates back to German music
theory of the early eighteenth century. His object is not so much an encyclopedic
presentation of the variety of musical phenomena, nor primarily their viability as
teaching material, but rather the illumination of physical, psychological, and his-
torical connections that converge in a theory of culture. In the case of Schenker and
Schoenberg, this theory of culture hinges on a proof of the primacy of the classical-
romantic canon as viewed from diametrically opposite standpoints. In the case of
Riemann, as is well known, it was augmented with other aspects of an anthropol­
ogical bent. Seeger expands all of this into a universal theory in which the concept
of tonality becomes a decisive methodological tool. To Seeger, “dissonance” and
“consonance” are nothing but placeholders for two universally valid principles:
“tension” and “relaxation.” The transcendental use of these terms also explains why
Cowell, following his extremely “dissonant” iconoclastic works of the 1920s, felt
no qualms about seeking out Erich von Hornbostel in Berlin a short while later (and
Schoenberg as well, a fact still awaiting scholarly attention). Cowell also went on
to write expressly “consonant” pieces related to eighteenth-century American folk
music—compositions that seemed hopelessly antiquated to the 1950s avant-garde.
Notwithstanding the highly conflicting stylistic languages in these works, they all
proceeded, according to Cowell and Seeger, from the same structural and functional

13 Henry Cowell, “Harmonic Development in Music” (1921), Essential Cowell: Selected Writings
1921–1964, ed. Dick Higgins (New York: McPherson & Co., 2001), 280.
14 Cowell, “Harmonic Development,” 280.
15 Charles Seeger, “Consonance and Dissonance,” in Studies in Musicology II: 1929–1979, ed.
Ann. M. Pescatello (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 95.
16 See Charles Seeger, “Toward a Unitary Field Theory for Musicology” (1970), in Studies in
Musicology: 1935–1975, ed. Ann M. Pescatello (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1977), 102–3.
70 Wolfgang Rathert

principles, which were in turn derived and abstracted from the burning issues of
the late-nineteenth century. They were marked by the compositional intricacies of
enharmonic modulation on the one hand, and on the other by a historical awareness
according to which all historical phenomena were equally close to the present. (The
manner in which their recourse to the sixteenth century was handled is a topic well
worth further study.)
Nonetheless, the intellectual achievement of dissonant counterpoint would
have been inconceivable without the heated debate on consonance and dissonance
that took place among German musicologists, whether on an historical plane (Rie-
mann) or in systematic musicology (Stumpf). It was from this debate that Schoen-
berg derived the question of the essence of pitch, and Seeger the question of the
essence of music per se. That the notion of a single indivisible tonality could no
longer be upheld was made clear by Milton Babbitt in his “Celebrative Speech” of
1974. Here he not only mocked the Boulanger school as a “musical bakery where
loafs of chords were packaged and labeled,” but lashed out indirectly at Seeger:
Schoenberg’s true and lasting contemporaneity led us not only to model theory […], but to the
restimulation of what already had appeared to have been evanescent slogans, but superstitions
as widely circulated as the clinical aprioristic notions of context-free “consonance” and “disso-
nance”; and the universal humanist’s spin-off fancies of the associated “tensions” and “relaxa-
tions” finally could be exorcised when it was realized that proclamations of the “emancipation
of the dissonance” were simply that of the relativization of dissonance […]17

From the vantage point of intellectual history, both of these positions are legacies of
German theory that had a falling out and became archenemies.

2) Sessions, Hindemith, and Schenkerianism

After studying with Horatio Parker and Ernest Bloch, Roger Sessions—the “Amer-
ican Brahms”—lived in Florence, Berlin, and Paris from 1925 to 1933. Returning
to the United States, he exerted an influence for decades as a teacher of composition
and theory at Berkeley and Princeton. (Among his students were Milton Babbitt and
Edward T. Cone.) During his years in Europe, he was an eyewitness to the rise of
neoclassicism and clearly recognized the aesthetic problems of European modern-
ism, stuck as it was between adaptation to a politically tamed mainstream and the
splendid isolation of advanced musical languages as the twelve-tone system.18 His
articles in the 1930s on Schenker, Hindemith, and Krenek demonstrate how he tran-
scended the subject at hand to pose fundamental questions on the relation between
works and history, theory and compositional practice, and the extent to which Euro-
pean models remained valid, or even relevant, for American music. One surprising
discovery (surprising only at first glance) is that the teachings of the “reactionary”

17 Milton Babbitt, “Celebrative Speech,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Society 1 (1976): 9.
18 See Wolfgang Rathert, “‘Models for Strangers’: Geschichte und Analyse in Roger Sessions’
Blick auf die europäische Musiktheorie,” in Werk und Geschichte: Musikalische Analyse und
historischer Entwurf: Festschrift Rudolf Stephan zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. Thomas Ertelt
(Mainz: Schott, 2005), 211–19.
The Legacy of German Rule 71

Heinrich Schenker were more important to Sessions than the “modernist” concepts
of Hindemith and Krenek. In a series of articles published in the American journal
Modern Music between 1935 and 1938, Sessions dealt with Schenker’s final book
Der freie Satz, Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz, and Krenek’s Über neue
Musik. He also published an appreciation of Schenker’s lifework in an obituary fol-
lowing the great theorist’s death in January 1935. He summed this critique up once
again in his final article, “The Function of Theory.” Though Sessions addressed an
American readership, he basically set his sights on the European crisis in compo-
sition. To him, this crisis took two forms. First, he felt that Schenker’s teachings,
though exclusively analytical and limited to the music of the past, provided the
strongest intellectual impetus for the further evolution of musical thought. Second,
he saw Hindemith and Krenek as composers who abandoned their true area of re-
sponsibility when they ventured into the field of music theory. Sessions criticized
this “intellectualism” as a sign of “a profound inner insecurity” that went beyond
the composer’s actual task.19 Sessions’s rappel a l’ordre reads as follows: “After
all, the composer’s real task is to discover and utilize, not to classify and rational-
ize, his materials. He achieves form through the necessities of a clear and directed
intensity of vision, not through molds into which his ideas can be poured, or recipes
according to which they can be fabricated to pattern.”20
To the end of his days, Sessions was convinced that composing requires a com-
plete command of the necessary skills, but is not a science or based on scientific
principles. This belief lay at the root of his critique of Hindemith’s Unterweisung.
True, in the first section of his critique, he praises Hindemith’s pragmatism in for-
mulating rules in relation to their applicability as well as his notion of “tonality”—a
notion honed on Schenker. Many young composers in the United States would,
he felt, benefit from these rules. (Indeed, Hindemith’s book was first published
in American translation as early as 1941 and was widely used as a textbook un-
til it was superseded by Piston’s Harmony.) All the more incisive, however, were
Sessions’s doubts as to the viability of Hindemith’s physics-based approach, of
which he said, even before Jacques Handschin, “[that] physics can be useful for
[the musician] primarily as a confirmation of effects observed, never as a point of
departure, or as an adequate explanation of effects which are the manifest results of
centuries of cumulative musical experience.”21 It was, ironically, the “ahistorical”
American Sessions who wielded the argument of composition’s historical essence
against Hindemith’s “naive” doctrine of craftsmanship! In the same vein, Sessions
also criticized Hindemith’s dependence on earlier mechanistic theories of chordal
structure, in particular “verticalism,” which prevented him from drawing on other
aspects, whether psychological or functional, to create a unitary musical analysis.
He found fault with Hindemith’s avoidance, in the Unterweisung, of dimensions
in the compositional fabric that cannot be unconditionally rationalized, but which
nevertheless draw their impact from historical or sensory implications. The book’s

19 Roger Sessions, “The Function of Theory” (1938), in Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Es-
says, ed. Edward T. Cone (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 267.
20 Ibid.
21 Sessions, “Hindemith on Theory” (1937), 245.
72 Wolfgang Rathert

scientistic inductivist garb, Sessions continued, ultimately prevented it from be-

ing more than an historical anthology and conveying a sophisticated picture of the
problems a composer faces. In the case of Ernst Krenek, whose book Über neue
Musik he reviewed at greatest length, Sessions takes the opposite tack and criticizes
its tendency toward deductivism and historico-philosophical dogmatism. Given
Adorno’s active involvement in this book, Sessions’s critique thus anticipates the
position adopted in Philosophie der neuen Musik. He attacks its historico-philo-
sophical essence as follows:
Herr Krenek’s book deals […] not with specific musical works, but with a musical system
[…] A system which seems to claim more than empirical validity, a system, that is, in which
the works seem to be almost of secondary importance in comparison with the theory behind

The fundamental distinction between “grammar” and “language,” he maintains, is

ignored in Krenek’s view of the musical work of art. Sessions goes on to add, in
relation to the twelve-tone method (the heart of the book’s discussion), that while
it may well form a “quasi-grammatical” basis for art and can be examined for its
consistency, yet “the ultimate judgment must rest on works and not on theories or
points of view.”23
In contrast, Sessions agrees—at least partly—with Hindemith’s adherence to
the physical foundation of music and to the final authority of the auditory faculty.
Not even the twelve-tone system, he argues, can neutralize or abolish such elemen-
tary tonal relations and hierarchies as the perfect fifth or the conflicting perception
of consonance and dissonance. This view—that the centripetal forces of tonic rela-
tions and consonant intervals remain intact even in a dodecaphonic context—is
bolstered by Sessions’s interpretation of the latest works of Schoenberg. In these
works, he argues, the creative process is increasingly directed toward a possible
rapprochement between the twelve-tone method and traditional tonality—a view
diametrically opposed to Krenek’s teleological ennoblement of the twelve-tone
method from a technique to an end in itself. Sessions’s second basic objection is
aimed at Krenek’s thesis that atonality and twelve-tone technique both follow “from
the consistent escalation of the espressivo attitude,” and that both can be called “ex-
pressionist” in a “specific technical sense” of the term, from which it follows that
the most genuine form of contemporary music is the fragment or gesture.24 Once
again, Sessions responds with an historical argument. He refers to the ephemeral
quality of “excessively” expressive music in the past, whose exaggeration invari-
ably foundered on the absence of a real object to which the espressivo could relate.
The “inmost expression of the essence” that Krenek sees consummated in the para-
dox of the fragment can also, Sessions counters, be achieved by intensifying other
layers of the composition.
By referring to the “inmost expression of the essence,” Sessions identifies the
aspect that accounts for the initially puzzling inclusion of Schenker in his critique

22 Sessions, “Exposition by Krenek” (1938), 251.

23 Ibid.
24 Ernst Krenek, Über neue Musik (Vienna: Ringbuchhandlung, 1937), 14.
The Legacy of German Rule 73

of contemporary European music theorists (among whom he definitely numbers

Schenker although the Viennese theorist never touched on the problem of contem-
porary composition). In other words, Sessions makes a distinction between object
and method, thus forging a connection between Schenker’s and Schoenberg’s theo-
retical writings.
We must not be misled by Sessions’s reservations toward Schenker’s normative
ethical speculations—his claim that the Ursatz and Urlinie represent “immutable
laws”—or his excoriation of the “excessive Germanism” in Schenker’s reduction
of music history to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. True, Sessions expresses these
reservations as a fundamental critique. But he sees two of Schenker’s methodo-
logical approaches as a crucial precondition toward recognizing real problems in
composition, and thus in music theory. The first is Schenker’s chosen point of de-
parture: the historical and aesthetic facticity of the musical work of art rather than
an a priori system. The second is his return to an understanding of counterpoint and
harmony as “grammatical” foundations which can and must be isolated as teach-
ing material in order to study elementary facts of horizontal and vertical motion in
tonal space. Schenker’s “interior” view of the musical work of art, Sessions finds,
also makes it possible to perceive the individuality of each conception. He argues
that Schenker then relativizes this individuality by claiming absolute knowledge
and limiting himself to a past which is “complete in itself and sealed, so to speak, at
both ends.”25 Even so, Sessions goes on to write:
But opposed to Hindemith, it faces fully the problem of musical continuity—the continuity of
organic growth and not merely that of succession, while as opposed to the twelve-tone system it
takes as its point of departure the ear in its manifold discriminative and synthesizing functions,
and not a set of arbitrary relations between tones.26

Sessions’s reservation, which also makes him a partial follower of Schenker, is di-
rected both at analysis and at composition: a unitary music theory becomes a matter
for the composer when he hands it on to his students as a doctrine, thereby connect-
ing their study of historical forms with the personal goal of composition. Sessions
demanded a music theory that would do justice to both without ideological nar-
rowmindedness. This is the actual model that emerges from his study of European
theory, and the remarkable thing is that the allegedly “conservative” elements of his
model predominate.27 Nevertheless, as a basic assumption for the creative process,
Sessions’s model of “musical craftsmanship” goes beyond the bounds of mastering
a traditional métier: it establishes an inseparable bond between the tools provided

25 Sessions, “The Function of Theory,” 267.

26 Ibid.
27 The astonishing career of Schenker’s theory of musical layers as an analytical model in Amer-
ican musicology—a career launched by Sessions’s discussion of the Schenkerian axioms “to-
nicization” and “composed-out”—would be worth a study in itself. The extraction and gener-
alization of his analytical model in the United States was based on a pragmatic neglect of the
historical implications of the works analyzed, the limits of analysis (for Sessions a sine qua
non), and finally what Babbitt called the “the boundary conditions of tonality.” Milton Babbitt,
review of Polyphonie: Review musicale trimestrielle, Quatrième Cahier, Le Système dodécaph-
onique, Journal of the American Musicological Society 3 (1950): 265.
74 Wolfgang Rathert

by theory (as a practical guide to composing) and the composer’s complete freedom
in choosing goals that leads perforce to the autonomy of the work of music. A key
precept from Sessions’s later reflection of 1967, “What can be taught?,” reads as
follows: “I would still insist […] that a composer in the fullest sense of the word is
one who has the whole range of known musical possibilities within his compara-
tively easy grasp, and who therefore is free to choose to do whatever he likes, with
full assurance.”28
Returning now to Hindemith, we find that the contrasts between him and Ses-
sions are smaller than Sessions’s critique would suggest. Hindemith was a con-
firmed Schenkerian from the early 1920s, probably via the influence of the theorist
Hermann Roth.29 Still, the brief correspondence that Hindemith conducted with
Schenker in 1925—to the composer’s great frustration—revealed an insurmount-
able barrier erected by Schenker, who deemed himself the last defender of the van-
ishing tonal art of the great masters of the past. Hindemith expressed the belief
that his music, too, contained “the Urlinie, and hence musical rationality and the
confirmation of your theories.”30 Schenker considered this to be sheer presumption
and replied that Hindemith’s music “has nothing more in common with the music
of the masters; you will not admit it, but I must state it outright.”31 Hindemith’s Un-
terweisung is, as Carl Dahlhaus pointed out, an adaptation of Schenkerian analysis
in the primacy it attaches to the melodic interval of the second. However, he makes
no distinction between actual melodic progressions and “step progressions,” which
remain an acoustical rather than a structural phenomenon.32 Nonetheless, Hin-
demith’s book has something fundamentally in common with Schenker—namely,
the assumption of a unified tonal space, though Hindemith gives this space a basis
in physics rather than in human cognition and uses all twelve degrees of the chro-
matic scale rather than only the diatonic ones. With his emigration to the United
States and his appointment as professor at Yale, Hindemith perceived himself in the
predicament of having to adapt the teaching methods he had developed in Berlin
to unsatisfactory conditions. His response was to create a basic music textbook for
beginners in the form of a traditional harmony manual. This work, first published
in English as A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony in 1943, dispenses
with any form of theoretical derivation, and for this very reason is a remarkable
historical document—an attempt to reconstitute a “trade apprenticeship” that seems
to deny the state of historical reflection reached in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre
and to wholly ignore the niceties of Schenkerian analysis. Hindemith’s vindication

28 Sessions, “What Can Be Taught?” (1967), 215.

29 See Wolfgang Rathert, “Zu Hindemiths musikpädagogischen und -theoretischen Anschauun-
gen in seiner Berliner Zeit,” in Paul Hindemith in Berlin, ed. Franz Bullmann, Dietmar Schenk
and Wolfgang Rathert, HdK-Archiv 2 (Berlin: Hochschule der Künste Berlin, 1996), 33–46.
30 Quoted from Donald Johns, “Aimez-vous Brahms? Ein Hindemith-Schenker-Briefwechsel,”
Hindemith-Jahrbuch 20 (1991): 144.
31 Ibid., 149.
32 See Carl Dahlhaus, “Hindemiths Theorie des Sekundengangs und die Probleme der Melodie-
lehre,” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 11 (1983): 114–25.
The Legacy of German Rule 75

for this in the preface reveals not only a pragmatic attitude but a deeper educational
I am consciously taking this step backwards in full realization of its relative unimportance. Its
purpose is not to provide a traditional underpinning for the principles set forth in The Craft of
Musical Composition (which is not necessary, since for the understanding reader tradition is
present on every page of that work), but to facilitate the speedy learning mentioned above, and
this in as little scholastic a manner as possible, so that a close connection with living music may
be continuously felt. […] The fact that harmony can be taught along these lines has been proved
by the class for which and with whose active participation this brief manual was written.33

Hindemith’s primer was conceived in such a way that it demands an equal degree of
activity and awareness from the teacher as from the students—a ceaseless examina-
tion and visualization of the kinetic potential residing in the material. His approach
is governed by a maximum reduction of the rules—or, to put it another way, by a
maximum number of steps derived from a single principle. Hindemith’s pessimistic
forecast—that the traditional theory of harmony would be rendered obsolete by the
evolution of music itself—must therefore be seen in relative terms, for the principle
behind the theory of harmony is universal in regards to the activities and responsi-
bilities of the composer. Hindemith’s pupil Frank Lewin summarized this view as
If I were to adduce Hindemith’s most memorable impression on me, I would cite his remark in
a class in which we chewed on the three-part writing material, to the effect that in writing music
everything must be made conscious: melodic material, harmony, harmonic rhythm, texture,

Just as Schenkerian analysis is aimed at performers, so Hindemith’s teachings were

aimed at composers, who will only discover freedom in their need for subjective
expression when they gain rigorous formal and intrinsic control over their actions.
This was a “German legacy,” albeit one that clearly clashed with the ideals of the
Viennese School. Virgil Thomson, in his brilliantly acerbic Hindemith review of
1941, viewed this as a shortcoming—to which we must add, a “typically German”
When one considers […] that Hindemith never properly liberated himself from the German
bass, that his rhythm is constrained and unimaginative counterpoint, that his melodic contours,
though dignified enough, are inexpressive, that his creative concentration is too diffuse to allow
him to write effectively either visual music or subjective emotional music, it is surprising that
the Mathis triptych should come off at all.35

33 Paul Hindemith, A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony: With Emphasis on Exercises

and a Minimum of Rules (Associated Music Publishers: New York, 1943), 1:iv–v.
34 Quoted from Geoffrey Skelton, Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music (London:
Gollancz, 1977), 200.
35 Virgil Thomson, A Virgil Thomson Reader (New York: Dutton, 1984), 214; Article originally
published in New York Herald Tribune, 9 February 1941.
76 Wolfgang Rathert

3) Schoenberg’s “late tonality”

Schoenberg’s return to tonality in the United Sates is a complex phenomenon over

which much ink has been spilled. It involved not only a whole bundle of motives
that accompanied Schoenberg on his life’s path, but probably—as Hans Keller
suggested—a confrontation with a suppressed artistic past that invites a psychoana-
lytical interpretation.36 Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, in 1976, put his finger on the
contradictory nature of Schoenberg’s standpoint. In an interview of 1933, Schoen­
berg is said to have answered the question of whether he might use a more acces-
sible tonal language in the United States by gruffly replying, “I’d rather destroy
America!” Yet, a short while later, he produced the Suite in G major and, over
the next few years, such tonal pieces as Kol Nidre, Variations on a Recitative for
Organ, and finally Theme and Variations for Full Band, sometimes even using key
signatures. Stuckenschmidt commented: “When his pupils asked him whether he
was revoking his earlier achievements—the emancipation of tonality and twelve-
tone serial composition—Schoenberg protested vehemently: these works, he said,
represent an expansion of compositional technique, not a genuflection to mass
taste.”37 The idea of expansion was one of the latent possibilities of twelve-tone
technique, namely, to advance toward what Dika Newlin called “progressive tonal-
ity,” in which traditional tonality becomes conceivable within the dodecaphonic
system. The same even applied to the triad—a phenomenon legitimized, as Hans
Keller argued, not through its basic shape or motivic elaboration, but as an inter-
vention and disturbance in a uniform stylistic “background.” Perhaps, as Joseph N.
Straus has maintained, it is even a recompense for the depletion of tonality, whose
place had been taken by motivic elaboration as a whole, by the all-pervasive “musi-
cal idea.”38 If so, the return to tonality was connected with two things. The first is
the idea of forming a dialectical relation between two opposing musical spheres by
applying the notions of “tension” and “relaxation” not only to intervals, textures,
and forms, but also to stylistic postures. The second is the reflection of the com-
poser’s own position in history. After all, didn’t Schoenberg’s teaching constantly
stress the continuity with the past and emphasize, like Hindemith, the need to deal
constantly with the most elementary questions? The basic difference lies in the na-
ture of their perspective: Schoenberg’s view is chiefly focused on the constructive
potential of the musical idea rather than on lending audibility to allegedly objective
musical layers. Once again, we can discern two competing notions of “tonality”:
one as a musical construct, the other as a physical donné. For Schoenberg, too, the
touchstones are the masterpieces of the past, but his heuristic approach resides in
using analysis to discover and unveil things that neither the teacher nor the pupils
were aware of before. It was in just such terms that Schoenberg, in an interview of
1935, described his work as a teacher and justified the significance of his models:

36 Hans Keller, “Schoenberg’s Return to Tonality,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 5
(1981): 2–21.
37 Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, “Deutsche Musik und deutsche Musiker in den USA,” Musica 30
(1976): 380.
38 Straus, Remaking the Past, 22.
The Legacy of German Rule 77

To know how to make a modulation is of no use if the pupil does not know how to employ this
in a composition. But even if he knows, he may perhaps be able to harmonize a given theme,
but will not know how to invent themes on a basis, from which you can look forward to the
further development and which guarantees the constructive purposes of harmony. The same is
true in counterpoint: you have to write a canon or a fugue when you are a pupil. But in free
composition you would write a canon or fugue only if you did not understand how to develop
contrapuntal ideas according to their true nature and according to constructive purposes. And
the same thing happens with the knowledge of musical forms, if the student does not know
the true meaning of musical formation, that is, to arrange and to build up one’s ideas in such a
manner that the pictures produced show one’s ideas in an understandable and sound manner. In
such a way the listener may be convinced, that one has spoken only of his ideas and has carried
them out thoroughly and fancifully.
I think this cannot be brought about without a profound knowledge of the achievements of
the great thinkers of music. You will admit, that I do not ask a pupil to write like Bach, or
Beethoven, or Mozart or Brahms. But I do ask that he realizes how profoundly they carried out
their ideas and how manifold the means were, by which these great masters did their work.39

This standpoint brings us back to “German Rule,” but with a highly characteristic
shift. Schoenberg, who adamantly refused to teach his own music, used works of
the past to show that the number of constructive solutions is inexhaustible. He was
concerned not with rules, but with discovering how something came about, what it
is, or even why it cannot become what it wants to be. (Hindemith would have found
such a standpoint absurd.) An episode from Schoenberg’s counterpoint lessons of
1939, reported by Dika Newlin, is illuminating in this respect:
He stated, while writing his fugue example on the blackboard, that he would like very much
like to make a certain modulation in the second section, and asked, ‘Now, why do I want to do
this?’ Everybody thought and thought, but nobody could see why. All of a sudden he burst out
laughing and cried, ‘Because it is impossible!’40

A similar sort of procedure, drawing strength as it were from negation and doubt,
may well have been a central inspiration for the young John Cage during his studies
with Schoenberg. Reinhard Kapp points to this in connection with the crucial role
of tonal harmony in Cage’s thought:
Cage defined traditional harmony as a hierarchical order of (functionally) unequal elements and
emphasized, in twelve-tone technique, the equal importance of different homogenous materi-
als. For the future, however, he proclaimed the equivalence of contrasting materials, that is, he
transferred Schoenberg’s achievement to expanded material.41

39 Radio interview with Lewen Swarthout in 1935, accessible as transcript on the home page of
the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna (
content&view=article&id= 1017&Itemid=730&lang=de).
40 Dika Newlin, Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections 1938–1976 (New York:
Pendragon Press, 1980), 20.
41 “Cage hat die traditionelle Harmonie als hierarchische Ordnung (funktional) ungleicher Ele-
mente definiert, an der Zwölftontechnik die Gleichberechtigung verschiedener homogener Ma-
terialien hervorgehoben, für die Zukunft jedoch die Gleichberechtigung ungleichartiger Mate-
rialien proklamiert, d. h. die Übertragung der Schönbergschen Errungenschaft auf erweitertes
Material.” Reinhard Kapp, “John Cage,” in Metzlers Komponisten Lexikon: 350 werkge-
schichtliche Porträts, 2nd ed., ed. Horst Weber (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2003), 97.
78 Wolfgang Rathert

Obviously, this was also an attempt to synthesize Seeger’s theory of a musical field
consisting of different but equal forces with Schoenberg’s conception of a hierar-
chical musical space. But there is a crucial difference between Cage and Schoen-
berg: for Schoenberg, the past is always part of the aesthetic present, or even the
future. Furthermore, he believes in an autonomous compositional will which, in
the end, freely decides whether again to embrace tonality as an artistic device for
particular expressive purposes, or not.

A Brief Coda

The composer John Adams, a pupil of Sessions and a second-generation pupil of

Schoenberg (via Leon Kirchner), became famous in Europe with an orchestral
piece that bears an odd and portentous German title: Harmonielehre (1985). The
title would normally be translated as “Theory of Harmony,” but its true connota-
tions only become apparent in the original German. It is, of course, a tribute to
Schoenberg’s famous book of that title, the book that proclaimed the emancipation
of dissonance and the alleged demise of tonality. But the title is more than that; it
also bears witness to assimilation and complete cultural emancipation. Babbitt, in
1974, had noted that the role of the American composer “was transformed from that
of our wandering predecessors, who abroad had been innocent spectators and visit-
ing aliens, to that of participants, hosts, and—at least by propinquity—colleagues
[…]”42 In Adams, who made no secret of the importance of Schoenberg’s music to
his own artistic development, this sense of pride has yielded to a certain irony. He
explained the choice of the title as follows:
Somehow, the word really got to me—the idea of this summa of harmony. I kept thinking about
spiritual harmony, too. Schoenberg seemed like some religious zealot cutting off his genitals
to prove how totally pure he is, how dedicated to the Lord. […] Harmonielehre, my version of
it, is a kind of parody. But I also reached out and embraced all of that harmony that we weren’t
supposed to touch.43

By tasting the forbidden fruit from the lost Garden of Eden, Adams reinvoked tra-
ditional tonality as something very much alive. But, at the same time, we find our-
selves in a post-modern situation in which we can at best speak of an “emancipa-
tion of consonance.” The recovery of ostracized sounds had already been tried out
in minimalist music, not to mention Bernstein’s unbridled eclecticism (which was
combined with a fierce critique of the twelve-tone system). In the case of minimal-
ism, it involved a deliberate avoidance of historical implications; in Bernstein’s
case, it was something akin to a “third stream.” Adams’s music conjures up the
historical situation which, a century earlier, had marked the rise of American art
music under “German Rule,” but had ushered in the disintegration of traditional
tonality in Europe. The earliest American modernists and avant-gardists associated

42 Babbitt, “Celebrative Speech,” 6.

43 Quoted from A John Adams Reader, ed. Thomas May (Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus, 2006),
The Legacy of German Rule 79

the problem of tonality and a regulated compositional fabric with a deep sense of
dependency on European centers of art and on German conservatories. Now, in
Adams’s work, it has given way to a stance that is at once playful and aggressively
detached. Would it have been accepted by Hindemith, Schoenberg, or even Cowell?
Or would they have regarded Harmonielehre as the dissolution of a bond that con-
nected the present with the past above and beyond all cultural hierarchies? I think
these questions will remain unanswerable. But the very fact that they spring to mind
highlights the continuing legacy of “German Rule.”
(Translated by Bradford J. Robinson)


Adams, John. A John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Edited by Tho-
mas May. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus, 2006.
Babbitt, Milton. “Celebrative Speech.” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Society 1 (1976): 6–11.
— Review of Polyphonie: Review musicale trimestrielle, Quatrième Cahier, Le Système dodéca-
phonique. Journal of the American Musicological Society 3 (1950): 264–67.
Bomberger, Douglas E. “Layers of Influence: Echoes of Rheinberger in the Choral Works of Horatio
Parker.” In Josef Rheinberger: Werk und Wirkung: Bericht über das Internationale Symposium
anlässlich des 100. Todestages des Komponisten, veranstaltet von der Gesellschaft für Bayeri-
sche Musikgeschichte und dem Institut für Musikwissenschaft der Universität München, Mün-
chen, 23.–25.11.2001. Edited by Stephan Hörner and Hartmut Schick, 225–42. Münchner Ver-
öffentlichungen zur Musikgeschichte 62. Tutzing: Schneider, 2004.
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Burkholder, J. Peter. All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
— Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Cowell, Henry. “Harmonic Development in Music.” 1921. In Essential Cowell: Selected Writings
1921–1964. Edited by Dick Higgins, 271–88. New York: McPherson & Co., 2001.
Dahlhaus, Carl. “Hindemiths Theorie des Sekundengangs und die Probleme der Melodielehre.”
Hindemith-Jahrbuch 11 (1983): 114–25.
Hindemith, Paul. A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony: With Emphasis on Exercises and
a Minimum of Rules. New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1943.
Johns, Donald. “Aimez-vous Brahms? Ein Hindemith-Schenker-Briefwechsel.” Hindemith-Jahr-
buch 20 (1991): 141–51. 
— “Funnel Tonality in American Popular Music, ca. 1900–1970.” American Music 11 (1993):
Kapp, Reinhard. “John Cage.” In Metzler Komponisten Lexikon: 350 werkgeschichtliche Porträts,
edited by Horst Weber, 95–103. 2nd enlarged edition. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2003.
Keller, Hans. “Schoenberg’s Return to Tonality.” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 5
(1981): 2–21.
Krenek, Ernst. Über neue Musik. Vienna: Ringbuchhandlung, 1937.
Magee, Gayle Sherwood. Charles Ives Reconsidered. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
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dragon Press, 1980.
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Century America. Rochester: Rochester University Press, 2002.
Ochs, Siegfried. Geschehenes, Gesehenes. Leipzig: Grethlein & Co., 1922.
80 Wolfgang Rathert

Pescatello, Ann M. Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh
Press, 1992.
Rathert, Wolfgang. “‘Models for Strangers’: Geschichte und Analyse in Roger Sessions’ Blick auf
die europäische Musiktheorie.” In Werk und Geschichte: Musikalische Analyse und histori-
scher Entwurf: Festschrift Rudolf Stephan zum 75. Geburtstag, edited by Thomas Ertelt, 211–
19. Mainz: Schott, 2005.
— “Zu Hindemiths musikpädagogischen und -theoretischen Anschauungen in seiner Berliner
Zeit.” In Paul Hindemith in Berlin, edited by Franz Bullmann, Dietmar Schenk, and Wolfgang
Rathert, 33–46. HdK-Archiv 2. Berlin: Hochschule der Künste Berlin, 1996.
Seeger, Charles. “Consonance and Dissonance.” In Studies in Musicology II: 1929–1979, edited by
Ann. M. Pescatello, 91–109. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
— “Toward a Unitary Field Theory for Musicology” (1970). In Studies in Musicology: 1935–
1975, edited by Ann M. Pescatello, 102–38. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Sessions, Roger. “Exposition by Krenek.” 1938. In Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays,
edited by Edward T. Cone, 249–56. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
— “The Function of Theory.” 1938. In Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by
Edward T. Cone, 263–68. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
— “Hindemith on Theory.” 1937. In Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by Ed-
ward T. Cone, 241–48. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
— “What Can Be Taught?” 1967. In Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by Ed-
ward T. Cone, 204–27. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Skelton, Geoffrey. Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music. London: Gollancz, 1977.
Straus, Joseph N. Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
— The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. “Deutsche Musik und deutsche Musiker in den USA.” Musica 30
(1976): 379–83.
Thomson, Virgil. A Virgil Thomson Reader. New York: Dutton, 1984.
Van Solkema, Sherman and Bryan R. Simms. “Theory.” In New Grove Dictonary of American Mu-
sic, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, 4:370–77. New York: Grove’s Dictionar-
ies of Music, 1986.
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s .
Unterweisung im Tonsatz and in His Late Writings
Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

Paul Hindemith’s treatise Unterweisung im Tonsatz (The Craft of Musical Compo-

sition) is undoubtedly one of the major works among twentieth-century compos-
ers’ contributions to music theory.1 Yet since its first publication in 1937 up until
today, it has been much more criticized than adequately understood. This remark-
able fact is due to its rather complicated genesis as well as its different reception
in the German and the English speaking worlds. Hindemith was one of Germany’s
leading figures in New Music during the 1920s and certainly more influential than
the Schoenberg school, which at the time had not yet made a considerable impact.
Published in 1942 after Hindemith arrived in the United States, the English version
of his book raised high expectations. The polarity between serialists and tonalists
“was just in process of formation, and the odds were definitely with the tonalists,
especially in the United States in 1942.”2 These circumstances changed during
the last years of Hindemith’s residency in the United States and especially after his
return to Europe in 1953, where an entire generation of young composers made an
effort to redeem the music that had been ostracized between 1933 and 1945, focus-
ing particularly on dodecaphony.
For our present context, Hindemith’s concept of “tonality” (respective to “ato-
nality”) is the most interesting issue. Although it certainly cannot be considered the
main concern of the Unterweisung, it did eventually form the center of Hindemith’s
post-war theoretical development after his return to Europe. There is no doubt that
the roots of Hindemith’s late concept of tonality are already laid out in his 1937
treatise. Therefore, we first need to take a closer look at the origins of the Ger-
man version from 1937 before we consider the circumstances and special features
of the English translation, published by Arthur Mendel in 1942—the period when
Hindemith was teaching at Yale and Harvard Universities. Hereby it is necessary to
note that the English translation3 suffered from a certain misunderstanding from
the very beginning: The Craft of Musical Composition means something entirely
different than Unterweisung im Tonsatz. The German word “Unterweisung” is a de-
liberately old-fashioned and by that time completely outdated synonym for teach-
ing (with a slight baroque or even medieval connotation), while “Tonsatz” does not

1 Paul Hindemith, Unterweisung im Tonsatz: Theoretischer Teil (1937; new expanded edition,
Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1940).
2 Allen Forte, “Paul Hindemith’s Contribution to Music Theory in the United States,” Hindemith-
Jahrbuch 27 (1998): 67.
3 Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition: Book I: Theoretical Part, trans. Arthur
Mendel (1942; repr., New York: Associated Music Publishers, Inc., 1945).
82 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

mean “Composition” itself but at the most its prerequisites (the setting, the prepa-
ration of a composition). Thus Hindemith’s book does not aim at musical poetics,
nor even at a high-level compositional theory. Despite these facts, Hindemith’s text
still has manifold theoretical implications which can and should be subjected to
From the very beginning, Hindemith’s book was subject to severe criticism.
One of the leading voices to trouble Hindemith just before the war was none other
than Theodor W. Adorno, who later positioned Hindemith (along with Stravinsky)
as a negative counterpart for Schoenberg and his school. Adorno’s supposedly pro-
gessive viewpoint considered Hindemith’s theory as “höchst widerwärtig” (“highly
offending” or even “extremely disgusting”).4 Critics of the second half of the cen-
tury tended to accuse the Unterweisung of a restorative or even reactionary view of
history. Indeed, Hindemith assumes a timeless “nature” of the tone material (so to
speak) from which the laws of composition are to be deduced, such that this mate-
rial is barely even touched by history. From this point of view, tonality is a naturally
given fact, and the term merely indicates the organic relations between tones. Thus
for Hindemith, “there are but two kinds of music: good music, in which the tonal
relations are handled intelligently and skillfully, and bad music, which disregards
them and consequently mixes them in an aimless fashion.”5 Therefore his idea of
“working material” (or “medium” in Mendel’s translation) constitutes the complete
opposite of Adorno’s concept of musical material, which started its success story af-
ter the publication of Philosophy of New Music in 1947. Unlike Hindemith’s theory
which seems describable in terms of physical features, Adorno’s concept is subject
to historical development and variability.
Considering, however, that the concept for Unterweisung dates back to Hin-
demith’s progressive phase in the late 1920s,6 it becomes apparent that it was actu-
ally quite a progressive impulse that caused Hindemith to phrase his understanding
of working material and musical medium. What is fascinating about Hindemith’s
Craft of Musical Composition is that, as Virgil Thomson put it in a 1942 review, it
“proposed an analytic method that can be applied to the tonal structure of all writ-
ten music of Europe from medieval to modern times, whether or not that music
observes the syntax of “classical,” which is to say eighteenth and nineteenth cen-

4 Cf. Adorno’s spontaneous reaction to Hindemith’s Unterweisung just after its publication: “Au-
ßerdem lese ich die höchst widerwärtige Unterweisung im Tonsatz von Hindemith, die ich ab-
fertigen möchte, seis in der Zeitschrift, seis in der 23.” Adorno to Walter Benjamin, 2 August
1938, in Briefe und Briefwechsel, ed. Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994),
1:346; Cf. Wolfgang Lessing, Die Hindemith-Rezeption Theodor W. Adornos (Mainz: Schott,
5 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 152. “[…] daß es nur zwei Arten Musik gibt:
Eine gute, in der auf verständige Weise mit den Tonverwandtschaften gearbeitet wird, und eine
schlechte, die nichts von ihnen weiß und sie deshalb wahllos durcheinanderwirft.” Hindemith,
Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 183.
6 For the best overview of the complicated history of Hindemith’s text, see Giselher Schubert,
“Vorgeschichte und Entstehung der Unterweisung im Tonsatz: Theoretischer Teil,” Hindemith-
Jahrbuch 9 (1980): 16–64.
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 83

tury, harmony.”7 Though the declared intention of Hindemith’s treatise is to provide

methods of analyzing all music of all times and all stylistic periods (that’s what
provoked the critical reproach of a-historicism), it clearly originates from a contem-
porary perspective: Hindemith based his assumptions on the acknowledgement of
a fully chromatic twelve-tone scale in which all historical features (modality, major
and minor, etc.) are overcome. But Hindemith does not acknowledge the 12 keys
of the equally tempered keyboard scale as the fundamentals of all composition. He
rather insists on differences such as those between G# and Ab, i.e. he implicitly holds
onto the real existence of more than merely 12 keys. Yet his preferred chromatic
scale (he coins the term “series 1” for it) consists of only twelve pitches which are
weighed or evaluated according to their distance from the central key C. In the final
version it reads: C-G-F-A-E-Eb-Ab-D-Bb-Db-B-F#. This division of the virtually infi-
nite tonal microcosm into twelve distinctive tones and their intelligible relations is
not arbitrarily extendable, because the impurity of equal temperament would render
any further multiplication of keys entirely intolerable. Thus Hindemith assumes a
twelve-tone scale as a starting point but does not at all mean the equally tempered
keyboard scale. (I will later note this as one source of certain inconsistencies or
even contradictions in his theory.) For Hindemith all creative musical infinity is
confined to a finite set of tonal relatedness: “In the domain of tonal relations no
expansion or innovation is possible, no questions of style are applicable, and there
can be no progress, any more than there can be in the multiplication table or the
simplest laws of mechanics.”8 It is precisely this paradoxical relation of freedom
and constraint that Hindemith calls “tonality.”
Within this concept of tonality the independence of all traditional features such
as fifth- or third-relations is a basic issue, especially for the interpretation and evalu-
ation of chords and chord progressions. Built upon these preconditions, one of the
major claims of the Unterweisung reads as follows: “[…] our thesis must be that
all intervals and chords are perceived, independently of their notation, as the ear
first hears them, without reference to what has gone before or what comes after.”9
Thus at first glance there are at least two innovative features worth stressing: on the
one hand there is the concept of twelve centers of the chromatic scale that supplant
the twenty-four keys of traditional theory and on the other hand there is a sort of
context-free concept of chord. Both of these features must be examined more ex-
tensively, since it is they that constitute—even if seemingly related—the actual rea-
son for the differentiation from Schoenberg. Hindemith’s handling of Schoenberg

7 Quoted in Forte, “Paul Hindemith’s Contribution to Music Theory,” 68. Thomson’s review
under the title “Hindemith on Harmony” was originally published in the New York Herald
Tribune, 12 July 1942.
8 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 55. “Auf dem Gebiete der Tonverwandtschaften
läßt sich nichts erweitern und erneuern. Hier gibt es keine Stilfragen und keinen Fortschritt, so
wenig wie es im Einmaleins Stilfragen und in den einfachsten Gesetzen der Mechanik einen
Fortschritt geben kann.” Hindemith, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 77.
9 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 93. “Hier muß die Forderung gelten: Alle Zu-
sammenklänge werden unabhängig von ihrer Schreibweise so aufgefaßt, wie das Ohr sie als
ersten Eindruck ohne Bezugnahme auf Vorhergegangenes oder Folgendes hört.” Hindemith,
Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 117.
84 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

marks the only instance of the term “atonality” within the treatise, (invoked, by the
way, without saying Schoenberg’s name):
The only music which can really be called atonal, therefore, is the work of a composer who is
motivated perhaps by a consciousness of the inadequacy of old styles to the musical needs of
our day, perhaps by a search for an idiom that will express his own feelings, perhaps by sheer
perversity, to invent tonal combinations which do not obey the laws of the medium and cannot
be tested by the simplest means of reckoning.10

(Note that it is not Hindemith’s original version but only Mendel’s translation
which uses the word “perversity” for Schoenberg’s technique; the original German
word in Hindemith’s Unterweisung reads “Mutwille”—perhaps better translatable
to “high spirits” or, with somewhat more negative connotations, “mischief”!).
Based on these preconditions, Hindemith first elaborates a catalogue of crite-
ria for the evaluating the usefulness of chords. He then proceeds to his concept of
“Stufengang” (“degree progression”), which makes the harmonic design of a com-
position understandable. Last—but not least—he develops the idea of “harmonic
fluctuation” (“harmonisches Gefälle”), on which the quality of any composition
depends. This fluctuation can be convincing or, on the contrary, cause dullness and
At the end of the book Hindemith puts his new system of analysis to the test by
examining it against his demand that it be able to explain all music of all times and
all stylistic eras. In the hand-written draft Hindemith uses several dozen examples
to prove his point; that number was drastically decreased for the publication in
1937. Among the seven music examples that made it into the print version, only
two originate from the realm of so-called major-minor tonality: Johann Sebastian
Bach’s three-part keyboard Sinfonia in F minor and Richard Wagner’s prelude to
Tristan and Isolde (the other ones are: the Dies irae (Gregorian chant), a ballad by
Machaut, the 1924 piano sonata by Stravinsky, Schoenberg’s piano piece Op. 33a
and, last but not least, Hindemith’s prelude to his own opera Mathis der Maler).
I confine myself here to a brief look at the Bach example (Ex. 1). Without any
doubt, Hindemith’s first remark rings true: “This piece is a true Chinese puzzle,
from the harmonic point of view.”11 Following the preconditions of his own system,
Hindemith’s analysis ranks the real sound pattern at the very beginning of each
measure higher than its solutions within the measure, as shown in every third line
of his analytic example titled “Stufengang” (“degree progression”). Thus, at the
beginning of m. 4, he assumes an A-major chord (by enharmonically changing the
D into C#) prepared by a dominant E-major chord at the end of m. 3. Hindemith

10 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 153. “Der einzige Fall, in dem wir also wirklich
von Atonalität sprechen können, ist die Arbeit eines Komponisten, der vielleicht aus der Er-
kenntnis der Unzulänglichkeit alter Setzweisen für unsere Zeit, vielleicht auf der Suche nach
einem seinen Empfindungen gemäßen Ausdruck, vielleicht auch nur aus reinem Mutwillen
Tonverbindungen erfindet, die weder den Forderungen des Materials entsprechen noch durch
die einfachsten rechnerischen Nachprüfungen zu kontrollieren sind […]” Hindemith, Unter-
weisung im Tonsatz, 184.
11 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 208. “Dieses Stück ist ein wahres harmonisches
Vexierspiel.” Hindemith, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 245.
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 85

Example 1: Hindemith’s Bach example (no. 3) in the printed version

of The Craft of Musical Composition (p. 207)
86 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

Example 2: Hindemith’s Bach example in the first (handwritten) version of The Craft of Musical
Composition (by kind permission of the Hindemith Institute, Frankfurt am Main)

comments as follows: “The ear is constantly offered a choice of what it wishes to

hear: independent chords, or subordinate, non-chord tones. Only by the latter can
formations as striking, in a style of simple tonal relations, as the A-chord in the F
minor (or C-minor) of the fourth measure […] be explained.”12 This short quotation
is sufficient to show Hindemith’s principal error. Actually, the harmonic step from
mm. 3 to 4 would have to be explained as a dominant seventh of F minor at the end
of m. 3 followed by an F-major chord resolving at the second beat of m. 4.13

12 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 208. “Der Zuhörer wird fortwährend vor die
Frage gestellt, was er hören will: selbständige Akkorde oder untergeordnete, akkordfremde
Töne. Nur so sind die in einem Stil einfacher tonaler Verhältnisse auffallenden Bildungen wie
der A-Klang im f- bzw. c moll des vierten Taktes […] zu erklären.” Hindemith, Unterweisung
im Tonsatz, 245.
13 Cf. Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, “Motorik, Organik, Linearität: Bach im Diskurs der Musiktheo-
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 87

There are two key points to an adequate understanding of the Bach exam-
ple: first, that in this case acoustic consonances (such as fifths or thirds) are to be
grasped as structural dissonances, and second, that one needs to recognize disso-
nances as structurally consonant since they are parts of incomplete tonal chords.
Their structural meaning is different from their mere physical sound. Hindemith
recognizes the dialectical interplay of those two issues (in German one would call
them “akustische Konsonanz” and “Auffassungs-Dissonanz”), but tries to mitigate
or even abolish this tension in favour of the physically audible “facts” according to
his theory.
It is instructive to compare the Bach example that was chosen for the print ver-
sion to the one that had originally been planned (the D-major fugue from the Well-
Tempered Clavier, part I, see Ex. 2). A closer look at the D-major fugue reveals that
this example does not challenge a harmonic understanding at all; compared to the
highly chromatic F-minor Sinfonia it is not only diatonic but also one-dimensional.
Thus we understand Hindemith’s eventual choice of the dense and complicated
three-part Sinfonia over the rather simple D-major prelude. It simply offers the
greater theoretical challenge. Hindemith’s Bach analysis may reveal certain sys-
temic errors (such as perceiving chords as they sound acoustically, without any dif-
ferentiation between harmonic background and acoustic surface), but these weak-
nesses are precisely what makes it representative of Hindemith’s musical thinking.
The same is true for the Wagner example, which cannot be extensively discussed
here.14 Thus it becomes clear that Hindemith selected his two Bach examples for
their structural relationship and similarity: Both of them purposefully toy with the
tricky difference between acoustic consonance and mental dissonance, which is a
major feature of nearly all music of the classic and romantic periods.
Hindemith treats Schoenberg’s Klavierstück op. 33a (music that to him repre-
sents the atonal paradigm in 1937) quite differently (Ex. 3). Even for this composi-
tion Hindemith aims at a “tonal ordering.” As he puts it: “The tonal ordering of this
fragment springs from the desire to group in the analysis as many chords as possible
around one tonal center, so far as that is possible at all in this case.”15 Hindemith
even takes the dodecaphonic structure of the piece into account by dividing it into
sections reigned by twelve different twelve-tone series (indicated by roman numer-
als and dotted lines within the upper piano part). With regard to the piece’s sonority,
Hindemith rightly observes a neglect of those chords which would belong to his
own chord class II (consonances or mild dissonances). Leaving aside the valid-
ity of Hindemith’s supposition of tonal centers, his innovative analytical method
works well and delivers plausible results in understanding the logical structure of
Schoenberg’s chord progression (“harmonic fluctuation” in Hindemith’s terminol-

retiker,” in Bach und die Nachwelt, ed. Michael Heinemann and Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen
(Laaber: Laaber, 2000), 3:361–63.
14 For a close reading of Hindemith’s Wagner analysis cf. Constantin Houy, “Hindemiths Analyse
des Tristanvorspiels: Eine Apologie,” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 37 (2008): 152–91.
15 Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, 219. “Die tonale Zuordnung der Taktfolge geht
von dem Wunsche aus, möglichst viele Klänge einem tonalen Zentrum unterzuordnen, soweit
es hier überhaupt möglich ist.” Hindemith, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 256.
88 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

Example 3: Hindemith’s Schoenberg example (no. 6) in the printed version

of The Craft of Musical Composition (p. 217)
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 89

ogy). Thus, ironically, Hindemith’s new system of analyzing music harmonically

does not work convincingly for tonal music such as Bach’s or Wagner’s, but is well-
suited to understanding the harmonic structure of “atonal music” (as he understands

As revealed by the Wagner and the two Bach examples in comparison to the five
others, the distinctions between different structural layers are only applicable to the
realm of tonal music. Hindemith here stays notably close to Heinrich Schenker and
was presumably aware of this fact.16 Interestingly enough, the tension between
foreground and background plays an important part in the extensive but very fair
critique of Hindemith in Hermann Pfrogner’s Die Zwölfordnung der Töne (this title
could possibly be translated to The Twelveness of Tones) from 1953.17 It would be
worthwhile to compare Pfrogner’s concept to Hindemith’s, since Hindemith’s late
statements can be understood as a reaction to considerations of such nature. There
is no definite proof that Hindemith did indeed read Pfrogner’s Zwölfordnung der
Töne, but he did own other books by Pfrogner and it seems improbable that he did
not know this one.18
Due to space limitations this potential relationship can only be briefly sketched
here. Basically, Pfrogner (who considers the tonal “twelveness” to be merely the
surface of a subcutaneous and indemonstrable “‘Vielheit’ oder ‘Allheit’” of tonal
relations19) criticizes Hindemith for what he himself had accused Schoenberg of:
namely, taking the acoustic facts of the equally tempered scale for granted, i.e.
mistaking a merely physical feature for the reality of the music itself.20 Pfrogner
analyzes examples from Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis in order to prove that there is no
adequate understanding of Hindemith’s music without taking into account a flex-
ible and widened concept of enharmonicism. Since enharmonicism deals with the
different meaning of equally sounding pitches, it can only be described in terms of
mental representation, and is therefore in no way at odds with acoustically audible
facts. And that is the crucial point, since it only makes sense within tonality. Thus,
for Pfrogner the visibly existing twelve-tone keyboard is not the matter itself but
merely represents an invisible system of twelve virtual tone-locations (“Tonorte”),

16 For a close comparison of the early and the late (i.e. the published) versions of Hindemith’s
Unterweisung, cf. Jürgen Blume, “Hindemiths erste und letzte Fassung der Unterweisung im
Tonsatz im Vergleich,” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 20 (1991): 71–109; especially for a look on
Hindemith’s relationship to Heinrich Schenker cf. ibid., 97, n. 22.
17 Hermann Pfrogner, Die Zwölftonordnung der Töne (Zürich: Amalthea, 1953), 233–54.
18 I wish to thank Prof. Giselher Schubert, the former director of the Frankfurt Hindemith insti-
tute, for providing me with rich information on Hindemith sources in general and especially
about Hindemith’s library.
19 Pfrogner’s by no means colloquial but highly artificial German terms “Vielheit” and “Allheit”
are semantically connected to “multitude,” “universality,” and “infinity.”
20 For this point of criticism, very sharply, cf. Jens Rohwer, Tonale Instruktionen (Wolfenbüttel:
Möseler, 1949), 122–35. This book was held by Hindemith in his private library (information
given by Prof. Giselher Schubert).
90 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

a system of twelve invisible tone areas (so to speak) in which an infinite number
of real tones can meet and enharmonically transform their identity. The first part of
this claim goes smoothly along with Hindemith’s theory, the second one does not.
Of course Pfrogner’s claim that in Hindemith’s compositions, too, every pitch
must be noted from two different perspectives—namely from its origin as well
as its destination while considering the respective transformational process—dia-
metrically contrasts Hindemith’s above-mentioned theoretical prerequisite “that all
intervals and chords are perceived, independently of their notation, as the ear first
hears them, without reference to what has gone before or what comes after.”21 This
observation is apt to reveal the fundamental inconsistency of Hindemith’s theoreti-
cal foundations. It therefore seems as though considerations such as Pfrogner’s—
that had in some way always been in the background of Hindemith’s aversion to
dodecaphony—began to change Hindemith’s post-war concept of “tonality.” So, in
conclusion, let us take a short look at Hindemith’s late theoretical development. Un-
fortunately, merely the outlines of this development are available, since the author
lacked time to thoroughly elaborate his new approach.

Hindemith’s late theory is not laid out in a systematic order but is spread over
a number of casual texts such as talks and lectures. The most important among
them are his Zurich lecture “Hören und Verstehen unbekannter Musik” (“Hear-
ing and Understanding Unknown Music”) held in 1955, his 1963 Balzan award
speech “Sterbende Gewässer” (“Dying Waters”) and the completely revised Ger-
man translation of his 1949 Harvard lectures “A Composer’s World”22 (published
in 1959 under the title “Komponist in seiner Welt: Weiten und Grenzen”). Given
that in 1937 Hindemith still referred to the Schoenberg school as “the only music
which can really be called atonal,”23 the drastic change of this view in his writings
from the 1950s and 1960s is remarkable. In Hindemith’s thinking, one may call it a
veritable theoretical turn. We no more find the striking contrast of tonal and atonal;
rather, the idea of “atonality” gets rejected as completely foreign to the matter, just
as Schoenberg himself had demanded much earlier. Instead, all music, including
Schoenberg and all of the twentieth century, gets integrated into a sort of “super
concept” (“total tonality”) which now offers room for differentiation.24

21 Cf. above, note 9.

22 Published in English as A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1952).
23 Cf. above, note 10.
24 Hindemith unfolds a broad historical panorama of “tonalities,” such as modality, minor-major
tonality, or universal chromaticism, all of which can be included into his own concept of all-
around tonality which he coins as “total tonality”: “Da erst die Tonalität, wie sie hier geschildert
wurde, alle satztechnischen Möglichkeiten umschließt, zögern wir nicht, von ihr als der totalen
Tonalität zu sprechen.” Paul Hindemith, “Sterbende Gewässer,” in Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden,
ed. Giselher Schubert (Zürich: Atlantis, 1994), 327. For a profound critical look at Hindemith’s
late writings cf. Giselher Schubert, “Polemik und Erkenntnis: Zu Hindemith’s späten Schrif-
ten,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 156, no. 5 (1995): 16–21; and Franz Knappik, “Hindemith und
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 91

In his 1955 Zurich lecture Hindemith addresses the general public opinion that
modern music had managed to loosen the bonds of tonality, but dismisses it as
entirely illusionary.25 He claims, for example, that the supposed liberation of the
well-praised serialism leads to disastrous results (and here we notice the return
of the Schoenberg analysis from the 1937 Unterweisung): for systemic reasons,
serial, especially dodecaphonic, composition must consistently confine itself to dis-
sonant chords of minimal variety (mostly drawn from Hindemith’s chord classes
IV and V), which lack contrast to chords of different classes (such as Hindemith’s
classes II or III). The result of composing in such manner is monotony, dullness,
and the loss of harmonic color and variety.26 Twelve-tone composition functions
without any kind of “higher tonal organisation.”27 From this, and contrasting his
own concept of “total tonality,” Hindemith develops the critical idea of a limited
(and thus less valuable) “excerpt(ed)” or “selected tonality” (“Ausschnittstonalität”
or “Auswahltonalität”28), which in his opinion is typical for all types of serialism.29
Hindemith’s reasoning for his own understanding of tonality is rooted in a deep hu-
manism, since he deals with compositional technique in terms of comprehensibility
and intelligibility.30 For him music must be a medium of human communication—
the very opposite of Adorno’s vision of a New Music rejecting all comfortable
accessibility by establishing itself as a message in the bottle (see the famous last
sentence of the Schoenberg chapter in his Philosophy of New Music31).
In his very last (public) talk—his acceptance speech for the Balzan award in
1963— Hindemith proposes an era of “total tonality” (total tonality and tonal total-
ity—more than just a play on words; see Pfrogner’s enharmonic wholeness): “the
modern complete and unmodal twelve-tone system with its specially facilitating

Harmonik-Konzeptionen in Dodekaphonie und Serialismus: Eine Re-Lektüre der Rede ‘Ster-

bende Gewässer,’” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 34 (2005): 154–85.
25 Paul Hindemith, “Hören und Verstehen unbekannter Musik,” in Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden, ed.
Giselher Schubert (Zürich: Atlantis, 1994), 297.
26 “[…] so fällt beispielsweise die als Befreierin gepriesene Reihentechnik oder der ihr nächstste-
hende allgemeinere Zwölftonstil notwendigerweise immer auf ein und dieselbe Art von Zu-
sammenklängen, die mangels Gegenüberstellung von einfachen Klängen nach und nach, trotz
ihrer anfänglichen Neuartigkeit, das Gefühl der Gleichförmigkeit, des Farblosen, der Lange-
weile und schließlich der Öde hervorrufen müssen.” Ibid., 299.
27 “Eine höhere tonale Organisation ist weder beabsichtigt noch kann sie erzielt werden […].”
Paul Hindemith, Komponist in seiner Welt: Weiten und Grenzen (Zürich: Atlantis, 1959), 154.
28 Hindemith, Komponist in seiner Welt, 107–8; Cf. Andres Briner, “A New Comment on Tonality
by Paul Hindemith,” Journal of Music Theory 5 (1961): 109–12.
29 In a certain respect, i.e. in comparison to the virtually imaginable “tonal totality,” also modality
or minor-major tonality are kinds of deliberately “selected” or “confined” tonalities; but from
Hindemith’s point of view, twelve-tone technique is by far the poorest of all of them.
30 It is the neglect of the “ethical force of music” that Hindemith accuses all kinds of serialism of:
“Die ethische Kraft der Musik wird da völlig außer Acht gelassen. Die Verpflichtungen des
Komponisten gegen seine Mitmenschen weichen einer Art Kreuzworträtsel in Tönen […]”
Hindemith, Komponist in seiner Welt, 157.
31 “Dem opfert sich die neue Musik. Alle Dunkelheit und Schuld der Welt hat sie auf sich genom-
men. […] Sie ist die wahre Flaschenpost.” Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften 12, ed.
Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 126.
92 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

total tonality is doubtless the best of all media which can all musical forms live in
like fish in fresh waters.”32 The mere contrast is given by dodecaphony,33 which is
the “dying waters,” announced in the title of his speech. In Hindemith’s late theory,
however, the point of reference shifts away from “nature” in the sense of a physi-
cally measurable entity: The partly amateurish “physicalism” (“Physikalismus”) of
his early system (as Jacques Handschin has labeled it34) did not remain critically
unchallenged in the 1940s and 1950s; Hindemith presumably accepted that. Still,
he does not completely give up nature as his last point of reference—it just gets
relocated to the perceptive consciousness of the human listener. Hindemith does
admit in pseudo-objective terminology to “the limitations set for the human produc-
ers of music within our tone system and its tonal possibilities.”35 What he means,
however, is the productive and receptive formation of musical material in the act of
listening. In a certain way, we can detect a shift of paradigm from the objective to
the subjective in Hindemith’s theory: away from the crude naturalist physics of the
early phase—which is relatively dispensable—towards a phenomenology of mental
reception. In Hindemith’s words, “Music will then only be what happens within our
tone system according to the circumstances of total tonality which in its unlimited
variety is also tonal totality.”36 While working on the renovated basic principles of
his system, the naturalist may have become a phenomenologist.
Hindemith’s “total tonality” (along with its conceptual counterpart “tonal total-
ity”) is a decidedly inclusive (or integrative) concept instead of an exclusive one,
but it is not at all motivated by an attempted reconciliation with dodecaphony, at
least not to what Hindemith called the theory of dodecaphony. Dodecaphonic prac-
tice may be a horse of a different color. By the end of his teaching at Zurich Uni-
versity in the 1950s, Hindemith taught an analytical class on Schoenberg’s string
quartets. His thorough occupation and fascination with these works is evidenced
by a certain number of analytical drafts now held in the archives of the Frankfurt
Hindemith Institute (Ex. 4 and 5). It was his very last term before resigning in fa-
vor of more time for composing and performing, and it was one of only two lec-
tures that Hindemith devoted entirely to one single composer (the other one was on
Carlo Gesualdo).37 As far as we know from these last lessons, Hindemith finds the

32 “Das heutige komplette zwölftönige, unmodale Tonsystem mit seiner nur in ihm möglichen
totalen Tonalität ist zweifellos das beste aller Media, in welchem die musikalischen Formen,
den Fischen im frischen Wasser gleich, sich munter tummeln können.” Hindemith, “Sterbende
Gewässer,” 327.
33 Ibid., 331.
34 Jacques Handschin, Der Toncharakter (Zürich: Atlantis, 1949), 130–32. For Handschin, Hin-
demith’s theory is based upon “a naïve belief in physics” (“naiver Glaube an die Physik,” 130),
and thus its character is merely “pseudo-scientific” (“pseudo-wissenschaftliche Thesen,” 132).
Cf. also Norman Cazden, “Hindemith and Nature,” Music Review 15 (1954): 288–306.
35 “die den menschlichen Musikproduzenten gesteckten Grenzen innerhalb unseres Tonsystems
und seiner tonalen Möglichkeiten.” Hindemith, “Sterbende Gewässer,” 334.
36 “Musik wird dann nur das sein, was sich innerhalb unseres Tonsystems nach den Gegebenhei-
ten der totalen Tonalität abspielt, die in ihrer unbegrenzten Vielfalt auch eine tonale Totalität
ist.” Ibid., 334–35.
37 Cf. Laurenz Lütteken, “In ‘der ständigen Mischung von Kunst und Wissenschaft:’ Hindemiths
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 93

Example 4: Hindemith’s analytical draft of Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet

(by kind permission of the Hindemith Institute, Frankfurt am Main)

Schoen­berg string quartets to be well-composed music. Hindemith’s own methods

of harmonic analysis prove as much, just as they did in the case of Schoenberg’s
Op. 33 in 1937. The same goes for the late dodecaphonic quartets as well: Hin-
demith considers them to be solidly composed—but in spite of their theoretical
backdrop (and not because of it). For Hindemith there is no doubt about them being
tonal music. Thus in Hindemith’s opinion they are made much better than they are
supposedly thought. Ironically, this method of analyzing Schoenberg’s music as
music without any backdrop of dodecaphonic theory is not as far from Schoenberg
himself as Hindemith might have believed.38
Yet in spite of this late reappraisal, Hindemith’s position regarding dodecaphony
had not fundamentally changed. In a way Hindemith’s principal critique of Schoen-
berg’s compositional method becomes more effective through his late inclusion
of Schoenberg’s music into the overall concept of tonality than through his earlier
exclusion of that repertory from the realm of tonal music. That is because the idea
of “anything goes” does not exist in the wider concept of tonality. Instead, the old

Tätigkeit an der Universität Zürich im Spannungsfeld eines umfassenden Musikbegriffs,” in

Der späte Hindemith, ed. Ulrich Tadday (Munich: Edition Text und Kritik, 2004), 85.
38 Cf. Schoenberg’s famous letter to Rudolf Kolisch trying to keep him off analyzing the third
quartet (op. 30) in terms of twelve-tone technique. For further insight into the relationship be-
tween Hindemith and Schoenberg cf. Gerd Sannemüller, “Hindemith und Schönberg. Stationen
einer Beziehung,” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 32 (2003): 235–53.
94 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

Example 5: Hindemith’s analytical draft of Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet

(by kind permission of the Hindemith Institute, Frankfurt am Main)

values of Hindemith’s theory of 1937 stay in effect. An “excerpt(ed)” or “selected

tonality” (as Hindemith grants Schoenberg) is a musical idiom that Hindemith
clearly considers beneath the possibilities and potential of a tonal system. In Hin-
demith’s opinion, this is an accidental and completely unnecessary self-restriction.
Interestingly, that is the exact same notion that Pfrogner used to pit off his idea
Concepts of Tonality in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz 95

of a “Twelveness of Tones” against Schoenberg. Notably, he accomplished this

while accepting Hindemith’s compositional practice, only defending it against Hin-
demith’s own theory.39
If it is true that Hindemith planned to completely rewrite his Unterweisung (as
some of his students reported), there are surely some features that would remain the
same: a catalogue of criteria for evaluation of the usefulness of tones and sonorities,
the intention of creating ordered sets of chord progressions, the idea of convincing
harmonic fluctuation and, last but not least, the demand for music which can be ana-
lyzed and grasped by mere listening, albeit a kind of high-level and well-educated
listening. Yet Hindemith would have possibly abandoned his dogmatic and often
erroneous pseudo-physical axioms which he himself felt uncomfortable with and
which today do not withstand scientific scrutiny.40 What remains is the remark-
able fact that in his last theoretical comments, Hindemith attacked the supposed
zeitgeist of the 1960s by favouring the term “tonality” and expanding its concept to
“totality,” even if he did so entirely non-systematically. Especially with regards to
Hindemith’s late Schoenberg analyses, the question whether that stance is merely a
symptom of reactionary resignation (as many have put it since) or rather a promis-
ing attempt to advance entirely new dimensions of theory, deserves to be the subject
of many intensive debates to come.


Adorno, Theodor W. Briefwechsel, 1928–1940: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin. Edited by

Henri Lonitz. Vol. 1, Briefe und Briefwechsel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994.
— Philosophie der Neuen Musik. Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften 12, edited by Rolf
Tiedemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972.
Blume, Jürgen. “Hindemiths erste und letzte Fassung der Unterweisung im Tonsatz im Vergleich.”
Hindemith-Jahrbuch 20 (1991): 71–109.
Briner, Andres. “A New Comment on Tonality by Paul Hindemith.” Journal of Music Theory 5
(1961): 109–12.
Cazden, Norman. “Hindemith and Nature.” Music Review 15 (1954): 288–306.
Forte, Allen. “Paul Hindemith’s Contribution to Music Theory in the United States.” Hindemith-
Jahrbuch 27 (1998): 62–79. Reprint in Journal of Music Theory 42 (1998): 1–14.
Handschin, Jacques. Der Toncharakter: Eine Einführung in die Tonpsychologie. Zürich: Atlantis,
Hindemith, Paul. “Hören und Verstehen unbekannter Musik.” 1955. In Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden,
edited by Giselher Schubert, 293–309. Zürich: Atlantis, 1994.
— Komponist in seiner Welt: Weiten und Grenzen. Zürich: Atlantis, 1959. English version as A

39 Pfrogner, Die Zwölfordnung der Töne, 251.

40 Cf. Allen Forte’s reappraisal of Hindemith’s theory: “Finally, the pillars of Hindemith’s theory,
Series 1 and 2, may not withstand scrutiny as instances of ‘empirical’ music theory, but many
of their features are intuitively plausible, suggesting a reappraisal and fresh applications.”
Forte, “Paul Hindemith’s Contribution to Music Theory,” 79. It was as early as in 1965 that
William Thomson came to an appropriate description of the state of theory in Hindemith’s
Unterweisung im Tonsatz when he coined it “a mixed blessing; the proliferation of systemic
errors balances out his genuine insights.” William Thomson, “Hindemith’s Contribution to
Music Theory,” Journal of Music Theory 9 (1965): 68.
96 Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen

Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
— “Sterbende Gewässer.” 1963. In Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden, edited by Giselher Schubert, 314–
36. Zürich: Atlantis, 1994.
— Unterweisung im Tonsatz: Theoretischer Teil. 1937. New and expanded edition. Mainz: B.
Schott’s Söhne, 1940.
— The Craft of Musical Composition: Book I: Theoretical Part. 1942. Translated by Arthur Men-
del. Reprint. New York: Associated Music Publishers, Inc., 1945.
Hinrichsen, Hans-Joachim. “Motorik, Organik, Linearität: Bach im Diskurs der Musiktheoretiker.”
In Bach und die Nachwelt, edited by Michael Heinemann and Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen. Vol.
3, 1900–1950, 337–78. Laaber: Laaber, 2000.
Houy, Constantin. “Hindemiths Analyse des Tristanvorspiels: Eine Apologie.” Hindemith-Jahrbuch
37 (2008): 152–91.
Knappik, Franz. “Hindemith und Harmonik-Konzeptionen in Dodekaphonie und Serialismus: Eine
Re-Lektüre der Rede ‘Sterbende Gewässer.’” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 34 (2005): 154–85.
Lessing, Wolfgang. Die Hindemith-Rezeption Theodor W. Adornos. Mainz: Schott, 1999.
Lütteken, Laurenz. “In ‘der ständigen Mischung von Kunst und Wissenschaft’: Hindemiths Tätig-
keit an der Universität Zürich im Spannungsfeld eines umfassenden Musikbegriffs.” In Der
späte Hindemith, edited by Ulrich Tadday, 69–85. Musik-Konzepte 125, no. 26. Munich: Edi-
tion Text und Kritik, 2004.
Pfrogner, Hermann. Die Zwölfordnung der Töne. Zürich: Amalthea, 1953.
Rohwer, Jens. Tonale Instruktionen. Wolfenbüttel: Möseler, 1949.
Sannemüller, Gerd. “Hindemith und Schönberg. Stationen einer Beziehung.” Hindemith-Jahrbuch
32 (2003): 235–53.
Schubert, Giselher. “Polemik und Erkenntnis: Zu Hindemiths späten Schriften.” Neue Zeitschrift für
Musik 156, no. 5 (1995): 16–21.
— “Vorgeschichte und Entstehung der Unterweisung im Tonsatz: Theoretischer Teil.” Hindemith-
Jahrbuch 9 (1980): 16–64.
Thomson, William. “Hindemith’s Contribution to Music Theory.” Journal of Music Theory 9 (1965):
Tonality in Austro-German Theory
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s .
Markus Böggemann

I. Between Argument and Polemics

Arnold Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre is a multi-faceted work. It was originally

conceived as part of a comprehensive course in composition, serving equally as a
document of Schoenberg’s teaching abilities and as a well-directed provocation to
the academic music theory of his days. Likewise, it justifies certain compositional
aspects of his music—although not to the extent his contemporaries expected for a
theoretical work of Schoenberg: Many of the prevailing cool to dismissive reviews
show a noticable disappointment and irritation concerning the fact that Schoen­
berg’s theory of harmony is a textbook on tonal harmony. For example, Hugo
Leichtentritt, who some years later would undertake a sympathetic first analysis
of the piano pieces op. 11,2 writes in the journal Signale für die musikalische Welt:
I assumed that here Schoenberg would be a guide into the new territory of strange sounds
which give his works such a peculiar imprint. To my surprise, I realized that throughout these
475 pages (in regards to purely factual information concerning the material) almost nothing
is touched upon which I would not have been quite familiar with for a long time. Only at the
very end, does Schoenberg very briefly address the whole-tone scale, the fourth chord, six-
part chords, etc. For me personally, it would have been indefinitely more valuable to have an
extended, well-reasoned, and clear representation of precisely these topics, than a long-winded
chewing [langatmiges Durchkauen] of already well-known things over 430 pages. Schoenberg
fails precisely where he should prove himself.3

The Harmonielehre stems directly from Schoenberg’s own teaching activities, in

which he always limited himself to the traditional musical language. This is con-
firmed not only by the famous opening of the preface, “This book I have learned

1 I am most grateful to Felix Wörner for his translation of greater parts of this text and to Benja-
min Haas who revised the entire manuscript.
2 Hugo Leichtentritt, Formenlehre, 3rd ed. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927), 436–57.
3 “Ich meinte, Schönberg würde hier ein Führer sein in das Neuland der seltsamen Zusammen-
klänge, die seinen Werken ein so merkwürdiges Gepräge geben, fand aber zu meinem Erstau-
nen, dass auf diesen 475 Seiten im Grunde (rein sachlich, das Material betreffend) kaum etwas
berührt wird, das mir seit langer Zeit nicht schon durchaus vertraut wäre. Nur ganz am Schluss
lässt Schönberg sich ziemlich kurz aus über die Ganzton-Skala, über Quartenakkorde, sechstö-
nige Klänge und dergl. Gerade darüber ausführliches, gut begründetes, anschaulich dargestell-
tes zu erfahren, wäre mir persönlich aber unendlich wertvoller gewesen, als ein langatmiges
Durchkauen von lauter bekannten Dingen auf 430 Seiten. Schönberg versagt gerade da, wo er
sich bewähren sollte.” Hugo Leichtentritt, “Arnold Schönberg’s ‘Harmonielehre,’” Signale für
die musikalische Welt 70, no. 22 (1912): 732.
100 Markus Böggemann

from my pupils,”4 but also by its characteristic style of oral presentation, which
directly results from the book’s didactic context and dominates lengthy passages
of the text.
Harmonielehre is a dictated work.5 This also explains the manifold digressions
and occasional inconsistencies of presentation reproved by critics such as Leichten-
tritt: Similar to extemporaneous speech, the work generally proceeds in instantane-
ous impulses rather than careful progression.
The reproach met by Harmonielehre’s “long-winded chewing through” of al-
ready well-known facts points towards another distinguishing feature of the text:
Strictly speaking, it is not a complete and self-contained work, but rather the first
part of an extensive music theory project designed to cover all areas of composition
in no less than five volumes.6 Within such a project, the theory of harmony would
have taken a purely propedeutic position. Though these ambitious plans were never
realized,7 this comprehensive conception is the reason that Schoenberg starts Har-
monielehre—in Walter Frisch’s words—“from scratch,”8 and concentrates his con-
siderations almost exclusively on the vertical dimension. Voice leading does not
figure within Schoenberg’s list of subjects, and melody or counterpoint are simi-
larly ill-considered in his description of certain chord progressions. Schoenberg
expresses a desire “to derive the nature of chord connections strictly from the nature
of the chords themselves.”9 This restriction is motivated by method, not content; on
the one hand, it proceeds from the projected (yet never finished) further volumes, and
indicates neither a denial of the connection between harmony and counterpoint,10
nor an assertion of harmony as the most important parameter of a composition.11
On the other hand, this restriction follows from Schoenberg’s polemical delinea-

4 Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 100th Anniversary Edition, trans. Roy E. Carter, fo-
reword by Walter Frisch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1; “Dieses Buch
habe ich von meinen Schülern gelernt.” Arnold Schönberg, Harmonielehre (Vienna: Universal-
Edition, 1911), v.
5 See Schoenberg’s letter to Emil Hertzka (the director of the Universal-Edition), 4 July 1910,
where he urges Hertzka to provide him with a secretary. Partially cited in: Ernst Hilmar, ed.,
Arnold Schönberg: Gedenkausstellung 1974 (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1974), 220–21.
6 Schoenberg to Hertzka, 23 July 1911, cited in Rudolf Stephan, “Ein Blick auf die Universal-
Edition: Aus Anlaß von Alfred Schlees 80. Geburtstag,” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 36
(1981): 639–45. The letter reveals on the other hand how much all these plans were influenced
and even caused by Schoenberg’s dire need of funds.
7 Schoenberg did indeed continue to pursue the project: The notes on “coherence, counterpoint,
instrumentation, and instruction in form” as well as the various attempts at a work on the “mu-
sical idea” follow the intended plan (cf. Andreas Jacob, Grundbegriffe der Musiktheorie Arnold
Schönbergs (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2005).
8 Walter Frisch, foreword to Theory of Harmony, by Arnold Schoenberg, xvi.
9 Schoenberg, Theory, 13. “das Wesen der Verbindungen lediglich aus dem Wesen der Akkorde
abzuleiten.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 9.
10 Ibid., 26–27, 115 fn.
11 To the contrary: For Schoenberg, the primacy in music composition (Tonsatz) is the motivic
structure (Motivik). In his Theory of Harmony, this motivic structure serves as a justification of
chord progressions even (and particularly) in those instances in which the provided music ex-
amples proved unsatisfactory (cf. ibid., 379).
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 101

tion against “aesthetic” in favor of a “course in handicraft” (Handwerkslehre): his

Harmonielehre is intended to deal exclusively with the results of the characteristics
and conditions of the material—the tones and their possible sonorities—provid-
ing “data for harmonic theory” and not making aesthetic judgements.12 As he out-
lines programmatically at the outset of his book, he intends to provide not merely
a theory, but rather a “system of presentation.”13 This designation implies a careful
differentiation between the possibilities inherent in the nature of material and the
artificial, systematizing presentation of these possibilities as music theory. This dif-
ference is of decisive significance for Schoenberg’s critique of the traditional theory
of harmony as well as for his own style of representation. Beside the pretensions of
aesthetic judgements, his criticism is motivated by the inconsistencies of traditional
music theory. Schoenberg’s main allegation is that music theory issues laws on the
basis of selected historical phenomena with the claim of timeless validity: “And,
what is most disastrous of all, it is then the belief that a yardstick has been found
by which to measure artistic worth, even that of future works.”14 Excluded from
these laws are not only those phenomena which conflict with the laws’ fundamen-
tal axioms—i.e. the rootedness of the chords and their construction in thirds—but
also some which support them. Additionally, the explanatory statements posited
for those exceptions are either faulty, or “solely the expression of a certain taste in
art.”15 It is on this basis that aesthetic judgements are made, judgements which then
govern the use of chords and chord progressions in lieu of more satisfactory techni-
cal explanations. The traditional music theory is, in truth, a disguised aesthetic. In
addition, it is unable to comprise all phenomena of the traditional harmony under a
unified perspective: the representation definitely changes with the treatment of the
so-called “non-harmonic” tones, replacing the vertically oriented examination of
chords based on their fundamentals with an explanation of sonorities through voice
leading.16 According to Schoenberg, the traditional theory of harmony is inconsist-
ent and presumptuous: It is unable to comprise all accepted phenomena within a
consistent systematic concept. Rather, in order to explain certain dissonances, the
traditional harmony must adopt the—for Schoenberg absurd—term “non-harmonic
tones,” which changes the vertical perspective of sonorities to a horizontal consid-
eration of voice leading.17 Even what could be covered based on the foundation of
the concept (for example ninth chords and other four-part chords) is excluded by
questionable arguments inconsistent with the system: “But that the system is false
or at least inadequate, because it cannot accommodate phenomena that do exist,

12 Ibid., 345; “Data zur Harmonielehre.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 389.

13 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 7.
14 Ibid., 9 (emphasis in original); “man glaubt einen Maßstab gefunden zu haben, den man be-
rechtigt ist, auch an zukünftige Kunstwerke anzulegen.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 3.
15 Ibid., 414; “[…] nur der Ausdruck eines bestimmten Kunstgeschmacks […]” Schönberg, Har-
monielehre, 462.
16 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 329.
17 Ibid., 309–10.
102 Markus Böggemann

[…] that had to be said. And yet the system would arrogate to itself the status of a
natural system, whereas it will scarcely do as a system of presentation.”18
Being a “course in handicraft” instead of an aesthetic means that Schoenberg’s
Harmonielehre aims for a thoroughly systematic approach, i.e. to present the ele-
ments of tonal harmony and their possible combinations without any reference to
historical practices and their corresponding rules. In its obvious disregard to mat-
ters of tradition, the Harmonielehre thus reflects the more general experience of an
all-pervading relativism inaugurated by an invalidation of aesthetic norms.19 On
the other hand, this posthistoire-like perspective significantly depends on Schoen-
berg’s own step into atonality years before; to realize that meaningful music can be
composed outside of the—however broadly conceived—confines of tonal harmony
clearly has a strong impact on the theoretical outline and presentation of this very
harmonic practice. This realization also has consequences for the practice’s con-
ceptual framework, particularly for the concept of tonality. As I shall demonstrate,
tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre is less a topic or a foundational idea than
a flexible argumentative strategy within a system of presentation. In fact, there are
two different and even contradictory concepts of tonality at work in the Harmonie­
lehre, both of which serve to support his polemical stance against academic mu-
sic theory. Their interrelation with Schoenberg’s own premises and goals therefore
merits a closer examination.

II. Tonality as a Natural Phenomenon

The categorial basis of Schoenberg’s descriptive system is formed by his assump-

tion of a general urge for development: “Everything alive contains the future within
it. Living means begetting and giving birth. Everything that now is strives toward
what is to come.”20 This urge for development is expressed in art through a basic
imitative instinct:
Most essential is the following psychological assumption: The development of the harmonic
resources is explained primarily through the conscious or unconscious imitation of a prototype;
every imitation so produced can then itself become a prototype that can in turn be imitated.21

18 Ibid., 321; “Aber daß das System falsch ist oder wenigstens ungenügend, weil es Erscheinun-
gen, die sind, nicht unterbringen kann […], das mußte gesagt werden. Arrogiert doch das Sy-
stem für das System der Natur gehalten zu werden, während es kaum System der Darstellung
ist.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 360.
19 More on this topic below. Cf. also the author’s Gesichte und Geschichte: Arnold Schönbergs
musikalischer Expressionismus zwischen avantgardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historis-
musproblem (Vienna: Lafite, 2007), 31–40 and 75–90. In the present article, I draw partly on
material already presented in that book in German.
20 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 369; “Jedes Lebendige hat das Zukünftige in sich. Leben
heißt zeugen und gebären. Alles Gegenwärtige strebt dem Zukünftigen zu.” Schönberg, Har-
monielehre, 414. Cf. also ibid., 53.
21 Ibid., 385; “In erster Linie grundlegend ist folgende psychologische Annahme: Die Entwick-
lung der harmonischen Kunstmittel erklärt sich vor allem dadurch, daß ein Vorbild bewußt oder
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 103

The imitative instinct and its chainlike progress—the idea that the point of refer-
ence for emulation is not the original but rather the directly preceding element—is
of crucial importance to Schoenberg’s argument in Harmonielehre.22 The initial
state in this process of emulation is the single tone. It represents the primary basis
of music as well as the totality of all harmonic possibilities:
[T]he tone is the material of music. It must therefore be regarded, with all its properties and
effects, as suitable for art. […] And the evolution of music has followed this course: it has
drawn into the stock of artistic resources more and more of the harmonic possibilities inherent
in the tone.23

The “harmonic possibilities” mentioned here result from the structure of the har-
monic series, which is “one of the most remarkable properties of the tone.”24 The
scale and simple chords emanate from it by straight imitation:
If the scale is imitation of the tone on the horizontal plane, that is, note after note, then chords
are imitation on the vertical, notes sounded together. If the scale is analysis, then the chord
is synthesis of the tone. […] The simplest of such chords is, obviously, that one which most
closely resembles the simplest and most evident aspects of the tone, that one which consists
of fundamental, major third, and perfect fifth—the major triad. […] The triad is without doubt
similar to the tone, but it is no more similar to its model than, say, Assyrian reliefs are to their
human models.”25

Starting from the unlimited harmonic series (which comprises the entire sound
spectrum), Schoenberg regards the single tone as both the source of all music and
the goal of its development (to which it moves by way of infinite approach). Com-
bined with the aforementioned assumption of an imitative instinct, this notion gives
way to the idea that the development of music as art results from a continuous dif-
fusion into the nature of the tone, that is, a successive unlocking of artistic means
lying within the most distant harmonics not yet sensed.26

unbewußt nachgeahmt wird, und daß jede so entstehende Nachahmung wieder Vorbild werden
und wieder nachgeahmt werden kann.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 432.
22 The same idea of a gradual movement away from an initial state defines Schoenberg’s concept
of developing variation.
23 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 20–21; “der Ton ist das Material der Musik. Er muß daher mit
allen seinen Eigenschaften und Wirkungen für kunstfähig angesehen werden. […] Und die
Entwicklung der Musik ist den Weg gegangen, daß sie immer mehr von den im Ton gelegenen
Zusammenklangsmöglichkeiten in den Bereich der Kunstmittel einbezogen hat.” Schönberg,
Harmonielehre, 18–19.
24 Ibid., 20; “eine seiner bemerkenswertesten Eigenschaften.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 18.
25 Ibid., 26; “Ist die Skala die Nachahmung des Tons in der Horizontalen, im Nacheinander, so
sind die Akkorde Nachahmung in der Vertikalen, im Miteinander. Ist die Skala Analyse, so ist
der Akkord Synthese des Tons. […] Der einfachste solcher Akkorde ist selbstverständlich der-
jenige, der den einfachsten und deutlichsten Wirkungen des Tons am meisten ähnelt, der aus
Grundton, großer Terz und Quint bestehende Durdreiklang. […] Er ist dem Ton zweifellos
ähnlich, aber nicht ähnlicher als beispielsweise assyrische Menschendarstellungen ihren Mo-
dellen.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 26.
26 Cf. Markus Böggemann and Ralf Alexander Kohler, “Harmonielehre,” in Arnold Schönberg:
Interpretationen seiner Werke, ed. Gerold W. Gruber (Laaber: Laaber, 2002), 2:424.
104 Markus Böggemann

[T]he natural prototype, the tone, can be used to explain, as chords, still other harmonic com-
binations entirely different from these simple ones […] What is within reach has its temporary
boundaries wherever our nature and the instruments we have invented have their temporary
boundaries. What is attainable with the phenomenon outside ourselves, as far as the tone itself
is concerned, theoretically speaking, has no boundaries. What has not yet been attained is what
is worth striving for.”27

For Schoenberg the single tone thus represents a potentiality, it already inheres what
the development of music unearths in a kind of delayed movement.
The idea of equivalency between origin and end belongs to the very topoi that
govern the mindset of aesthetic modernism in general.28 It sharply contrasts the
notion of an ongoing historical progress, so dear to nineteenth century’s common
thought. It opposes any linear conception of history, but without abandoning the
idea of development altogether. The concept of a dynamic unfolding of the already
given offers an alternative idea of development beyond that of pre-modern stasis or
teleological mechanics of history. This idea is of decisive importance in the Har-
monielehre, as it allows Schoenberg to reduce the historical system of tonality to
a mere exception within the broader natural context. Wherever historical develop-
ment and tradition contradict Schoenberg’s positions, he is thus able to refer to a
higher authority against the historical fact. The “will of nature”29 always outplays
the contingencies of history.
“Tonality” in this perspective is a basic characteristic of the tone. Understood
this way, “tonal” means: according to the properties of the tone, and relates to all
parameters which are part of its character. Like the tone itself and the sonic possi-
bilities within it, tonality is a natural phenomenon with the utmost range. In fact, it
excludes barely anything at all in harmony. The concept of tonality as a natural phe-
nomenon is thus especially useful to Schoenberg when he discusses sounds that go
beyond tonal hamonies, allowing him to suspend the categorial difference between
consonance and dissonance in favor of a merely gradual one corresponding to the
lesser or greater remoteness of the overtones.30 This perspective then promises to
explain phenomena like chords of fourths, chords of six or more tones, and other
more complex harmonic possibilities thus far inaccessible to theory.31 Moreover,
relying on the basic properties of the tone and on nature in general makes a strong
argument for Schoenberg against any upcoming criticism.32

27 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 359; “das natürliche Vorbild, der Ton, ist geeignet, noch ganz
andere Zusammenklänge als Akkorde zu erklären als diese einfachen. […] Das Erreichbare hat
dort seine vorläufigen Grenzen, wo unsere Natur und die Instrumente, die wir erdacht haben,
ihre vorläufigen Grenzen haben. Das Erreichbare im außer uns Liegenden, im Ton, hat, theore-
tisch genommen, keine Grenzen. Was noch nicht erreicht ist, ist das Erstrebenswerte.” Schön-
berg, Harmonielehre, 357.
28 See Beat Wyss, Der Wille zur Kunst: Zur ästhetischen Mentalität der Moderne (Köln: Dumont,
1996), 98.
29 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 315; “Wille der Natur.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 352.
30 Ibid., 20.
31 See Schoenberg’s description of the emancipated dissonances, ibid., 323.
32 On the harmonic series as a fundamental argument in music theory see Carl Dahlhaus, Die
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 105

Even in the few cases where he discusses examples from the literature, Schoen-
berg keeps clinging to this naturalistic perspective. He does not follow theoretical
tradition with its historically flexible rules, but refers instead to the universal basics,
that is, the inherent potential of the tone’s natural model and the imitative instinct
as the driving force behind a development that strives to unlock the tone’s musical
potential. Based on this conviction—and on the methodologically-founded rejec-
tion of the concepts of voice leading and non-harmonic tones—Schoenberg may,
for example, neglect the genesis of a “chord of Mozart.”33

Example 1: Schoenberg’s Mozart example (no. 305a: chord of Mozart)

in Theory of Harmony (p. 368)

What would be appropriately classified as a multiple suspension with a strong mo-

tivic background becomes, in Schoenberg’s view, an independent chord suitable
for some daring sequences. In his interpretation, Mozart’s chord is not a historical
artifact but rather a piece of nature.

Example 2: Schoenberg’s Mozart example (no. 305b: sequence of chord of Mozart)

in Theory of Harmony (p. 368)

III. Tonality as a Historical Phenomenon

Alongside this concept of tonality, there is another one in the Harmonielehre which
emphasises the historical dimension of tonality. According to this concept, tonal-
ity is not an effect of the tone itself, but a “means of art which is consistent with
some basic conditions of the natural prototype, the tone, but which primarily serves

Musiktheorie im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert: Erster Teil: Grundzüge einer Systematik (Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984), 102–12, on Schoenberg especially 106–7.
33 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 367–68. The chord is from Mozart’s Symphony K. 550, first
movement, measures 150 and 152 respectively.
106 Markus Böggemann

to emulate the deeply satisfying effect coming from the formal closure of a well-
shaped idea.”34 As a means of art, it has a value for Schoenberg; however, it does
not constitute an aesthetic norm: “I do not consider it [tonality, M.B.] an eternal law,
a natural law of music, even though I know well, how very consistent this law’s de-
mands are with the simplest conditions of the fundamental chord.”35 This passage
clearly reflects Schoenberg’s realization from a few years earlier that meaningful
and coherent composition is possible beyond tonality as well. The Harmonielehre
views its subject—and the concept of tonality in general—from a newly gained
distance, not as a set of rules or a matter of course but as one compositional pos-
sibility among others.
Therefore—as is the case with the above-mentioned chord of Mozart—Schoen-
berg’s description does not follow the paths of tradition, as represented by the theo-
retically humble, yet didactically reliable contemporary works of Richard Stöhr
or Ernst Friedrich Richter.36 Moreover, Schoenberg does not describe a histori-
cally based practice. This distinguishes his Harmonielehre from, for example, the
work of Rudolf Louis and Ludwig Thuille, which quotes extensively from works
by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and numerous others (especially in the later
Schoenberg describes tonal harmony neither as it is nor as it should be;38 in-
stead he presents his version of what it could be, if one takes its system seriously.
His Harmonielehre does just that: it takes the system of tonal harmony at face
value and, insisting on its internal logic with utter consequence, drives it to the
point where it breaks apart. Obviously motivated by his polemical stance against
traditional music theory, Schoenberg presents this selfdestruction of the system as
inevitable and describes it with visible pleasure. For instance, he combines two
cadential patterns based on the same tonic (Ex. 3, a–d)—which by themselves are
conventional and even labeled as “not unusual”—in a slightly altered version to
produce an eight-part chord which contains six minor seconds (Ex. 3, e–f).39 A simi-
lar function among the separate elements and their direction towards the same tonic
seems to legitimize their combination.

34 “[Ein] Kunstgriff, der einigen einfachen Bedingungen des naturgegebenen Vorbilds, des Tons,
entspricht, dessen Ausübung vor allem aber den Zweck hat, jene formal befriedigende Wirkung
nachzuahmen, die an der Geschlossenheit eines gut geformten Gedankens so sehr befriedigt.”
Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 28. The translation is mine. In the 3rd edition (on which the avail-
able English translation is based), this and the following passage were substantially altered.
35 “Ich glaube nicht, daß sie [die Tonalität, M.B.] ein ewiges Gesetz, ein Naturgesetz der Musik
ist, obwohl ich recht gut weiß, wie sehr das, was dieses Gesetz verlangt, den einfachsten Bedin-
gungen des Grundakkords entspricht.” Ibid.
36 Richard Stöhr, Praktischer Leitfaden der Harmonielehre, 2nd ed. (Vienna: Universal-Edition,
1909); Ernst Friedrich Richter, Lehrbuch der Harmonie, 17th ed. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel,
37 Rudolf Louis and Ludwig Thuille, Harmonielehre, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Grüninger, 1909), 361–
38 As does Heinrich Schenker, Harmonielehre (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1906).
39 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 368.
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 107

Example 3: Schoenberg’s Mozart example (no. 306: cadential patterns)

in Theory of Harmony (p. 368)

Such combination of harmonies which are only indirectly related (insofar as they
are directed towards the same tonic) obviously suggests Schoenberg’s penchant for
polemics more than serious compositional advice.40 Here at last the radicalism of
his approach comes to the fore: he explicitly wants to demonstrate how the system’s
own rules, applied with consequence, lead to the inevitable self-destruction of tonal
It is remarkable: the vagrant chords do not appear directly by way of nature […]. Actually, they
arise only out of the logical development of our tonal system, of its implications. They are the
issue of inbreeding, inbreeding among the laws of that system. And that precisely these logical
consequences of the system are the very undoing of the system itself, that the end of the system
is brought about with such inescapable cruelty by its own functions, brings to mind the thought
that death is the consequence of life.41

Adopting the perspective that the system’s inner logic and dynamics tend to over-
run this same system and finally cause its collapse, Schoenberg is able to claim that

40 See also Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 367, Ex. 304, where Schoenberg demonstrates that
each diminished seventh chord fits together with any other tone and therefore could be used to
harmonize every given melody. He readily admits though, that “we will not do so because it
would not be interesting, and besides, it would be contrived.”; “Man wird’s nicht tun, weil’s
nicht interessant und außerdem konstruiert wäre.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 412.
41 Ibid., 196; “Es ist eigentümlich: diese Akkorde entstehen nicht direkt auf dem Wege der Natur
[…]. Sie entstehen ja eigentlich nur aus der logischen Weiterentwicklung unseres Tonsystems.
Also durch Inzucht, durch Inzucht zwischen den Gesetzen jenes Systems. Und daß es gerade
diese folgerichtigen Ergebnisse des Systems sind, die dem System selbst den Garaus machen,
daß das Ende des Systems mit so unentrinnbarer Grausamkeit durch seine eigenen Funktionen
herbeigeführt wird; das erinnert an den Gedanken, daß der Tod das Ergebnis des Lebens ist.”
Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 217.
108 Markus Böggemann

his “theory, […] although it does not serve a particular party—or, far more, for that
very reason—arrives at results considered correct by the group that thinks as I do.
My aim is just that: to show that one must arrive at these results.”42 The dissolution
of tonality and the new harmonies that take its place are not arbitrary, but rather a
necessary result of the dynamics within the tonal system. Tonality is a historically
contingent artistic device; it was established and developed in its own time, but now
necessarily gives way to a new and differently-founded harmony out of submission
to its own rules. This is what Schoenberg seeks to demonstrate.

IV. Beyond Teleology: .

Nature vs. (Historical) Necessity

Nonetheless, Schoenberg does not succeed. Dealing with the most advanced har-
monies of his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern as well as Béla Bartók, Franz
Schreker, and himself in Harmonielehre’s famous last chapter, Schoenberg relies
on faith and phenomenological description rather than explanation:
Why it is that way and why it is correct, I cannot yet explain in any detail. In general, it is self-
evident to those who accept my view concerning the nature of dissonance. But that it is correct,
I firmly believe, and a number of others believe it too.43

It is telling that at this point Schoenberg relies on a mutually accepted “nature of

dissonance”—a conception limited to the more remote overtones and emancipated
from the need of resolution—instead of explaining the chords and their function
within a (however broadly conceived) tonality. Contrary to his pronouncements,
he does not demonstrate how chords derive from the inner dynamics of the tonal
system and thus does not clarify their relation to the more traditional phenomena
presented in the Harmonielehre. The crucial point is whether these chords possess
the ability to create harmonic coherence and a kind of functional directionality, or,
alternately, are merely isolated sounds. As long as this remains an open question (as
it does for Schoenberg), it forecloses any discussion of these sounds as analogous to
tonal chords.44 Therefore, Schoenberg advocates only for their naturalness:
There are no limits to the possibilities of tones sounding together, to harmonic possibilities; [the
limits are] at most to the possibilities of fitting the harmonies into a system that will establish
their aesthetic valence. At present; even that may eventually be attained.45

42 Ibid., 70 (emphasis in original); “Lehre, […] trotzdem sie nicht einer Partei dient, oder viel-
mehr eben deshalb, zu jenen Resultaten gelangt, die von der Gruppe, die ähnlich denkt wie ich,
für richtig gefunden werden. Gerade das zu zeigen, daß man zu diesen Resultaten gelangen
muß, ist mein Ziel.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 82.
43 Schoenberg, Theory, 420. “Warum das so ist und warum es richtig ist, kann ich im einzelnen
vorläufig noch nicht sagen. Im ganzen ergibt es sich als selbstverständlich für den, der meine
Ansicht über das Wesen der Dissonanz akzeptiert. Aber daß es richtig ist, glaube ich fest, und
eine Anzahl anderer glaubt es auch.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 469.
44 Cf. Carl Dahlhaus, “Emanzipation der Dissonanz,” in Schönberg und andere: Gesammelte Auf-
sätze zur Neuen Musik (Mainz: Schott, 1978), 146–53.
45 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 322 (addition in square brackets by the translator); “Den
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 109

The problem of harmonic coherence pushes the latent rivalry of these two concepts
of tonality to the fore. And it comes to plain contradiction when Schoenberg on the
one hand describes harmonic coherence as a “possibility of our technique,”46 and
on the other hand, (just a few paragraphs later) states that the tone is “capable for
continuation, i.e. that movement is latent in it.”47 “Technique” implies tonality as
something to be installed by the individual composer, whereas “tone” signifies a
concept of tonality that depends solely on the natural properties of the sounding ma-
terial. The first employs “History” as an explanatory model, the second “Nature.”48
And as already mentioned, Schoenberg’s choice of “Nature” rather than “History”
when discussing atonal harmonies is of utmost importance for the evaluation of
Schoenberg’s apologetic stance in the Harmonielehre. The purely descriptive pres-
entation of atonal harmonies as isolated objects, along with his lack of remarks on
their evolution and a disregard of their harmonic context, shows the difficulties of
deducing them from tonal harmony. Atonality, it seems, is no historic inevitability
at all. To assume its emergence as an unavoidable consequence of the tonal har-
monic system’s self-destructive forces is a teleological overstatement.
By invoking the above-cited “nature of dissonance,” Schoenberg compensates
for the failure of the historical argument with the explanatory model of “Nature.”
But if two arguments are to explain the same thing, the one with less explanatory
power is dispensable. Consequently, the teleological explanation of atonality can be
completely dismissed. Thus, atonality is not a historical necessity with Schoenberg
as its executioner, but rather originates from a personal decision that is determined
as much by individual options as by universally shared topics or problems.49 The
failure of the teleological argument dismisses the idea of a directed course of music
history altogether.
The case is similar with tonality: the deliberate use of two different concepts of
tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre demonstrates that tonality is no longer a
normative force but has become disposable. It is no longer the main topic and goal
of a theory of harmony, but merely a means within its general system of presenta-
tion. What tonality in this respect is or can be depends on the particular argument
it serves. In other words, tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre is not—to adopt
Brian Hyer’s term—an intrinsic property of music, neither as an effect of nature nor
as an effect of history. Instead it is a tool that depends completely on the intentions
of the user/composer. This overtly voluntaristic approach makes any foundation
of tonality that refers to objective, superhuman authorities like history or nature
dubitable, if not impossible.

Möglichkeiten des Zusammenklangs sind keine Grenzen gezogen; höchstens den Möglichkei-
ten, die Zusammenklänge in ein System zu bringen, das ihre ästhetische Wertigkeit feststellt.
Vorläufig; später wird wohl auch das gelingen.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 360.
46 Ibid., 312; “eine Möglichkeit unserer Technik,” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 349.
47 Ibid., 313 (emphasis in original); “daß er fortsetzungsfähig ist, d. h. daß Bewegung in ihm
liegt.” Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 350; Cf. Böggemann, Gesichte und Geschichte, 89–90.
48 Cf. Dahlhaus, Die Musiktheorie im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert, 37–42 and 56–63.
49 See for this perspective Reinhard Kapp, “Arnold Schönberg, Vier kurze historiographische
Versuche mit altmodischen Begriffen,” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 53 (1998): 32–42. On
the teleological perspective on Schoenberg cf. Böggemann, Gesichte und Geschichte, 117–21.
110 Markus Böggemann

Music theory therefore participates in the problems which make up for the fun-
damental crisis of modernity: formerly shared universal ideas erode and lose their
authority; they decay dramatically in their binding forces, giving way to a plurali-
zation of ideologies. History as a coherent tale is split into subjective histories, or
even worse, a sheer pile of unrelated facts. Similarly, nature evaporates into a set of
personal impressions and assumptions without any common obligation. This much-
debated crisis of modernity,50 as Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre clearly shows, af-
fects the concept of tonality in the twentieth century in equal measure: What tonal-
ity is, whether and how it should be retained, whether it should be newly founded
or abandoned altogether, and on which general assumptions, physical invariants, or
acoustical properties it could rely—all this is irreversibly open to question. Every
composer who seeks to reinstall tonality under these circumstances has to confront
the restricted normativity of his ideas, however much they may strive for general
acceptance.51 Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre is an example of drawing the most radi-
cal consequences from this situation, in that it employs several concepts of tonality
in an entirely voluntaristic way, that is, according to particular argumentative needs.
Once established, such willful disposal of a formerly normative force cannot be
undone—one wonders, then, why an otherwise receptive critic like Leichtentritt did
not notice the shattering power of Schoenberg’s approach.

Böggemann, Markus. Gesichte und Geschichte: Arnold Schönbergs musikalischer Expressionismus
zwischen avantgardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historismusproblem. Vienna: Lafite,
Böggemann, Markus and Ralf Alexander Kohler. “Harmonielehre.” In Arnold Schönberg: Interpre-
tationen seiner Werke, 2 vols., edited by Gerold W. Gruber, 2:420–36. Laaber: Laaber, 2002.
Dahlhaus, Carl. Die Musiktheorie im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert: Erster Teil: Grundzüge einer Syste-
matik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984.
— “Emanzipation der Dissonanz.” In Schönberg und andere: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Neuen
Musik, 146–53. Mainz: Schott, 1978.
Frisch, Walter. “Foreword to the 100th Anniversary Edition.” In Theory of Harmony, by Arnold
Schoenberg, translated by Roy E. Carter, xv–xx. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Hilmar, Ernst, ed. Arnold Schönberg: Gedenkausstellung 1974. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1974.
Jacob, Andreas. Grundbegriffe der Musiktheorie Arnold Schönbergs. 2 vols. Hildesheim: Georg
Olms, 2005.
Kapp, Reinhard. “Arnold Schönberg: Vier kurze historiographische Versuche mit altmodischen Be-
griffen.” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 53 (1998): 32–42.
Leichtentritt, Hugo. Formenlehre. 3rd edition. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927.

50 An extensive overview, summing up his own important research on this topic, is provided by
Otto Gerhard Oexle, “Krise des Historismus—Krise der Wirklichkeit: Eine Problemgeschichte
der Moderne,” in Krise des Historismus – Krise der Wirklichkeit: Wissenschaft, Kunst und Li-
teratur 1880–1932, ed. Otto Gerhard Oexle (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 11–
51 Paul Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz provides an especially revealing example. See
Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen’s contribution in this volume.
Concepts of Tonality in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre 111

— “Arnold Schönberg’s ‘Harmonielehre,’” Signale für die musikalische Welt 70, no. 22 (1912):
Louis, Rudolf and Ludwig Thuille. Harmonielehre. 3rd edition. Stuttgart: Grüninger, 1909.
Oexle, Otto Gerhard. “Krise des Historismus—Krise der Wirklichkeit: Eine Problemgeschichte der
Moderne.” In Krise des Historismus—Krise der Wirklichkeit: Wissenschaft, Kunst und Litera­
tur 1880–1932, edited by Otto Gerhard Oexle, 11–116. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
Richter, Ernst Friedrich. Lehrbuch der Harmonie. 17th edition. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1891.
Schenker, Heinrich. Harmonielehre. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1906.
Schönberg, Arnold. Harmonielehre. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1911.
Schoenberg, Arnold. Theory of Harmony. 100th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Roy E. Carter.
Foreword by Walter Frisch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Stephan, Rudolf. “Ein Blick auf die Universal-Edition: Aus Anlaß von Alfred Schlees 80. Geburts-
tag.” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 36 (1981): 639–45.
Stöhr, Richard. Praktischer Leitfaden der Harmonielehre. 2nd edition. Vienna: Universal-Edition,
Wyss, Beat. Der Wille zur Kunst: Zur ästhetischen Mentalität der Moderne. Köln: Dumont, 1996.
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre:
Psychology and Comprehensibility
Stephen Hinton

Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, ostensibly a textbook on tonal harmony, has been

published in two separate English translations. The first, by Robert D. W. Adams,
appeared in 1948; the second, by Roy E. Carter, in 1978. Both translators chose to
render the title as Theory of Harmony, thereby begging a question: in what sense
can Harmonielehre be called theory?1 Providing an answer to this question in-
volves addressing another one, and vice versa. How does Schoenberg’s theory de-
fine tonal harmony and, more generally, tonality? Neither of the categories con-
sidered in these questions—neither “theory” nor “tonality”—goes without saying.
Ubiquitous in musical scholarship, they have tended to engender controversy rather
than consensus in the discourse surrounding Schoenberg’s musical thought, in part
because of their ambiguous use by the composer himself. Invoking them, especially
together, invites qualification.

1) How does Schoenberg define tonality?

It scarcely needs mentioning that Schoenberg wrote the first edition of his treatise
in 1910, precisely at the time when, as the history books tell us and as is often
remarked, his own music had made a decisive turn away from tonality toward so-
called atonality.2 Why the qualifying “so-called?” Schoenberg, for one, emphati-
cally rejected the term “atonality” being applied to his music, and he made his
reasons quite clear on a number of occasions. He considered it a pejorative, arguing
against defining music negatively and suggesting that all music may be considered
“tonal” insofar it is comprised of tones. Discounting the expression atonal music’
as “extremely unfortunate” in a polemic against Josef Matthias Hauer, he drew

1 Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony – Harmonielehre, trans. Robert D. W. Adams (New
York: Philosophical Library, 1948); Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, trans. Roy E.
Carter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Both translations are based on the third
edition of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, which was published by Universal-Edition of Vienna
in 1922. As discussed below, Adams’s text is, in fact, only a partial translation and omits.
“[m]uch philosophical, polemic material.”
2 In their entry on “Harmonielehre” in Arnold Schönberg, Interpretationen seiner Werke 2:420–
36, ed. Gerold W. Gruber (Laaber: Laaber, 2002), Markus Böggemann and Ralf Alexander
Kohler include a section entitled “Die Harmonie ist ein Lehrbuch der tonalen Harmonik,” in
which they describe the reception of Schoenberg’s theoretical ideas in terms of traditional ver-
sus modernist, more unconventional aspects.
114 Stephen Hinton

an analogy with calling flying “the art of not falling” or swimming “the art of not
drowning.”3 The expression “atonal” is “wrong,” he stated, because
with tones only what is tonal, in keeping with the nature of tones, can be produced: there must
at least be that connection of tones based on the tonal, which has to exist between any two tones
if they are to form a progression that is at all logical and comprehensible; an opposite, “atonal,”
among tones can no more exist than can an opposite “aspectral” or “acomplementary,” among
colours and progressions of colours.4

His theoretical efforts were directed among other things at asserting and, where
possible, establishing the basis of logical and comprehensible tone relations. What
he considered logical and comprehensible, however, and how he sought to establish
these qualities remains to be seen. On the other hand, insofar as he generally de-
fined “tonality” as “the relationship of all occurrences within a piece of melody and
especially harmony to a single fundamental tone or fundamental chord, the tonic,”
it follows that the absence of such relations, or put cognitively: the absence of the
ability or the willingness to acknowledge such relations, might justify the use of the
negative concept “atonal.”5
It is tempting therefore to conclude that Schoenberg temporarily ignored his
own basic definition of tonality as the relationship of tones such that they are per-
ceivable in relation to a root in order to make his polemical point about the absurd-
ity of the adjective “atonal.” More appropriate is to consider whether, and if so
on what basis and to what extent, tonal theory can still be applied in the analysis
of a repertory commonly classified as “atonal.” That, surely, lies at the basis of
Ethan Haimo’s critique of Allen Forte’s work, which in turn occasioned a number
of responses from pupils of Forte.6 It is also worth mentioning here that the word

3 Arnold Schönberg, “Hauers Theorien” (9 November 1923), published in Andreas Jacob,

Grundbegriffe der Musiktheorie Arnold Schönbergs (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2005), 2:802.
“Vor allem finde ich den Ausdruck ‘atonale’ Musik höchst unglücklich. Wenn einer das Fliegen
die ‘Nichtherunterfallkunst’ nannte, oder das Schwimmen die ‘Nichtuntergehekunst,’ so gienge
er ebenso vor.” Translated into English as “Hauer’s Theories” in Arnold Schoenberg, Style and
Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 210.
4 Ibid. “Dass mit Tönen nur tonales, tongemässes hergestellt werden kann. Dass es mindestens
diese auf tonalem beruhende Ton-Verbindung sein muss [,] die zwischen je zwei Tönen vorhan-
den sein muss, wenn sie überhaupt eine logisch-fassliche Folge bilden sollen. Dass es einen
Gegensatz atonal zwischen Tönen und Tonverhältnissen so wenig geben kann, wie einen Ge-
gensatz aspektral oder akomplementär zwischen Farben und Farbenfolgen.” English transla-
tion in Schoenberg, “Hauer’s Theories,” 210–11.
5 This particular formulation comes from the subsection concerning “the function of tonality”
from an unfinished project entitled “Probleme der Harmonie.” Dating from January 1927, the
draft notes have been published in Jacob, Grundbegriffe, 2:781–97. “Tonalität ist die Kunst, die
Töne in solcher Reihenfolge und solcher Art von Gleichzeitigkeit zu verbinden, daß die Bezie-
hung aller Vorkommnisse auf einen Grundton wahrnehmbar wird.” The subsection occurs
within a chapter called “Muß Tonalität aufrecht erhalten bleiben?” (Must Tonality be Kept
Alive?), 788.
6 See Ethan T. Haimo, “Atonality, Analysis, and the Intentional Fallacy,” Music Theory Spectrum
18 (1996): 167–99. For responses to this article, see Edward D. Latham’s review in Music
Theory Online 3, no. 2 (1997) and Haimo’s response “Linear Analysis – A Cure for Pitch-Class
Set Analysis?: A Reply” in the same journal, 3, no. 3 (1997); and Jack Boss, “The Musical Idea
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility 115

“atonal” does not appear in the first edition of Harmonielehre, but only in the third
edition, where Schoenberg adds a long footnote along the lines of his “aspectral”
polemic against Hauer as well a brief comment rejecting the concept because, as
he writes, “we simply do not yet know how to explain the tonality, or something
corresponding to tonality, in modern music.”7 As is well known, he would eventu-
ally see that “something” as the twelve-tone method; and within just a few years of
the third edition he would write of “row connections” as a “substitute” (Ersatz) for
“key connections.”8
In this latter connection it should also be recalled that Schoenberg did not use
the expression “the emancipation of dissonance” in the Harmonielehre either. It
first appears in his writings in the mid-1920s in connection with his own “method
of composition with twelve tones related only to one another.” In fact, there is a
single passage in Harmonielehre where Schoenberg expressly invokes the concept
of emancipation in relation to harmony. It is where he talks of “already emancipated
dissonances,” specifically referring to “unprepared appoggiaturas” (freie Vorhalte),
that is, to a well-known expressive device frequently employed in tonal contexts.9
This is significant in a number of respects. In general, Schoenberg as both theorist
and teacher was at pains to stress continuity between the past and the present. The
connection between his Harmonielehre and his own practice as a composer may not
be obvious; his book deals chiefly with music of the so-called “common practice”
era—another qualifying “so-called” because Walter Piston’s expression “common
practice” is more appropriately thought of as “common theory,” in this case, the
common theory with which Schoenberg begged to take issue. Harmonielehre ad-
dresses twentieth-century practice only in its closing chapter, and hardly touches
on Schoenberg’s own practice at all, except for a fleeting reference at the very end
to the monodrama Erwartung by way of describing the effect of chords with six or
more notes.
Despite its brevity, it is nonetheless worth dwelling on this last example in de-
tail. In using chords with six or more notes “there will be a tendency,” Schoenberg
writes, “to soften dissonances through wide spacing of the individual chord tones.
That such is a softening is obvious. For the image of what the dissonances actually
are, more remote overtones, is imitated in a satisfying way.”10 It’s not merely a

and the Basic Image in an Atonal Song and Recitation of Arnold Schoenberg,” A Music-Theo-
retical Matrix: Essays in Honor of Allen Forte (Part I), ed. David Carson Berry, in Gamut:
Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic 2 (2009): 223–66.
7 Arnold Schönberg, Harmonielehre, revised and expanded edition (Vienna: Universal-Edition,
1922), 157. “ohne zu behaupten, daß die modernste Musik wirklich atonal ist: denn wir können
in ihr vielleicht bloß die Tonalität oder etwas dementsprechendes noch nicht nachweisen.”
8 “Probleme der Harmonie,” 1927, section VI on “Methode der 12-Tonkomposition,” in Jacob,
Grundbegriffe, 2:782.
9 Schönberg, Harmonielehre (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1911), 362.
10 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (1978), 418; Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1911), 467. “Im
allgemeinen wird bei der Verwendung von sechs- und mehrtönigen Akkorden die Neigung sich
zeigen, die Dissonanzen durch weite Auseinanderlegung der einzelne[n] Akkordtöne zu mil-
dern. Daß das eine Milderung ist, ist selbstverständlich. Denn das Bild dessen, was die Disso-
nanzen sind, entfernter liegende Obertöne, wird in glücklicher Weise nachgeahmt.”
116 Stephen Hinton

matter that he composes with so-called dissonances but of how he composes with
them. Yet another “so-called”: in this case it is a qualification that captures a central
ambiguity in Schoenberg’s theory, a theory which recognizes only gradual, not ab-
solute differences, between consonance and dissonance.

Example 1: Schoenberg, Erwartung (m. 382–83) according to Schoenberg,

Theory of Harmony (ex. 340, p. 418)

Example 2: Schoenberg, Erwartung (m. 382) according to Schoenberg,

Theory of Harmony (ex. 341, p. 418)

To continue with the Erwartung example: “Eleven different tones appear in this
chord,” Schoenberg observes. “But the gentle instrumentation and the fact that the
dissonances [one might say “more remote consonances” in accord with his postu-
late about gradual differences] are widely spaced make this sound quite delicate.”
He then suggests that the reader consider—or rather, hear—something else: “the
individual groups of tones are so arranged that one could easily refer them to pre-
viously known forms.” He even provides an example: “in the first group I believe
the ear expects the following resolution [which in this case would culminate in a
diminished seventh chord]. That it does not can do no more damage here than when
the resolution is omitted in simple harmonies.”11 He goes on to suggest other ex-
planations of other combinations based, for example, on the addition of two chords

11 Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1911), 467. “In diesem Akkord kommen elf verschiedene Töne
vor. Aber die zarte Instrumentation und, daß die Dissonanzen weit auseinander liegen, macht,
daß dieser Klang sehr weich wirkt. Aber vielleicht noch eins. Die einzelnen Gruppen sind so
gesetzt, daß man sie leicht auf frühere Formen zurückführen könnte.”
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility 117

that have a diminished seventh in common, which in turn becomes, with different
bass tones, two ninth chords. In short, although Schoenberg’s compositional prac-
tice at the time is often described in terms of radical change, he himself is keen to
stress continuity by referring to earlier “emancipated dissonances” and applying
the premises of tonal theory to represent his own music. Invoking the technique of
omission or ellipsis, as he does in the Erwartung example and as writers such as
Walter Frisch and Bryan Simms have described, is a far cry, indeed, from the kind
of contextualist structuralism suggested by set-theory nomenclature, which pro-
ceeds from the assumption of “atonality.”12
One could even go so far to say that by making an overt connection to earlier
music, Schoenberg intends his own use of the adjective “emancipated” as an indi-
rect polemic against the theoretical writings of Rudolf Louis, who was responsible
for coining the phrase “the emancipation of dissonance” in the first place—some
thirty-three years, in fact, before Schoenberg himself first used it in the 1926 essay
“Gesinnung oder Erkenntnis?” In Schoenberg’s case, the source for the adjective
“emanzipiert” was more likely Louis’s text Die deutsche Musik der Gegenwart
from 1909, which Schoenberg owned.13 The central point here is this: the so-called
emancipation of dissonance has a very different significance for Schoenberg in
1910 from 1926. Whereas the object of his reference in the Harmonielehre is con-
sistent with Louis’s historical explanation, even if his value judgment is not, the
significance of the phrase “Emanzipation der Dissonanz” for Schoenberg in 1926
is utterly different. Even in 1910 there were at least two notable differences. Like
Schoen­berg, Louis may have acknowledged the tradition of unprepared dissonances
(specifically citing Monteverdi as the originator); unlike Schoenberg, however,
Louis drew attention to the dramatic and programmatic basis of that historical de-
velopment, a factor entirely missing in Schoenberg’s account. Moreover, in coining
the phrase “emancipation of dissonance,” Louis was sounding a note of alarm in the
face of what he perceived as unchecked artistic anarchy, the “uncontainable move-
ment,” as he described it, toward complete disregard of the rules of conventional

12 See Walter Frisch, The Early Works of Arnold Schoenberg, 1893–1908 (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1993): 92–98; Bryan R. Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg
1908–1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). With reference to Frisch’s work, Simms
observes that this “elliptical treatment is highly characteristic of Erwartung.” (24).
13 Rudolf Louis, Der Widerspruch in der Musik: Bausteine zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst auf
realdialektischer Grundlage (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1893), 50 and 80–81; quoted in
Werner Breig, “Das Schicksalskunde-Motiv im Ring des Nibelungen,” in Das Drama Richard
Wagners als musikalisches Kunstwerk, ed. Carl Dahlhaus, Studien zur Musikgeschichte des 19.
Jahrhundert 23 (Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1970), 232; see also Ludwig Holtmeier, “Die Er-
findung der romantischen Harmonik: Ernst Kurth und Georg Capellen,” in Zwischen Komposi-
tion und Hermeneutik: Festschrift für Hartmut Fladt, ed. Ariane Jeßulat, Andreas Ickstadt and
Martin Ullrich, 114–28 (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005), 122; and Robert Falck,
“Emancipation of Dissonance,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 6 (1982): 106–7,
which cites Louis’s book Die deutsche Musik der Gegenwart (Munich: Georg Müller, 1909).
Schoenberg first used the phrase “the emancipation of dissonance” in “Gesinnung oder Erken-
ntnis,” in 25 Jahre Neue Musik: Jahrbuch 1926 der Universal-Edition (Vienna: Universal-
Edition, 1926), 21–30; trans. Leo Black as “Opinion or Insight” in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard
Stein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 258–64.
118 Stephen Hinton

theory, stressing however that these are merely rules, not laws, which he likened
to shifts in approaches to dramaturgy.14 “Preparation, dissonance, resolution—ex-
position, conflict, catastrophe—these are all things,” Louis observed, “that recent
dramaturgy has flouted, in a way as bold as it is justified, just as modern music has
flouted the analogous rules of harmony.”15 Schoenberg, by way of extreme contrast,
would embrace the “emancipation of dissonance” as a historical law leading to the
formulation of his twelve-tone method—the basis, he claimed, of logical and com-
prehensible relations among tones.
That was, as mentioned, in the mid-1920s, shortly after he issued the revised
and expanded edition of his Harmonielehre, the third edition of 1922. (The second
edition of 1919 was essentially a reprint of the first.) But his notion of logic and
comprehensibility—that is, the basis on which he sought to establish and demon-
strate relations among tones, whether or not the resulting music should be called
tonal or atonal—had evolved considerably in the interim. Some of this evolution
is reflected in the revised edition, some not. The text remains a curious hybrid of
earlier and later Schoenberg. The revision did not amount to a complete update.

2) In what sense can Harmonielehre be called theory?

Preceding the discussion of Erwartung in Harmonielehre, in a passage retained in

the revision, Schoenberg had made an appeal to “feeling” as the ultimate authority.
In composing I make decisions only according to feeling, according to the feeling for form.
This tells me what I must write; everything else is excluded. Every chord I write down cor-
responds to a necessity or compulsion (Zwang), a necessity of the need to express myself;
perhaps, however, also to the necessity of an inexorable but unconscious logic in the harmonic
design. I am firmly convinced that logic is present here, too.16

14 Louis, Der Widerspruch in der Musik, 55. “Als aber Monteverde [sic.] zuerst den Domi-
nantseptakkord frei eintreten ließ, da begann jene nun nicht mehr zu hemmende Bewegung,
welche die Harmonik der Neuzeit schuf, deren Wesen wir in dem Streben nach ‘Emancipation
der Dissonanz’ erkennen zu müssen glauben, und welche wie nichts Anderes dazu beigetragen
hat, die Alleinherrschaft des Schönen in der Musik zu stürzen.”
15 Ibid, 83. “Vorbereitung, Dissonanz, Auflösung—Exposition, Konflikt, Katastrophe:—es ist ein
ganzes Drama, das sich in jeder Anwendung einer Dissonanz abspielt, und wenn man das
Gleichnis weiter ausführen wollte, könnte man die regelrechte Vorbereitung der Dissonanz mit
der unerlässlichen ‘Schuld’ des Helden in der alten Dramaturgie, die richtige Auflösung mit der
‘poetischen Gerechtigkeit’ in Parallel bringen, alles Dinge, über welche die neuere Dramatik
sich ebenso kühn als berechtigt hinweggesetzt hat, gerade wie die moderne Musik über die
analogen Regeln der Harmonielehre.”
16 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (1978), 417; Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1911), 466. “Ich
entscheide beim Komponieren nur durch das Gefühl, durch das Forgefühl. Dies sagt mir, was
ich schreiben muß, alles andere ist ausgeschlossen. Jeder Akkord, den ich hinsetze, entspricht
einem Zwang; einem Zwang meines Ausdrucksbedürfnisses, vielleicht aber auch dem Zwang
einer unerbittlichen, aber unbewußten Logik in der harmonischen Konstruktion. Ich habe die
feste Überzeugung, daß sie auch hier vorhanden ist; mindestens in dem Ausmaß, wie in den
früher bebauten Gebieten der Harmonie.”
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility 119

Carl Dahlhaus uses this exact same quotation as the basis for his far-reaching at-
tempt to answer the question “What is ‘History of Music Theory’?”—not so much
to provide a neat and simple answer to his interrogative title, however, as to intro-
duce competing theoretical traditions that are at work in Schoenberg’s text. Despite
the composer’s appeal to the basis of musical relations in the overtone series—
hence the relativizing definition of dissonance as remote consonance—Dahlhaus
claims that Schoenberg’s theory-concept is primarily “operational,” not “ontologi-
cal,” that is, practically oriented toward its intended pedagogical function. But it is
not exclusively so, as reflected in Schoenberg’s invocation of the seemingly para-
doxical notion of “unconscious logic.”17 The declared pragmatic ambition, with
which Schoenberg introduces his harmony treatise at the outset—the ambition, that
is, to replace aesthetics with handicraft—is not consistently realized. Or to put the
matter in the language of philosophy: the epistemological premises underpinning
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre are fraught with tensions and contradictions, which
Dahlhaus sees as characteristic for the epoch in question. One could also say that
these tensions and contradictions only appear as such when evaluated from a partic-
ular vantage point, from one epistemological perspective rather than another. There
is a sense, in other words, in which Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre is incompatible
with concepts of music theory as commonly understood.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in electing to render the book’s
title as Theory of Harmony Carter issued his own caveat or qualification. Carter’s
translation was not the first translation of Harmonielehre, as mentioned, but it was
the first complete one. For his earlier, incomplete translation Robert D. W. Adams
relied on an author-approved authority for his cuts: Erwin Stein’s Praktischer Leit-
faden zu Schönbergs Harmonielehre, a publication issued around the same time as
the third edition and intended to serve, as the title indicates, as a practical guide
to Schoenberg’s treatise more along the lines of a conventional theory textbook.
Stein’s 48-page guide consists of a two-page index followed by a longer section
containing brief descriptions of the selected examples to be studied from the origi-
nal edition of the Harmonielehre combined with a concordance for the examples.18

17 Carl Dahlhaus, “Was heißt ‘Geschichte der Musiktheorie’?” in Ideen zu einer Geschichte der
Musiktheorie, Geschichte der Musiktheorie 1, ed. Frieder Zaminer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaft-
liche Buchgesellschaft, 1985), 8–39. Dieter Rexroth uses the same passage at the beginning of
the concluding section of his dissertation Arnold Schönberg als Theoretiker der tonalen Har-
monik (Inaug. Diss., Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 1971), arguing that
Schoenberg’s treatise should be read as “a document of crisis” (ein Dokument der Krise) (431).
Schoenberg, Rexroth concludes, understands theory as an “obligation” (Verpflichtung), born of
a search for insight that contains both “the avowal and admission” (das Bekenntnis und
Eingeständnis) that “in the crisis-ridden situation at the beginning of the twentieth century, the
belief in the artistic power of vision, inspiration and feeling for form do not yet provide the
certainty that artistic-creative activity is necessary and true” (daß in der krisenhaften Situation
zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts der Glaube an die künstlerische Kraft der Vision, des Einfalls
und des Formgefühls noch nicht die Gewißheit gibt, daß das künstlerisch-schöpferische Tun
notwendig und wahrhaftig ist). (448).
18 Erwin Stein, Praktischer Leitfaden zu Schönbergs Harmonielehre: Ein Hilfsbuch für Lehrer
und Schüler (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1923).
120 Stephen Hinton

There is also a brief foreword by Stein, prefaced by a lengthy quotation from Sch-
oenberg, in which the composer-theorist voices his approval of the project, which
he says was “encouraged” (angeregt) by him. Adams does not include Stein’s fore-
word, but instead translates the one that Schoenberg wrote for the 1911 edition.
Otherwise, as reflected in his own index, Adams’s translation follows Stein’s Leit-
faden to the letter.
The subtitle of the Leitfaden defined the purpose of Adams’s translation quite
clearly: A Handbook for Teachers and Pupils. “Much philosophical, polemic mate-
rial has been omitted,” he notes in his Translator’s Preface, “but the essentials—ex-
planations, directions, examples—have been included.”19 This is not strictly true,
however. The text ends with the chapter on fourth chords, and in omitting the final
chapter on the “Aesthetic Evaluation of Chords with Six or More Tones,” it also
removes the examples from Webern, Schreker, Bartók, and of course Schoenberg
Carter finds the title Theory of Harmony even less acceptable in Adams’s case
than in his own. The earlier translation, he observes, had “omitted […] all of Schoen­
berg’s theoretical commentary.”20 His own translation “grew out of the conviction
that the abundance of Schoenberg’s theorizing, speculation, and polemics is no less
‘essential’ than the purely technical material.” (xv) Indeed, Schoenberg addresses
his objection to traditional “theorists” in his very first chapter, called “Theory or
System of Presentation,” also omitted from Stein’s Leitfaden. In a lengthy footnote,
somewhat going against Schoenberg’s gist, Carter suggests that “Harmony […]
would perhaps be the most accurate translation of Schoenberg’s title; but since the
book is far more theoretical than the usual textbook of harmony, and since it is
commonly cited in English as Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, it was deemed
appropriate to retain the title for this new translation.” (xv) A later reviewer, Robert
Wason, justified the decision as nonetheless appropriate, while taking Schoenberg’s
caveat into account, because “the book is certainly about theory.”21
Carter also provides some illustrations of Schoenberg’s revisions, to which oth-
ers, including Markus Böggemann and Christian Reineke, have contributed with
their own discussions.22 There is one revision, in particular, that strikingly illus-
trates the shift in Schoenberg’s thinking between the first and third editions. Both
Carter and Böggemann single it out, too. Writing in 1910 Schoenberg stated:
It should not be said that order, clarity, and comprehensibility [N.B. the German here is Ver-
ständlichkeit, not Fasslichkeit] can impair beauty, but they are not a necessary factor without
which there would be no beauty; they are merely an accidental, a circumstantial factor. For

19 Robert D. W. Adams, “Translator’s Preface,” in Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (1948), xi.
20 Adams, “Translator’s Preface,” in Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (1948), xv.
21 See Robert Wason, review of “Theory of Harmony,” by Arnold Schoenberg, trans. Roy E.
Carter, Journal of Music Theory 25 (1981): 307–16.
22 Christian Reineke, Der musikalische Gedanke und die Fasslichkeit als zentrale musiktheoreti-
sche Begriffe Arnold Schönbergs, Kölner Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft 10 (Kassel: Gustav
Bosse, 2007); Markus Böggemann, Gesichte und Geschichte: Arnold Schönbergs musikali-
scher Expressionismus zwischen avantgardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historismuspro-
blem (Vienna: Lafite, 2007).
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility 121

nature is also beautiful even when we do not understand her, and where she seems to us unor-

In 1922, he revised that to: “This is not to say that some future work of art may do
without order, clarity, and comprehensibility, but that not merely what we conceive
as such deserves these names. For nature is also beautiful … [etc.].”24 What was
incidental or “accidental” becomes essential.
The concluding remarks of the Harmonielehre following the Erwartung ex-
ample and envisaging a hitherto unexplored logic of tone-color melodies seems
particularly at odds with Schoenberg’s thinking of the 1920s. He was anticipating a
“fantasy of the future” (Zukunftsphantasie), as he calls it, but which he had in fact
already espied in the third of the Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16, in which “progres-
sions whose relations with one another work with a kind of logic entirely equivalent
to that which satisfies us in the melody of pitches.”25 He also betrays an expression-
ist’s proximity to the world of Freud by stating his firm belief that the realization
of this fantasy will “bring us closer to that which is projected to us in dreams.”26
How Schoenberg evolved as composer-theorist from his expressionist vision of
Klangfarbenmelodie to his confident declaration of the emancipation of dissonance
as his principal achievement in 1926 is a long, involved story, with further experi-
mentation and creative frustrations along the way (his own “errors and detours,”
as he would refer to them in the 1949 lecture “My Evolution”). An activity often
marginalized or entirely overlooked in coming to terms with these shifting aesthetic
convictions that can be seen as playing a pivotal role in the transition between
the so-called atonal and the twelve-tone periods is that of the Society for Private
Musical Performances. Without consideration of the work of the Society, which
involved the instrumentation for small chamber groups of music by Schoenberg
and his pupils and also by earlier composers, some of this transition might other-
wise seem like something of a void in his creative output. Even for a revolutionary
conservative such as Schoenberg, the vision of the emancipation of tone color and
the need, even desire, to strip compositions of their original timbral parameter in
reductions for small ensemble could seem incompatible. The emancipated Klang-
farbe as structural essence yields to the more conventional notion of Klanggerüst,
an essential tone structure. The musical idea is presented by other, vastly reduced
means; in twelve-tone music it would become embodied in the interval classes of
the row itself. Yet the incompatibility or anomaly is perhaps no greater than that

23 Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1911), 31. “Es soll nicht gesagt sein, daß Ordnung, Klarheit und
Verständlichkeit die Schönheit beeinträchtigen können, aber sie sind nicht ein notwendiger
Faktor, ohne den es keine Schönheit gäbe, sondern ein zufälliger.”
24 Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1922), 32. “Damit soll nicht gesagt sein, daß jemals Ordnung,
Klarheit und Verständlichkeit einem Kunstwerk werden fehlen dürfen, wohl aber, daß nicht
bloß, was wir als solche begreifen, diesen Namen verdient.”
25 Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (1975), 421; Schoenberg, Harmonielehre (1922), 471. “Fol-
gen […] deren Beziehung untereinander mit einer Art Logik wirkt, ganz äquivalent jener Lo-
gik, die uns bei der Melodie der Klanghöhen genügt.”
26 Schönberg, Harmonielehre (1922), 471. “[…] daß [die Zukunftsphantasie der Klangfarbenme-
lodie] jenem uns näherbringen wird, was Träume uns vorspiegeln.”
122 Stephen Hinton

between Schoenberg’s compositional practice circa 1910 and his pedagogical pre-
occupations with traditional harmony and voice-leading rules codified in strict con-
trapuntal exercises. The challenge is to find the common denominator, a path of
mediation, between Schoenberg’s compositional theory and practice. In each case,
we are dealing with a significant shift in his work from the so-called “atonal” to the
twelve-tone works that renders the concept of the emancipation of dissonance ef-
fectively unusable for both repertories without substantial qualification.
The period during which Schoenberg established and led the activities of the
Society for Private Musical Performances sees the emergence of the word Fass-
lichkeit (“comprehensibility”) in his theoretical writings, not in evidence before
1917. His more general reflections about comprehensibility are closely tied to his
concern with demonstrating coherence or Zusammenhang above all in the motivic
dimension of New Music. These efforts, in turn, inform the development of the
twelve-tone method. As Reineke has observed: “The development and application
of dodecaphonic construction had its basis in Schoenberg’s efforts to consolidate
the comprehensibility of his non-tonal works, thereby continuing a process of ar-
tistic intentions that already existed in 1917.”27 How Schoenberg used the term
would shift over time, having to do less with subjective cognitive expectations and
increasingly with normative categories of compositional handicraft (thereby risk-
ing a lapse into the “bad aesthetics” that the composer had derided in the opening
section of Harmonielehre and nonetheless not entirely managed to resist elsewhere
in the treatise).
Comprehensibility in this theoretically and analytically substantiated sense of
Fasslichkeit supplants the earlier emphasis on psychology, whether in connection
with the subjective disposition of the listener or with the unconscious logic of the
inspired composer. Both of these categories—the logic of expression or “Expres-
sionslogik,” as the philosopher Ernst Bloch called it, on the one hand, and the ideal
of organic musical coherence, on the other—comprise two normative strands of
Schoenberg’s thought that are no doubt responsible for complicating any account
of his theory of tonality. Their significance for his evolution is at once aesthetic
and historical. It also affects how we define the celebrated “emancipation of dis-
Taking into account this central tension in the evolution of Schoenberg’s theo-
ries of tonality—a tension reflected in the conservative-revolutionary dichotomy
of numerous characterizations, such as Derrick Puffett’s description of Theory of
Harmony as “half-rejected orthodoxy and half-suppressed radicalism” or in Hanns
Eisler’s portrait of Schoenberg as a composer who “created a new material in order
to make music within the consolidated richness of the classics,” a composer who
is “the true conservative: he even created a revolution for himself so that he could
be a reactionary”28—I shall conclude with a proposition whose aesthetic as well

27 Reineke, Der musikalische Gedanke, 102.

28 Derrick Puffett, review of Theory of Harmony, by Arnold Schoenberg, Music & Letters 60
(1979): 220–22; Hanns Eisler, “Arnold Schönberg, der musikalische Reaktionär,” in Arnold
Schönberg zum 50. Geburtstage, 13. September 1924, Sonderheft der Musikblätter des An-
bruch 6 (August–September 1924), 312–13. “Er schuf sich ein neues Material, um in der Fülle
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre: Psychology and Comprehensibility 123

as historiographical implications I have explored in greater detail elsewhere.29 In-

sofar as Schoenberg’s so-called “atonal” period represents an expressive or even
expressionist extension of conventional tonal practice, as his Harmonielehre of
1911 would have us believe, it can be likened aesthetically to a kind of second prac-
tice analogous to early seventeenth-century music, especially that of Monteverdi,
whether or not Rudolf Louis’s dramatic or programmatic motivation applies. Con-
versely, the revisions of 1922 reflect a more overtly classically inclined composer,
one who would soon seek to establish a new, contrapuntally based first practice.


Böggemann, Markus. Gesichte und Geschichte: Arnold Schönbergs musikalischer Expressionismus

zwischen avantgardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historismusproblem. Vienna: Lafite,
Böggemann, Markus and Ralf Alexander Kohler. “Harmonielehre.” In Arnold Schönberg: Interpre-
tationen seiner Werke, 2 vols., edited by Gerold W. Gruber, 2:420–36. Laaber: Laaber, 2002.
Boss, Jack. “The Musical Idea and the Basic Image in an Atonal Song and Recitation of Arnold
Schoenberg.” In A Music-Theoretical Matrix: Essays in Honor of Allen Forte (Part I), edited
by David Carson Berry. Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlan-
tic 2 (2009): 223–66.
Breig, Werner. “Das Schicksalskunde-Motiv im Ring des Nibelungen.” In Das Drama Richard Wag-
ners als musikalisches Kunstwerk, edited by Carl Dahlhaus, 223–33. Studien zur Musikge-
schichte des 19. Jahrhundert 23. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1970.
Dahlhaus, Carl. “Was heißt ‘Geschichte der Musiktheorie’?” In Ideen zu einer Geschichte der Mu-
siktheorie. Geschichte der Musiktheorie 1, edited by Frieder Zaminer, 8–39. Darmstadt: Wis-
senschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985.
Eisler, Hanns. “Arnold Schönberg, der musikalische Reaktionär.” In Arnold Schönberg zum 50.
Geburtstage, 13. September 1924. Sonderheft der Musikblätter des Anbruch 6 (August-Sep-
tember 1924), 312–13.
Falck, Robert. “Emancipation of the Dissonance.” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 6
(1982): 106–11.
Frisch, Walter. The Early Works of Arnold Schoenberg, 1893–1908. Berkeley: University of Califor-
nia Press, 1993.
Haimo, Ethan T. “Atonality, Analysis, and the Intentional Fallacy.” Music Theory Spectrum 18
(1996): 167–99.
— “Linear Analysis – A Cure for Pitch-Class Set Analysis?: A Reply.” Music Theory Online 3, no.
3 (1997).
Hinton, Stephen. “The Emancipation of Dissonance: Schoenberg’s Two Practices of Composition.”
Music & Letters 91 (2010): 568–79.
Holtmeier, Ludwig. “Die Erfindung der romantischen Harmonik: Ernst Kurth und Georg Capellen.”
In Zwischen Komposition und Hermeneutik: Festschrift für Hartmut Fladt, edited by Ariane
Jeßulat, Andreas Ickstadt and Martin Ullrich, 114–28. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann,
Jacob, Andreas. Grundbegriffe der Musiktheorie Arnold Schönbergs. 2 vols. Hildesheim: Georg
Olms, 2005.

und Geschlossenheit der Klassiker zu musizieren. Er ist der wahre Konservative: er schuf sich
sogar eine Revolution, um Reaktionär sein zu können.” (313).
29 Stephen Hinton, “The Emancipation of Dissonance: Schoenberg’s Two Practices of Composi-
tion,” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 568–79.
124 Stephen Hinton

Latham, Edward D. Review of “Atonality, Analysis, and the Intentional Fallacy,” by Ethan T.
Haimo. Music Theory Online 3, no. 2 (1997).
Louis, Rudolf. Der Widerspruch in der Musik: Bausteine zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst auf realdia­
lektischer Grundlage. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1893.
— Die deutsche Musik der Gegenwart. Munich: Georg Müller, 1909.
Puffett, Derrick. Review of Theory of Harmony, by Arnold Schoenberg, translated by Roy E. Carter.
Music & Letters 60 (1979): 220–22.
Reineke, Christian. Der musikalische Gedanke und die Fasslichkeit als zentrale musiktheoretische
Begriffe Arnold Schönbergs. Kölner Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft 10. Kassel: Gustav Bosse
Verlag, 2007.
Rexroth, Dieter. Arnold Schönberg als Theoretiker der tonalen Harmonik. PhD diss., Rheinische-
Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 1971.
Schönberg, Arnold. “Probleme der Harmonie.” January 1927. In Andreas Jacob, Grundbegriffe der
Musiktheorie Arnold Schönbergs, 2:781–97. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2005.
— “Gesinnung oder Erkenntnis.” In 25 Jahre Neue Musik: Jahrbuch 1926 der Universal-Edition,
21–30. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1926. Translated by Leo Black as “Opinion or Insight.” In
Style and Idea, edited by Leonard Stein, 258–64. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
— “Hauers Theorien.” 9 November 1923. In Andreas Jacob, Grundbegriffe der Musiktheorie Ar-
nold Schönbergs, 2:802–05: Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2005. Translated by Leo Black as “Hau-
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California Press, 1984).
— Harmonielehre. Revised and expanded edition. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1922.
— Harmonielehre. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1911.
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York: Philosophical Library, 1948.
— Theory of Harmony. Translated by Roy E. Carter. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Simms, Bryan R. The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg 1908–1923. Oxford: Oxford University
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Schüler. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1923.
Wason, Robert W. Review of Theory of Harmony, by Arnold Schoenberg. Translated by Roy E.
Carter. Journal of Music Theory 25 (1981): 307–16.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: .
Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality
Felix Wörner

Living in Switzerland at the fringe of the political, economic, and cultural upheav-
als which plagued most of Europe after the end of the First World War, the Austrian-
born music theorist Ernst Kurth showed little public interest in the heated cultural
clashes of early twentieth-century musical modernism. Yet in his seminal study
Romantic Harmony and its Crisis in Wagner’s Tristan, Kurth offered a rare but
significant assessment of contemporary perspectives on the future development of
The question of the future—if all sub-processes of the dissolution of tonality will lead to ever
new possibilities, or if the development will return to a larger strengthening of the tonality prin-
ciple—is undoubtedly of great significance; yet it does not touch upon the historical processes
of Romanticism itself. […] The question also illuminates the historical-psychological founda-
tions of a dispute that is at this very moment extremely relevant. That this dispute will also not
be resolved during the present time, but […] only through a development of at least a decade, if
not more, must be clear to anyone who surveys the far-reaching implications of the inner split
which was set off in this and many other ways by the high Romantic period.1

While Kurth never indulged in critiquing or theoretically investigating contempo-

rary music production (which to his mind was characterized by a wide stylistic
plurality or even confusion, as well as by pervasive experimentation and extreme
contradictions), he interpreted these conflicts as the musical and spiritual heritage
of the high-Romantic period. The given passage indicates that Kurth imagined his
interpretations of Romantic musical language and its inherent tendencies to be use-
ful in unearthing the roots of ongoing debates about contemporary music.2 Kurth’s

1 “Die Zukunftsfrage, ob alle die Teilprozesse der Tonalitätszersetzung zu immer weiteren Mög-
lichkeiten hinausgehen, oder ob die Entwicklung wieder zu größerer Straffung des Tonalitäts-
prinzips zurückkehrt, ist zwar zweifellos von großer Tragweite, berührt aber nicht die histori-
schen Vorgänge der Romantik selbst […]. Sie gibt auch Klarheit über die historisch-psycholo-
gischen Unterlagen des gerade gegenwärtig sehr aktuellen Streites. Daß diesen auch nicht die
Gegenwart, sondern […] nur eine mindestens jahrzehntelange, wenn nicht längere Entwick-
lung entscheiden kann, muß jedem klar sein, der die große Tragweite der inneren Spaltung
überblickt, die in dieser und vieler anderer Hinsicht die Hochromantik ausgelöst hat.” Kurth
continues the statement: “Mit den breiten Ausstrahlungen ihrer Entwicklung ist es historisch
bedingt, daß gegenwärtig eine Periode wirren, aber leidenschaftlichen Suchens, größter Gegen-
sätze, wie verschiedenartigst tastender Neuanfänge herrscht; wer die einheitliche Linie in ihr
sucht, muß sie in der Vielfältigkeit erkennen.” Ernst Kurth, Romantische Harmonik und ihre
Krise in Wagners Tristan, 3rd ed. (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1920; Berlin: Max Hesse, 1923), 312–13.
Citations are to the Max Hesse edition. If not otherwise indicated, all translations of Kurth’s
texts are mine. I am grateful to Philip Rupprecht for his suggestions concerning the translations.
2 Kurth explicitly denounced any attempts to apply principles laid out in his book on linear coun-
126 Felix Wörner

particular approach and idiosyncratic prose style, marked by a less technical but
highly metaphorical language, is closely related to the zeitgeist of his time. (In a pri-
vate, more critical remark, his academic teacher and lifelong supporter Guido Adler
characterized his literary style and presentation as “to border on the mystical”3).
His terminology, metaphors, and potentially even his concepts were inspired by
such popular writers as Arthur Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud,
and proved to be evocative for the broader audience of the 1920s, a fact that further
contributed to his reputation as music theorist. As a result, his books became very
popular music theoretical texts, provoking enthusiastic acclaim as well as harsh po-
lemics.4 Yet behind Kurth’s suggestive analytical narratives hides a well-conceived
(albeit complex and subtle) methodological and theoretical framework. Using his
concept of tonality as an example, in this essay I investigate the close relation be-
tween Kurth’s conception of music theory, his vision of appropriate scientific meth-
odology, and the specific means he chose to represent musical-technical features in
his analyses.
With his research projects, Kurth intended to contribute to a new concept of
music theory. Already in his first book, Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Har-
monik und der tonalen Darstellungssysteme,5 Kurth laid out some critical observa-
tions on the state of contemporary music theory which proved programmatic for his
later scholarly work. To give an example from one particular discipline of music
theory, Kurth’s Voraussetzungen questions some foundations of Hugo Riemann’s
work, particularly the validity of physicalism for harmonic theory. Riemann’s em-
phasis on the structure of chords and on harmonic progressions at the expense of
their linear aspects (namely horizontal, contrapuntal lines) cannot, according to
Kurth, be supported by any objective reasoning or by the results of reliable scientific
research. More generally, Kurth claims that the inability of “tone psychology” (as
a discipline) to provide “a logically unified and consistent transition from acoustics

terpoint to contemporary music; cf. Ernst Kurth, Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts, 5th
ed. (Bern: Max Drechsel, 1917; Bern: Krompholz, 1956), xiii. Citations are to the Krompholz
3 Guido Adler to Ernst Kurth, Vienna, 10 September 1920. “You extend the language of the mu-
sicological literature and supply fruitful suggestions for the future. […] Some things seem to
me to border on the mystical – probably intentionally so, since that will certainly not have es-
caped your sharp wit.” (“[…] Sie erweitern den Sprachschatz der mw. Literatur u. bringen
fruchtbare Anregungen für die Zukunft. […] Manches erscheint mir als an der Grenze zum
Mystischen stehend – wol beabsichtigt, denn Ihrem scharfen Verstand wird das wol nicht ent-
gangen sein.”) Original at the Kurth Archive, Bern University, Department of Musicology.
4 Compare, for example, the detailed discussion of reviews and reactions after the publication of
the Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts in Luitgard Schader, Ernst Kurths “Grundlagen des
linearen Kontrapunkts”: Ursprung und Wirkung eines musikpsychologischen Standardwerkes
(Stuttgart: Metzler, 2001), 109–86.
5 Ernst Kurth, Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik und der tonalen Darstellungs-
systeme (Bern: Max Drechsel, 1913). Second, unaltered edition with an epilogue by Carl Dahl-
haus, Schriften zur Musik 14 (Munich: Katzbichler, 1973). English translation by Lee A. Roth-
farb as Ernst Kurth’s The Requirements for a Theory of Harmony: An Annotated Translation
with an Introductory Essay (Master’s thesis, Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford,
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 127

to musical logic”6 as envisioned by Riemann7 repudiates the possibility of a music

theory based solely on ideals of scientific methodology established in the natural,
exact sciences; results of research in the fields of acoustics do not explain musical
phenomena. Following this diagnosis, Kurth pleads for a different conception of
music theory based on a distinction between the appearance (Erscheinungsform) of
sound (Klang) and the underlying forces in music. He considers the former (i.e. the
sound) as just a partial representation of music’s essence and describes the under-
lying forces—specified as force (Kraft) and as energy (Energie)—as the root and
foundation of music.8 Accordingly, Kurth contends that these forces influence all
musical activity (composition, performance, listening) and must therefore be taken
into account for all parts of music theory.9 Indeed, one can describe the main objec-
tive of his theoretical project as a shift in perspective away from the appearance of
music, the acoustical (physical) exterior, towards an investigation of subconscious
forces, the psychological interior. This premise raises the question of how the exist-
ence and supposed impact of these forces can be appropriately conceptualized as the
foundation of music theory.10 Conventional music-theoretical approaches deny—or
at least ignore—the existence of such unconscious roots which, according to Kurth,
nonetheless intuitively penetrate all scientific concepts.11 Kurth’s major objective
in virtually all his writings from the Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik
(1913) up to Musikpsychologie (1931) is to shed light on the meaning, implications,
and working mechanisms of what he considers to be the hidden roots of music.12

6 “der logisch einheitliche und geschlossene Übergang von der Akustik zur musikalischen Lo-
gik.” Kurth, Voraussetzungen, 6.
7 Riemann divides music theory in three areas: physics (acoustics), physiology, and psychology.
In his 1882 essay “The Nature of Harmony,” he describes the “investigation of the nature of
sounding bodies” as part of physics, the perception of tone sensations as “part of physiology,”
and the “nature of tone representations and their combination” as part of psychology. Benjamin
Steege, “’The Nature of Harmony’: A Translation and Commentary,” in The Oxford Handbook
of Neo-Riemannian Music Theories, ed. Edward Gollin and Alexander Rehding (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2011), 65.
8 Kurth uses “force” often in an unspecific way to characterize dynamic motion, whereas “en-
ergy” with its sub-categories “potential” and “kinetic” energy becomes a technical terms in his
music theory.
9 “[Der psychische Spannungszustand] wirkt […] in die gesamte musikalische Theorie, die sich
demnach als eine energetische Entwicklung darstellt und diese in Aufbau und Entfaltung der
klanglichen Erscheinungen nur spiegelt; diese Auswirkung betrifft aber alle Zweige der Mu-
siktheorie, die Harmonik ebensowie die Melodik und lineare Kontrapunktik und (in gewissem
Umformungen) die Rhythmik, alle Formenkunst und schließlich über die Theorie hinaus die
Ästhetik und Stilpsychologie […]” (emphasis by Kurth). Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 5–6.
10 Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 62–67.
11 Kurth, Voraussetzungen, 6.
12 The closing paragraph of his study Romantic Harmony is paradigmatic: “Liegen die dringend-
sten Zukunftsaufgaben und die eigentlichsten Wurzeln der Musikpsychologie in der Erfor-
schung dieser unterbewußten Spannungen, so ist der erste Weg hierzu ihre Erkenntnis in den
musikalischen Erscheinungsformen und ihren vom Stil- und Zeitempfinden bedingten Wand-
lungen. Die Grundfragen vom Wesen jener psychologischen Vorgänge steigen unmittelbar hin-
ter ihnen auf. Sie alle umkreisen das einfachste, aber größte Rätsel musikwissenschaftlicher
Forschung: was ist Musik?” Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 571.
128 Felix Wörner

It has sometimes been assumed that Kurth’s critique of principles from the
natural sciences (such as objectivity, universality, logical deductions, and system-
atic coherence) as paradigms for music theory produces an approach nurtured by
arbitrary psychologism or even mysticism. In reality, such is not the case, and prec-
edents for Kurth’s critique can be traced back as far as the late-nineteenth century.
In his 1883 work Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften,13 the philosopher, his-
torian, and psychologist Wilhelm Dilthey set the concept of “understanding” (ver-
stehen) as the objective of historical against the concept of “explaining” (erklären)
as the objective of the natural sciences. To achieve “understanding,” Dilthey advo-
cated expanding established philological-hermeneutical methodologies to consider
the “Einfühlung” and “Erleben” of any artwork. With this psychologically based
method, Dilthey sought to establish a direct link between the contemporary and the
historical subject. While the validity of this methodology was always under debate,
Dilthey’s dichotomy between “understanding” and “explaining” as two equally
valid procedures in their respective areas of science—the cultural and the natural—
shaped the discussion within the theory and philosophy of science well into the
twentieth century. As previous research has noted, Kurth’s music-theoretical con-
cept absorbs various influences from a wide array of disciplines such as philosophy,
cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, and intellectual history.14 Kurth’s rejection
of the natural sciences’ ideal of “objective character” as a sufficient foundation for
music theory leads him to the conclusion that it must be complemented or even
guided by another principle which he terms “instinctive character.”15 As even a
cursory reading of Kurth’s writings makes clear, his way of contrasting the “objec-
tive scientific” and the “instinctive” indicates a paradigmatic distinction and a shift
towards a different understanding of the methodologies and objectives of science.
For example, as Kurth explains in the preface of Romantic Harmony, his investiga-
tion of the principles of Romantic harmony seeks to distinguish between chang-
ing, historically bound characteristics of music and absolute principles.16 In order
to achieve this objective, Kurth proposes “a close connection between theoretical

13 Wilhelm Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften: Versuch einer Grundlegung für das
Studium der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1883).
14 An excellent overview of how Kurth’s theory relates to various intellectual and cultural cur-
rents of his time can be found in Lee A. Rothfarb, “Ernst Kurth in Historical Perspective: His
Intellectual Inheritance and Music-theoretical Legacy,” in Gedenkschrift Ernst Kurth:
­Schweizer Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft 6/7 (1986/87): 23–42. Other important writings by
the same author about Kurth’s music theory include his seminal study Ernst Kurth as Theorist
and Analyst (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988) and the edited volume
Ernst Kurth: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Lee A. Rothfarb (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1991). Expanding on Rothfarb, Brian Hyer emphasizes the possible importance of
Sigmund Freud’s writings for Kurth in “Musical Hysteria,” 19th-Century Music 14 (1990):
15 “unsere gesamte Musiktheorie neben einem objektiv wissenschaftlichen auch eines gewissen
instinktiven Charakters nicht entbehren kann,” Kurth, Voraussetzungen, 6.
16 Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, xi.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 129

studies and style-psychological conditions,”17 by which he intends to reestablish

the true relation of theory with “art” and “living art.”18
Kurth’s concept of music as “living art,” and the position of the “living art
work” within his theory, is based on certain premises outlined in the opening chap-
ters of Linearer Kontrapunkt and Romantische Harmonik. In a move away from the
prevailing paradigm in Austro-German music theory, Kurth seeks (a) the historiza-
tion of theoretical concepts, including the development of compositional styles and
their relation to the zeitgeist;19 (b) a repositioning of the relationship between the
mental (seelisch) and sensual (sinnlich) content of music;20 (c) the inclusion of the
listener’s active participation in the understanding of music.21 I will briefly com-
ment on the second point, the relation of the mental and sensual content of music.
Within Kurth’s concept, the sensual part of music is nothing more than the limited
appearance of much stronger and more complex inner (psychological) processes.
This notion is tellingly captured with the aphorism “The sound (Klang) is dead;
what lives within it, is the will to sound.”22 Consequently, music theory must direct
its attention towards this essential feature of music: research has to focus on the
motivating psychological forces23:
Therefore, music is not a reflection of nature, but the experience of its mysterious energies
themselves inside us; the feelings of tension within us are the characteristic sensing of similar
living forces, as they reveal themselves at the very beginning of all physical and organic life.24

Kurth’s writings are peppered with terms such as experience (Erlebnis), energy
(Energie), tension (Spannung), living forces (lebendige Kräfte), etc. This charac-
teristic and symptomatic choice of language places Kurth in the proximity of the

17 “enge Verbindung theoretischer Studien mit stilpsychologischen Voraussetzungen,” Ibid., xi.

18 “lebendiger Kunst,” Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, xi.
19 “So ist auch die musikalische Technik selbst, als Ganzes genommen, Symbol [Kurth defines
‘Symbol’ as ‘sinnliche Ausdrucksbilder des Seelischen’], indem sie in allen ihren Wandlungen
durch die verschiedenen Stilperioden mit ihrer gesamten Charakteristik und mit ihren vielfa-
chen Einzelmerkmalen nur einen tieferen künstlerischen Gestaltungswillen zum Ausbruch her-
vordringen läßt. Der künstlerische Schaffensvorgang, dessen Vollkraft nur zersprengt in die
Ausdrucksform hineinklingt, ist darum stets auch nur aus einem Zurückfühlen ins Unbewußte
zu erfassen, aus einer Resonanzfähigkeit für die lebendigen Kräfte, die sich ans Licht des
Kunstwerks verloren haben.” Ibid., 9.
20 Ibid., 5.
21 “Das musikalische Hören, das Erlebnis des Kunstwerks, ist gar nicht im wesentlichen eine
Gehörs- noch auch von Grund auf harmonisch-logische Verstandestätigkeit, sondern der psy-
chische Spannungsverlauf eines Mitströmens mit dem Urvorgang der Bewegungskräfte,” ibid.,
8. For further comments on the nature of “musical listening” in this publication, cf. significant
statements on p. 59, 69, 163, and 397.
22 “Der Klang ist tot; was in ihm lebt, ist der Wille zum Klang.” Ibid., 3
23 “Nicht die neuere Natur und aller Aufbau physikalisch vorgebildeter Grundformen ist Schöpfer
der Harmonik, sondern die innere, psychische Natur” and “Die Umsetzung gewisser Span-
nungsvorgänge in Klänge zu beobachten, ist die Kernaufgabe aller Musiktheorie.” ibid., 2.
24 “Die Musik ist daher keine Spiegelung der Natur, sondern das Erlebnis ihrer rätselhaften Ener-
gien selbst in uns; die Spannungsempfindungen in uns sind das eigentümliche Verspüren von
gleichartigen lebendigen Kräften, wie sie sich im Uranfang alles physischen und organischen
Lebens offenbaren.” Ibid., 5.
130 Felix Wörner

highly popular philosophical trend of “philosophy of life” (Lebensphilosophie). In

1920, the German philosopher Heinrich Rickert characterized Lebensphilosophie
as a “fashion of our time,”25 explicitly commenting on and criticizing a certain
mannerism in the movement’s handling of key words.26 Although ideas and termi-
nology associated with Lebensphilosophie were pervasive, it is possible to high-
light one particular contemporary philosopher from this movement as an influential
source of inspiration for Kurth: Henri Bergson.27 It is particularly striking that the
contrasting methodological approaches mentioned above (the “scientific-objective”
and the “intuitive”) were already developed as part of Bergson’s metaphysical con-
cept around 1900. In one of his most popular and internationally-discussed essays,
“Introduction a la métaphysique” (1903),28 Bergson distinguished the conventional
procedure of modern science which—based on the comparative study of single
elements from known and new objects—tries to analyze and categorize these ob-
jects.29 While such a procedure produces a diversity of perspectives, it remains
focused on the surface of objects. Furthermore, it is essentially an infinite process,
since any additional perspective or category not only enlarges, but also changes
the always incomplete image of the object. In order to compensate for these limita-
tions, Bergson propagates the so-called intuitive method. As the following passage
from “An Introduction to Metaphysics” demonstrates, the method of “intuition”—
in contrast to analysis, the established scientific method—aims at the “real” and at
the “essence” of the object:
This means that analysis operates always on the immobile, whilst intuition places itself in mo-
bility, or, what comes to the same thing, in duration. There lies the very distinct line of demarca-
tion between intuition and analysis. The real, the experienced and the concrete are recognized
by the fact that they are variability itself, the element by the fact that it is invariable. And the

25 Heinrich Rickert, Die Philosophie des Lebens: Darstellung und Kritik der philosophischen
Modeströmungen unserer Zeit (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1920).
26 Ibid., 3–16. Rickert argues that Lebensphilosophie fails to define and to use those key words as
philosophical terms, de facto denying Lebensphilosophie the status of a philosophical disci-
27 Rickert names Bergson as the most authentic contemporary philosopher of the philosophy of
life (Rickert, Philosophie des Lebens, 22). Kurth’s reception of Bergson’s philosophy is also
discussed in Wolfgang Krebs, Innere Dynamik und Energetik in Ernst Kurths Musiktheorie,
Frankfurter Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft 28 (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1998), 304–11.
28 “Introduction a la métaphysique,” first published in Revue de métaphysique et de morale in
1903; German trans. by R. Bendemann (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1909).
29 “L’analyse est l’opération qui ramène l’objet à des éléments déjà connus, c’est-à-dire communs
à cet objet et à d’autres. Analyser consiste donc à exprimer une chose en fonction de ce qui n’est
pas elle. Toute analyse est ainsi une traduction, un développement en symboles, une représen-
tation prise de points de vue successifs d’où l’on note autant de contacts entre l’objet nouveau,
qu’on étudie, et d’autres, que l’on croit déjà connaître. Dans son désir éternellement inassouvi
d’embrasser l’objet autour duquel elle est condamnée à tourner, l’analyse multiplie sans fin les
points de vue pour compléter la représentation toujours incomplète, varie sans relâche les sym-
boles pour parfaire la traduction toujours imparfaite. Elle se continue donc à i’infini.” Bergson,
Introduction, 1395–96. English trans. in Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans.
T. E. Hulme, ed. John Mullarkey and Michael Kolkman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
2007), 5.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 131

element is invariable by definition, being a diagram, a simplified reconstruction, often a mere

symbol, in any case a motionless view of the moving reality.30

Since Bergson conceptualizes reality as variable and constantly moving, it can only
be encompassed by a faculty capable of following this motion. Only intuition—a
specific procedure of observation as well as a prerequisite for any development of
terms and concepts—enables the human being to capture reality in duration. By
contrast, analysis only reaches out to the invariable elements. It is the objective of
true science—defined by the French philosopher as “metaphysics”—to grasp the
essence of reality in its variability. Bergson summarizes the core of the relation be-
tween intuition and analysis with the following aphorism: “from intuition one can
pass to analysis, but not from analysis to intuition.”31
Although Kurth only occasionally refers to Bergson’s writings explicitly,32 nu-
merous passages in Kurth’s texts reveal striking similarities to Bergson’s concept of
metaphysics as well as his concept of music theory as science. In addition to certain
key terms such as “life,” “intuition,” etc. which were readily available as part of
so-called Le Bergsonism, Kurth’s writings also exhibit more explicit influences of
Bergson’s thought. Kurth’s description of the ideal principles of scientific research,
for example, closely resembles Bergson’s concept of metaphysics:
Therefore, even for scientific observation purposes, some appearances, such as a style of art,
are not to be deduced merely from an analysis of component parts, since their combination
effectively creates a new unity to be comprehended only intuitively. Therefore, for scientific
research it is essential to use—in addition to philological analysis—intuition. Intuition is not a
kind of artificial finery, but organically conditioned by the essence of the processes.33

Having established a conceptual link between Bergson’s philosophy and Kurth’s

conception of music theory, I turn now to an investigation of Kurth’s concept of
tonality, focusing on how “intuition” as methodology shapes Kurth’s view and as-
sessment of the principles of tonality.

30 “C’est dire que l’analyse opère sur l’immobile, tandis que l’intuition se place dans la mobilité
ou, ce qui revient au même, dans la durée. Là est la ligne de démarcation bien nette entre
l’intuition et l’analyse. On reconnaît le réel, le vécu, le concret, à ce qu’il est la variabilité
même. On reconnaît l’élément à ce qu’il est la variabilité même. On reconnaît l’élément à ce
qu’il est invariable. Et il est invariable par définition, étant un schéma, une reconstruction sim-
plifiée, souvent un simple symbole, en tout cas une vue prise sur la réalité qui s’écoule.” Berg-
son, Introduction, 1412–13. English translation in Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Meta-
physics, 28.
31 “[…] de l’intuition on peut passer à l’analyse, mais non pas de l’analyse à l’intuition.” Bergson,
Introduction, 1413. English translation in Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 28.
32 For example, in Musikpsychologie, Kurth mentions Bergson’s early work Essais sur les don-
nées immédiates de la conscience (1889). Kurth, Musikpsychologie (Berlin: Hesse, 1931), 46.
33 “Daher ist auch für das wissenschaftliche Schauen irgendeine Erscheinung, z. B. ein Kunststil,
nicht bloß aus der Analyse der Bestandteile ableitbar; da mit deren Zusammenwirken die neue,
nur intuitiv erfaßbare Einheit einsetzt, so liegt es im Wesen einer wissenschaftlichen Betrach-
tung, daß sie neben philologisch zerlegender Eingänglichkeit auch der Intuition bedarf, die
somit nicht irgendeinen künstlerischen Aufputz darstellt, sondern organisch aus dem Wesen der
Vorgänge bedingt ist.” Ibid., 31.
132 Felix Wörner

In a brief recapitulation of the development of tonality, Kurth distinguishes

three historically significant ways of expressing tonal motion. The oldest concept
of key is based on the scale types of the church modes, and predominately linear in
conception.34 After a long transitional period during the emergence of polyphony,
the so-called “harmonic concept of key” (harmonischer Tonartsbegriff) finally pre-
vailed in the common-practice period; it finds its clearest realization in the music of
the high-classical composers. This harmonic concept of key, with its characteristic
contrast between major and minor fundamental chords, embodies a more “natural
capability of feeling”35 than the older scale types of the church modes. During the
nineteenth century, the significance of chords as basic pillars of the expression of to-
nality is undermined and gradually replaced by a new concept of key characterized
by tension (Spannung): throughout his study, Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan
serves as Kurth’s example par excellence for this kind of heightened dynamism. In
a significant change from the classical period, Kurth envisions Romantic-period
tonality as being expressed through a tension in the motion towards the tonic (this
feature is encapsulated in Kurth’s concept of gravitation of will [Willensstrebung],
or perception of tension [Spannungsempfinden]) rather than a clear manifestation
or affirmation of the tonic itself. Historically, this shift does not happen suddenly,
nor it is possible to grasp this change by focusing exclusively on technical aspects.
Quite the contrary: Kurth emphasizes the importance of and directs our attention
towards the psychological foundation of the Romantic style.
In principle, the concept of tonality rests on the assumption that tonal chords
are grouped in relation to a central chord, the tonic. Kurth provides the following
explanation of the term “tonality” in Romantic Harmony:
The concept of “tonality” means the unifying connection of sounds towards a central tonic and
therefore, it entails two requirements: first, the existence of merging factors, second, the exist-
ence or at least the possibility of the “ideelle” reconstruction of a key center.36

At first glance, Kurth’s description of tonality is very similar to Hugo Riemann’s

definition, as provided in his Musik-Lexikon.37 Such a basic outline of tonality de-
mands specification, and Kurth immediately qualifies this universal explanation by
scrutinizing the “merging factors.” He argues that integrative tendencies in music

34 Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 327.

35 “natürliche Empfindungsweise,” Ibid., 327.
36 “Der Begriff ‘Tonalität’ bedeutet die einheitliche Beziehung der Klänge auf eine zentrale To-
nika und enthält daher zweierlei Voraussetzungen; einmal das Vorhandensein zusammenschlie-
ßender Momente, zweitens das Vorhandensein oder zumindest die ideelle Rekonstruierbarkeit
eines tonartlichen Zentrums.” Ibid., 306. I translate Kurth’s terms “Tonartsempfinden” and
“Tonartsbegriff” as “tonal notion.”
37 Riemann writes that tonality is “the particular meaning which the chords acquire through their
relation to a central chord, the tonic” (eigentümliche Bedeutung, welche die Akkorde erhalten
durch ihre Bezogenheit auf einen Hauptklang, die Tonika). Hugo Riemann, “Tonalität,” Musik-
Lexikon 7 (1909): column 1422. Brian Hyer discusses just how limited and indeed problematic
Riemann’s “definition” of tonality is in “What is a Function?” in The Oxford Handbook of Neo-
Riemannian Music Theories, ed. Edward Gollin and Alexander Rehding (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2011), 92–139. Kurth discusses Riemann’s definition in comparison with
Sechter’s concept of tonality in Romantic Harmony, 308–9, n. 1.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 133

are neither exclusively based on physical (acoustical) principles, nor on what Rie-
mann calls “intellectual activity.”38 Rather, Kurth’s basic argument rests on his con-
ception of the all-pervasive principle of dynamism in music (based on psychology).
How the feeling of tonality is created, and how tonality affects any individual work,
is a complex phenomenon which cannot be adequately explained by systematic cat-
egorization. Although Kurth outlines some general principles of how tonality is—to
various degrees—expressed in nineteenth-century music (with a particular focus on
the supposed psychological underground), only a close reading of any individual
composition can grasp the essence of each unique realization.
Kurth explains the most elementary principle of how “merging factors” func-
tion through an investigation of the musical tone and the (dynamic) organization
of the scale. Even the most basic element of music, a single tone, incorporates a
tendency: “the resting tone has will to move.”39 As Kurth describes in Grundla-
gen, each melodic pitch in a musical context is perceived as part of a line, not as
a singular entity;40 it is embedded in and well-integrated into a melodic (directed)
motion.41 Coherence stems from “forces,” or inner “energy” towards motion; Kurth
defines this force as “kinetic energy” (kinetische Energie)42. This principle is al-
ready at work at the conception of the most “basic form of the tonal organized
melody,” the major scale.43 The motion (Bewegungszug) of the scale is primarily
directed from the fundamental tone towards the upper octave, and only secondar-
ily determined by further harmonic and tonal aspects. The major scale, as the most
elementary stepwise and completed motion, is further determined by the simplest
harmonic relations, the tonic chord (in C: C-E-G), and the two dominant chords (G:
G-B-D; and F: F-A-C).44 The two dominants are highlighted by the formation of
the two identically structured tetrachords (scale degree 1̂ to 4̂, and scale degree 5̂ to
8̂ of the major scale): the fourth tone of the scale functions as a momentary goal,
the fifth tone as the new starting point.45 Based on the inherent dynamic principle,
Kurth defines the goal-directed motion towards the octave as the essence (Wesen) of
the major scale, which is further enriched by the heightened tension of the leading-
tone. Any additional melodic chromaticism serves to increase the feeling of kinetic
It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss Kurth’s assessment and subse-
quent reasoning of the relation between major and minor triad, major and minor
scale, the issue of dualism, his discussion of rhythm and motion, or other funda-

38 Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 47. Kurth opposes Riemann’s understanding of the intellectual
unifying relation as a psychological principle.
39 “Der ruhende Ton ist Wille zur Bewegung,” Ibid., 30.
40 As Kurth describes most clearly in his music psychology, our perception of a complex of tones
can be best explained according to the principles of Gestalt theory. Cf. Kurth, Musikpsycholo-
gie, 25–28.
41 “Das Melodische ist nicht eine Zusammenfassung von Tönen, sondern ein ursprünglicher Zu-
sammenhang, aus dem sich Töne herauslösen.” Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 18.
42 Ibid., 9–12.
43 Ibid., 39–51.
44 Ibid., 39–40.
45 Ibid., 43.
134 Felix Wörner

mental categories of his music theory such as “force” (Kraft), “space” (Raum), and
“matter” (Materie), all of which are in individually and holistically essential for an
adequate understanding of his broader conception. By extending the discussion of
melodic motion and “kinetic energy” to sonorities and chord progressions, how-
ever, it is possible to capture what Kurth defines as his second energetic principle:
“potential energy.”
Between simultaneously sounding tones exists an attraction (Anziehung),46 a
force of cohesion (Kohäsionskraft). This force of cohesion, which Kurth sees as
stemming from the psychological realm, is the condition for integration or fusion
of single tones into a chordal sonority, as well as the cause for their fusion into
a unified structure. Even when fused into a complex sonority, single tones keep
their kinetic energy (derived from the scale and the melodic motion), reverting the
energy into a tension within each sonority. Kurth defines this tension as “poten-
tial energy” (potentielle Energie).47 In fact, Kurth argues that the vertical and the
horizontal, line and chord, must not be seen as independent entities, but as two in-
tertwined forces. Furthermore, Kurth considers this force of cohesion as initiating a
constant push towards the most stable sonority, the major triad. (Kurth determines
the major triad as the fundamental consonant chord; the minor triad, also labeled
as consonant, is defined as a derivation of the major triad).48 Related to the force of
cohesion is the feeling for the fundamental tone (Grundtonempfindung): Kurth as-
sumes that we perceive pitches as having a mass, and that we sense a gravitational
force centering that mass around the fundamental tone. He considers the relation
between chords to be a “play of forces” trying to accomplish a balance; therefore,
the more stable consonance is a resolution of musical tension, in other words, the
result of a dynamic process.49
Kurth’s concept of dynamic motion as providing connection between chords
complements his theory of fundamental motion. Several aspects are combined in
the progression I-IV and V-I: (1) the traditional role of the fundamental relation
(Rameau, Sechter); (2) the tension-resolution based on the leading-tone progres-
sion; and (3) the possible heightened tension of a dominant-seventh chord (a chord
which has, in Kurth’s terminology, a strong “gravitational” tension, a tension within
a chord). Kurth ascribes all three aspects to the dynamic principle of energy, which
he locates in the psychological realm, insisting that sensation cannot sufficiently
encapsulate consonance-dissonance relation. The experience of consonance and/
or dissonance is rooted in the subconscious as a relation between tension and re-
laxation. Since tension and relaxation are not absolute but relative, their degree
cannot be determined by abstract “theoretical” concepts, and must ultimately be

46 Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 62.

47 Kurth introduces the concept of “potential energy” in Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 68–96.
48 Ibid., 83–88. It might be added that although Kurth considers the major triad as the most stable
consonant chord, he nonetheless sees a tension at work within this sonority. Kurth argues that
it is only because we are so used to perceiving the major triad as consonant that the inherent
tension of the sonority is hidden by its acoustical exterior.
49 Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 62–68.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 135

determined through the totality of the musical features within any individual com-
Kurth’s description of tonality as the “coherent relation of the sounds towards
a central tonic”50 highlights just one of several factors in a complex set of interact-
ing forces, a dynamic process which is constantly in flux. The challenge for music
theory and for music analysis lies in the fact that the effect of tonality—the realiza-
tion of tonal features in a composition—depends on this very interaction of various
and often contrasting factors. In this context, Kurth introduces further categories
which he describes as substantial features of the Romantic musical language. In
particular, he focuses on the notions of “sound” (Klang)51 and “sound connection”
(Klangverbindung) and their effects in expressing tonality, distinguishing three dif-
ferent levels of effects for sound in a musical context. First, its specific tonal func-
tion, conceptualized as the relation of a chord (Klang) to the central tonic. Second,
the relation of a sound to the immediately preceding chord influences the perceptive
effect on this (local) level. While “simple tonal music”52 strongly integrates this
factor, nineteenth-century music tends to emphasize the effect of particular chord
progressions. Third, the pure effect of a sound might be strongly influenced by its
individual attraction, its “sonic appeal” (Klangreiz an sich).53 All three aspects are
interrelated. Important for Kurth’s notion of tonality is the fact that so-called “abso-
lute progression” (absolute Fortschreitung) and “absolute sonic appeal” (absoluter
Klangreiz) necessarily create an isolating effect; thus, they potentially work against
the integrative, structural principle of tonality. The penetration of these features into
the unifying tonal principle is a general characteristic of Romantic music: it is a sign
of the two contrasting forces at work, and described by Kurth as the “constructive”
and “destructive” process.54
Over the course of his book Romantic Harmony, Kurth develops his interpreta-
tive readings and theoretical categories through discussions of individual musical
passages (provided in short score). At this point, it should be clear that Kurth does
not start his investigation with technical aspects of a composition; he even warns
that such an approach inevitably misses the essential. True to his view that the es-
sence of music lies beyond the physical sound and cannot be grasped by analyzing
the elements of music (such as motives, thematic structure, harmony), he argues
that active listening paves the way to the recognition of meaning in musical art.
What is given through representation (Anschauung) only indicates the underlying
forces; the immediate recognition of these forces becomes possible by the process
of listening. In the methodological reflections interspersed throughout his writings,
Kurth’s approach is consistent with what Bergson calls the “intuitive” method. The

50 Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 306.

51 Ibid., 262. For an English translation of Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 262–305, see partial
translation in Ernst Kurth: Selected Writings, ed. Lee A. Rothfarb (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1991), 119–29.
52 Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 263.
53 Ibid., 263. Kurth categorizes the first two aspects as “relative,” the third one as “absolute.” One
might, of course, question the notion that “absolute sonic effect” exists. Cf. Ibid., 297–305.
54 Cf. Rothfarb, Ernst Kurth: Selected Writings, 119.
136 Felix Wörner

complexities and ambiguities of sonorities (which are understood here as merely

the diminished exterior of the dynamics of inner forces) shape the “living art.”
For Kurth, theory must pursue a new approach in order to capture these complexi-
ties, which cannot be grasped partially, but only in their entirety. The interpreta-
tion starts with the individual art work, and through a discussion of its features the
investigation establishes categories. These categories might be best compared with
regulative ideas, helping us to understand certain features of the musical language.
Since Kurth rejects the validity of just identifying and systematizing the elements in
favor of understanding the underlying “forces” at work, interpretation can hardly be
presented in a graphic or symbolic representation. Apart from some sparingly used
Roman-numeral analysis, Kurth consistently avoids any form of “analytical” nota-
tion. Kurth’s interpretations seem to be best conveyed through language, a medium
well-suited to his procedure of gradually expanding and enlarging his views on
the features under discussion.55 This method might also serve a pedagogical func-
tion. Indeed, readers who patiently follow Kurth’s extended discussion of musical
passages (often short ones) will not only receive an introduction to Kurth’s music
theory, but may also experience a gradual shift in how they listen to these passages,
and subsequently in how they listen to this particular musical style.
The “intuitive” approach, avoiding categorization in favor of an often-meta-
phorical elucidation, shows how tonality works when conceived as a flexible, con-
text-dependent, and psychologically-influenced feature. In addition, for Kurth, it is
the methodology of style-psychology that helps open a path to an adequate reading
of the artwork. Scattered through his writings, he elucidates this approach; two
shortened passages will serve as closing examples, the first one commenting on the
Romantic, and the second one on the definitions of expressionism and impression-
ism in music:
(1) The basic psychological manifestations of Romanticism, which are based on a heightened
conflict between the world of appearance and subconscious forces, set off inharmonic relations
a polar development, at once a current which enforces an intensification and tightening of en-
ergetic forces, and a trend which pushes sound-sensuous feeling to greatest intensification. […]
the kind of feeling for music changes, and with it the technique as a whole.56
(2) To declare the overcoming of harmonic tonality as the criteria for expressionistic or impres-
sionistic character is insufficient, because the breaking away from tonality happens gradually
and seamlessly, and also because technical aspects are never the only determining factor, but
rather the kind of feeling for art. Technical criteria […] find a far more essential fulfillment in
all those criteria of impressionistic harmony for which the technical traits are nothing but a

55 Cf., for example, his extended investigation into the beginning of Wagner’s Tristan where, by
taking multiple perspectives, he slowly develops his reading of the music.
56 “Die psychologischen Grunderscheinungen der Romantik, die in erhöhtem Widerspiel von Er-
scheinungswelt und unterbewußten Kräften beruhen, lösen in der Harmonik den Vorgang einer
polaren Entwicklung aus, gleichzeitig eine Strömung, die gegen intensivste Stärke und An-
spannung aller energetischen Kräfte hintreibt und eine Strömung, die das klangsinnliche Emp-
finden in höchste Steigerungen treibt. […] die Art des Musikempfindens ändert sich, und damit
die ganze Technik.” Kurth, Romantische Harmonik, 312.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 137

means of expression, namely the art-psychological direction of will, the principle of shading
(Tönungsprinzip), and the specific kind of listening.57

In the introductory chapter on the psychological foundations of Romantic harmony,

Kurth argues for a particularly strong inner unity between general intellectual and
musical phenomena during the Romantic period. Consistent with the image of the
Romantic period in vogue at the beginning of the twentieth century, Kurth articu-
lates the spirit of Romanticism and its turn against the enlightened classical period
by emphasizing the movement’s strong interests in the subconscious, the demonic
element of the darker side, the fantastic, the magic, and the wonderful, as well as in
the individual and the particular. These psychological implications of the Romantic
spirit are reflected in technical aspects of the musical language, a language which
strengthens “destructive” forces and is clearly directed against a characteristically
rounded and well-balanced classical tonality.
Kurth’s aim to understand music as a manifestation of forces and motion cre-
ated by inner, psychological tensions must at least partly be understood as his re-
sponse to contemporary music theory and an explicit attempt to reconcile (living)
art and music theory. Music theory as a purely technical investigation focusing on
“elements” certainly does not capture the essence of art, and therefore such an ap-
proach is bound to fail. According to Kurth, only by intuition can we apprehend
psychological direction of will (psychologische Willensrichtung), shading of tones
(Tönungsprinzip), and a specific way of listening (besondere Art des Hörens), all
of which are features necessary for understanding the work as a whole. Equally, an
adequate understanding of Romantic-style tonality (particularly of the individual
realization of tonal principles within an art work), only becomes possible by taking
these aspects into account.
Reviewing Kurth’s Musikpsychologie—the author’s last major contribution to
music theory—in 1933, Theodor W. Adorno characterized Kurth’s approach as a
late fulfillment of the increased subjectification of music theory during the (long)
nineteenth century.58 Kurth conceptualizes the object of music theory as having two
interrelated parts: the outside, which materializes in physical sounds, and the inner
world of forces, which—although determining the outside—is only incompletely
expressed by these physical manifestations. Hence, tonality is not a principle based
on natural laws, or a ready-made device on hand for composers of the common-
practice period to create coherence within a piece. Rather, tonality is expressed
to various degrees by “merging factors,” which—although partially historically

57 “Die Setzung der Überwindung der harmonischen Tonalität im Satzstil als Kriterium für ex-
pressionistischen oder impressionistischen Charakter ist unzulänglich, da sich der Ausbruch
aus der Tonalität selbst allmählich und unabgrenzbar vollzieht, dann aber weil technische Er-
scheinungen niemals allein maßgebend sind, sondern die Art des Kunstempfindens. Technische
Merkmale […] finden ihre weitaus wesentlichere Ergänzung durch alle jene Krierien impres-
sionistischer Harmonik, von welchen sich die technischen Züge selbst nur als Ausdrucksmittel
herausbilden, die kunstpsychologische Willensrichtung, das Tönungsprinzip und die besondere
Art des Hörens.” Ibid., 399.
58 Theodor W. Adorno, “Ernst Kurths ‘Musikpsychologie’” (1933), in Theodor W. Adorno, Ge-
sammelte Schriften 19, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984), 350–51.
138 Felix Wörner

determined—depend on a variety of factors such as the overall musical style and

the plurality of shaping forces within any individual composition. Abstract terms
and visual metaphors fall short in capturing these ever-changing and multilayered
forces at work. Rather, following Dilthey’s psychological-hermeneutical method-
ology, Kurth emphasizes the importance of a “musical-kinetic empathy” (musika-
lisch-kinetische Einfühlung)59 for capturing and conceptualizing these essential in-
ner forces. This approach becomes particularly valuable under the condition that
tonality—conceived as a result of conflicting constructive and destructive forces—
is artistically expressed in highly individual ways. While commentators during the
first decades of the twentieth century might have been more typically inclined to
ask if a composition is tonal (or atonal), Kurth implicitly questions the relevance
of this categorization. Rather, music theory must pursue the problem of to what de-
gree and through what means tonal features (however defined) are expressed within
a composition or a musical style, and what these features reveal about the inner
world being expressed through music. Presenting this challenge for music theory
by foregrounding the subjective experience of the dynamics of music, Kurth’s no-
tion of tonality is demonstrably indebted to such diverse philosophical concepts as
Dilthey’s psychological hermeneutics, Le Bergsonism, and Gestalt theory. How-
ever, the dilemma of how to interpret music’s engagement with the inner world of
the listening subject is not merely a distant historical quest, but is also relevant to
contemporary art theory. Indeed, music’s ability to express desires through tonal
motion and our ability to experience these desires is precisely what separates musi-
cal art from visual media such as paintings. As Karol Berger states in The Theory of
Art: “While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual
world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore an inner
world of desiring.”60 Kurth’s compelling argument for the importance of incorpo-
rating expression in the concepts of music theory speaks powerfully to this musical
potential and reflects significantly on the merits of his scholarship.


Adorno, Theodor W. “Ernst Kurths ‘Musikpsychologie.’” 1933. In Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte

Schriften 19, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 350–58. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984.
Berger, Karol. A Theory of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Bergson, Henri. “Introduction de la Métaphysique.” 1903. Reprint in Bergson, Œuvres, 1392–1432.
German translation by R. Bendemann as “Einführung in die Metaphysik.” Jena: Eugen Died-
erichs, 1909. In English as An Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by T. E. Hulme. Edited
by John Mullarkey and Michael Kolkman. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
— Œuvres. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959.
Dilthey, Wilhelm. Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften: Versuch einer Grundlegung für das Stu-
dium der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1883.
Hyer, Brian. “Musical Hysteria.” 19th-Century Music 14 (1990): 84–94.

59 Kurth, Linearer Kontrapunkt, 216.

60 Karol Berger, A Theory of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 34.
Constructive and Destructive Forces: Ernst Kurth’s Concept of Tonality 139

— “What is a Function?” in The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Riemannian Music Theories, edited by

Edward Gollin and Alexander Rehding, 92–139. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Krebs, Wolfgang. Innere Dynamik und Energetik in Ernst Kurths Musiktheorie. Frankfurter Beiträge
zur Musikwissenschaft 28. Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1998.
Kurth, Ernst. Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik und der tonalen Darstellungssy-
steme. Bern: Max Drechsel, 1913. Second, unaltered edition with an epilogue by Carl Dahl-
haus. Schriften zur Musik 14. München: Katzbichler, 1973. Translated by Lee A. Rothfarb as
Ernst Kurth’s The Requirements for a Theory of Harmony: An Annotated Translation with an
Introductory Essay. Master’s Thesis: University of Hartford, 1971.
— Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts. 1917. 5th edition. Bern: Krompholz, 1956.
— Musikpsychologie. Berlin: Hesse, 1931.
— Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners Tristan. 1920. 3rd edition. Berlin: Max
Hesse, 1923.
— Ernst Kurth: Selected Writings. Edited by Lee A. Rothfarb. Cambridge Studies in Music The-
ory and Analysis 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Rickert, Heinrich. Die Philosophie des Lebens. Darstellung und Kritik der philosophischen Mode-
strömungen unserer Zeit. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1920.
Riemann, Hugo. Musik-Lexikon. 7th completely revised edition. Leipzig: Hesse, 1909.
Rothfarb, Lee A. Ernst Kurth as Theorist and Analyst. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1988.
— “Ernst Kurth in Historical Perspective: His Intellectual Inheritance and Music-theoretical Leg-
acy.” In Gedenkschrift Ernst Kurth: Schweizer Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft 6/7 (1986/87):
Schader, Luitgard. Ernst Kurths ‘Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts’: Ursprung und Wirkung
eines musikpsychologischen Standardwerkes. Metzler: Stuttgart and Weimar, 2001.
Steege, Benjamin. “‘The Nature of Harmony’: A Translation and Commentary,” in The Oxford
Handbook of Neo-Riemannian Music Theories, edited by Edward Gollin and Alexander Reh-
ding, 55–91. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Practices of Tonality
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought .
of Milhaud and Koechlin
Marianne Wheeldon


In the 1920s, a new lexicon of compositional language was introduced and dis-
cussed in French newspapers and music journals. The terms polytonality and ato-
nality appeared frequently in debates on contemporary music, with writers consid-
ering, among other things, their relationship to and effect on tonality. While many
articles appeared on the subject, those by Darius Milhaud and Charles Koechlin
were among the most revealing in that they were written by composers who availed
themselves of both polytonality and atonality, and were thus practitioners with a
vested interest in the dissemination and acceptance of their music. More interest-
ing still is the evolution of their thought as the musical landscape changed in the
1920s and 30s. This evolution was as much a product of the arrival of new artists
and aesthetic tendencies on the French musical scene as a reflection of their chang-
ing compositional outlook. As Pierre Bourdieu has noted, each new entrant in a
cultural field “determines a displacement of the whole structure and that, by the
logic of action and reaction, leads to all sorts of changes in the position-takings of
the occupants of the other positions.”1 This essay traces the various stances taken
by Milhaud and Koechlin with regard to tonality, from its peripheral position in
critical discourse in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, to its growing
centrality in their aesthetic as Schoenberg’s stature rose and free atonality gave way
to twelve-tone composition. Surveying their arguments reveals how they adapted
the notion of tonality to the exigencies of the moment, its definition contingent on
the cultural politics of French music in the 1920s and 30s. In doing so, I hope to
show how concepts like tonality, polytonality, and atonality were in some sense
inherently unstable, deriving much of their meaning from how they were set against
one another in composers’ and critics’ discourse.

Polytonality and Atonality versus Tonality

In the years immediately following the First World War, polytonality was recog-
nized to stand at the center of the new musical language of Les Six (Georges Auric,

1 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1993), 58.
144 Marianne Wheeldon

Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine
Tailleferre). In January 1920, Henri Collet was the first to publicize the connection:
In sum, what is the musical aesthetic of Les Six? They take the complexities of polytonality as a
point of departure in their search for simplicity. They make use of all prior developments. They
are not unaware of the achievements of the last fifty years, from Wagner to Stravinsky, passing
through Strauss and Schoenberg, Debussy and Ravel. But what constitutes a culmination for
the latter is for Les Six only the original chaos from which it is necessary to draw the germinal
idea and a simple expression.

Collet presents post-war polytonality as a simplification of pre-war harmonic ex-

periments in the style, describing its progression from “enchanting vagueness” to
its current “denuded state.”2 As François de Médicis conjectures, this particular
interpretation of polytonality most likely came from Milhaud. In 1920 he was the
only member of Les Six to have extensively experimented with polytonality and
Collet’s description of a musical simplification closely describes Milhaud’s compo-
sitional path of the preceding five years.3 Collet’s article presented polytonality as
a necessary antidote to pre-war musical excess and a salutary compositional style
that clearly demarcated the musical language of Les Six from that of the recent past.
Concomitant with this break from the past, was an embrace of the future. Here
atonality figured as an equally important compositional resource. In May 1920, Les
Six published the following statement: “Arnold Schönberg les 6 musiciens vous
saluent.”4 Once again it seemed that this announcement had more relevance for
Milhaud than the other members of Les Six. As a composer Milhaud dedicated his
Fifth String Quartet to Schoenberg in 1920; as a pianist he performed The Book of
the Hanging Gardens with Marya Freund in November 1921; and as a conductor
he led the French premiere of Pierrot Lunaire in January 1922, and continued to
perform this work in Paris and throughout Europe for several years. But as a group,
the published statement of Les Six signaled their commitment to the musical future.
As Marie-Claire Mussat notes:
Schoenberg was a symbol for these young musicians who similarly rebelled and wanted to dis-
tance themselves from conventional language. […] Although they welcomed a means of eman-

2 Henri Collet, “Les six Français: Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honeg-
ger, Francis Poulenc et Germaine Tailleferre,” Comœdia (23 January 1920). Reprinted in Jean
Roy, Le Groupe des Six (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 201. “Quelle est en somme l’esthétique musicale
des Six? Ils partent de la complexité polytonique pour trouver la simplicité. Ils se servent donc
de toute l’évolution antérieure. Ils ne méconnaissent aucune des acquisitions des cinquante
dernières années, depuis Wagner à Stravinski en passant par Strauss et Schönberg, Debussy et
Ravel. Mais ce qui constitue pour ces derniers l’aboutissement n’est pour les Six que le chaos
originel d’où il faut tirer l’idée une et l’expression simple.” Unless otherwise acknowledged, all
translations are my own.
3 François de Médicis, “Darius Milhaud and the Debate on Polytonality in the French Press of
the 1920s,” Music & Letters 86 (2005): 588.
4 Le Coq, no. 1 (May 1920). Le Coq appeared for four issues in 1920 (numbers 3 and 4 were
renamed Le Coq Parisien). Each issue consisted of a single folded broadsheet covered with
aphorisms, brief articles, and upcoming events. Founded by Jean Cocteau and Raymond Ra-
diguet, other contributors included Les Six (individually and collectively), Erik Satie, Lucien
Daudet, Paul Morand, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, and Tristan Tzara.
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin 145

cipation, an aesthetic of freedom, it did not mean that they adopted this language. […] Schoen­
berg confirmed their own endeavors, in the necessity, in the possibility of an alternative.5

With a repudiation of the past that involved polytonality and the liberating idea of
atonality, little attention was given to tonality. When it was mentioned, it was usu-
ally in order to pronounce its death. As Paul Landormy wrote in 1921: “The great
principle of tonality, which one had not yet dared to broach, which one had only
extended as much as possible, is finally battered into pieces.” Landormy viewed
the demise of tonality as the logical outcome of a process that had exhausted its
resources, first undertaken by Wagner, continued by Debussy, and brought to its
culmination by the post-war avant-garde: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and “our young
French musicians, at least those that one calls ‘Les Six.’”6
Given this interpretation, it is surprising to see tonality return a few years later,
invoked as the underlying basis for polytonality. Milhaud’s articles of 1923—“Pol-
ytonalité et Atonalité” and “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vi-
enna”—present a different understanding of the relationship between polytonality,
atonality, and tonality. Instead of considering polytonality and atonality as post-war
reactions against pre-war extended tonality, Milhaud’s articles changed the configu-
ration, with polytonality and tonality now united in their opposition to atonality.

Polytonality and Tonality versus Atonality

By the time Milhaud’s articles on polytonality appeared, they represented his per-
sonal position rather than that of Les Six, for by 1923 the other members of the
group had turned away from both polytonality and atonality. Their most candid
comments on the subject are to found in their correspondence. In August 1921,
Tailleferre wrote to Poulenc: “I have taken your excellent advice and no longer
compose polytonality.”7 On 7 July 1922, Poulenc declared: “Believe me, poly-
tonality is a dead end that will go out of fashion within five years, unless it is the
means of expression for some type of genius, like Darius. I will not speak of atonal-

5 Marie-Claire Mussat, “La réception de Schönberg en France avant la Seconde Guerre mon-
diale,” Revue de Musicologie 87 (2001): 179. “En somme, Schönberg est un symbole pour ces
jeunes musiciens qui, eux aussi, ruent dans les brancards et veulent prendre leurs distances avec
le langage conventionnel. […] Mais qu’ils saluent une démarche d’émancipation, une esthé-
tique de la liberté, ne signifie pas qu’ils aient fait leur ce langage. […] Schönberg les confortait
donc seulement dans leur propre recherche, dans la nécessité, dans la possibilité d’une alterna-
6 Paul Landormy, “Le Déclin de l’Impressionisme,” La Revue Musicale 4 (February 1921): 112.
“De curieux chercheurs, l’Autrichien Schönberg, le Russe Stravinski veulent fonder un ordre
nouveaux, et nos jeunes musiciens français, tout au moins ceux qu’on appelle “les Six”, avan-
cent en tâtonnant encore dans le chemin à peine ouvert dont la direction seule est par avance
tracée. Le grand principe de la tonalité auquel on n’avait pas encore osé sérieusement toucher,
dont on avait seulement élargi autant que possible les applications est enfin battu en brèche.”
7 Germaine Tailleferre to Francis Poulenc, August 1921, in Francis Poulenc, Correspondance,
1910–1963, ed. Myriam Chimènes (Paris: Fayard, 1994), 135. “Je suis tes bons conseils et je
ne fais plus de polytonie.”
146 Marianne Wheeldon

ity. It’s shit.”8 And on 21 December 1922, Auric stated: “A master like Schoenberg,
if I admire him, I cannot be unaware of the harm that he causes almost everywhere
and it was not worth the effort to throw so many stones at Wagner in order to end
up in an Austrian intoxication.”9 Surprisingly even Milhaud, once a champion of
Schoenberg’s music, reversed his position: “Reworked Pierrot Lunaire, which we
are performing this afternoon. Odious, no longer bearable, in horribly bad taste. It
is polished s[hit].”10
Milhaud’s changing estimation of Schoenberg was mirrored by his changing
views on the relationship between atonality and polytonality. Instead of regarding
Schoenberg as a fellow pioneer in avant-garde composition and atonality as an ally
to polytonality, Milhaud now reconfigured atonality and polytonality to be “two
absolutely opposed currents.”11 He further distinguished them by referring to their
ostensible national characteristics. According to Milhaud, the Viennese School,
more broadly defined as Teutonic, was innately chromatic and its continued adher-
ence to chromaticism led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality and the advent
of atonality. In contrast, the French School, more broadly defined as Latin, was
construed as innately tonal, with its continued faith in the triad leading inevitably
to polytonality, where two or more tonalities appeared simultaneously. As Milhaud
bluntly asserts: “Diatoni[ci]sm and Chromaticism are the two poles of musical ex-
pression. One can say that the Latins are diatonic and the Teutons chromatic.”12
By linking polytonality to tonality and Gallic sensibility, Milhaud both reaffirms
a commitment to French tradition and at the same time a remove from atonality,
which reflects his growing disenchantment with Schoenberg.
Milhaud’s insistence that polytonality was tonal consequently led to a much
broader definition of tonality. Using four measures from his Third Symphony for
Small Orchestra as an example, Milhaud demonstrates how each instrumental line
operates within a diatonic scale: flute in B-flat major, clarinet in F major, bassoon
in E major, violin in C major, viola in B-flat major, and cello in D major (Ex. 1).
Despite momentarily juxtaposing five keys, the overall result is tonal, Milhaud ar-
gues, because each melody is recognizably diatonic. With this definition, tonality

8 Poulenc to Paul Collaer, 7 July 1922, in Paul Collaer, Correspondance avec des amis mu-
siciens, ed. Robert Wangermée (Liège: Mardaga, 1996), 103. “Croyez-moi, la polytonie est une
impasse dont on sentira la caducité d’ici 5 ans, à moins que ce ne soit le moyen d’expression
d’un type de génie, comme Darius. Je ne parle pas de l’atonalité: c’est de la merde.” Translated
in de Médicis, “Milhaud and the Debate on Polytonality,” 588 n. 80.
9 Georges Auric to Paul Collaer, 21 December 1922, in Collaer, Correspondance, 119. “mais un
maître comme Schönberg, si je l’admire, je ne puis cacher le mal qu’il commence de faire un
peu partout et ce n’est vraiment pas la peine d’avoir jeté tant de pierres contre Wagner pour en
arriver à l’intoxication autrichienne.”
10 Darius Milhaud to Paul Collaer, 29 December 1924, in Collaer, Correspondance, 196. “Retra-
vaillé le Pierrot Lunaire que nous donnons cet après-midi. Odieux, plus supportable, d’un
mauvais goût horrible. C’est de la m… en platine.” Translated in Barbara L. Kelly, Tradition
and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912–1939 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 15.
11 Darius Milhaud, “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vienna,” The North Ameri-
can Review 35 (April 1923): 546.
12 Ibid., 551.
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin 147

has very little to do with perception and more to do with intention. Milhaud con-
cedes this point when he states that some polytonal and atonal passages are indis-
tinguishable: “most of the time, when considering the harmonic ensemble of these
polytonal counterpoints of diatonic melodies, one obtains vertical aggregations of
unanalyzable notes whose harmonic result is atonal.”13 Regardless of the end result,
however, Milhaud insists that it is the nature of the melodic lines that determines
whether a piece is polytonal or atonal: that is, polytonality has as its point of de-
parture diatonic melodies; atonality, chromatic melodies. In his effort to conjoin
polytonality with tonality Milhaud valorizes melody over harmony, going so far as
to disregard the harmonic parameter of polytonality altogether.

Example 1: Darius Milhaud, Third Symphony for Small Orchestra (1921), mvt. 1, mm. 9–12

With polytonality thus redefined as French and tonal, it could now take its rightful
place within a national musical tradition. Rather than representing an indictment
of pre-war French music, Milhaud now casts polytonality as emerging naturally
from it. In this rendering of recent French music history, polytonality arises from an
evolution of musical thought, beginning with the harmonic bitonality of composers
such as Stravinsky, Debussy, Roussel, Bartók, and Ravel; moving through the har-
monic polytonality of Koechlin; and culminating with Milhaud’s own brand of con-

13 Darius Milhaud, “Polytonalité et Atonalité,” La Revue Musicale 4 (February 1923): 40. “Il est
à remarquer que la plupart du temps, en envisageant l’ensemble harmonique de ces contre-
points polytonaux de mélodies diatoniques, on obtient verticalement des agrégations de notes
inanalysables et dont le résultat harmonique est atonal.”
148 Marianne Wheeldon

trapuntal polytonality, as represented by his Third Symphony for Small Orchestra.

Instead of rejecting the past, Milhaud now asserts that “there is no modern mani-
festation of musical thought, free as it may be, which is not the outcome of a solid
tradition and which, at the same time, opens a new and logical path to the future.”14
Why did Milhaud go to such lengths to assert that polytonality was French,
tonal, even traditional? Two possible motivations come to mind. This reconciliation
with the past represented a new strategy of legitimation as Milhaud endeavored to
defend his polytonal compositions against hostile audiences and critics. Concerts
of his music were often received with boos, jeers, and demonstrations, and critics
accused him of being merely a provocateur. In contrast, other members of Les Six
were beginning to receive wider acceptance and approval by the mid 1920s. The
success of Honegger’s Le Roi David (1921) and the positive reviews that Auric and
Poulenc were beginning to receive from the mainstream musical press provided
them with greater public recognition, access to larger, more prestigious venues,
and the opportunities and benefits that accrued as a result. It is not at all surprising,
then, that Milhaud felt the need to reformulate his professional position, to leave
the margins, and present himself also as belonging to the musical mainstream. As
Bourdieu notes, competition in the artistic field “orients the strategies which oc-
cupants of the different positions implement in their struggles to defend or improve
their position.”15 The linchpin to Milhaud’s strategy for repositioning himself in the
musical field was his redefinition of polytonality as tonal. Ideologically it affirmed
a commitment to French tradition and a place for polytonality within that tradi-
tion; practically it offered him absolute compositional freedom, by changing the
discourse surrounding his music without having to change the music itself. Simply
by virtue of being French, Milhaud was a tonal composer and, by extension, part of
a national tradition that led logically to polytonality.
But another motivation also explains why Milhaud was so anxious to emphasize
the French roots of polytonality. He may have been responding to accusations that
had long been leveled against polytonality and, more recently, Les Six. De Médicis
cites two articles that introduced anti-Germanic and anti-Semitic rhetoric to the
debates on polytonality.16 As early as 1917, Vincent d’Indy defined polytonality as
“two superimposed tonalities (style boche),” “boche” being a derogatory term for
Germans prevalent during the First World War. D’Indy’s description of polytonality
arose from an argument that described the avant-garde musical aesthetics of 1917
as merely a matter of external trappings (“vêtements”).17 As d’Indy’s comment
above insinuates, polytonality appears doubly condemned—not only was it cast
as superficial dressing but also an importation from Germany. Six years later, the
same accusation reappeared, the term “boche” now directed against Les Six as the
leading representatives of the French post-war avant-garde. In an article published

14 Milhaud, “The Evolution of Modern Music,” 545.

15 Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 30.
16 De Médicis, “Milhaud and the Debate on Polytonality,” 585–86.
17 Vincent d’Indy, “Esthétique,” Le Courrier musical (15 January 1917): 25–26. Cited in Charles
Koechlin, Écrits, vol. 1, Esthétique et langage musical, ed. Michel Duchesneau (Sprimont:
Mardaga, 2006), 157–58.
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin 149

on 1 January 1923, Louis Vuillemin describes the composers as “long-haired, pa-

thetic, and wearing spectacles ‘à la boche.’” He accuses them of being cosmopoli-
tan dupes, importing all that bad international taste had produced into the heart of
the capital. According to Vuillemin, their motivation was “to corrupt (gangrener)
our organism” and to demonstrate to foreigners present in the concert hall “the col-
lapse of post-war French taste.”18
In addition to reviving d’Indy’s use of the insult “boche,” Vuillemin compounds
the injury by entitling his review “Concerts métèques.” As Barbara Kelly notes,
métèque was “a pejorative term for ‘immigrant,’ but also, at that time, for ‘Jew.’”19
Since the concert in question was organized by Jean Wiéner, featuring Schoen-
berg’s Pierrot Lunaire conducted by Milhaud, Vuillemin’s rhetoric moves beyond
d’Indy’s anti-Germanic stance to censure specifically the Jewish participants in the
concert. While the main target of Vuillemin’s attack was the concert organizer and
pianist Jean Wiéner (as their subsequent exchange in the press makes clear), the
insinuations of such music criticism were potentially far more devastating for Mil-
haud than the other members of Les Six. Vuillemin went beyond casting doubt on
the “Frenchness” of certain avant-garde compositional procedures to cast doubt on
the cultural legitimacy of Milhaud’s music. Milhaud’s response in 1923, and in his
subsequent writings, was to continually stress the French nationality and heritage of
his music. Here, issues of professional advancement and identity politics collide, as
the latter clearly had significant ramifications for the former. Enlisting tonality, and
thus recent French tradition, in his defense, Milhaud could counter the accusations
made against polytonality and, more importantly, himself.

Tonality versus Atonality and Polytonality

Charles Koechlin’s stance on tonality, atonality, and polytonality differed from Mil-
haud’s due in large part to his unique position in the world of French music. In
terms of age, he was a peer of Satie and Debussy, although his late start in music
placed him in Fauré’s composition class alongside the next generation of Florent
Schmitt, Jean Roger-Ducasse, and Maurice Ravel. His standing within the pre-war
avant-garde solidified in 1909, when Ravel invited him to join the newly formed
Société Musicale Independante, in which he remained active until its dissolution in
1935. During the war, he befriended the next generation of composers, becoming
close friends with Milhaud in 1913 and, through Milhaud, the composition teacher
of Tailleferre and Poulenc. In 1918, Koechlin was invited to join Les nouveaux
jeunes, Satie’s first attempt to corral the composers of the post-war avant-garde. Al-
though this group was short-lived, Koechlin maintained close ties with its successor

18 Louis Vuillemin, “Concerts métèques…” Le Courrier musical (1 January 1923), 4. “Il faut voir
la figure de ces sires, chevelus, minables et pourvus de lunettes à la boche […] Leur effort a
pour but, sans doute, de gangréner notre organisme: de démontrer aussi aux étrangers curieux,
présents en nombre dans la salle, ‘l’affaissement du goût chez les Français d’après guerre!’”
19 Kelly, Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud, 11. See also chapter 2 (27–44),
which discusses Milhaud’s writings on the issue of his identity.
150 Marianne Wheeldon

Les Six and with Satie’s subsequent L’École d’Arcueil, whose composers were all
Koechlin’s students.
As a noted member of both the pre- and post-war avant-garde, Koechlin’s views
on polytonality and atonality were never predicated on a rejection of the recent past,
since that past was a defining part of his musical persona. Moreover, polytonality
and atonality were not post-war phenomena for him: his own explorations of poly-
tonality, for example, began in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1917,
Koechlin self-identified in these terms:
Fashion does not concern me. I look for the beautiful everywhere, avidly, without taking sides
in the manner of presenting it. […] I do not deprive myself, on occasion, of superimposing two
or three tonalities, and I am very interested in the atonal compositions of Monsieur Schoenberg.
Finally, I readily admit that one can create new and enduring music with known chords; on the
other hand, despite fashionable harmonies, it is possible to write banal and outdated works.20

Throughout most of the twenties, Koechlin retained this all-inclusive outlook, writ-
ing voluminously on topics that embraced both pre- and post-war composition. To-
nality, modality, bitonality, polytonality, and atonality all featured in his textbooks
and articles, each concept illustrated with numerous examples drawn from his own
But by the late twenties and thirties, Koechlin’s view of the musical landscape
narrowed considerably. Having remained in close contact with three generations
of the avant-garde, Koechlin simply lost empathy with the next. Again, Bourdieu’s
discussion of the dynamics of the cultural field may help to explain Koechlin’s
changing relationship with his younger colleagues. Bourdieu observes that with
each successive generation the entire structure of the cultural field “moves a step
down the temporal hierarchy which is at the same time a social hierarchy; the avant-
garde is separated by a generation from the consecrated avant-garde which is itself
separated by another generation from the avant-garde that was already consecrated
when it made its own entry into the field.”21 As Koechlin found his musical training
becoming ever more distant and irrelevant, his writings increasingly recommended
an extensive education in tonality. He identified a “crisis of apprenticeship” with
the newest generation of young composers:
The old tonal ground is sterile only to the inexperienced amateur, to lazy oafs who no longer
know or want to cultivate it, or to the young musician entranced by atonal magic. […] Our ep-
och is not propitious for the most serious and disinterested studies, the only type to bear fruit!
Too many young musicians have an obsession for immediate results […].22

20 Charles Koechlin, “Esthétique?” Le Courrier musical (15 February 1917): 79. Cited in Duch-
esneau, Charles Koechlin, 155. “Je cherche le beau partout, avidement, sans parti pris pour ou
contre telle façon de la vêtir. […] Je ne me prive pas, à l’occasion, de superposer deux ou trois
tonalités, et m’intéresse fort aux compositions atonales de M. Schoenberg. Enfin, j’accord vo-
lontiers qu’on peut réaliser de la musique, et durable, et nouvelle, avec des accords connus;
comme aussi, d’autre part, malgré des harmonies à la mode on écrit parfois des œuvres banales
et sujettes à vieillir.” This article was Koechlin’s response to d’Indy’s article “Esthétique,” cited
in note 17.
21 Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 60.
22 Charles Koechlin, “Tonal ou Atonal?” Le Ménestrel 15 (10 April 1936): 118. Cited in Duch-
esneau, Charles Koechlin, 444. “La vieille terre tonale n’est stérile qu’à l’amateur inexpéri-
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin 151

This passage comes from Koechlin’s strongest defense of tonality, his 1936 arti-
cle “Tonal or Atonal?” This essay responded to a series of articles in the musical
press between Francis Poulenc and Ernst Krenek, in which Poulenc defended the
validity of tonality in contemporary composition, while Krenek denounced tonality
and promoted atonality. What Koechlin objected to in this exchange was Krenek’s
insistence that atonality was the only direction for contemporary composition, the
only path of “intellectual honesty.” To choose otherwise, Krenek stated, represented
“the easy life,” which in the spiritual domain he regarded as “ignoble.”23 Koechlin,
who prided himself on the breadth of his compositional outlook, bristled at the no-
tion of atonality representing the only avant-garde and twelve-tone composition—
whose systematization he detested—as the music of the future. His response was
to defend the continued vitality of tonal composition: “I would like to demonstrate
that it is absolutely legitimate to not abandon, to not believe obsolete the old tonal
conception…and that this tonality can lead us very far from the banal, to absolutely
new thought.” He even goes so far as to state: “In reality, only the harmony of triads
and seventh chords has created, continues to create masterworks.”24
Although Koechlin objected to the restrictions Krenek imposed on contempo-
rary composition, his argument introduced artistic constraints of its own:
That being said, I do not want to be at war with polytonality or atonality: but only to prevent
them from becoming a monopoly—useless and moreover illusory—because music that is born
spontaneously with the human voice is tonal. Atonality results from artifice, which is not to
condemn it but to forbid it from condemning the old tonality.25

According to Koechlin, tonality was natural and atonality was artificial. One could
not sing atonal or twelve-tone music spontaneously; on the contrary, it demanded a
great deal of skill and rehearsal. Koechlin continued: “That is not to say that if well-
written, atonality cannot use human voices, but it is necessary to coerce them, and

menté, qu’aux paresseux maladroits qui ne savent plus et ne veulent plus la cultiver, ou bien
encore, qu’au jeune musicien envoûté par la magie de l’atonal. […] J’accorde aussi que notre
époque n’est guère propice aux études les plus sérieusement menées et les plus désintéressées,
les seules portant leur fruit! Trop de jeunes musiciens ont la hantise de résultats immédiats
23 Francis Poulenc, “Éloge de la banalité,” Présence (October 1935): 24–25; Ernst Krenek, “À
propos de la Banalité,” Présence (December 1935): 34–36. Cited in Duchesneau, Charles
Koechlin, 450–54. For more information on this debate, see Robert Orledge, “Poulenc and
Koechlin: 58 Lessons and a Friendship,” in Francis Poulenc: Music, Art and Literature, ed.
Sidney Buckland and Myriam Chimènes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 32–36.
24 Koechlin, “Tonal ou Atonal?” 117 and 118. Cited in Duchesneau, Charles Koechlin, 442 and
444. “Je voudrais montrer qu’il est absolument légitime de ne pas abandonner, de ne point
croire désuète la vieille conception tonale … et que cette tonalité peut nous conduire très loin
du banal, jusqu’à des pensées absolument nouvelles. […] En réalité, rien que l’harmonie des
accords parfaits et des septièmes a permis, elle permettrait encore des chefs-d’œuvre.”
25 Koechlin, “Tonal ou Atonal?” 117–18. Cited in Duchesneau, Charles Koechlin, 445. “Ce di-
sant, je ne veux nullement partir en guerre contre le polytonal ni l’atonal: mais seulement ne pas
en faire un monopole—inutile et d’ailleurs illusoire—car la musique qui naît spontanément
avec la voix humaine est tonale. L’atonal résulte d’un artifice, ce qui ne saurait le condamner,
soit, mais lui interdit de condamner la vieille tonalité.”
152 Marianne Wheeldon

it not their true nature, nor that of the ear, however modern.”26 In this regard, his
later views on tonality represent a complete reversal of his earlier definition. Com-
pare for instance the preceding quote with a passage from his Traité de l’harmonie
of 1930. There, by contrast, he claims that “the notion of tonality is not an ‘innate
idea’ from the spirit, it is a result of habit, experience, and the conditions in which
sounds are produced.”27 Thus between 1930 and 1936 Koechlin’s notion of tonality
shifted radically from something that was learned and contingent, to something that
was inborn. Tonality was now considered to be a “natural law,” one that could not
be uprooted from the human sensibility:
Present the most persuasive theories, create the most convincing “laboratory experiments,”
starting with the incontestable successes of Wozzeck or Pierrot lunaire, you will never uproot
the tonal sentiment from the deep musical instincts of the masses, the humble, the simple, the

In this respect Koechlin goes further than Milhaud, who argued that tonality was in-
nate for all French composers. Koechlin readily agreed that French composers had
an instinctual predilection for tonal composition but, in reality, tonality was innate
in all—musicians and non-musicians, French and non-French alike.
By 1936, Koechlin’s understanding of the relationship between tonality, poly-
tonality, and atonality differed from Milhaud’s in that he configured tonality stand-
ing alone in opposition to polytonality and atonality. But while the configuration
may have been different, the evolving relationship between these terms appeared
to have similar motivations. Just as Milhaud’s embrace of tonality can be seen
to emerge from the interrelated issues of professional advancement and identity
­politics, so Koechlin’s defense of tonality may have had professional and political
motivations. For example, his complaint of a “crisis of apprenticeship” among the
latest generation of composers stemmed not only from his growing sense of musi-
cal alienation but perhaps also from the more mundane issues of professional self-
interest. Beginning in the early 1920s, Koechlin had invested heavily in his tonal
education with the publication of multiple textbooks on harmony and counterpoint:
Étude sur les notes de passage (Study on passing notes), 1922; Précis des règles
du contrepoint, 1926; Traité de l’harmonie, three volumes, 1927–1930; Étude sur
le chorale d’école, 1929; Étude sur l’écriture de la fugue d’école, 1934; Théorie
de la musique, 1934; and Abrégé de la Théorie de la musique, 1935.29 Thus the

26 Koechlin, “Tonal ou Atonal?” Le Ménestrel 16 (17 April 1936): 126. Cited in Duchesneau,
Charles Koechlin, 448. “Cela ne veut pas dire que, bien écrit, l’atonal ne puisse utiliser les voix
humaines, mais il faut les y contraindre, et là n’est point leur nature véritable, ni celle de
l’oreille, même moderne.”
27 Charles Koechlin, Traité de l’harmonie (Paris: Max Eschig, 1930), 2:250–51. “La notion de
tonalité n’est pas une ‘idée innée’ de l’esprit, c’est un résultat de l’habitude, et de l’expérience,
et des conditions dans lesquelles se produit le son.”
28 Koechlin, “Tonal ou Atonal?” 125. Cited in Duchesneau, Charles Koechlin, 448. “Exposez les
plus persuasives des théories, faites les plus convaincantes des ‘expériences de laboratoire’ en
partant d’incontestables réussites comme Woszeck ou Pierrot lunaire vous n’arracherez point,
de l’instinct musical profond des masses, des humbles; des simples, des enfants, le sentiment
29 For a description and complete list of Koechlin’s didactic works, see Robert Orledge, Charles
Defending Tonality: The Musical Thought of Milhaud and Koechlin 153

dismissal of tonality, advocated by composers like Krenek, threatened not only a

significant part of his identity as a composer but potentially a portion of his income
as a pedagogue.
In addition, evidence of Koechlin’s contemporaneous political engagement can
be discerned in “Tonal or Atonal?” when he draws attention to “the masses, the
humble, the simple, the children” in his defense of tonality. Recourse to the masses
within a debate on the musical avant-garde may seem surprising but, at this point
in his career, Koechlin’s interests were turning toward “music for the people.” A
founding member of the Fédération Musicale Populaire, a cultural organization at-
tached to the Popular Front, between 1935 and 1938 he published a series of articles
on “Culture musicale de la nation” for the communist newspaper L’Humanité. In
this context, Koechlin’s advocacy for tonality takes on a political guise. His reinter-
pretation of tonality as part of the “deep musical instinct of the masses” coincides
with his growing involvement with the FMP and its mandate to democratize mu-
sic.30 Thus Koechlin was unlikely to renounce tonality as it provided an important
means to bridge the gap between France’s musical elite and the masses.


After embracing polytonality and atonality in the early 1920s, both Milhaud and
Koechlin returned to tonality. Their articles show a progression in their logic: the
discussion moves from Milhaud’s “Polytonality and Atonality,” where tonality
played a vital but supporting role in the redefinition of polytonality, to Koechlin’s
“Tonal or Atonal?” where tonality assumed the status of an equal counterpart to ato-
nality. In each case, tonality was marshaled to support other arguments. On the one
hand, Milhaud used it as a means to distance himself from Schoenberg’s atonality
and to gain entry into a French musical tradition he had formerly eschewed. On the
other hand, Koechlin used tonality to reinforce his position with respect to the latest
generation of composers.
As this essay has demonstrated, their arguments may have been motivated by
reasons that were not entirely musical: issues of professional advancement, identity,
and alienation entered into both Milhaud’s and Koechlin’s defense of tonality. As
Milhaud matured as a composer, the strategy by which he legitimized his music
involved linking it to tonality, which in turn entailed a shift from a repudiation of
tradition to proclaiming a continuity with that tradition. This maneuver softened the
rhetoric surrounding his music and gained him greater acceptance from critics and
audiences. Koechlin’s musical views moved from ecumenicism to a more stringent
definition of tonality. Unlike Milhaud, whose position-taking was a way of gain-
ing an advantage in the musical field, Koechlin’s stance was more defensive, the

Koechlin (1867–1950): His Life and Works (London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1989),
36–48 and 418.
30 For more on Koechlin’s involvement with the Fédération Musicale Populaire, see Christopher
Moore, “Music in France and the Popular Front (1934–1938): Politics, Aesthetics and Recep-
tion” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2007), chapter 3.
154 Marianne Wheeldon

result of the musical field changing around him. In this regard, Koechlin’s evolv-
ing position reflected the narrowing margin of professional maneuver available to
him, as he aged in both biological and artistic terms. With a forty-year difference
between Koechlin and his youngest colleagues, he was pushed into the role of elder
statesman, which had the effect of constraining his musical views. Although Mil-
haud and Koechlin returned to tonality for different reasons, both of their returns
responded to the cultural politics of their time. And what this revealed above all
was that tonality, polytonality, and atonality were relational terms. Their meaning
in the French musical world of the 1920s and 30s derived not only from how they
were defined with regard to one another, but also in how they were deployed in the
various “position-takings” of composers, for whom the establishment of a distinct
French musical identity was key to their professional success.


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Mardaga, 1996.
Collet, Henri. “Les six Français: Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger,
Francis Poulenc et Germaine Tailleferre.” Comœdia (23 January 1920). Reprint in Jean Roy, Le
Groupe des Six, 198–203. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1994.
Indy, Vincent d’. “Esthétique.” Le Courrier musical (15 January 1917): 25–26. Reprint in Charles
Koechlin, Écrits. Vol. 1, Esthétique et langage musical, edited by Michel Duchesneau, 157–58.
Sprimont: Mardaga, 2006.
Kelly, Barbara L. Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912–1939. Aldershot: Ash-
gate, 2003.
Koechlin, Charles. Écrits. Vol. 1, Esthétique et langage musical. Edited by Michel Duchesneau.
Sprimont: Mardaga, 2006.
— “Esthétique?” Le Courrier musical (15 February 1917): 79–80. Reprint in Charles Koechlin,
Écrits. Vol. 1. Esthétique et langage musical, edited by Michel Duchesneau, 155–58. Sprimont:
Mardaga, 2006.
— “Tonal ou Atonal?” Le Ménestrel 15 (April 10, 1936): 117–19 and Le Ménestrel 16 (April 17,
1936): 125–27. Reprint in Charles Koechlin, Écrits. Vol. 1, Esthétique et langage musical,
edited by Michel Duchesneau, 441–54. Sprimont: Mardaga, 2006.
— Traité de l’harmonie. 3 vols. Paris: Max Eschig, 1930.
Krenek, Ernst. “À propos de la ‘Banalité’.” Présence (December 1935): 34–36. Reprint in Charles
Koechlin, Écrits. Vol. 1, Esthétique et langage musical, edited by Michel Duchesneau, 452–54.
Sprimont: Mardaga, 2006.
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— “Polytonalité et Atonalité.” La Revue Musicale 4, no. 4 (February 1923): 29–44.
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Mussat, Marie-Claire. “La réception de Schönberg en France avant la Seconde Guerre mondiale.”
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“Autant de compositeurs, autant .
de polytonalités différentes”: .
Polytonality in French Music Theory and .
Composition of the 1920s*
Mark Delaere

The bombastic metaphors in the writings of the English musicologist and composer
Wilfrid Mellers offer today’s readers a cause for considerable merriment. In relation
to the subject of this chapter, Mellers does not disappoint in describing Darius Mil-
haud’s polytonality in the Times Literary Supplement of 30 June 1989 as “a tribute
to Nature’s polymorphous perversity.” In this essay, I do intend to offer a tribute to
polytonality, but I can assure the guardians of public morals and decency that I will
not make a plea for polymorphous perversity.
A discussion of polytonality is essential in a volume such as this one, since
this composition technique took center stage in musicological writings on French
music during the 1920s and beyond. Polytonality is a deeply paradoxical concept.
It has been described as both the consolidation and the destruction of tonality, as the
acme of conservatism and an outstanding contribution to the avant-garde, as a mere
paper tiger in the mind of the composer and a perceivable phenomenon. The aim
of this essay is not to give an overview of the terminological ramifications of this
concept and of its predecessor “polytonie,” since this task has been more than am-
ply fulfilled.1 After outlining some contemporary historiographical interpretations,
I will concentrate, rather, on the gradual elaboration of polytonality as a system of
composition in French music theory during the 1920s.
The predominant music-historical interpretation of polytonality at that time is
best summarized in the following quotation from Darius Milhaud:
At this time [1910] I clearly felt the existence of two parallel traditions in the recent evolution
of European music:
1. The Latin one, based on the affirmation of tonality, with its themes always clearly expressed
in intervals belonging to major or minor scales or to the two together. This tradition, in its nor-
mal course, was about to produce polytonality, wherein different keys are used simultaneously,
each of them, however, retaining its purely tonal character.

* A shorter version of this essay was presented at the conference Tonality 1900–1950: Concept
and Practice (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Duke University, October 2010). I
owe thanks to Felix Wörner, Philip Rupprecht, and Ullrich Scheideler for inviting me to present
a paper at this conference. I am grateful to the participants for their comments and to the mas-
ter’s students in Musicology at the University of Leuven for their contributions to the analysis
of Darius Milhaud’s Saudades do Brazil during a seminar in the spring semester of 2011.
1 Michael Beiche, “Polytonalität,” in Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie 22, ed.
Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1994), 1–12.
158 Mark Delaere

2. The German one, which since Wagner had been based on an urge for constant change of the
tonal center, the orientation of the shifting harmonic material (and consequently the identity of
each new centre) being made evident by the introduction of chords of the dominant seventh.
The sequences and incessant modulation characteristic of the music of the Germans led them
inevitably to the chromatic scale.2

In addition to establishing a cultural—indeed, nationalistic—dichotomy between

German and “Latin” music and to subtly presenting himself as the culmination
point of the latter, Milhaud interprets the use of diatonic major/minor scales within
polytonality as consolidation of tonality. In contrast, according to Milhaud, the lack
of harmonic stability that was typical of German music since Wagner led to the
undermining of tonality. Similar interpretations abound in contemporary journals
and dictionary articles as well as music-historical handbooks, thus testifying to the
success of this historical construct. Within this framework, much attention is paid
to the historical legitimization of polytonality, and to justifying the technique as
the next logical step within a solid tradition rather than a revolutionary innovation.
In his 1923 article “Polytonalité et Atonalité,” Milhaud claims that polytonality is
rooted in canons at intervals other than the octave.3 For centuries, counterpoint and
harmony rules for dissonance treatment had upheld the illusion of a single key, but
Milhaud lifted these constraints and posited the polytonal quality of strict and free
contrapuntal writing. His interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Duetto BWV
803 in those terms has been quoted ever since. Charles Koechlin, for example, cites
Milhaud in his authoritative study on contemporary harmony for the prestigious
Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire.4 But Koechlin also
goes to great lengths to demonstrate the existence of a harmonic type of polytonal-
ity, the origin of which he situates in the free handling of dissonances, ostinati, and
pedal points in music from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The distinc-
tion between contrapuntal and harmonic types of polytonality is to be found both in
subsequent music-historical accounts and in writings of a more theoretical nature.5
It is on the latter that I want to concentrate the main part of this chapter.

2 Darius Milhaud, “To Arnold Schoenberg on his Seventieth Birthday: Personal Recollections,”
The Musical Quarterly 30 (1944): 380.
3 Darius Milhaud, “Polytonalité et Atonalité,” La Revue Musicale 4, no. 4 (1923): 29–44.
4 Charles Koechlin, “Évolution de l’harmonie: Période contemporaine, depuis Bizet et César
Franck jusqu’à nos jours,” in Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire, 2
ptie., Technique–Esthétique–Pédagogie, ed. Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie (Paris:
Delagrave, 1925), 591–760.
5 In chapter 8 of this book, Marianne Wheeldon describes how the discourse on tonality and
polytonality changes during the 1920s and 1930s on account of contemporary musical develop-
ments, and in particular of the growing reputation of Schoenberg’s atonal and twelve-tone
music. A parallel shift can be observed in Koechlin’s epistemological foundation of tonality as
one of the many possible systems based on mere cultural convention (“Évolution de l’harmonie,”
754; “Les Tendances de la musique moderne française,” Encyclopédie, 56–145) to tonality as
the embodiment of the laws of nature and of perception. The latter is seen most clearly in
Koechlin’s “Tonal ou Atonal?” Le Menestrel 98, no. 15 (1936): 117–19; 98, no. 16 (1936):
125–27. This provoked a sharp-witted reaction by Armand Machabey in “L’atonal, existe-t-il?”
Le Menestrel 98, no. 20 (1936): 157–59.
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 159

Milhaud’s “Polytonalité et Atonalité” is the starting point for a theory of poly-

tonality. Here, Milhaud identifies elements common to all polytonal music: the ex-
clusive use of diatonic pitch material in each tonal layer and the use of the triad as
the basic unit of harmonic expression within these tonal layers. Milhaud does not
exclude modulations, but requires that they be straightforward and unambiguous
so as not to disturb the diatonic quality of the music. The cornerstone of his “étude
méthodique” is the charting of all possible combinations of keys. A triad on C is
combined with eleven other major triads (from C# to B), each combination of which
yields four shapes by major/minor variation of one or both of the triads. Finally,
each of the forty-four shapes can be written in six different positions (“renverse-
ments”), i.e. with six different bass tones.

Example 1: Darius Milhaud’s charts of all possible bitonal combinations according

to “Polytonalité et Atonalité,” 32–33

bw # www www

& b b www # www b ww

? w w w w w
ww ww ww ww ww

ww # www w # # www
& # # # www # # # www b ww

? w w w w w w
w w w w w w
w w w w w w
1a. Combination of C major with eleven other keys


& # www n www n www # www

? w bw nw bw
ww ww ww ww
1b. Major/Minor variation of chord II

ww w ww
& # ww ww
w # www w # ww w
w w w
? w #w ww w w #w
ww w w #w w w
1c. Chord IIA with six different bass tones
160 Mark Delaere

The same systematic charting is applied to the combination of three keys, resulting
in fifty-five combinations, 440 shapes, and 3520 positions. In addition to the three
keys expressed by the superposition of three triads, Milhaud claims that seven other
keys are implicitly suggested. It is clear that this combination offers rich harmonic
possibilities, but Milhaud also acknowledges that the dividing line with atonality is
increasingly blurred as more and more pitches become involved, with the twelve-
tone chord as the real borderline case. Milhaud quotes music examples from the
contemporary literature to prove the practicability and aesthetic efficiency of the
combination of melodies and chords expressing different keys.
To be sure, Milhaud’s article begs for critical comments. First, it represents a
tendency of one important part of European music theory during the early 1920s,
that is, to replace harmonic rules with a systematic overview of the available musi-
cal material. With tonality considered obsolete and the emergence of an alternative
system with comparable syntactic and regulative potential still impending, a mere
quantitative enumeration seemed to be the right option for the time being, all the
more so since this enumeration suggests both artistic richness and scientific rigor.
Milhaud’s inventory is the polytonal counterpart to similar systematic enumera-
tions: of symmetric chords,6 of melodic orderings of the chromatic aggregate,7 of
the melodic/harmonic abstract thereof in a 144-tone complex,8 of a statistical in-
quiry into the number of possible chords within the chromatic scale,9 and above
all of the extensive listing of all possible 5040 chords in the twelve-tone context.10
Secondly, Milhaud’s equation of tonality with the tonic triad is highly reduc-
tionist, to say the least. A discussion of chord progressions or of the establishment of
tonal centers by means of cadences is entirely absent. Neither is the reader informed
about the appropriate combination of tonal functions in the bitonal fabric: should
combinations across tonal layers be limited to two tonic triads, or is combination
with a subdominant or dominant chord of another tonality permissible as well? By
not even asking these questions, Milhaud’s theory is of little use for a composer or
a student wanting technical guidelines for writing polytonal music. Since Milhaud
strongly believes in an empirical approach leading to as much variety as possi-

6 Hermann Erpf, Studien zur Harmonie- und Klangtechnik der neueren Musik (Wiesbaden:
Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927).
7 Josef Matthias Hauer, Vom Melos zur Pauke: Einführung in die Zwölftonmusik, Theoretische
Schriften 1 (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1925).
8 Herbert Eimert, Atonale Musiklehre (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1924).
9 Fritz Heinrich Klein, “Die Grenze der Halbtonwelt,” Die Musik 17, no. 4 (1925): 281–86.
10 Bruno Weigl, Harmonielehre (Mainz: Schott, 1922). Weigl’s chord classification is based on
systematic transpositions of all pitches into the octave interval and on transposition of all
chords on the bass tone C. In spite of some striking similarities in their respective classification
principles, set theory developed some 50 years later is of course incomparably more sophisti-
cated, and, in contrast to Weigl’s theory, also applied to the analysis of atonal music. See Allen
Forte, The Structure of Atonal Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). The critique
leveled then and now against this systematic approach is comparable as well (its tautological
character, its abstract instead of musical relationships). Compare for instance Leonhard
Deutsch, “Das Problem der Atonalität und das Zwölftonprinzip,” Melos 6, no. 3 (1927): 108–
18 with Célestin Deliège, “La ‘Set-Theory’ ou les enjeux du pléonasme,” Analyse Musicale 17
(1989): 64–79.
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 161

ble, this may well have been intentional. Hardly surprising, perhaps, for a theorist
championing the principle: “The more composers, the more polytonalities.”11
Milhaud’s article found wide response in French music theory. Instead of
merely summarizing or criticizing Milhaud’s ideas, theorists tried to elaborate prin-
ciples only vaguely hinted at in Milhaud’s text into concrete guidelines for writing
polytonal music. In what follows, I would like to reconstruct this collective pursuit
of a theory of polytonality. Charles Koechlin is heavily implicated since it was he
who had inspired Milhaud to polytonal experiments in the first place.12 The chapter
on polytonality and atonality in Koechlin’s study for the Encyclopédie is an imme-
diate response to Milhaud’s La Revue Musicale article. It is striking that Koechlin
describes the virtues of harmonic polytonality mainly in terms of its potential to
produce a plethora of sensual and emotional impressions. The empiricist and/or ir-
rational stance favoring “the musical idea” (l’idée musicale), “the talent” (le talent),
“the genius” (le génie) and above all “the good taste” (le bon goût) of the composer
over systematic and formal research is typical for French music theory, and for
Koechlin in particular. By criticizing Milhaud’s chord charts as an oversimplifica-
tion, recommending the use of one unambiguous tonality at the beginning of a poly-
tonal composition, and suggesting that triads be written in root position and clearly
separated until polytonal practice and perception is sufficiently established, Koech-
lin nevertheless clarifies the concept of (harmonic) polytonality considerably.13
The third volume of the Traité d’Harmonie, published in 1926 by the Belgian
composer and theorist Paul Gilson, includes an extensive discussion of polytonality
by his colleague Georges Monier. A somewhat enigmatic figure, Monier had been
influential in establishing modern music in Belgium during the early 1920s, both
as a composer and as the music editor of the periodical 7 Arts. His contribution to
polytonal theory is twofold. From a theoretical standpoint, Monier underpins poly-
tonality by pointing out that the laws of resonance provide an answer for combin-
ing keys efficiently.14 This is new, since a few years earlier the physical argument
had been invoked by Jean Deroux to prove just the opposite (the impossibility of
polytonality),15 and had been rejected on epistemological grounds by Koechlin.

11 “Autant de compositeurs, autant de polytonalités différentes.” Milhaud, “Polytonalité et Atona-

lité,” 40.
12 Robert Orledge, Charles Koechlin (1867–1950): His Life and Works (Chur: Harwood, 1989),
13 Koechlin, “Évolution de l’harmonie,” 696–758.
14 There is some similarity with Henry Cowell’s ideas on “Polyharmony” put forward in his New
Musical Resources (published in 1930, but written much earlier between 1916 and 1920). It is
well-known that American composers (notably Charles Ives) and theorists contributed much to
the practice and theory of polytonality at an early stage. See for instance H. Wiley Hitchcock,
“Charles Ives und seine Zeit,” in Amerikanische Musik seit Charles Ives: Interpretation, Quel-
lentexte, Komponistenmonographien, ed. Hermann Danuser, Dietrich Kämper, and Paul Terse
(Laaber: Laaber, 1987), 21–29; David Nicholls, “In Re Con Moto et Al: Experimentalism in the
Works of Charles Ives (1874–1954),” in American Experimental Music: 1890–1940 (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 5–88; Wolfgang Rathert, The Seen and Unseen:
Studien zum Werk von Charles Ives, Berliner Musikwissenschaftliche Arbeiten 38 (Munich:
Emil Katzbichler, 1991), 258.
15 Jean Deroux, “La Musique Polytonale,” La Revue Musicale 2, no. 11 (1921): 251–57.
162 Mark Delaere

More relevant to this chapter, however, are Monier’s technical recommendations.

He argues that it takes some time to perceive the characteristics of the combined
keys or modes, thus rejecting Milhaud’s definition of polytonality on the basis of
one single (compound) chord. Chromaticism is strictly forbidden, since it endan-
gers tonal identification. Monier has a singular view on the ideal number of keys
to be combined. He considers bitonality to be the most difficult combination, since
two closely related keys hinder the perception of polarity, but two keys not closely
related result in a sound that is too harsh. By adding C and G major to the sharply
clashing combination of E and E major, Monier posits, a more balanced sound is
achieved. Three or four superimposed keys is the ideal situation for him, since the
many inevitable pitch and interval doublings in the combination of more than four
keys would lead to a lack of harmonic variety. “As a matter of fact,” Monier ex-
plains, “the polytonal overloading creates permanent monotony in some works.”16
One does not expect to find additions to polytonal theory in a handbook on
organ improvisation. And yet, Marcel Dupré’s Traité de l’Improvisation à l’Orgue
includes a substantive discussion of Milhaud’s chord charts. Dupré considers Mil-
haud’s classification as both incomplete—since it is impossible to list all potential
polytonal combinations—and unjustified—since many compound chords charted
by Milhaud are perceived as belonging to a single key because they share pitches
from one and the same diatonic collection or because they can be understood as an
expanded dominant chord. In view of this, Dupré adds a new criterion. A compound
chord is polytonal only when it contains at least two chromatically related pitches.

& # wwww
Example 2: Adequate polytonal chord, according to Marcel Dupré

Example 2 offers a perfect case in point: the chord combines two triads and the
polytonal quality is guaranteed by the simultaneous presence of C and C#.17
In his article “Dissonance, Atonalité, Polytonalité”—and this concludes my
compendious overview—Armand Machabey comes up with some interesting sug-
gestions on how to maintain the tonal individuality of each voice or layer in a
polytonal fabric. Whereas each component must observe a strictly tonal layout, the
tonal relationship between the components must be as remote as possible. Bitonal-
ity is the ideal case, since the combination of more than two keys is susceptible to
being interpreted as one single—be it expanded—tonality. Both contrapuntal and
harmonic forms of polytonality are possible, but hard to achieve in view of existing
listening attitudes and the preponderance of the bass line. Only by carefully bal-
ancing and maximally individualizing the two layers through contrasting textures,

16 “En fait, dans certaines œuvres, la surcharge polytonale crée une monotonie permanente.”
Georges Monier, “De la Polytonie,” in Traité d’Harmonie 3 (Brussels: A. Cranz, 1926), A232.
17 Marcel Dupré, Traité de l’Improvisation à l’Orgue (Paris: Leduc, 1925), 24–27.
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 163

rhythmical structures, registers, and instrumentation will the composer be able to

realize a perceptible polytonal structure.18
Let me summarize the criteria for polytonal writing put forward in what I de-
scribed above as the collective pursuit of a theory of polytonality in 1920s France:

1. Use diatonic pitch material and the triad (or, one may add, any other classified
tonal chord) as its harmonic expression only. Classified chords should pref-
erably be in root position and clearly separated from one another in musical
2. Combined keys should be related as remotely as possible; compound chords
should have at least two chromatically related pitches.
3. If rapid and unambiguous, modulations are possible.
4. A polytonal composition preferably begins in one key, with a second layer be-
ing added only later on. It takes time to establish different tonal centers; a single
compound chord will not do.
5. With the exception of Monier, all authors consider bitonality on perceptual
grounds as the preferred form of polytonality.
6. Contrasting textures, rhythms, registers, and instruments aid the perception of
tonal polarity.

To conclude this essay, I will discuss two compositions by Milhaud that are repre-
sentative of the contrapuntal and harmonic forms of polytonality, respectively: the
Finale from the fourth of the Cinq Symphonies (1921) and some movements from
Saudades do Brazil (1920). It goes without saying that a sample as limited as this
one is not representative of Milhaud’s oeuvre as a whole, let alone of all polytonal
music. My only aim is to test the extent to which the collective pursuit of a poly-
tonal theory in the 1920s was actually based on experiences with composing and
analyzing polytonal music written some years earlier.
Humphrey Searle aptly describes the “Étude” for ten solo strings from Mil-
haud’s Fourth Symphony as a strict canon in ten parts on two subjects; each subject
is exposed successively in five different keys, the second subject entering (in m. 13)
in the same key as the final entry of the first subject and reversing the order of keys
in its exposition. This process is carried out twice, once starting from the bottom of
the orchestra, and once from the top with stretto entries.19 It remains to see whether
the above polytonality criteria apply.

18 Armand Machabey, “Dissonance, Atonalité, Polytonalité,” La Revue Musicale 12, no. 116
(1931): 35–45.
19 Humphrey Searle, Twentieth Century Counterpoint: A Guide for Students (London: Williams
and Norgate, 1955), 34–35.
164 Mark Delaere

? 44 œ œ ≥
∑ ∑ ∑ œ œœœœ

grand détaché

? 44 œ œ b œ œ œ œ œ œ œ ≈ œ œ œ œ ≈ œ œ œ œ ≈ œ œ œ œ ≈ œ œ œ bœ ‰ j
œ œœ œœ œ œ
ƒ grand détaché

? ∑ ∑ ∑

? œ ≥
∑ ∑ œ
œ œ œ #œ œ
œ œœœ œ œ œ œœ
œœœœœ œ œœœ œ œ
grand détaché

? œœ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ œœœ ‰ œ

?œ ‰ œ œ bœ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ bœ œ ‰ Jœ œ œ
J œœœœœ

B ∑ ∑ ∑

B ∑ ∑ ∑

œ œ ≥
? ∑ ∑ œ œ œ #œ œ
œ œ œ #œ
grand détaché

? œ œ œ œ #œ œ œ œ ≈
≈ œœœ ≈œ œœ œ ≈ #œ œ œ œ ‰ j
œ œ
œ œœœœœ œ œ œ
? ‰ œJ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ ‰ J

? œ œ œ œ œ j œ
bœ œ œ œ œ J œ œ œ Œ ≈ œ œ bœ œ
œ œ

# œ≤ œ œ # œ œ œ œ
B ∑ ∑ ‰ J
œ- -œ ≥

B ∑ ∑ œ- œ#œ #œ œ
#œ œ œ #œ P
#œ œ œ œ œœœœ œ œœ œ #œ œ œ œ
? œ #œ œ œœ

≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ œ ‰
sautillé mordant

?œ ‰ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ #œ œ œ œ ‰ J œ œ
J #œœœœœ œ
?œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ
J œ œ œ œ Œ ≈œœœ œ œ
œ œ J
p sautillé mordant

?œ Œ ‰ œ œ œ œœœœ
J œ œœ œbœ œ œ œ #œ œ #œ

Example 3: Milhaud, “Étude” from the Fourth of the Cinq Symphonies, mm. 1–13
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 165

The tonal plan for the first subject is F-C-G-D-A and for the second subject A-D-
G-C-F, brought on by the upper and lower fifth as canonic intervals, respectively. A
chromatic ascending line from tonic to tonic starting in m. 13 (second double bass)
notwithstanding, each voice is strictly diatonic, but the tonal relationship between
keys is anything but remote. On the contrary, each subsequent key brings one new
pitch only, hardly enough to identify a new key. The second half of m. 4 and m. 5,
for instance, are heard as a II–V/V–V progression in the single key of F major, and
only m. 6 with its frequent clashes between B and B breaks the single key inter-
pretation. Other criteria are also unmet. Up to five keys are combined, the voices
move in close registers with resulting occasional overlaps, and the scoring for ten
strings excludes tone color contrasts. Even at its densest point, however, the strict
canonic writing yields a transparent contrapuntal texture, with voices moving in
contrary motion and individualized, complementary rhythmic patterns. The open-
ing of a polytonal composition in only one key follows from the canon form, and
Milhaud takes three full measures to establish this key. The opening motive of the
first subject with its emphatic octave leap from tonic to tonic followed by the domi-
nant clearly heralds the introduction of a new key. It is a small wonder that Milhaud
interprets canons in intervals other than the octave as the origin of polytonality: the
features of strict canonic writing as applied in his “Étude” may well compensate for
the impediments to polytonal perception mentioned earlier.
Saudades do Brazil comprises two sets of six dances for piano solo. The work
was premiered in November 1920 and the version for orchestra some months later
in 1921.20 The dances are inspired by Brazilian popular music, showing all the
characteristics of the tango idiom: simple ternary forms, melody/accompaniment
texture, symmetric four-measure units, dotted rhythms and syncopations, and plain
V–I progressions. In other words: the conditions for applying harmonic polytonal-
ity are excellent. In the first part of the first dance (“Sorocaba”) the keys of B major
and D major are combined, one of many instances of simultaneous third-related
keys in Milhaud’s music. With only three pitches in common and many chromatic
dyads, the tonal relationship between the two keys is sufficiently weak to establish
tonal polarity (Ex. 4).

bw b ww
& bw w w w w ww
bw w w b ww
& w #w w w w #w w
# www # www
[D,G,A] [D] [A]
F #-F C #-C
A-B b E-E b

Example 4: Combining B major and D major

20 The orchestral version is not entirely identical to the solo piano version. Milhaud took full ad-
vantage of the expanded medium to elaborate some movements, and he also added an Ouver-
ture to the set of dances.
166 Mark Delaere

The movement opens in B major with D major superimposed only four measures
later. The new key center is expressed both by the melody and its harmonization.
The simple alternation of tonic and dominant degrees is in keeping with the popular
music style, but it is noteworthy that the tonic and dominant seventh chords run par-
allel in both keys, a few minor ambiguities notwithstanding. The compound chords
have only one pitch in common (D and A respectively) and two chromatic dyads
each (F–F# and A–Bb, C#–C and E–Eb).

Example 5: Milhaud, “Sorocaba” from Saudades do Brazil, mm. 1–6,

© Éditions Max Eschig, Paris

The music is not as diatonic as that of the “Étude,” and chromatic inflections occur.
Two types of chromaticism should be distinguished. In the middle part of “Soro-
caba” (from m. 21 onwards), the violins and trumpets articulate the new key of G
minor on the downbeat of each measure (descending scale, in violin 1 and trumpet
1 from D to G, in violin 2 and trumpet 2 from B to F#). The figuration between these
scale degrees displays two chromatically ascending lines in the violin parts, which
are reinforced and substantiated by the doubling in the two horns. I would argue
that here the chromatic scale functions as a “key” and that bitonality consists of the
combination of G minor and the chromatic scale. The chromatic lines moving in
parallel major seconds and the harmonic relation with the scale degrees of G minor
are sufficiently dissonant to create tonal dissociation. The contrary motion between
the diatonic and chromatic scales further supports this effect.
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 167

Example 6: Milhaud, “Sorocaba” from Saudades do Brazil, mm. 19–24,

© Éditions Max Eschig, Paris

The second type of chromaticism is more familiar. The chromatic lines in m. 29–
33—and more clearly in the repetition of the first part from m. 43 onwards—move
from tonic to dominant or tonic to tonic, thus articulating the key. Chromatic pitches
are passing notes between the degrees of the diatonic scale only.
The second dance “Botafogo” opens in F minor, with the superimposed key F#
minor appearing only in m. 3 (as a melody) and in m. 7 (as a chord progression).
Two chromatically related keys could not be tonally further removed from each
other.21 Once more, the tonic and dominant functions run parallel in both keys.
The transition to the middle part in A major/F major (m. 27 onwards) could hardly
be more concise: just one chord, a superimposition of perfect fifths.22 All in all,
both “Sorocaba” and “Botafogo” seem to fully satisfy the six criteria for effective
polytonal writing. Textures and rhythms are sufficiently contrasted as well, and

21 The chromatic relation between keys is found at the end of the middle part of “Sorocaba” (from
m. 37 onwards: G minor and F# minor) and at numerous other instances within Milhaud’s poly-
tonal compositions.
22 Modulations by way of a single chord consisting of perfect fifths occurs frequently in Mil-
haud’s polytonal music. See for instance the transition to the B section in “Corcovado” (m. 30).
This fulfils the requirement of modulations to be “rapid” and “unambiguous.”
168 Mark Delaere

Example 7: Milhaud, “Corcovado” from Saudades do Brazil, mm. 1–19,

© Éditions Max Eschig, Paris
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 169

even in the piano version registers are widely spaced, separating the different tonal
strands. It goes without saying that polytonality is even better served in the version
for orchestra. The instrumentation is both skillful and sensitive, adding much to the
“Saudade,” the melancholic vein of the music. But above all, the contrasting sound
colors further polytonal perception.
By contrast, other movements of Saudades do Brazil testify to the impossibil-
ity of polytonality. If “Ipanema,” “Corcovado,” or “Paysandu” were inspirational
for the development of a theory of polytonality, then it would have been only as
negative examples of music not meeting the requirements for polytonal percep-
tion. None of these movements present different keys successively. Each of them
combines two tonal layers simultaneously from the outset, and not every key is
equally well defined. “Paysandu” starts as a combination of F# major, B Dorian or
E Mixolydian, and an ascending chromatic scale. The overall impression resulting
from this combination is an F# tonality with some “wrong notes.”
The octave registers of the first violins and the lower strings are clearly sepa-
rated at the beginning of “Corcovado,” and their rhythmic construction adds to
the differentiation of melody and accompaniment. The accompaniment in G major
rather exceptionally includes a subdominant chord, with the harmonic progression
I–II–V being repeated over and over again. The melody is in D major, but the oc-
casional clash between C and C# is largely insufficient to establish the perception
of another key.23 With ears accustomed to the harmony of Claude Debussy and
Maurice Ravel, m. 1 is perceived as a tonic ninth chord in G major, and most of
the subsequent chords confirm Marcel Dupré’s ascertainment that many an alleged
polytonal chord is but an expanded tonic or dominant sonority. The replacement of
“D major” by the Aeolian mode on G from m. 9 onwards reinforces the single key
interpretation, albeit in a major/minor guise. Measures 13–18 shift the key one sem-
itone up (to A major), and the opening motif of m. 1 a major second down (clarinet,
mm. 15 and 17). Once again, the resulting chord is a tonic sonority in A major with
added augmented fifth and major seventh. The sequence of the opening motif in the
clarinet, flute, and oboe parts stresses the very straightforward chromatic shift back
to the initial key of G major (mm. 18–19).
Finally, the opening of “Ipanema” could have served as the immediate cause of
the restrictions formulated by theorists of polytonality during the 1920s. The two
“keys” of F major and E minor are presented simultaneously in the same rhythm,
in a narrow range, and without differentiation in tone color.

23 It is noteworthy that tonal functions and degrees—including the second degree—run parallel
even in a polytonal context as ambiguous as this one.
170 Mark Delaere

Example 8: Milhaud, “Ipanema” from Saudades do Brazil, mm. 1–6,

© Éditions Max Eschig, Paris

The “keys” are represented by a mere reiteration of the tonic chords, with the lower
and higher strings interchanging pitches around the viola’s central F#–A axis after
each two-measure group.24 The descending F Phrygian scale in trumpet and trom-
bone confirms the synthesis rather than the opposition between F major and E
To conclude, I would like to stress that during the 1920s polytonality was met
with great enthusiasm by writers championing French music. In 1928, one com-
mentator even predicted the hegemony of this composition technique for at least a
century to come.26 Today an entry on “Polytonality” is lacking in The New Grove
Dictionary and the article on “Bitonality” is as concise as it is skeptical about its

24 The central position of this dyad is reflected in subsequent modulations to D major (combined
with E major) in m. 21, and to G major (combined with C major) in m. 34.
25 It should be clear that I do not value “Ipanema,” “Corcovado,” or “Paysandu” less than “Soro-
caba” or “Botafogo.” My only aim is to demonstrate that the former are polytonal on paper
only, in contrast to the latter.
26 Willem Pijper, “Het muzikale absolutisme,” De Quintencirkel: opstellen over muziek (1928;
Amsterdam: Querido, 1964), 146. The resemblance to Arnold Schoenberg’s equally ambitious
claim to have secured the dominance of German music for the next hundred years by inventing
twelve-tone technique is striking: “Es dürfte zum Zeitpunkt der Komposition des ‘Präludiums’
[from the Piano Suite op. 25], Ende Juli 1921, gewesen sein, als mir Schönberg auf einem
Spaziergang in Traunkirchen sagte, heute habe er etwas gefunden, das der deutschen Musik die
Vorherrschaft für die nächsten hundert Jahre sichere.” Josef Rufer, Das Werk Arnold Schön-
bergs (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1959), 26.
Polytonality in French Music Theory and Composition of the 1920s 171

import: “The failure of bitonality to win wider acceptance confirms that it is a dis-
tinctly mechanical way of deriving something new from something traditional.”27
Furthermore, today’s Milhaud specialists are divided over the very possibility
of polytonality, the disbelievers being largely driven by its incompatibility with
the doctrine of Schenker.28 However, the criteria reconstructed from the theoreti-
cal literature of 1920s France suggest polytonality is not to be rejected as either a
writing technique or a perceptual phenomenon, a fact made clear in the preceding
discussion of Milhaud’s “Étude” and the “Sorocaba” and “Botafogo” movements
from Saudades do Brazil. However charming and fascinating these compositions
are, it is clear that polytonality is possible under strict conditions only, as was dem-
onstrated in the subsequent succinct analytical discussions of “Ipanema,” “Corco-
vado,” and “Paysandu” from the Saudades.
So, yes, polytonality is possible; yes, the constraints prevent a wider and more
varied use of this technique; and no, polytonality is not a tribute to Nature’s poly-
morphous perversity.


Beiche, Michael. “Polytonalität.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie, edited by

Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, 22:1–12. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1994.
Deliège, Célestin. “La ‘Set-Theory’ ou les enjeux du pléonasme.” Analyse Musicale 17 (1989):
Deroux, Jean. “La Musique Polytonale.” La Revue Musicale 2, no. 11 (1921): 251–57.
Deutsch, Leonhard. “Das Problem der Atonalität und das Zwölftonprinzip.” Melos 6, no. 3 (1927):
Drake, Jeremy. The Operas of Darius Milhaud. New York: Garland, 1989.
Dupré, Marcel. Traité de l’Improvisation à l’Orgue. Paris: Leduc, 1925.
Eimert, Herbert. Atonale Musiklehre. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1924.
Erpf, Hermann. Studien zur Harmonie- und Klangtechnik der neueren Musik. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf
& Härtel, 1927.
Forte, Allen. The Structure of Atonal Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Gilson, Paul. Traité d’Harmonie 3. Brussels: A. Cranz, 1926.
Hauer, Josef Matthias. Vom Melos zur Pauke: Einführung in die Zwölftonmusik. Theoretische
Schriften 1. Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1925.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley. “Charles Ives und seine Zeit,” in Amerikanische Musik seit Charles Ives: In-

27 Arnold Whittall, “Bitonality,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed.
Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), 3:637.
28 Excellent volumes on Milhaud’s works include Jeremy Drake, The Operas of Darius Milhaud
(New York: Garland, 1989); Deborah Mawer, Darius Milhaud: Modality and Structure in Mu-
sic of the 1920s (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997); and Barbara L. Kelly, Tradition and Style in
the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912–1939 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). Deborah Mawer (55–56)
distinguishes four classes of “localized bimodality” (absorption, surface-level bimodality, bi-
modality, and atonality), but remains rather sceptical in the end. Both she and Jeremy Drake
prefer the term bimodality over bitonality. It is true that the pitch collections in Milhaud’s music
express various, often rapidly shifting modes (including, but not limited to major and minor
scales) whereas the concept of polytonality gives the harmonic structure of this music its due.
172 Mark Delaere

terpretation, Quellentexte, Komponistenmonographien, edited by Hermann Danuser, Dietrich

Kämper, and Paul Terse, 21–29. Laaber: Laaber, 1987.
Kelly, Barbara L. Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912–1939. Aldershot: Ash-
gate, 2003.
Klein, Fritz Heinrich. “Die Grenze der Halbtonwelt.” Die Musik 17, no. 4 (1925): 281–86.
Koechlin, Charles. “Évolution de l’harmonie: Période contemporaine, depuis Bizet et César Franck
jusqu’à nos jours.” In Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire, 2 ptie.,
Technique–Esthétique–Pédagogie, edited by Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie, 591–
760. Paris: Delagrave, 1925.
— “Les Tendances de la musique moderne française.” Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire
du Conservatoire, 2 ptie., Technique–Esthétique–Pédagogie, edited by Albert Lavignac and
Lionel de la Laurencie, 56–145. Paris: Delagrave, 1925.
— ‘Tonal ou Atonal?’ Le Menestrel 98, no. 15 (1936): 117–19; 98, no. 16 (1936): 125–27.
Machabey, Armand. “Dissonance, Atonalité, Polytonalité.” La Revue Musicale 12, no. 116 (1931):
— “L’atonal, existe-t-il?” Le Menestrel 98, no. 20 (1936): 157–59.
Mawer, Deborah. Darius Milhaud: Modality and Structure in Music of the 1920s. Aldershot: Scolar
Press, 1997.
Milhaud, Darius. “Polytonalité et Atonalité.” La Revue Musicale 4, no. 4 (1923): 29–44.
— “To Arnold Schoenberg on his Seventieth Birthday: Personal Recollections.” The Musical
Quarterly 30 (1944): 379–84.
Nicholls, David. “In Re Con Moto et Al: Experimentalism in the Works of Charles Ives (1874–
1954).” Chap. 2 in American Experimental Music: 1890–1940. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1990.
Orledge, Robert. Charles Koechlin (1867–1950): His Life and Works. Chur: Harwood, 1989.
Pijper, Willem. “Het muzikale absolutisme.” 1928. In De Quintencirkel: opstellen over muziek,
141–47. Amsterdam: Querido, 1964.
Rathert, Wolfgang. The Seen and Unseen: Studien zum Werk von Charles Ives. Berliner Musikwis-
senschaftliche Arbeiten 38. Munich: Emil Katzbichler, 1991.
Rufer, Josef. Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1959.
Searle, Humphrey. Twentieth Century Counterpoint: A Guide for Students. London: Williams and
Norgate, 1955.
Weigl, Bruno. Harmonielehre. Mainz: Schott, 1922.
Whittall, Arnold. “Bitonality.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by
Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell, 3:637. London: Macmillan, 2001.
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red: .
Tonal and Formal Dramaturgy .
in the third movement of Ravel’s Sonate
pour violon et violoncelle
Volker Helbing

In a letter to Roland-Manuel from August 20, 1921, Ravel reflected upon the third
movement of the Sonate pour violon et violoncello, suggesting that “after a begin-
ning in blue and black,” the piece had “broken into poppy red toward the middle.”1
Indeed, the harmonic contrast between the opening and the climax of the move-
ment couldn’t be much larger: Whereas the opening is characterized by an unac-
companied line in monotonous quarter notes and in a mostly anhemitonic, seem-
ingly archaic diatonicism, the climax is surprisingly marked by continuous eighth
notes and a chromatic, quickly progressing harmony determined by major sevenths,
something one would more readily expect in Bartók or the Viennese School than
in Ravel.
Ravel’s development is anything but continuous: Only a few bars before the
climax, a modally diatonic “island” and a polymodal chromaticism verging on the
free atonality of the Viennese School face each other within a minimum of space;
the transition is marked by a quite sudden accelerando. In contrast to what the letter
suggests—like many letters by Ravel it is peppered with allusions and irony—the
eruption in the middle of the piece (its “red blob”) is not due to spontaneous inspi-
ration or even the vicissitudes of Ravel’s recent house-moving; rather, the central
“poppy red” music reflects a dramaturgy of stark contrasts and transformations be-
tween harmonic materials and between instrumental sounds. What is surprising,
however, is that here the contrast assumes an acerbity not experienced in any of
Ravel’s earlier music.
The issue of this music’s tonality—which is an issue of form and coherence as
well—can not be made clear without taking into account its dramaturgical concept.
Hence the following analysis will deal on the one hand with the structural condi-
tions that allow the aforementioned transformations and contrasts (its tonality in the
narrow sense), and on the other hand with the dramaturgy that forms the basis of

1 “Du coup l’andante du duo, bleu et noir au début, s’est déchaîné en ponceau vers le milieu.”
Roland-Manuel to Maurice Ravel, 20 August 1921, in Maurice Ravel: Lettres à Roland-Manuel
et à sa famille, ed. Jean Roy (Quimper: Caligrammes, 1986), 128. (The passage is preceded by
a depiction of Ravel’s fruitless efforts to provide a water supply in his newly acquired house in
Montfort l’Amaury.)
174 Volker Helbing

this movement. Side glances at earlier works—especially the Miroirs—will show

the extent to which even this music of renouncement is rooted in Ravel’s prior mu-
sical language and aesthetics.2


The form of this movement follows a clear ABA’ with coda. The demarcations are,
however, partly concealed by an arched disposition of registers and a process-like
evolution, which spans sections A (mm. 1–24) and B (mm. 25–57) as well as the A’
return (at m. 58) and the coda (mm. 70–82). The climax in m. 42 marks the exact
center of not only the B section and the larger movement, but also the harmonic
structure: A as a modal center controls the beginning, climax, and conclusion of the
piece; the B section is framed symmetrically by its minor-third satellites F# and C.

Modality and Momentum in the A section

Like many pieces by Ravel, the movement begins with a minor-pentatonic initial
idea (Ex. 1a).3 Such a beginning, especially if unaccompanied, is highly ambiguous
in mode. Not only is an integration into the Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian modes
likewise conceivable,4 but in a constellation like G-A-C-D-E, the modal center is
by no means fixed to A, but may also rest on D or C.5 Here, the antecedent with its
two arpeggiations of the second scale degree of an A mode can be seen as Dorian;
the B-minor chord functions as an alternating neighbor chord, whose structural
analogy to the central A-minor chord complicates the clear hierarchies character-
istic of major-minor tonality.6 Even the “half close” on the supertonic scale degree
in m. 4 (Ex. 1a), insinuated by an interrupted linear progression at the end of the
antecedent, is harmonized by an arpeggiated B-minor chord instead of E major or
E minor.

2 To make a differentiation from major-minor tonality (which is still present in Ravel, but in most
cases not constitutive), I will speak of modality or of polymodality instead of tonality. Bartók’s
concepts of bimodality or polymodality, respectively, are explained in his Harvard Lectures
from 1943. See Béla Bartók, Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London: Faber & Faber, 1976),
3 Une barque sur l’océan (upper voices) and La vallée des cloches (Miroirs, 1905), Passacaille
(Piano Trio, 1914), Fugue (Le tombeau de Couperin, 1914–17), and Valses nobles et sentimen-
tales No. 3 (upper voice, 1911) begin with minor pentatonic sets (e. g. A-C-D-E-G). Asie
(Shéhérazade, 1903), Oiseaux tristes (Miroirs) and Pantoum (Piano Trio) begin with stratifica-
tions of minor pentatonic sets (e. g. A-C-D-E-G-A-B).
4 In the case of A-C-D-E-G, the thirds A-C and E-G may be filled by B or B and by F or F#, re-
5 For an example centered on D, see Une barque sur l’océan, Passacaille; for one centered on C,
see Valses nobles et sentimentales No. 3, recapitulation.
6 This use of the Dorian second degree as a neighboring chord to the first is another characteristic
feature in Ravel. See Piano Trio, beginning.
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red 175

Example 1: mm. 1–25; score and harmonic analysis of mm. 17–25

In the consequent phrase G major plays a role analogous to that of B minor in the
antecedent: Both chords are arpeggiated initially in quarter notes, then in eighth
notes, harmonizing the second scale degree within a linear progression. The modal
center A—which after the first bar appears only in passing or within an arpeggia-
tion—functions as an unexpressed center of gravity within an axis of fifths formed
by E and B on the one side and by D and G on the other (Ex. 1a, top staff). The
tonic quality of A however, lacking the tendency of the leading tone and a clear dif-
ferentiation between harmonic degrees, is considerably weakened in comparison to
tonal music.7

7 Thus, a kind of modulation to C major insinuated by the consequent is withdrawn only at the
last moment.
176 Volker Helbing

In the two-part version of the opening theme, beginning in m. 9, the harmonic
ambiguities of the original solo line are “specified” in a manner typical for Ravel, al-
luding slightly to early-eighteenth-century thoroughbass8: The harmonic skeleton is
based almost exclusively on progressions by third or fifth between an implied chordal
progression of i, v, iv, and ii (as marked in Ex. 1a). These chords (or better: dyads),
however, don‘t present themselves as tonal functions but decidedly as “Aeolian v,”
“Dorian ii,” and so on. The same is true for the use of dissonances, most of which oc-
cur in the consequent phrase: Almost all of them may be interpreted as appoggiaturas
or as seventh chords (see the figures in Ex. 1a, in mm. 13–16). But at the same time
they sound explicitly modal, since in most cases they appear within an “Aeolian v.”
From a dramatic point of view, the opening is followed by an “agitating mo-
mentum” (mm. 17–24), anticipating through a sudden crisis most of the components
that are responsible for the evolution of the B section. The modal (but still two-part)
texture introduced by mm. 9–16 functions as a starting point for this first harmonic
heightening. The harmonic skeleton is shown in Ex. 1b: Three dyads prolong the
major-third axis F-A-C#; interpolating their progress are three dyads articulating a
chromatically raised axis F#-A#-D. The result is a hexatonic cycle reaching up to the
high B in m. 25 and foreshadowing the passage prior to the climax of the move-
ment. The foreground material remains diatonic until m. 20, but is intensified radi-
cally by two “Phrygian” II-v-i progressions leading from A Aeolian (or F Lydian)
to F# Phrygian and A# Phrygian, respectively. A further harmonic complication is
the reinterpretation of the violin’s A, C#, and F melodic pitches, heard first as major
thirds, then set as minor thirds by the unfolding hexatonic progression.
A structure of momentarily fixed pitches (as the F5 in mm. 21–24), turning fig-
ures, and chromatic alteration—as often in Ravel—signals the transitionary func-
tion of mm. 21–24. The end of this “movement in immobility”9 is the B in m. 25,
reached by expanding chromatic progression (Ex. 1c).10 At the same time, other
essential harmonic issues of the B section are anticipated: false relations (Ex. 1d),
suggestions of octatonic and whole tone fields (Ex. 1e), and a minor-third axis A#-
C#-E embedded in the overall hexatonic progression (Ex. 1e).

Contrast and heightening in the B section

If we consider the B section (mm. 25–57) as a Schoenbergian “sentence,” the two

four-bar groups beginning in the upbeats to m. 26 and m. 30 form the phrase and
its varied repetition, and mm. 34–57 the (expanded) continuation, itself compris-
ing three sentence-like segments. The first two of these segments (mm. 34–41 and
42–45) aim towards the melodic turning points (mm. 42 and 46, respectively) via a

8 See Le Tombeau de Couperin (especially Forlane and Minuet), Sonatine (Mouvt de Menuet),
and Ma Mère l’Oye (Pavane de la Belle au Bois dormant, Le Jardin Féerique).
9 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Ravel, trans. Margaret Crosland (Reprint; Westport: Greenwood Press,
1976), 132. (The expression refers to Alain.)
10 The Bb5 interrupts an overall register transfer that leads from A2 (m. 1) to A3 (m. 9) and A4
(m. 17) to A6 (m. 42).
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red 177

process of fragmentation, while the third (mm. 46–57) prepares the recapitulation

via a composed-out ritardando. It seems that with this clear, nearly classical phrase
structure Ravel tried to give some kind of foundation to the very advanced (and het-
erogeneous) harmony of this passage. A closer parsing of the entire B section will
consider three distinct stages, together outlining a suggestively dramatic progression.

Octatonic paradis artificiel (mm. 25–33)

The beginning of the B section is marked by a harmonically distorted variant of the

opening: The cello picks up a part of the minor-pentatonic constellation of the open-
ing—corresponding to a minor-seventh chord—and transposes it to F#.11 The dis-
tortion is effected by the pedal note Bb, which transforms the pentatonic collection
into an octatonic subset. This easy label, however, misses the iridescent harmonic
effect of the passage: Just as the B seems to change identity and hue depending
on whether it is accompanied by A or by F#, E, and C#, so the pentatonic collection
disintegrates into a group of contrasting B (or A#?) “colorations.” This tendency to
harmonic vagueness—or rather polycentricity—increases in the consequent phrase
(Ex. 2), when the melody shifts to a constellation projecting an E minor-seventh
tetrachord (enriched with passing C pitch) while the pedal B is replaced gradually
by the pedal trichord A-G-E. Again melody and pedal chord together—as expanded
and truncated variants of minor-seventh chords a tritone apart—form a complete
octatonic collection. Diatonic melody, in this harmonic setting, splits into distinct
harmonic colors, and is hardly perceivable as diatonic.12

Example 2: constitution of the octatonic field, mm. 26–29

11 Thus fitting it to the overall minor third axis. The cello’s A-F#-E (mm. 25–26) imitates the vio-
lin’s A-F-E (mm. 23–24).
12 Ravel reinforces an effect (“breaking” a melody through alternating third relations) that goes
back to Schubert (see String Quintet, 1st movement, secondary theme).
178 Volker Helbing

This sudden change from an initially traditional, bass-rooted harmony into a float-
ing, potentially (or completely) octatonic harmony is one of the dramaturgical topoi
of Ravel which I call “immersion in the octatonic field” or octatonic paradis artifi-
ciel. A no less dramatic incursion of the octatonic governs Une barque sur l’océan,
in a passage (mm. 82 ff.) juxtaposing a pentatonic subset (D-F-A-C, reflecting the
pentatonic melody of the opening) with an “irritating” harmonic pedal (F#-A)—the
F# as “major third” over D—before presenting a complete octatonic field (mm. 90–
94). In both Une barque and the Sonata’s third movement, the octatonic turn heralds
the arrival of the climax of the piece.

“Beautiful passage” (mm. 34–35)

Mm. 34–35 and 36–37 constitute the beginning of the first liquidation process
within the B section and work formally on the same level. Harmonically, though, a
bigger contrast between these two phrases is hardly imaginable. Ex. 3 traces details
of the transformation process, which connects these two passages with the begin-
ning of the octatonic passage and the ensuing liquidation process. The violin part
(Ex. 3b, mm. 34–35) originates in a transposition by major sixth of the earlier cello
part (compare Ex. 3a): in the first violin measure, two melodic boundary pitches
(circled) are displaced by an ascending fourth; in the second, Ravel reverses me-
lodic contour. The resulting melody is mostly diatonic (with the exception of B#,
m. 35)—a simple linear progression yielding to melodic displacements that create a
compound line of two voices (Ex. 3c).

Example 3: motivic transformations, mm. 26–38

Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red 179

Crucial for the harmonic effect of this passage is the minimal displacement by
which it emerges out of an octatonic field. Ex. 4 shows this: Whereas the D# of the
violin is enharmonically equivalent to the cello’s E in m. 33, the cello’s arpeggia-
tion is nearly identical with that of the violin in mm. 33.13 The harmonic attrac-
tiveness of the passage (its melancholical charm), however, is not least due to the
tension between the melody and the underlying minor-seventh chord. Acting as
mostly unresolved appoggiaturas, D#, B, and G# generate a sound that appears both
familiar and “thorny.” The music follows another dramaturgical topos of Ravel,
which I call “beautiful passage.”14 Such passages stand out for diatonic simplicity
(in most cases based on Ravel’s favored minor-seventh or minor-ninth chord), and
function formally as a means of retarding momentum in the approach to the move-
ment’s climax.15

Example 4: harmonic transition, mm. 33–35

Peripeteia and catastrophe (mm. 36–57)

So far compositional structure and dramaturgy in the Sonate remain fully within
the scope of Ravel’s prewar compositions: a pentatonic or diatonic opening marks
the beginning of a process of gradual accumulation; it is followed by an agitating
momentum, signaled harmonically by immersion into the octatonic field; an island-
like “beautiful passage” slows motion towards the climax proper.
This familiar scheme of things ends (at m. 36) with the onset of the heighten-
ing process which leads to the climax—and following that, the catastrophe—of the
piece. Through a sudden acceleration of harmonic rhythm, the “diatonic island” is

13 The only exceptions are the “resolution” from G to F# and the use of the D# as appoggiatura.
14 See Theodor W. Adorno, “Schöne Stellen” (1928), in Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schrif-
ten, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984), 18:695–718. Most of the pas-
sages (from Bach to Schönberg) Adorno cites in his radio lecture are beautiful not (only) in
themselves, but in relation to their dramatic, tragic, or cataclysmic context.
15 The simplicity of the beautiful passage entails a telling change of harmonic color; see, for ex-
ample, Une barque sur l’océan (mm. 98–99); Oiseaux tristes (mm. 21–22).
180 Volker Helbing

left abruptly, and the harmonic structure seems to overrun tonal or modal control.
Motivically, Ravel’s technique is one of intervallic augmentation (Ex. 3d–e).16 The
cello opens a fleeting canon from G—taken up at the fifth in the violin (m. 36, beat
3)—and produces two whole-tone fields (Ex. 3f).
The final approach to the climax itself and the rapid descent to the movement’s
“catastrophe” (mm. 46–55) present a harmony of intricate foreground detail. Ex. 5
displays the different layers of this structure. The high notes leading to the climax
in m. 42 comprise interwoven intervallic axes. As the vertices of an overall major-
third axis, C# (m. 36) and A (m. 38) are prolonged by more local minor-third axes
initiated by C# (mm. 36–37) and A (m. 42) respectively. Each of these high notes is
accompanied by its lower major seventh (the latter pitches themselves embellished
with whole-tone neighbors). (The transitional theme of the first movement func-
tions as a model for this interval constellation, and also as the “secret goal” of the
transformation process.) Due to a liquidation in mm. 38–41, the harmonic structure
concentrates on the members of the major-third axis and their respective lower
sevenths. Thus, the harmonies of mm. 38–41 return by liquidation to the hexatonic
collection underlying the first heightening; the Ex. 5 parsing also records a level of
local harmonic detail—the (014) trichords, mm. 40–41, and associated tetrachords.
Nevertheless—despite this network of connections, and despite all processual
logic—it cannot be denied that the music’s dense and complex (non-sequential)
progression (especially in m. 37) goes markedly beyond the scope of what we know
as Ravel’s musical language. The transitional renunciation of a harmonic structure
governing not only harmonic progression but also the actual sounds of the instru-
ments makes the whole passage sound strange or—to say it with Schoenberg—al-
lows us to feel “Luft von anderem Planeten.” Most of these tendencies remain ef-
fective for the rest of the B section.
The descent (mm. 42–45) is still governed by the modal center A, the focus
of immediately preceding measures. The descending-fourth progression A-E-B
(mm. 42–43) corresponds to the ascending-fifth progression of the opening, with
A as well as E harmonized by the same open fifth. But the whole passage sounds
anything but tonal, since all three notes are prolonged by descending minor-third
axes supported by (016) verticals. Instead, two octatonic fields emerge (mm. 42 and
43). Only preparing the piece’s low registral turning point (in the striding descent
of m. 45) is there a transitional change into a kind of tonal (or, more precisely,
bimodal) harmonic structure: The stratification of what looks (but doesn’t sound)
like the dominant seventh chords of F# major and C major17 is a result of the tritone
constellations of the preceding bars.
The low point or “catastrophe” (mm. 46–57) serves as a kind of crystallization
of the preceding bars: It is comparable in gesture to mm. 40–41, and takes over
part of the pitch content of m. 45 (mostly in the same register, see Ex. 6, eliptical

16 M. 36 derives from the violin part of m. 34, transposed up by a second. The first half of the
measure is thereby displaced into the cello (Ex. 3e).
17 Whereas the cello completes the minor third axis F-D-B to G7 (“resolving” in an astonishingly
traditional way to C in m. 46), the violin completes its third axis to C#7 and concentrates on
pitches belonging to F# major.
Example 5: peripeteia and catastrophe (mm. 36–45), pitch structure
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red

Example 6: catastrophe (mm. 44–58), interval constellations and harmonic reduction

182 Volker Helbing

frames); three of the major sevenths of m. 44 are transposed and combined into a
single arpeggiation (Ex. 6, solid rectangular frames), all while the actual disposition
of this arpeggiation—with C, G, and F# in the lower voices—alludes to earlier pitch
content (compare mm. 44, 46). The resulting harmonic structure—including the
cello’s prominent A# of m. 49—again has some similarity to a hexatonic collection.
Even this process of crystallization is not without its parallels in the prewar
music of Ravel. Thus, in Noctuelles, the harmonic surface (initially extremely com-
plex) heads to a gradual crystallization and stacking of chord components corre-
sponding to the ordered pc set (0,3,11). The process ends in parallel voice leading
(Noctuelles, m. 38), and the pitch constellation framed at this point corresponds
exactly to that in m. 46 of the sonata movement.18 The prominent melodic forms
of trichord (016) (mm. 42–44) appear in a parallel inner-voice motion in Le Gibet
(mm. 24–25). The difference is that the same major-seventh constellations, which
in the earlier pieces were imbedded in more complex chords (and thus attenuated),
here emerge nakedly.

Epilogue (recapitulation and coda)

As if the piece were now trying to keep as close as possible to the modal center,
the recapitulation’s first four-bar phrases emerge from the “Phrygian” constella-
tion E-F (accompanied in two cases by the A of the violin).19 It is transformed into
an imitation of the opening motive (mm. 59–60), and grounds the cello’s flowing
motives through m. 69. The continuous eighth note pulse, reactivated after the tran-
sitional retardation of mm. 50–55, lends the whole passage greater intensity than
that of its earlier form (mm. 9–20)20—albeit one which is literally “damped”21 by
the preceding catastrophe. The first two phrases of the cello end in a kind of virtual
polyphony (thus allowing more extensive gestures), whereas the third increases by
an ascending linear progression. The coda (beginning in m. 70) combines rhythmic
and intervallic echoes (mm. 36, 38, and 40) with a more explicit assimilation to the
transitional theme of the first movement, a unity which the process of intervallic
augmentation in the middle section strived for.
When one considers the different combinations of this invariant motive and
the intervallically related (and likewise nearly invariant) upper-voice motive, a
harmonic skeleton shimmers through that reminds us of late-nineteenth-century
harmony. Several tonal associations interlock as a result, most of which are typi-
cal closing gestures. A possible tonal derivation of m. 70—interpreting the second

18 Volker Helbing, “Noctuelles by Ravel: An Essay on the Morphology of Sound,” in Tijdschrift

voor Muziektheorie 8 (2003), 149–50; Volker Helbing, Choreographie und Distanz: Studien
zur Ravel-Analyse (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2008), 211–12.
19 E, F, and A are pcs purposefully omitted and chromatically surrounded in mm. 46–57, along
with C#. The arrival of A (m. 62) is anticipated by the double stop a bar earlier.
20 After the continuous eighth-note rhythm of the middle section, a return to the far slower rhythm
of the opening—“as if nothing had happened”—would hardly be convincing.
21 See performance instructions.
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red 183

half of the measure as a kind of “sp” (Riemannian “°Sp”) in A minor – is shown in

Ex. 7a–d. (Ravel’s notation with G# instead of A—see my attempt at a chordal in-
terpretation in Ex. 7e – does not seem very convincing.) Similarly, the whole phrase
could be heard as an oscillation between a tonic-like first and a subdominant-like
second half of the bar.

Example 7: Coda: tonal recompositions and score (mm. 70–75)

Ex. 7f “translates” the virtual three-part texture of mm. 71–75 into a real one and
elaborates this to a kind of late-nineteenth-century texture, a reference Ravel could
have had in mind while composing this passage.22 (The original score is shown in
Ex. 7g.) By contrast, mm. 76–79 rather overtly allude to the kind of “pentatonic E
minor” in a guitar-like fourth chain, whereas the parallel fifths of mm. 80–81 re-
mind us of the first form of Western polyphony.23
Through historical and “extra-musical” implications, this coda transcends mu-
sical discourse in the narrow sense; even so, it is fully integrated in the process of

22 As a stylistic model one might consider, for example, Franck’s three organ chorales.
23 Similar gestures of final disillusionment by stratifications of fifths and fourths may be found in
Oiseaux tristes (m. 26), La vallée des cloches (mm. 58–63, recapitulation of the pentatonic
opening), Le Gibet (m. 48, likewise reflecting the opening of the piece). At the beginnings of
Daphnis et Chloé and Concerto pour la main gauche, stratifications of fifths and fourths grow
out of harmonically neutral material.
184 Volker Helbing

developing variation24 as well as in the cadential process of a stretched dominant

pedal (mm. 76–79) whose tonic resolution is delayed by a kind of parenthetic plagal
cadence in the last three measures.25
By focusing successively on the minor second, major seventh, perfect fourth,
and perfect fifth in the process of developing variation, Ravel produces areas of
distinct coloration that play with reminiscence in a twofold manner: first, through
“pale”26 diatonic or pentatonic reflection of earlier passages of this movement and
of the first, and second, by creating historical associations triggered through the
transformation of these passages.
The only departure from the coda’s diatonic scale and the most explicit histori-
cal allusion is the cello’s adoption (mm. 70–74) of the movement’s climax and (with
this) the transitional theme of the first movement. Though hardly integrated from
a tonal point of view, tending towards chromaticism, and consisting nearly exclu-
sively of major sevenths and whole tones, this idea presents a kind of idée fixe: a
tonally disruptive element that will accompany the sonata up to its very end.


To return, by way of conclusion, to the broader question of Ravel’s dramaturgic

way with tonality, the contrast between the two framing sections and the climax of
the movement described above proves to be a shift between extreme variants of a
basically modal compositional structure. This allows for passages characterized by
the diatonic scale, progressions by fifths and consonant dyads, as well as for pas-
sages not controlled by any collection. In such passages, modally defined chords
or dyads are replaced by fixed and “dissonant” interval constellations with salient
major sevenths and controlled by a network of major- and minor-third axes. This
“modal compositional structure” has a number of essential features, matters of tech-
nique as well as of drama.
The difference between the two structural variants is smaller than one might
think: The beginning and largest part of the A’ section are decidedly modal insofar
as they avoid not only leading tones—by using the Dorian and Aeolian modes—
but even semitones in general, as well as any distinct hierarchy between harmonic
degrees. Conversely, the apparent atonality of the “Peripeteia” stage of the drama
(mm. 36–45) proves to be integrated into the modal structure of the movement as a
whole: in spite of their dissonant (and from a tonal point of view, vague) harmonies,

24 Rhythmically, these measures derive from mm. 70–71. Harmonically, they reflect (or prolong)
the pentatonic constellation of the violin part in mm. 74–75.
25 The direct succession of degrees v (mm. 76–79), iv (80–81), and i functions (82) recalls Ba-
chian pedal points; compare the ending of the C# minor fugue in Well-Tempered Clavier Book
26 The pale character of the A’ section (in comparison to the B, but also to the A section) is basi-
cally due to the diatonic, sometimes even pentatonic quality of the violin part and most of the
cello part.
Nocturne in Blue, Black and Poppy Red 185

the linear progressions of this passage are based on the same third and fifth axes as
the rest of the movement.
The harmonic middleground of the movement confirms what goes for most of
Ravel’s “advanced” works since at least the Rapsodie espagnole: Minor-third axes
are the preferred structure as long as it is about “equivalence”27—that is, about
arpeggiations in the harmonic foreground and middleground as well as about the
central points of the movement—but major-third axes serve as a mode of intensi-
On the harmonic surface, Ravel’s transformations are based on a process that
stretches seconds, thirds, and fifths into sevenths and ninths. This process aims
toward a gradual crystallization and isolation of “dissonant” interval constellations
(see the passage leading to the climax and catastrophe). This is but a further stage
of procedures tested by Ravel as early as 1905. It is not that the interval constella-
tions as such are new, but rather that they are now isolated from any “harmonizing”
chordal context. Constellations that in Miroirs appear as floating dissonances—em-
bedded into a chordal context in which the possibility of resolution still exists or
rather “resonates”—now prove to be emancipated dissonances in the literal sense
of the term.
Contrasts are mediated in most cases by a technique typical for Ravel, that is,
combining temporarily invariant harmonic layers with minimal chromatic displace-
ment. In the end, all transformations and contrasts are part of the formal dramaturgy
of the movement. They are not merely means of expression, but part of the subject
matter itself. In the context of this sonata, to reply to an openly diatonic beginning
with a chromatic counterpart is a matter of aesthetic consequence. In the rondo-like
last movement it is the coda that—in a stretto with three subjects— “draws the con-
clusion” of the tendency towards atonality that characterizes the whole Sonata (thus
initiating another catastrophe). In the third movement, however, it is the climax and
its direct neighborhood surroundings that advance into an area of tonal vagueness
or—to put in with Ravel— breaks into poppy red. The individual stages within the
process of transformation are represented as stations of a dramatic action: quiet
(and melancholy) starting point, subtle “acceleration” (m. 17), hesitation (23), dive
into the Paradis artificiel (25), “beautiful moment” (34–35), peripeteia (36), ca-

27 Michael Polth calls equivalence “the effect that different chords are heard as different aspects
of one and the same sound.” As an example, he takes the progression Eb-A7-C7 accompanying
the horn’s G at the beginning of Liszt’s Orpheus. Michael Polth, “Tonalität der Tonfelder: An-
merkungen zu Bernhard Haas […],” in Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 3 (2006):
172–73. Whether it makes sense to call minor third axes a “function” (as do Polth and others)
should be decided from case to case. Here this interpretation is not without reason. With respect
to Bartók, Ernö Lendvai called the members of a minor third axis a “function;” thus A-C-Eb-F#
form the tonic, C#-E-G-Bb the dominant, D-F-Ab-B the subdominant axis. See Ernö Lendvai,
Béla Bartók, An Analysis of His Music (London: Kahn and Averill, 1971), 1–15. Albert Simon
applied Lendvai’s axis system to a full branch of compositional history reaching back to
Schubert, see Bernhard Haas, Die neue Tonalität von Schubert bis Webern: Hören und Analy-
sieren nach Albert Simon (Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel, 2004), 11–19; and Polth, “Tonalität,” ibid.,
171–72. For a critical view of Lendvai’s theory see Peter Petersen, Die Tonalität im Instrumen-
talschaffen von Béla Bartók (Hamburg: Wagner, 1971), 10–13.
186 Volker Helbing

tastrophe (46), return (58), and retrospective backward glance (m. 70 to the end).
Without the theatrical elaboration of the transitions and their integration into the
overall dramatical concept, these contrasts would not be plausible. The transitions
are not just compositional means, but rather lie at the very center of an aesthetic
attitude which is about nuance and transformation.


Adorno, Theodor W. “Schöne Stellen” (1928). In Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften 18,
edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 695–718. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984.
Bartók, Béla. “Harvard Lectures.” In Essays. Edited by Benjamin Suchoff, 354–92. London: Faber
& Faber, 1976.
Haas, Bernhard. Die neue Tonalität von Schubert bis Webern: Hören und Analysieren nach Albert
Simon. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel, 2004.
Helbing, Volker. Choreographie und Distanz: Studien zur Ravel-Analyse. Hildesheim: Georg Olms,
— “Noctuelles by Ravel: An Essay on the Morphology of Sound.” Tijdschrift voor Muziektheorie
8 (2003): 142–51.
Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Ravel. Translated by Margaret Crosland. Reprint. Westport: Greenwood
Press, 1976.
Lendvai, Ernö. Béla Bartók: An Analysis of His Music. London: Kahn and Averill, 1971.
Petersen, Peter. Die Tonalität im Instrumentalschaffen von Béla Bartók. Hamburg: Wagner, 1971.
Polth, Michael. “Tonalität der Tonfelder: Anmerkungen zu Bernhard Haas […].” Zeitschrift der
Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 3 (2006): 167–78.
Ravel, Maurice. Maurice Ravel: Lettres à Roland-Manuel et à sa famille. Edited by Jean Roy. Quim-
per: Caligrammes, 1986.
Tonality on the Town: Orchestrating .
the Metropolis in Vaughan Williams’s .
A London Symphony
Alain Frogley

In June 1922, on his first trip to the United States, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote
to his friend Gustav Holst recording some initial impressions:
I have now seen (a) Niagara (b) the Woolworths building and am most impressed by (b)—I’ve
come to the conclusion that the Works of Man terrify me more than the Works of God—I told
myself all the time that N’ga was the most wonderful thing in the world—& so it is—especially
when you get right under it—but I did not once want to fall on my knees & confess my sins—
whereas I can sit all day & look out of my windows (16 floors up) at the sky scrapers […]1

Vaughan Williams had crossed the Atlantic, a few months before his fiftieth birth-
day, to conduct the American premiere of A Pastoral Symphony (his third work in
the genre) at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut. His passion for New York
was no fleeting infatuation; he later counted his first sight of the New York City
skyline as one of the formative imaginative experiences of his life, a select group
that included, more predictably, his first encounter with English folksong and his
first visit to Stonehenge.2 Given the composer’s strong association with musical
pastoralism, which extended well beyond his most recent symphony, some may
find surprising, even a little shocking, Vaughan Williams’s bold reverence here for
the man-made environment over nature—especially the skyscraper, the ultimate
symbol of cutting-edge urban modernism. Yet in recent years both scholars and
performers have been developing a much more nuanced and complex picture of
this often misunderstood composer, including his use of pastoral imagery. A Pasto-
ral Symphony, for instance, stemmed from Vaughan Williams’s experiences in the
trenches of the First World War, not the leafy lanes of rural England, as was once
thought. More to the point, the composer was invited to America on the strength
of the success there of a very different work, his London Symphony; this was pre-
miered in London in March 1914, though not heard in New York until December
1920. Towards the beginning of the work, nature and the city are brought into sharp
juxtaposition: a slow introduction, in programmatic terms apparently representing

1 Ralph Vaughan Williams to Gustav Holst, 5 June 1922, in Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams
1895–1958, ed. Hugh Cobbe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 132–33. A full account
of the trip is given in Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Wil-
liams (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 142–45. The research for this essay was begun
during my tenure as a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies in 2005–6, and
supported also by grants from the University of Connecticut Research Foundation.
2 Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Musical Autobiography,” in Hubert Foss, Ralph Vaughan Williams:
A Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), 22.
188 Alain Frogley

the River Thames at dawn, is disrupted by an allegro that seems to hurl us into a
busy street scene (Ex. 1). Juxtaposition is perhaps too neutral a term: brutal con-
frontation might be closer to the effect. This conflict, and others which I will discuss
below, are played out across the course of the work.

Example 1: Ralph Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, I, mm. 34–44. (All examples are
taken from the piano score published by Stainer & Bell in 1922, an arrangement by Vally Lasker
of the 1920 orchestral score, and are reproduced by kind permission of Stainer & Bell.)

Although orchestration, dynamics, and rhythm all play crucial roles in articulating
the disjunction embodied in Ex. 1, the effect of rupture is also one of harmony and
tonality, in terms both of dissonance and of contrasting pitch collections. Such con-
flicts turn out to be crucial to Vaughan Williams’s exploration throughout the work
of the relationship of nature and the man-made city. I would also suggest that they
sowed the seeds for the composer’s more far-reaching exploration from the mid-
1920s onwards of a finely balanced dialectic between diatonic tonality and various
anti-tonal elements typical of mid-century modernism. Further, I would argue that
their employment here in association with explicitly urban imagery is far from ar-
bitrary, and that they offer a starting-point for broader reflections on possible con-
nections between urban experience and the development of harmony and tonality
in the twentieth century and before. I will begin by discussing this more expansive
historical perspective, and then return to A London Symphony to offer some obser-
vations that illustrate the issues at stake.
Tonality on the Town 189

In the years leading up to the First World War, Vaughan Williams had been
developing a musical language that would establish him as one of the most re-
sourceful twentieth-century composers to retain a commitment to diatonic tonality,
broadly conceived. His influence, which extended in his own lifetime beyond Brit-
ain to a number of mid-century American composers (e. g. Samuel Barber and Roy
Harris), and continues today in film and popular music as well as the classical arena,
has long been underestimated but is beginning to be appreciated in greater depth.
Drawing on diverse influences, from the common-practice era, modern French mu-
sic, Tudor polyphony, and English folksong, Vaughan Williams created a tonal lan-
guage incorporating unusually subtle interactions of modal and chromatic practice,
and recent analytical work has suggested a grasp of abstract theoretical possibilities
sharply at odds with the surprisingly tenacious image of this composer as a groping
and sometimes fumbling mystic.3 A number of works from before 1914, includ-
ing On Wenlock Edge, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and The Lark
Ascending have pastoral associations, and although this was clearly not the single
key to the development of his tonal practice, it was certainly enormously important.
This is perhaps not surprising in terms of the development of tonality during
the common-practice era, the backdrop to Vaughan Williams’s early formation as
a composer. Throughout this period, and particularly in the wake of Beethoven’s
Pastoral Symphony—the model for many later musical evocations of nature—the
pastoral topic had been a locus of alternative approaches to harmony and tonality,
most notably in the weakening or suspension of teleological harmonic progression
(through the use of drone basses, for instance), or an emphasis on subdominant
rather than dominant harmonic regions. The pastoral’s traditional association with
religious works, and later with the incorporation of folk music or exotic elements,
linked it also to the expansion of modal possibilities in nineteenth-century mu-
sic. This stream of development became an important alternative energy source for
tonal innovation, in counterpoise to the increasing chromatic saturation exemplified
by Wagner’s Tristan, and it can be seen to culminate most powerfully in the early
ballets of Stravinsky. Vaughan Williams’s pre-1914 music represents another fruit-
ful outgrowth.
This much is familiar territory. So, of course, is the underlying assumption that
tonality can be taken to model aspects of social relations and individual conscious-
ness, in the case of the pastoral as these relate to the natural world and time in par-
ticular; the language used to describe and categorize tonality, from at least Rameau
to Schoenberg, has drawn heavily on social and even political imagery. Yet if we
accept the general concept of tonality as social metaphor, whatever the particular
mechanisms involved, in the case of the pastoral it does beg the question of what
is on the other side of the equation, as it were, and this has received little attention
from musicologists. If the pastoral ethos establishes an alternative psychological
and/or physical space for the subject presumed to be experiencing the music, to

3 See in particular David Manning, “Harmony, Tonality and Structure in Vaughan Williams’s
Music” (PhD diss., University of Wales, Cardiff, 2003); and Ian Bates, “Generalized Diatonic
Modality and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Compositional Practice” (PhD diss., Yale University,
190 Alain Frogley

what exactly is it an alternative? There are multiple answers, of course, depending

on the context: the pastoral can oppose contemplation to action, offer a utopian es-
cape from everyday “reality,” or counter the constraints of artificial social conven-
tions, the clamor of war, or the pressures of humanity at large. And as in the other
arts, the pastoral in music often involves complex elements of paradox and irony.
But there has been a curious reluctance in the musical world to relate such opposi-
tions directly to the most obvious dualism on which the pastoral has always turned,
namely that of the country and the city—nature and the man-made environment. In-
deed, the pastoral genre has always been a product of urban society, and dependent
on the city for its meaning: shepherds and peasants do not write eclogues, for the
most part. To put it simply, and with the most obvious example: if in Beethoven’s
Pastoral Symphony the composer’s emphasis on the subdominant, and his avoid-
ance of chromaticism and minor harmonies, represent the pastoral ethos,4 should
we not assume that the more stressful tonal environment of a work such as the Fifth
Symphony reflects in some way his experience as a city dweller? At one level this
seems obvious—yet the question has not up to now been framed in quite this way.
One reason the question has been neglected—and its implications obviously
reach well beyond Beethoven—is no doubt that it must at one level seem simplistic.
And how clearly may we define urban experience as something distinct from that
of society in general, the forces of which musicologists do now study in great de-
tail? By urban experience, I mean a set of impressions dependent on the particular
spatial, temporal, and sensory characteristics of urban living, in addition to more
abstract social relations of class and custom that may be diffused more broadly
throughout society. There is in fact a vast body of scholarship in other disciplines
addressing such issues, most notably in literature and the visual arts, and especially
for the period from about 1800 onwards.5 It is true, of course, that Beethoven and
his contemporaries offer little explicit representation of the city in their music; yet
this should not discourage us, surely, from exploring ways in which implicit or
indirect traces of metropolitan concerns may have shaped aspects of their work,
and the understanding of which might open up new interpretative avenues.6 And
the desirability of such an exploration becomes a veritable obligation as the nine-
teenth century progresses—despite the fact that music, at least in the realm of high
culture, continued for the most part to steer clear of explicitly metropolitan subject

4 The extreme limitation of harmonic resources that Beethoven imposed on himself in this work,
breached significantly only in the storm movement, has been discussed by many commenta-
tors: see David Wyn Jones, Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995).
5 Of the many sources one might cite in this context, two major representative volumes, from the
disciplines of literary criticism and art history respectively, are William Chapman Sharpe, Un-
real Cities: Urban Figuration in Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, and Williams (Bal-
timore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); and Timothy J. Clark, The Painting of Modern
Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (New York: Knopf, 1985).
6 Though there are situations where the terms “urban” and “metropolitan” may usefully be dis-
tinguished from one another, for the purposes of the present discussion they will be used inter-
Tonality on the Town 191

matter until the 1920s.7 It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that the
truly unique nature of the modern metropolis and of modern urban experience, as
something new and quite different from other modes of living, began to preoccupy
social commentators, novelists, poets, and visual artists, from Baudelaire to Kraus,
and Renoir to Sickert. Though a fascination with the city goes back to ancient times,
including the Old Testament, rapid urbanization and industrialization, and in par-
ticular the extraordinary growth of cities such as Paris, Vienna, and especially Lon-
don, effected a sea change in attitudes to the metropolis and, as the century drew
to a close, an increasing sense of alarm and even panic. The new scale and speed
made possible by technology—railways, trams, the telegraph, and so on—trans-
formed notions of time, space (including vertical space), and sensory experience
in all arenas. Such transformations created a sense of the urban environment as in-
creasingly dehumanizing, and often mysterious, overwhelming, and threatening to
the individual self; floods of generally rootless newcomers, more easily understood
as a faceless mob than as individuals, precipitated an upheaval in social relations.8
Ironically, even when observers found a new kind of beauty in the modern city-
scape, as in the case of Baudelaire, their frequent invocation of qualities such as the
inhuman and the mysterious mirrored Romantic attitudes to untamed nature, creat-
ing an urban version of the sublime.9 (Vaughan Williams’s own comparison of his
reactions to Niagara Falls and the Woolworth Building directly invites this parallel,
falling squarely—and probably with a touch of the tongue-in-cheek—within the
trope of the sublime, not least in an evocation of quasi-religious awe.) City dwellers
came from increasingly diverse backgrounds and often distant regions of the nation
and, in the heyday of empire, even the globe—classes, races, ethnicities, and reli-

7 Popular music during this period and later manifests more obvious connections with urban
themes, and has received correspondingly much greater attention from musicologists. In the
realm of art music, it might be argued that opera and related genres constitute an important
exception to a wider reticence in engaging directly with the modern city: urban settings are an
important backdrop in many operas of the period, particularly as we approach the end of the
century. The most extensive discussion of urban themes and influences in nineteenth-century
opera is Anselm Gerhard, Die Verstädterung der Oper: Paris und das Musiktheater des 19.
Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992); this has also appeared in English as The Urbanization
of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Mary Whittall (Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1998). Nevertheless, the works discussed by Gerhard rarely thema-
ticize the city and urban experience in explicit terms. Probably the most celebrated opera of the
period to do that is Gustave Charpentier’s Louise (1900), in which Paris becomes virtually a
protagonist in the work.
8 The classic exposition of such alienation and its effects on the inner emotional life and outer
social behavior of city dwellers is sociologist Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay “Die Großstädte und
das Geistesleben,” reprinted in Simmel, Gesamtausgabe, ed. Otthein Rammstedt (Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 7:116–31. The essay appears in English, translated by H. H. Gerth as
“The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, ed. Richard Sen-
nett (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969), 47–60.
9 A more detailed account of such issues would clearly need to address changing attitudes to
nature during this period, and distinctions between a traditional, relatively circumscribed no-
tion of the pastoral topic, emphasizing peaceful contemplation and a human presence, and more
varied and dehumanized evocations of the natural world.
192 Alain Frogley

gions mingled and sometimes clashed in unprecedented ways. The development of

the metropolis was inextricably bound up with the need for nations and empires to
connect and control across increasingly vast physical distances, and across growing
social and cultural chasms.10
By the first decade of the twentieth century, the case for hearing implicit con-
nections between developments in musical style and the impact of urban experi-
ence, not least in the realm of harmony and tonality, becomes compelling. The
fact that harmony involves both simultaneous and successive relationships between
sounds, complicated by subtleties of texture, timbre, and rhythm, is enormously
suggestive. The increasing prevalence in the period around 1900 of extreme har-
monic flux, textural fragmentation and layering, formal disjunction, incipient bito-
nality, fleeting timbral effects, and so on, clearly invites comparison with literary
and visual tropes of urban experience that emphasize simultaneity, collision, and
the ephemeral; indeed, it can be argued that music was in many ways uniquely well
suited to embodying such concerns, and of course modernists in the other arts, for
instance James Joyce in Ulysses, often looked to music as a model for representing
the multi-temporal complexity of the twentieth-century urban psyche.11
There have always been passing references in the literature to urban experience
and the emergence of musical modernism before 1914, but only in the last few
years have more sustained investigations appeared. The most ambitious contribu-
tion to date is Holly Watkins’s 2008 article on concepts of space and urban design in
the development of Schoenberg’s atonality and the twelve-tone method.12 Watkins
boldly interprets Schoenberg’s pre-serial works as being shaped fundamentally by
issues of metropolitan subjectivity, despite the absence of explicit urban associa-
tions in their subject matter. But Watkins does not pursue the implications for music
of urban studies in general beyond her immediate focus; and her concentration on
Vienna, typical of other contributions in this area so far, illuminates only one met-
ropolitan perspective of the time, albeit a critical one for the history of music. There
has been little written so far on music and urban experience in other major metro-
politan centers before 1914, and although certain concerns were shared in com-
mon across western cities, crucial distinctions need to be drawn not only between

10 One might fruitfully pursue parallels between high imperialism and expanded conceptions of
tonality, especially in the symphony, but that would take us well beyond the present discussion.
For some preliminary observations on such parallels see Alain Frogley, “Rewriting the Renais-
sance: History, Imperialism, and British Music since 1840,” Music and Letters 84 (2003):
11 Joyce indicated that Chapter 11 of Ulysses was structured as a fugue, interweaving the perspec-
tives of eight different characters. More recently, James Wood has analyzed urban scenes in
Flaubert and others in terms of multiple simultaneous time-signatures: see Wood, How Fiction
Works (London: Macmillan, 2009), 43–47 and 56–57.
12 Holly Watkins, “Schoenberg’s Interior Designs,” Journal of the American Musicological Soci-
ety 61 (2008): 123–206. See also Thomas Peattie, “The Fin-De-Siècle Metropolis, Memory,
Modernity, and the Music of Gustav Mahler” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2002); Julian
Johnson, Webern and the Transformation of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1999); and Stephen Downes, “Eros in the Metropolis: Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin,”
Journal of the Royal Musical Association 125 (2000): 41–61.
Tonality on the Town 193

different national cultures and their social preoccupations, but also in terms of the
particular nature of the urban spaces and histories that characterized different cities.
This brings us back, belatedly, to Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony,
which may now be considered in a richer context. Surprising though it may seem,
this symphony has a strong claim to be the most ambitious musical representation
of a modern metropolis composed before World War One. Its closest counterparts in
the orchestral arena are Delius’s tone poem Paris: The Song of a Great City (1899),
Elgar’s overture Cockaigne: In London Town (1901), and Ives’s “contemplation”
(as he called it) Central Park in the Dark (1906); yet while all three works consti-
tute important precedents they are much more modest in scope, with the longest of
them, the Delius, lasting only about twenty minutes. A London Symphony lasted
close to an hour in the version performed in 1914, and even the heavily revised
score heard today still typically runs at about forty minutes (Vaughan Williams re-
vised it at least three times between 1918 and the mid-1930s).13 I will not dwell here
on the programmatic background of the symphony, about which Vaughan Williams
was reticent, but a few remarks are necessary. The composer revealed near the end
of his life that the concluding section of the work was suggested by the final chapter
of H. G. Wells’s Tono Bungay, a novel in the “Condition of England” genre pub-
lished in 1908; the book concludes with the narrator-protagonist travelling down
the Thames in a naval destroyer, reviewing England and its history impressionisti-
cally as he goes. I have argued elsewhere that the novel was most likely the initial
impetus for the symphony, and surely influenced more than just its ending.14 Wells
portrays a society in decay, and London as a vast and spreading cancer of mindless
capitalism, engulfing an older England more in harmony both with itself and with
nature. Such pessimism was reinforced by increasing social and political unrest in
the years just before 1914, and it is not difficult to hear echoes of this vision in the
many darker moments of A London Symphony. Nevertheless, in a landmark 1912
essay entitled “Who Wants the English Composer?” written while he was working
on the symphony, Vaughan Williams exhorted his composer peers to embrace all
the rich musical and sonic diversity of modern English life;15 he opens with a quote

13 See Stephen Lloyd, “Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony: the Original Version and Early
Performances and Recordings,” in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective: Studies of an Eng-
lish Composer, ed. Lewis Foreman (Taunton: Albion Music, 1998), 91–112. The original ver-
sion can be reconstructed from manuscript sources in the British Library (Add. MSS 50317A-
D); it was recorded in 2000 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox
(Chandos 9902). The first movement was left virtually untouched in later revisions, but the
other three movements were extensively altered.
14 See “H. G. Wells and Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony: Politics and Culture in Fin-de-
Siécle England,” in Sundry Sorts of Music Books: Essays on the British Library Collections:
Presented to O. W. Neighbour on his 70th Birthday, ed. Chris Banks, Arthur Searle, and Mal-
colm Turner (London: British Library, 1993), 299–308.
15 Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Who Wants the English Composer?” Royal College of Music Maga-
zine 9, no. 1 (1912): 11–15; reprinted in Vaughan Williams on Music, ed. David Manning
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 39–42. For a detailed contextual examination of
Vaughan Williams’s social and political views see Julian Onderdonk, “Ralph Vaughan Wil-
liams’s Folksong Collecting: English Nationalism and the Rise of Professional Society” (PhD
diss., New York University, 1998).
194 Alain Frogley

from Walt Whitman, and seems to share with the poet a willingness, unusual at the
time, to see in urban social diversity signs of hope as well as threat. As we will see,
A London Symphony celebrates this aspect of the city, even as it also evokes more
destructive forces.
If Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality can be taken to embody a new met-
ropolitan subjectivity riven by social alienation, as Holly Watkins argues, Vaughan
Williams’s response to the city is certainly very different. Yet A London Symphony
is a profoundly challenging work nevertheless. It was the composer’s most ad-
vanced attempt so far in his career to reconcile the diverse harmonic possibilities
he had explored over the previous decade, which in addition to inventive modal
elements included whole-tone, octatonic, and hexatonic materials. Here he sets out
to assimilate such diversity into a relatively traditional symphonic concept of tonal
unification, involving the vertical and horizontal integration of thematic and har-
monic materials on a scale he had never before attempted; and he raises the stakes
yet further by pushing to a new degree elements of modernist disruption, particu-
larly intense dissonance and other potentially anti-tonal elements, and striving to
encompass these also within the overall framework. Although violent disruption
manifests itself in all parameters (e. g. rhythm and expressive topics), harmony and
tonality represent the most crucial arena of conflict. Such elements are clearly sug-
gested, one might even say demanded, by the particular programmatic subject mat-
ter. Yet Vaughan Williams continues to insist on tonality’s powers of integration
against the potentially disintegrative forces associated with the metropolis, offering
a social metaphor of some power: what exactly tonality represents for Vaughan Wil-
liams in this hermeneutic field I shall revisit in due course, but it clearly allows for a
more optimistic and adaptive view of social and technological change than Schoen-
berg’s more radically alienated break with tradition. One should add that the choice
of genre is also highly significant, given the long association of the symphony and
the orchestra with metaphors of community and coherent diversity. The composer’s
post-war revisions to the work strongly suggest that he had his own doubts as to just
how far the disintegrative elements could be assimilated—how far tonality could
be stretched before it snapped—in that his excisions included several of the most
dissonant and harmonically disruptive passages in the original score. Nevertheless,
the essential tensions remained in force. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams would
return repeatedly to such issues in the remainder of his career, often in a drastically
intensified form and in works without a programme, such as his Fourth Symphony:
the imperatives of representing modern urban experience opened up possibilities
that could be pursued more abstractly in his later music.
The primary tonal elements of A London Symphony center on the interaction
of G major, the overall tonic of the work, with various forces of opposition or con-
trast. These forces may be tonal, in terms of rival keys, or potentially anti-tonal, the
latter primarily whole-tone and augmented triad structures that divide the octave
symmetrically and tend to undermine diatonic tonality. Oppositions are at times
dramatically verticalized as layered aggregations that suggest (locally or sometimes
more extensively) multiple independent tonal centers, as in the music of Ives and
Tonality on the Town 195

Stravinsky from the same period. Hexatonic collections mediate between, or at

least frame, a number of these elements at crucial points of the symphony.
Though these interactions can be traced throughout the work, they are most
clearly articulated in the first movement. This consists of a slow introduction fol-
lowed by a sonata allegro; the latter unfolds an unusual deformation whose details
cannot detain us here, but which involves two large rotations of material, the first
comprising the exposition, the second the development, recapitulation, and coda,
with elements of the slow introduction incorporated also towards the end of the al-
legro. Vaughan Williams never provided a detailed programme for any part of the
symphony, and was in general tight-lipped and ambivalent about its meanings; he
went further for some movements than others, but revealed very little about the first.
He was obliged to acknowledge one obvious external musical reference, namely the
sounding of the half-hour of Big Ben’s Westminster Chimes towards the end of the
slow introduction, but he somewhat disingenuously (and unconvincingly) asked
listeners to treat such references as “accidentals” rather than “essentials” of the mu-
sic.16 Going rather further, he does seem to have at least tacitly tolerated for several
years a programmatic guide produced by Madolen Coates, wife of the conductor
Albert Coates, who was responsible for a number of important early performances.
The majority of associations in Coates’s account of the first movement seem rela-
tively obvious, in terms of well-established tropes of musical representation and
the overall concept of a symphony about London (or by a Londoner, as Vaughan
Williams preferred to put it).17 The slow introduction appears to represent the city
at dawn, with the River Thames, and therefore nature, in the foreground (this music
is recalled in the Wells-inspired Epilogue of the symphony, thus confirming inde-
pendently the association with the river). The shrill and dissonant opening of the
allegro indicates a shift of focus to the busy streets at the center of the metropolis,
in particular the Strand, just off Trafalgar Square and not far from the river. The sec-
ond main theme, characterized by brass-band swagger and ragtime syncopations,
suggests Cockney working-class high spirits. According to Coates the slow and
meditative section at the heart of the development section represents a withdrawal
from the bustle of the main streets into one of London’s many quiet squares and
side-streets (the squares often encompass small parks, invoking nature once again).

16 In his 1920 program note to the work: see n. 17 below.

17 The Coates program note is reproduced in The Analytical Concert Guide, ed. Louis Biancolli
and William Mann (London: Macmillan, 1951), 706–10. Albert Coates conducted the Ameri-
can premiere of the symphony in New York in December 1920, and his wife’s notes appear to
have been written for this performance. The composer himself wrote two program notes for the
work, one in 1920, which gave no programmatic information at all on individual movements,
and another in 1925, which cautiously suggested a few associations that listeners might find
helpful, in the case of the first movement allowing that the allegro “may perhaps suggest the
noise and hurry of London, with its always underlying calm”; both notes are reprinted in Man-
ning, Vaughan Williams on Music, 339–40. By the mid-1920s Vaughan Williams had rather
heatedly distanced himself from Coates’ account, yet Madolen Coates maintained that it
stemmed faithfully from conversations that she and her husband had had with the composer:
see Vaughan Williams to Percy Scholes, 21 September 1924, in Letters of Ralph Vaughan Wil-
liams, ed. Cobbe, 146–47.
196 Alain Frogley

After this the movement is largely concerned with recapitulating earlier material,
though with significant transformations whose programmatic implications I will
discuss in due course.


Example 2: Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, I, mm. 1–7

œœ. >œœ  œœ
Poco animato

œœ b œœ œœ
œœ - œœ œœ  œœ
Wind & Brass

b œ œ œ œ  J Jœ.
& b œœœ b œœœ œœ œœœ 
110 Str.

π bw ƒ p
œœ. >œœ 

bw bw b œœ j
? b w  J œ
b bw b - - œ .

- -
. . . œ. œ œ 2 

& b œ. . œ. œ. œ. œ. œ œ. œ. œ . œ œ . . œ œ. 21  

. 2

? bb œ . œ œ œ 1 22  
. . . œ. œ œ
. . œ. œ. œ. . œ. œ. . œ. œ. œ. œ. 2  -
œœ. >œœœ  œœœ
œ. . œ. œ. œ. œ. >œ
bb œœ œ  œ œ. œœ . œœ œ 
& J J œ. œ œ. œ œ œ 
J . . .
. >œ  œœ
? b œœ œ 

b œ J j j
œ œ. . œ. œ. œ. œ. œ œ œ œ œ. œ. œ. 
Example 3 (a): Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, I, mm. 110–20
Tonality on the Town 197

‰ j- œ ‰ j- œ-
 œœ œ œ œ œ >œ >œ >œ >œ  œœ œœœ

bb n  œœ
œœ n œœœœ œœ- n  œœ œœ
& œ œ
ƒ -
j œ- œ- n œ ww .
œœœ. œœ. œœ. œœ. >œ >œ ? œ >œ œ- œ- œ-
œœ> >œ

? b œ nœ
b œ nœ œ œ nœ w œœœ œ œ œ œœ œœ œœ œ œ œ œ œ
‰& œ J
> J J

 œ- œœ-
.œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œœœ
œœ. œœ.
œœ .. œ œ œ œ œ œ œ -
bb  œœ œœ œœ .. œ œ œ
œ œ œ œ œ œ

& œ œ œ œ
‰. R > >
. > >
œ >œ œ- œ- œ. œ œ œ œ œ œ œ
? b œ. . œ œ. œ. >œ œœ œ œ œ

b œ. œ œ œ œ œ œ . œ œ œ œ œ œœ œœ œ œ œ
œ- œ œ
> >

œœ œœ œ
b -
œ. œ œ. œ.  œœœ œ>œœœ œœ œ œœ
&b œ œ b œ œ œ œ J
 J
Œ  ƒ
- - - œ-
? bb œ œ

Œ œ
œ  œ œ bœ œ  œ œ-
B.Cl. C.B. œ
Tromb. Tuba
bœ œ
Example 3 (b): Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, I, mm. 133–41

Of the musical elements used to characterize the three primary programmatic as-
sociations, the explosion of clangorous street life was shown already in Ex. 1; the
introductory river theme and the initial and closing ideas of the demotic second
group are shown in Ex. 2 and Ex. 3(a)-(b) respectively. The driving force of the
pitch materials, in this movement and across much of the symphony, involves con-
flict around scale degree 6 of G major, especially as neighbor to scale degree 5;
this instability is represented at times as a function of major-minor modal mixture,
but relates also to more chromatic interactions of the kind described above, and is
replicated by analogy in other key relationships throughout the work. The issue
emerges early in the slow introduction. In the context of open diatonic harmony
derived from the initial adjacent fourths, D-G-A-D, melodic emphasis is given first
to E-flat as scale degree 6 (mm. 5–13); this is soon flattened, however, as part of
a passing but ominous turbidity in the harmonic waters (mm. 16–17). E-natural is
restored in the transition to the allegro, but with the onset of the new tempo E-flat
returns with a vengeance (m. 38), underpinning a kind of urban Schreckensfanfare
(terror fanfare), to use Wagner’s resonant description of the opening of the finale
of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; here a strident E-flat pedal drags the initial G-
major triad of the upper parts down to E-flat minor, the hexatonic pole of G major
(together the two triads create the complete hexatonic collection G-Bb-Bn-D-Eb-Gb).
198 Alain Frogley

Despite the pedal, a harmonic stalemate ensues: G-major triads continue to sound,
while the bass pounds out whole-tone figures rooted on E-flat, and the upper parts
emphasize a sharper configuration centered on B-natural, introduced in m. 48. Me-
ter as well as tonality fails to cohere at first, but eventually this suggestion of the
threateningly chaotic side of metropolitan life subsides, and the tonality coalesces
around a broadly Phrygian G minor.
After this opening, a somber section of driving force, blossoming gradually into
expansive but urgent lyricism, leads eventually into the second group of themes.
These establish an ebullient B-flat-major tonality that once again places a strong
emphasis on scale degree 6, in both natural and flatted forms. The latter, G-flat in
this context, is present as a dissonant bass shadow in the otherwise diatonic fanfare
that announces the new key (m. 112; Ex. 3(a)). This echoes the opening of the al-
legro; but whereas there the flat sixth in the bass was a disruptive, even destructive
force, here it is assimilated as a more benign energy. In the closing theme (m. 133;
Ex. 3(b)), which has the flavor of a music-hall song, G-flat even takes on a comic
character, suddenly leering boozily out of the bass line in m. 140, as if to reassure
us that the potentially disruptive social energies of the burgeoning metropolis, par-
ticularly those emanating from the working classes, can retain their vigor without
undermining the body politic (unlike contemporaries obsessed with the idea of the
“Mob,” Vaughan Williams’s socialist political leanings and respect for working
people inclined him to a more optimistic view of class relations). This theme elabo-
rates the adjacent-fourths figure of the slow introduction, a point driven home at the
very end of the exposition by a repeated F-B-C-F triplet figure in the brass (m. 148),
which is revealed as a kind of kernel of the closing theme.
One might read into this connection a pentatonic affiliation of non-human na-
ture and natural, unsophisticated man. Whether or not this is a step too far, the un-
veiling of such shared thematic foundations does hint at how the opposing elements
of the work might be reconciled, or even revealed to be of cognate origin, and the
development and recapitulation continue to probe and reconfigure the tensions and
possibilities opened up in the exposition. We cannot pursue the rest of the move-
ment in any detail, but a few points stand out. First, the recapitulation follows the
most fundamental procedure of traditional sonata reconciliation, by the transposi-
tion of the original second-group material from B-flat to G major (though with new
flat-side twists). Second, the coda brings into vertical combination, and in some
cases horizontal thematic fusion, elements both of the second group and eventually
of the slow introduction, including the rising-fourth figure. The end of the original
closing theme is combined with a version of itself in augmentation, and this as well
as other elements in the texture suggest the superimposition of multiple temporal
perspectives. Though such textures can in essence be traced back as far as Notre
Dame polyphony, their deployment in this programmatic context, and in such a way
that creates high levels of dissonance, inevitably evokes one of the most prominent
tropes of modern urban experience: the kind of jarring simultaneities and collisions
represented in milling crowds, the interactions of pedestrian and mechanized traf-
fic, or in this case, perhaps, the slow-moving Thames against the teeming street-
life along its banks. In harmonic terms, the independent melodic trajectories of
Tonality on the Town 199

the counterpoint justify unexpected harmonic combinations, in this case involving

dissonance that is primarily diatonic yet nonetheless astringent at times. The sense
of strain is palpable, but a metaphor of coexistence, if not complete reconciliation,
is inescapable. This is confirmed by the ending of the movement. Just before a final
rousing reaffirmation of G major, the composer quietly restates the Schreckensfan-
fare, then proceeds immediately to a forte version of the flat-inflected fanfare that
initiated the second group, now in G: the connection between the flat-sixth element
in both ideas is thus made quite explicit.
It is noteworthy that this is the only one of Vaughan Williams’s symphonic first
movements to end loudly and confidently. On the whole the mood darkens from
here on, however. A twilit second movement, in which hexatonic elements evoke
well-established associations with the uncanny,18 is followed by a vigorous Scherzo
whose energy is drained by a tortured second trio.19 It is in the finale, however,
that the most dramatic and overtly modernist conflicts of the first movement are
revisited. As the finale progresses, intensifying chromaticism and slowly grinding
dissonance begin to suggest massive forces that are now perhaps irreconcilable; at
last we collapse into a void, and the opening of the first movement’s allegro, and
then its slow introduction, are reintroduced. At this point Vaughan Williams moves
to a different, implicitly metaphysical plane; a long and mysterious Epilogue (as
he calls it), based on the river music of the first movement and apparently directly
inspired by Tono Bungay, modulates across wide tonal spaces before finally and
uneasily returning to G major. But the urge to reconcile the tonal conflicts of the
symphony has not been abandoned entirely. The 5-b6 upper–voice motif of the first
movement, which also launched the finale, returns now in ghostly form on muted
brass, harmonically amplified into a pair of augmented triads, Gb-Bb-D and Eb-Gn- Bn
(Ex. 4).20 The fact that the triads are augmented rather than major or minor embod-
ies an important element of tonal organization heard throughout the symphony, and
together they comprise the same hexatonic collection that underpinned the opening
of the first movement allegro, now segmented into different harmonies. Yet the ef-
fect remains unsettling rather than conclusive; the final dissonance is left hanging
in the air, and dissolves rather than resolves into the pianissimo G-major backwash,
which slowly fades to nothing.

18 See Richard Cohn, “Uncanny Resemblances: Tonal Signification in the Freudian Age,” Journal
of the American Musicological Society 57 (2004): 285–323.
19 But only in the original version of the work: this second trio was excised almost entirely in
Vaughan Williams’s post-war revisions to the symphony and was their most significant casu-
alty, fundamentally changing the character of the movement. In “Dancing in the ‘City of Dread-
ful Night’: Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg in the 1914 Scherzo-Nocturne of Vaughan Wil-
liams’s A London Symphony,” a paper presented to the 2006 national meeting of the American
Musicological Society in Los Angeles, I argued that the composer may have removed the trio
because it presented a fractured modernist subjectivity typical of Schoenberg and others at this
time but ultimately alien to Vaughan Williams’s own instinctive sympathies.
20 This progression was stated twice in the 1914 version of the score, but had been reduced to a
single statement by the time that the first published version of the score appeared in 1920.
200 Alain Frogley

w. w. w. ww ww ..
# ww ww ..

œ bœ w ww .

& b œœ n n œœ ww
b w ..  ww ww ..
p π
π bœ w ww ..

?# ∑ b b œœ n n b œœœ www ww .. 
ww ww ..

Example 4: Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, IV, mm. 246–50

The programmatic implications of this ending are ambiguous, to say the least. Are
the oppositions exposed in the symphony reconcilable ultimately not through social
and political dialectic, but only by invoking a mystical dissolution into some higher
unity (one thinks of Ives, here, perhaps)? Or is this a bleaker vision, in which the
failure to truly reconcile such forces can lead only to death and oblivion for civi-
lization? There are no definitive answers to such questions, of course. Despite the
troubled and sometimes threatening atmosphere that permeates much of the sym-
phony, there are powerful elements of affirmation and celebration, even in the later
movements; and though British political structures were under intense pressure, as
a member of an influential upper-middle class Vaughan Williams would undoubt-
edly have felt more hopeful about the chances for progressive social change than
would many of his contemporaries in continental Europe. What does seem clear is
that Vaughan Williams’s engagement with the metropolis in A London Symphony
emboldened him to develop an expanded vision of tonality that he believed could
respond to the challenges of the modern world without sacrificing its rich legacy of
social signification—a legacy that it was more valuable to interrogate than to reject
out of hand. A London Symphony suggests that this vision can be taken at one level
as a distillation and intensification of tensions (and of an ultimate interdependence)
between the pastoral and the urban, and of nature and humanity, that had underlain
western music for at least the preceding century, and which Vaughan Williams’s
own particular sensibilities made him unusually well placed to bring into a new
The interrogation of such tensions took a number of different and sometimes
extreme forms in his music after the cataclysm of the First World War, but in one
way or another it continued to underpin much of his work until his death in 1958.
The mechanized destruction, anonymous human masses, and sonic barrage of the
1914–18 war took to horrific and hitherto unimaginable new levels threatening as-
pects of modernity previously experienced most intensely in the metropolis—and
yet all this was set against the backdrop of pastoral northern France. It is striking
that Vaughan Williams’s own wartime experience resulted most immediately in the
intense quiet of A Pastoral Symphony, a work at first hearing as different from
its urban predecessor as possible, and yet on closer acquaintance related to it in a
variety of ways (these include a shared preoccupation with pitting G major against
various contrasting tonal elements). Vaughan Williams’s juxtaposition of New York
Tonality on the Town 201

skyscrapers and English folk-song in his litany of life-changing experiences is per-

haps not so surprising after all.


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Between Archaism and Modernism: .
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany
around 1930
Ullrich Scheideler

In the middle of June 1930 the festival Neue Musik Berlin 1930 took place.1 At
first glance, the program seems quite heterogeneous, with four discrete sections
dedicated to music for and on the radio, recordings, electric music, and pedagogical
works. The main ideas of all these sections, however, can be collectively summa-
rized by terms such as Gebrauchsmusik and Gemeinschaftskunst. All these musical
topics were characterized by a distance from traditional forms of musical hearing,
and each advocated for music as not merely a part of concert-culture, but also a part
of everyday life.
For pedagogical music or—as it was more widely known—music for amateurs,
the festival of 1930 marked the culmination of developments that had begun around
1900, but experienced a significant upturn after the First World War.2 This develop-
ment had taken place in two branches. The first was the youth movement (Jugend-
bewegung), especially the youth music movement (Jugendmusikbewegung). The
second was the broader idea of musical pedagogy, encompassing musical training
well beyond the small demographic of children and youth. This second branch had

1 The Berlin festival was the successor of two other festivals: the Donaueschinger Kammer-
musik-Aufführungen zur Förderung zeitgenössischer Tonkunst (Chamber Music Festival to
Support Contemporary Music in Donaueschingen, 1921–1926) and the festival Deutsche Kam-
mermusik Baden-Baden (German Chamber Music Baden-Baden, 1927–1929). The procession
to Baden-Baden in 1927 was due to new musical trends (especially Gebrauchsmusik) and the
lack of good conditions for performances in Donaueschingen. Because of the economic crisis
in the late 1920s, the city Baden-Baden wasn’t able to finance to festival after 1929. The music
festival had to move again, this time to Berlin, where it was supported by the Rundfunkver-
suchsstelle bei der Staatlich-Akademischen Hochschule für Musik. No festival took place in
1931 and 1932, and in 1933 it returned again to Donaueschingen.
2 The pedagogical music at Neue Musik Berlin 1930 was divided into three subsections: The first
was concerned with plays and songs for children, and contributions were made by Paul Hin-
demith (Wir bauen eine Stadt) and by Paul Dessau (Das Eisenbahnspiel). The second was
about vocal music, especially pieces and textbooks for choir. The third focused on the genre of
the didactic play (Lehrstück). In these sections compositions by Hermann Reutter (Der neue
Hiob) and Ernst Toch (Das Wasser) were performed. It had also been planned that Kurt Weill’s
Der Jasager be performed for the first time, but this performance was postponed to a slightly
later date, and ultimately took place on 23 June at the Berlin Zentralinstitut für Unterricht und
Erziehung (Berlin Institute of Education and Instruction).
204 Ullrich Scheideler

been widely propagandized and supported by the new Prussian state since the early
Although the two branches held a common preference for playing music one-
self over music listening, they advocated quite divergent ideas and concepts which
led them to embrace very different ideas about the right kind of music. Keywords
for the youth music movement were “nature,” “naturalness,” “simplicity,” and
“community.” In respect to music this meant a turn against the romantic, against
musical genres like salon music and operetta, and against professionalized concerts
on one hand and the new media for radio and gramophone on the other.3 Adherents
of the youth music movement preferred mainly German folksongs and works for
small vocal and instrumental ensembles from the sixteenth and seventeenth centu-
ries, often published in volumes called Hausmusik (music for the home).4
During the 1920s, however, the Prussian state, led by Leo Kestenberg5 from
the ministry of Culture and Education, had begun to reform musical education in
public schools as well as the private sphere. Two main ideas were central: first, bet-
ter training of teachers in both schools and private musical education; and second,
a promotion of musical education, so that more children would learn to sing or play
an instrument.6 This second idea corresponds in some respect with the ideas of the
youth music movement, although Kestenberg’s pedagogical concept was quite far
away from its broader ideals. His conception was less dogmatic, and he refused
the dilettantish and unambitious music-making typical of the youth music move-
ment. Instead he stood for professionalism of both musical education and musical
performance. The movement’s strong conservatism was also notably absent from
Kestenberg’s approach.7 While transforming the earlier ideas of the youth musical

3 See Hilmar Höckner, “Die Musik in der deutschen Jugendbewegung” (1927), in Die deutsche
Jugendmusikbewegung in Dokumenten ihrer Zeit von den Anfängen bis 1933, ed. Archiv der
Jugendmusikbewegung e.V. Hamburg (Wolfenbüttel: Möseler, 1980), 928–30.
4 For example: Deutsche Hausmusik aus vier Jahrhunderten, ed. Hugo Leichtentritt (Berlin:
Bard, Marquardt & Co, 1907); Hausmusik (Beihefte zur Musikantengilde), ed. Fritz Jöde
(Wolfenbüttel: Julius Zwitzlers Verlag, 1919 ff.). In this latter series new music was published
along with the old, for example, works by the musicologist August Halm, who composed many
works for the youth music movement
5 In July 1932, the Prussian government had to resign and the German right-wing chancellor
Franz von Papen was appointed by the President of the Reich Paul von Hindenburg as “Reichs-
kommissar.” In the following months a lot of civil servants were forced to leave their positions.
Kestenberg had to retire on 1 December 1932; in March 1933 he immigrated to Prague. The
main texts (Musikerziehung und Musikpflege [1921], Denkschrift über die gesamte Musik-
pflege in Schule und Volk [1923]) are reprinted in: Leo Kestenberg, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol.
1, Die Hauptschriften, ed. Wilfried Gruhn (Freiburg: Rombach, 2009).
6 These ideas led to the founding of special music schools (one of the first was founded in 1927
in Berlin-Neukölln, a mostly working-class part of Berlin).
7 Kestenberg’s relation to youth music movement is described by Andreas Eschen, “Kestenberg
und die Jugendmusikbewegung: Von der Reichsschulkonferenz und Jödes Musikalische Ju-
gendkultur bis zur Ernennung Jödes zum Professor,” in Leo Kestenberg: Musikpädagoge und
Musikpolitiker in Berlin, Prag und Tel Aviv, ed. Susanne Fontaine et. al. (Freiburg: Rombach,
2008), 69–87.
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 205

movement into an official program of the Prussian state, Kestenberg tried to recon-
cile the idea of music for amateurs with modern music.8


It is quite obvious that any music which could satisfy the divergent demands of
both the youth music movement and the new pedagogical music would represent a
compromise. As the debates around 1930 demonstrate, two main conclusions were
drawn from the idea of music for amateurs and music as Gemeinschaftskunst in re-
spect to the music itself. First, there should be recourse to older models of musical
techniques or forms, but in a way which maintains a link to modern music. Only if
the earlier concepts of the youth music movement were combined with new musi-
cal means could this music gain an important position in the musical culture of
the present. This idea led to music with an anti-romantic aesthetic that referred to
pre-classic models, embracing an archaistic style of simple rhythmic and melodic
features combined with mostly diatonic harmony. Because this archaism could not
consist in merely copying older models, it is plausible that the question of tonality,
which had to be old and new at the same time, necessarily played a decisive role.
Secondly, the idea of Gemeinschaftskunst made it necessary that the main mu-
sical technique be polyphony rather than homophony or ostinato. In a 1930 article
in the journal Melos titled “Music for amateurs” (Musik für Dilettanten), Georg
Marzynski tried to determine some typical musical elements for this sort of music.
These were: rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, form of expression, and—most impor-
tant—polyphonic musical texture. To Marzynski’s mind “one should not let ama-
teurs produce colours of harmony and sound. The amateur does not want to play
filling parts. His field is polyphony; he will manage all rhythmic and dynamic com-
plications with pleasure if this part has a vital development.”9
Tonality was therefore determined in two respects: It had to conserve the mid-
dle between archaism and modernism, and it was formed through the motion of
single parts as well as the chord progressions, thus constituting a mixture of both
melodic and harmonic tonality. In this essay I will analyze sections of compositions
by Bruno Stürmer, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith in order to demonstrate the
actual consequences of these preconditions. I will ask which concepts of tonality

8 Kestenberg was not alone, and the growing educational literature serves as evidence that his
ideas were shared by composers. Examples of this trend include Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos,
started in 1926, and the 1931 violin method by Erich and Elma Doflein to which Bartók, Hin-
demith, and others made contributions.
9 Georg Marzynski, “Musik für Dilettanten,” Melos: Zeitschrift für Musik 9, No. 1 (1930): 7.
“Man darf [den Dilettanten] also nicht dazu verwenden, Harmoniefarben und Klangfarben zu
produzieren. Wo die Füllstimmen anfangen hört die Möglichkeit des Dilettantismus auf. Sein
Feld ist die Polyphonie, die lebendige Durchführung der Stimme. Er bewältigt mit Vergnügen
alle rhythmischen und dynamischen Komplikationen.” At the end of his article Marzynski ar-
gues that there is a “natural convergence between the nature of modern music and music for
amateurs.” Marzynski, “Musik für Dilettanten,” 7. “natürliche Konvergenz zwischen der gei-
stigen Art der modernen Musik und der Musik für Dilettanten.”
206 Ullrich Scheideler

were carried out and which aesthetic ideas influenced their specific usage of tonal-
ity. To this end, I will first analyze a section of Feierliche Musik (Solemn Music) by
Stürmer which clearly shows some connections to older music; and then proceed
to an investigation of Kurt Weill’s Der Jasager—a work intended for the Berlin
festival. Finally, I will ask how we can apply this context to a work by Hindemith,
who was closely linked to the idea of music for amateurs from the mid 1920s. To
that end, I will analyze a section of his Plöner Musiktag, written for a music school
in 1932.


Bruno Stürmer’s Feierliche Musik was published in 1931.10 Stürmer was surely not
a leading figure within the new music scene of the Weimar years.11 However, he
was prominent enough to acquire Schott as one of his publishers, was frequently
present at music festivals, and sometimes wrote essays in musical journals.12 His
potential as a representative for some tendencies of the 1920s and 1930s is evident
in the development of his career: After some very experimental music—e. g. Mass
for Machine-Men13—he later composed numerous works for amateurs, both for
orchestra and for chorus (mostly male chorus).
In 1931—the same year as the publication of Feierliche Musik—Stürmer pub-
lished a short essay with the title “The new tonality.”14 What he described in this
article provides a key to understanding some elements of his tonal and harmonic
thinking. For Stürmer, the “new tonality” is essentially “melodic tonality” (melo-
dische Tonalität), and perhaps it is no accident that this same term was often used
by twentieth-century theorists to characterize the music of the early seventeenth
century.15 Stürmer wrote that in new tonality, the scale or tone series (Tonreihe)
is the main basis of tonality. This scale could be a traditional major or minor scale
as well as an artificial scale (willkürlich aufgestellte Tonreihe). Stürmer’s concep-
tion of new tonality also made a distinction between melody and harmony: While

10 Bruno Stürmer, Feierliche Musik op. 65 für zwei Streichorchester oder zwei Quintette (Köln:
Verlag von P. J. Tonger, 1931). The work consists of three movements—a prelude (D minor), a
choral (G minor) and a fugue (D minor)—and is intended for school or amateur orchestra.
11 Stürmer was born in 1892 and is from the same generation as Hindemith. He studied musicol-
ogy and music theory in Heidelberg and Munich, founded a music school in the lower Rhine
city Homberg in 1927, and moved to Frankfurt/Main after the Second World War. In his early
years he composed mostly instrumental music, but since the 1930s, when he became a conduc-
tor of some choirs, he started to write more vocal music. Stürmer could continue his career after
1933 as well as after 1945.
12 For example: Bruno Stürmer, “Offener Brief an Herrn Professor Paul Hindemith, Berlin,” in
Die Musik 23, no. 1 (October 1930): 41–42; Bruno Stürmer, “Bemerkungen zur Stillehre,” in
Die Musik 23, no. 6 (March 1931): 420–21.
13 Bruno Stürmer, Die Messe des Maschinenmenschen für Männerchor, Bariton-Solo und Orche-
ster, op. 48 (1929).
14 Bruno Stürmer, “Die neue Tonalität,” Die Musik 24, no. 2 (November 1931): 118–20.
15 See for example, Ernst Kurth, Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik und der tona-
len Darstellungssysteme (Bern: Max Drechsel, 1913), 89.
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 207

melodies are in every respect tonal because they have a specific scale (that is, one
with a tonal center) as their foundation, the situation of the harmony is not so clear.
The harmony could be regarded as tonal insofar as it uses mainly the notes of the
scale, but atonal in that it incorporates not only major and minor chords but more
dissonant sounds as well. In the new tonality, where the main technique of musical
composition is polyphony, harmony is regarded only as a result of melodic events
(das Nebeneinander). Harmony does not influence the melody by, for example, re-
quiring that leading tones or dissonances be resolved.16 In respect to determination
of tonality Stürmer’s text shows a clear rank order: the melodic line is essential, less
important are the chords (das Übereinander). However, it seems that Stürmer levels
this hierarchy when composing for amateurs.
My analysis will concentrate on the first twenty-three measures (section A)
of the first movement,17 primarily in respect to tonality and harmony. Tonally, the
first three measures function to express the key of D  minor. There are only two
uncommon elements: the C in m. 2 (instead of C#),18 and the bass line in the first
measure, which has a dissonance that does not resolve by stepwise motion. Besides
these two elements the beginning describes a normal D-minor cadence progres-
sion (tonic, subdominant, dominant, and tonic). Measures 4–6 show an upper-voice
melodic motion ascending to the fifth degree, A. In the next two measures this mo-
tion continues but now slightly faster: the ascending melodic motion in mm. 7–8
needs only one measure to reach the octave D. Two other forms of increasing speed
can be found. First, the rhythmic motive in the bass line of m. 1 is recapitulated in
diminution in m. 4 and m. 7; second, the break in the first orchestra decreases from
two measures long (mm. 4–5) to only one measure (m. 7). This tendency is paral-
leled by harmonic progressions which depart from the tonal center of D minor. In
m. 6, D minor is reached within a plagal cadence, but at the end of m. 8 there is
a C-major chord which leads to F major in m. 9. Furthermore the bass line has an
increased number of dissonant notes. When looking at the violin and viola parts
only, the following harmonic progression appears: In mm. 4–6 a-d-g-d, in mm. 7–8

16 Stürmer, Die neue Tonalität, 120. “Wir haben also […] eine melodische Tonalität erreicht, da,
wenn Tonalität Begriff des Tonzentrums ist, die Tonreihe, ob willkürlich aufgestellt oder tradi-
tionell übernommen, Zentrum des melodischen Geschehens ist. Das Nebeneinander ist also
zentral gerichtet. Das Übereinander jedoch schaltet aus, da es, zwar geachtet, aber doch nicht
Ausgangspunkt, keine Funktion mehr hat. […] [W]ir haben heute wieder eine Tonalität im
Melodischen, haben aber endgültig verzichtet auf die Funktion der Harmonie, einbegriffen der
Funktion einzelner bis dahin von der Harmonie usurpierter Töne. Zu diesen rechne ich z. B. den
Leitton der Tonleiter, den harmonisch-melodischen Vorhalt, überhaupt die auflösungsbedürf-
tige Dissonanz, soweit sie auf die Melodie Einfluß hat.”
17 The overall form of the first movement is a varied ritornello form A-B-A’-C-A’’, in which the
sections B and C contrast the A sections in terms of texture (B and C are mostly polyphonic
instead of homophonic like in A), tonality (B is in various keys, at the beginning mostly in C
minor and F minor; C starts in C# minor) and tempo. Section A has the tempo indication Allegro
moderato, B has Poco tranquillo e cantabile and is therefore much slower, C has Quasi presto
(alla breve). A’ is a type of development section, and A’’ is a short reprise and culmination.
18 When the first measures return at the end, C is replaced by C# (see m. 104).
208 Ullrich Scheideler
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 209

Bruno Stürmer, Feierliche Musik, 1st movement, mm. 1–23

© Edition Tonger GmbH,

F7-g-a-Bb-C.19 The bass often has notes which are not part of these chords, and only
the cadences in mm. 5–6 and m. 8 are consonant.
The main rules for the harmony of these eight measures are: first, strict diatonic
material; second, only major or minor chords in the upper parts with the possibility
of dissonances in the bass; third, cadences lacking normal dominant-tonic structure;
and fourth, mostly root-position chords.
The principles of harmonic succession in the piece are better analyzed in
mm. 9–14 of the first quintet. The progression F-C-d-C-Bb-a-Bb-d-g-d-a-d-E does not
seem very regular, with the only noticeable property being that Stürmer avoids—as
in mm. 2–3—a normal dominant-tonic cadence.20 Taking the bass line into account,
however, reveals almost uninterrupted contrary motion between the bass and the

19 Upper case letters refer to major, lower case to minor triads.

20 Only the transition from m. 8 to m. 9 consists of such a progression (C–F).
210 Ullrich Scheideler

melodic line of the first violin. Furthermore, mm. 11–12 have a melodic sequence
similar to mm. 9–10 (a third upwards), and most of the line in the second violin and
viola has this sequence as well. The only part which does not fit into this sequence
is the bass, resulting in a melodic sequence that isn’t paralleled by a harmonic se-
quence. All these elements (diatonicism, contrary motion of the outer parts, chords
in root position, lack of functional harmony, waiving of harmonic sequences) call
to mind older music, specifically the modality of the seventeenth-century homo-
phonic four-part chorale (Kantionalsatz). So the basis for Stürmer’s new tonality is
in fact an old tonality. Its archaic tone is decreased through the motion in quavers
in the other quintet, which forms a second compositional layer and contrasts to the
homophonic texture of half notes and quarter notes. Two pairs of parts (the two
violins plus viola and cello) have melodic sequences in mm. 9–14, mostly play-
ing in consonances. However, between these pairs dissonances are rarely treated
in strict counterpoint. Rather, dissonances are apparently placed with reference to
motives and resolve freely, giving the impression that they are almost accidental.
The principle that motives can disturb strict counterpoint comes from later music,
especially the music of the baroque. Thus, the musical texture of the second quintet,
eighteenth-century in style, might be characterized as befogging the main harmony
expressed in the first quintet, which comes from seventeenth century. Different
principles of harmony and counterpoint are combined.
In the following section (mm. 15–23) Stürmer changes his use of tonality. He
composes a diatonic melody, a mixture of A major and A minor (only m. 19 does not
fit into this scheme; in mm. 22–23 the tonality goes back to D minor), but this time
we find no diatonic harmony: this section starts in A major, touches on G# major in
m. 16, D minor in m. 18, A minor in mm. 20–21. Modal chord progression is now
intermixed with chromatic progressions.21 This passage also continues the loose
polyphony of the previous measures. The bass instruments move in strict contrary
motion to the first violin, and the second violin and viola have a melodic counter-
point which is somewhat independent from the other parts.
The first commonality between both sections appears in some shared negative
features, that is, the absence of dominant relations and the avoidance of the leading
tones characteristic within romantic functional harmony. The tonality tends more
toward the harmonic language of the early seventeenth century, which is blurred
(though not disturbed) through different means: in mm. 1–14 through a dissonant
bass-line and the embellishments of the second quintet, and in mm. 15–23 through
a form of chromaticism which recalls Gesualdo and the late-sixteenth and early
seventeenth-century madrigal.
In regards to the specific context of Feierliche Musik, one might consider
Stürmer’s essay “The new tonality” as an idealistic model, one not uniformly prac-
ticed in this piece as a whole. In Feierliche Musik, melodic tonality does not pro-
duce particularly dissonant sonorities or even atonality. In fact the number of pos-
sible chords is limited, and all chords are based on thirds (normally major or minor
chords). In this respect harmony is not subordinated to counterpoint, but rather both

21 Dominant related chord progressions are composed in mm. 16–17 and mm. 22–23.

Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 211

elements are in balance. Counterpoint influences the succession of chords (through

contrary motion between the outer parts), even as the pre-selection of chords influ-
ences the counterpoint. That neither counterpoint nor harmony has a strong priority
might well be related to the work’s status as music for amateurs. Within this con-
text, Feierliche Musik could be interpreted as a domestication of melodic tonality
in which Stürmer compensates for his amateur audience by employing quite dif-
ferent procedures of bringing counterpoint and harmony together within a genre,
which refer to the model of the baroque concerto grosso, as evident in the sections’
rhythmic and melodic features and the texture between the two groups of string
quintets.22 Informed by an anti-romantic aesthetic, Feierliche Musik attempts to
shift from seventeenth and eighteenth century music to modern music, “remaking
the past”23 through a mixture of very different historical styles. However, the result-
ing archaism is unable to hide its eclectic nature.


In contrast to Stürmer, who was involved with music for amateurs from the begin-
ning of his career, Kurt Weill came to this genre only in the late 1920s and early
1930s. His rise had begun with the two one-act operas Der Protagonist and Royal
Palace, both composed around 1925, and was followed shortly thereafter by works
which marked a breakthrough in his career: Mahagonny, Der Zar läßt sich pho-
tographieren, Happy End and—most prominently—Die Dreigroschenoper, first
performed in 1928. Beginning with Mahagonny, Weill had started to compose mu-
sic which had been characterized—even by the composer himself—as simple in
respect to style and practicability (e. g. the characters in Dreigroschenoper could be
sung by actors), and which was intended to popularize the genre of opera as well
the music itself. This period, which is musically linked with the label “song-style,”
lasted only a few years. Already in October 1929, for example, Hans Heinsheimer
from Universal-Edition wrote in a letter to Weill that the style of Dreigroschenoper
could only be transitional, and could not be copied for very long.24 He argued that
the song-style could only be the basis for a new style which he described as a “new
Romanticism,” a new desire or world of emotion (Gefühlswelt) which had to com-

22 The editors of the series in which Stürmer’s Feierliche Musik was published wrote in a preface:
“Die Stücke dieser Reihe verkörpern einen Typ feierlicher Eröffnungsstücke, wie sie die Ba-
rockzeit liebte […]. Gleich anderen Erscheinungen der älteren Kunst hat heute die Suite in
kleinerer Besetzung an Boden gewonnen. In diese Richtung gehört die hier vorgelegte ‘Feier-
liche Musik’ von Bruno Stürmer. Aus dem Gegeneinander und der Zusammenfassung zweiter
Streichergruppen schöpft sie ihre Kraft, größere Schwierigkeiten meidet sie, macht aber von
polyphoner Linienführung und neuzeitlichen Klangwirkungen Gebrauch.”
23 See Joseph N. Straus, Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal
Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
24 “Der Stil, der in der Dreigroschenoper und in Happy End festgelegt war und der auch in Ma-
hagonny […] beibehalten bleibt, dieser Stil ist, darüber sind wir uns ja alle einig, nicht auf die
Dauer kopierbar.“ Heinsheimer to Weill, 10 October 1929, in Kurt Weill, Briefwechsel mit der
Universal Edition, ed. Nils Grosch (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2002), 192.
212 Ullrich Scheideler

prehend entirely the “Neue Sachlichkeit” in order to overcome it.25 In his answer a
few days later, Weill agreed with Heinsheimer’s position and stressed gravity and
expressivity as the main features of his new musical language.26 However, he made
clear that this change of style had, in fact, already begun in Mahagonny and even in
some pieces in Happy End.
Der Jasager, composed in early 1930, is one of the first works by Weill based
on this new style.27 The work is written for a school orchestra of strings (without vi-
ola), two pianos, and some wind instruments ad libitum. The choir and the solo vo-
cal parts are intended for students as well.28 Weill regarded Der Jasager as a quite
important work in respect to his own development,29 because he wanted to combine
two musical elements within it. On one hand he continued and even strengthened
his ambition to write in a popular way, this time for schools or students.30 On the

25 “Hier machen Sie mit dem Stil von 1928 Schluss, hier wird der neue Klang der nächsten Jahre
hörbar, jener Klang, den ich mir gebildet denke aus einer neuen Romantik, einer neuen Sehn-
sucht, einem neuen Suchen nach dem Unerreichbaren, kurz einer Gefühlswelt, welche die neue
Sachlichkeit ganz begreifen musste, um sie nun aber zu überwinden.” Heinsheimer to Weill, 10
October 1929, in Weill, Briefwechsel, 193.
26 “Dieser neue Stil übertrifft an Ernst, an Grösse und Ausdruckskraft alles […], was ich bisher
gemacht habe.” Weill to Heinsheimer, 14 October 1929, in Weill, Briefwechsel, 194.
27 On 14 April 1930 Weill informed Universal-Edition: “The composition of Jasager is finished
now.” (“Die Komposition des Jasagers ist beendet.”). In Weill, Briefwechsel, 245. Dates of
performances can be found in Hyesu Shin, Kurt Weill, Berlin und die zwanziger Jahre: Sinn-
lichkeit und Vergnügen in der Musik, Berliner Musik Studien 23 (Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2002),
28 For the aesthetic context of Der Jasager see: Stephen Hinton, “Lehrstück: An Aesthetics of
Performance,” in Music and Performance During the Weimar Republic, ed. Bryan Gilliam
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 59–73; and Klaus-Dieter Krabiel, Brechts
Lehrstücke: Entstehung und Entwicklung eines Spieltyps (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler,
1993). Weill published a short essay, titled Über meine Schuloper Der Jasager (1930), reprin-
ted in Kurt Weill, Musik und Theater: Gesammelte Schriften, mit einer Auswahl von Gesprä-
chen und Interviews, ed. Stephen Hinton und Jürgen Schebera (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1990),
29 The decisive point of the plot of this school opera is as follows: a boy sacrifices himself for the
community, he became ill on a trip with a small group, and he gives his agreement to be thrown
into a valley and be killed so that the other members of the group can continue their trip. In its
own time and in contemporary scholarship this plot is not considered as highly problematic as
it seems at first glance, because the ideal of education to community in opposite to individuality
was a main issue in all parts of society during the 1930s. However, although this school opera
was quite successful, not all people were quite happy with the text, which therefore was altered
in some performances. The plot and its implications are discussed in Ian Kemp, “Der Jasager:
Weill’s Composition Lesson,” in A Stranger Here Myself: Kurt Weill-Studien, ed. Kim H. Ko-
walke and Horst Edler (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1993), 143–57. Some (negative) reactions
are presented in Jürgen Schebera, Kurt Weill: Eine Biographie in Texten, Bildern und Doku-
menten (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1990), 142–43; and in Krabiel, Brechts
Lehrstücke, 147–57.
30 In his talk with Hans Fischer, Weill announced another school opera, this time with a funny plot
(“Ein lustiges Stück wird als zweite Schuloper folgen”). See “Aktuelles Zwiegespräch über die
Schuloper zwischen Kurt Weill und Dr. Hans Fischer.” Weill, Musik und Theater: Gesammelte
Schriften, 308). Later, in May 1932, Weill told Universal-Edition that he wished to compose an
opera for adult amateurs rather than children (“Unterdessen habe ich mit Neher angefangen zu
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 213

other hand this new music for the amateur—especially for youth—shouldn’t be
based on song-style.31 In a dialogue with Hans Fischer, Weill tried to render his
conception more precisely, but ultimately stopped short of describing any details.32
Speaking in terms of general principles, Weill said only that he must achieve the
highest degree of simplicity in order to be comprehensible, going on to add that
simplicity must not become fabricated primitivity.33
Turning away from song-style in connection with simplicity had consequences
for Weill’s approach to tonality. Song-style still relied on functional harmony, most
obviously, for example, in “Und der Haifisch” from Dreigroschenoper or “Moon of
Alabama” from Mahagonny, where the simple cadences are changed, masked, or
alienated, but nonetheless remain intact.34
In Der Jasager, Weill’s compositional approach to tonal organization shows
substantial changes from the style of Dreigroschenoper. My analysis will concen-
trate on the ritornello (the first 20 measures) from the overture which serves as a
type of motto and is therefore repeated two times during the work. It presents the
central theme of the play: to say yes not because somebody wants me to do so, but
rather with conviction or agreement.
Ian Kemp has characterized this overture as “a seventeenth-century minuet.”35
Although it might be difficult to assign this movement to a specific century one will
surely agree that there is a minuet-like gesture present. Thus, Weill made a turn to
the past but was eager to alter the old elements in order to create a new style: The
tempo is quite fast, and more important, the phrase structure of the upper parts is
asymmetric (4 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 4 + 4 measures), forming a contrast to a typical simple
dance-like minuet. In this already alienated context, tonality is formed in an unusual
way that shows nearly no link to seventeenth-century music. The measures of the
music example below do not show a diatonic musical language, at least not in a
traditional major-minor sense. Actually it is not easy to determine the exact key:
At the beginning the tonal center seems to be on A, but because there is a continu-
ous shifting between C and C# it remains unclear whether it is A minor, A major, or

arbeiten. Es hat sich in mir in letzter Zeit eine neue Idee festgesetzt, von der ich mir viel ver-
spreche. Ich möchte nämlich, so wie ich mit dem Jasager die Gattung der Schuloper begründet
habe, jetzt wieder einen neuen bestimmten Typus herausbilden, den ich mit dem Wort “Laien-
oper” bezeichnen möchte, d. h. also Opern, die von Laien aufgeführt werden können, aber
diesmal nicht von Kindern, sondern von Erwachsenen.” Weill, Briefwechsel, 385.) Neither plan
was realized.
31 “Das Werk ist im jetzigen Moment ausserordentlich wichtig, da es gegenüber den Versuchen,
mich ständig auf die Dreigroschenoper festzulegen, eine unverkennbare Abkehr vom Songstil
zeigt.” Weill to Universal-Edition, 14 April 1930, in Weill, Briefwechsel mit der Universal
Edition, 245.
32 “Aktuelles Zwiegespräch über die Schuloper zwischen Kurt Weill und Dr. Hans Fischer” (April
1930), reprinted in Weill, Musik und Theater: Gesammelte Schriften, 305–10.
33 “Die Einfachheit darf nicht zur konstruierten Primitivität werden.” Aktuelles Zwiegespräch
über die Schuloper zwischen Kurt Weill und Dr. Hans Fischer (April 1930), reprinted in Weill,
Musik und Theater: Gesammelte Schriften, 305–6.
34 See Tobias Faßhauer, Ein Aparter im Unaparten: Untersuchungen zum Songstil von Kurt Weill
(Saarbrücken: Pfau, 2007).
35 Kemp, Der Jasager, 147.
214 Ullrich Scheideler

something else (e. g. a church mode). Thus, it is useful to divide the musical texture
into different layers and then examine how these layers interact. I will first analyze
the melodic line, and then move on to examine the voice leading of the other parts,
the scale material, and finally the chords and their progression.
The voice leading of the upper voice is composed quite clearly: it ascends by
step from A to A (mm. 1–8), then downwards to B until m. 13. In that we have a
scale which includes the note F# (instead of F), we could call this a Dorian mode.
The middle voice is bonded to the upper voice, but in different intervals: at first in
a fourth, then in a sixth, then in a fifth, and so on. The material is the same with the
exception of m. 10, in which A# instead of A is written. The bass has a clear motion
as well, which may be best understood as a double motion, one from A to C (mm. 1,
4, 7), the other from D# to E to F and then downwards. The scale material of the
bass line is not the same as in the upper voice: Weill composed D# instead of D, F
instead of F#. Thus, the three parts employ different scales but the same tonal center.
If one looks at the scale material and examines all notes which are played (not
only the voice leading) it seems possible to subsume the measures from m. 1 on-
ward into two-measure units and from m. 5 onwards into one-measure units. The
opening measures already show us the main principles. The first two measures have

œ # œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ
{q = 132}
#œ œ  ..
& 43 œœ œœ # œœ œœ œœ # œœ œ œœ n n œœ b œœ œ œœ œœ œ
? 43 #œ œ œ œ œ
œ œ œ #œ œ œ #œ #œ œ œ œ nœ œ œ œ œ œœ œ
œ œ œ œ œ œ nœ

#œ œ œ # œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ n œœ œ œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ # œ œ # n œœ œœ œ
& # œ # œœ œœ # # œœ n œ # œ #œ

œ œ

? nœ. œ œ œ nn  œ œ  œ œ #œ. nœ œ #œ
œ œ #œ #œ œ œ œ œ  œ œ #œ.

nœ œ # œœ
& n œ n œ œœ n œœ œ œ œ b œœ œ œœ
œ œœ # œœ # œœ œœ œ #œ œ #œ #œ œ

œ # œ œ n œœ œ œ œ œœ

? nœ bœ œ œ #œ nœ œ œ œ #œ œ œ œ
#œ #œ #œ #œ

# œœ # œ # œœ œ
& # # œœ œ

œ n œœ œ œ œœ n œœ # œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ œœ # œœ n œœ œœ œœ œœ œ  ..

#œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ #œ œ
#œ #œ #œ #œ œ
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 215

3  .  .. . #.
#  ..
1 3 5

voice leading & 4  .. . . # .

? 43 #. . .
voice leading
bass . . .
#œ nœ #œ nœ nœ
scale & œ œ #œ #œ œ œ bœ nœ œ œ œ#œ œ œ œ
œ ( œ)
œ #œ nœ #œ nœ #œ nœ
#œ #œ

& 4 #  ... #  .. n  ..  ..  ..
. # # #  ...
. . .
? 43 #. . .
. . .
a-minor I II6 i7 iv6 v64 #VI2

.  .  . #. . 
& . . . œ
7 9 11

# . .  œ
? . . . #. œ bœ œ  œ
& œ # œ œ œ œ œ œ ( œ) œ œ œ œ # œ œ ( œ) œ œ œ œ œ # œ n œ # œ # œ n œ n œ # œ ( œ) # œ
 ..  ...  .. # # #  ... œœ œ œ 
& . . œ œ 
? . . . #. œ bœ œ  œ
III iv 6 III 6 #iv7 i6 vii6 VI6 v65 iv65

&  .. #. . #.

13 15 17 19

# . n  . # . n  . œ .
#  . #  ..  ..
? .
. #. . #. . n. .

& œ (# œ) œ ( œ) œ # œ

&  ... # # #  ... .

n n  .. # # #  ... n n  œœ . #  ..
œ #  .. .  ..
? .
. #. . #. . n. .
Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht, Der Jasager, Schuloper in 2 Akten, Nr. 1, mm. 1–20
(piano score and reduction)
© 1930 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien
English version © 1968 by Universal Edition (London) Ltd., London
216 Ullrich Scheideler

a Lydian scale (in m. 1 A Mixolydian). In mm. 3–4, which in the upper voice are a
real sequence (minor third) upwards, the scale is A Phrygian. Measures 5–7 have E
as a focal pitch, and there is a shift between E Aeolian (m. 5 and 7) and E Lydian
(m. 6). Here also the opening measures present different scale material than that
indicated by the voice leading of upper voice and bass line.
Considering the chordal sequence of this passage, the harmonic center A minor
and later (from m. 13 onwards) E minor becomes obvious especially at the begin-
ning and end of the passages: The first five measures have a clearly functional
chord progression (I-II-I-iv-v), mm. 12–13 expresses a type of Phrygian cadence
iv6-v; and in mm. 17–20 (now written in the key E minor) there is a strong cadence
(I-IV-v-I) with a clear bass line. However, even these chords defy traditional ex-
pectations: In m. 2 the II is major (like a secondary dominant), and the dominant in
m. 5 is minor instead of major. The same happens in m. 13 and in the cadence after
m. 17, where the major and minor quality of subdominant and dominant chords is
interchanged. Measures 8–12 represent a fauxbourdon (i.e. a progression of sixth
chords), but this overall structure is disturbed through a “wrong” chord in m. 10
(Eb minor instead of Bb major or B major) and the use of chromaticism.
Weill’s method of composing tonality could be described with the term poly-
modality, introduced by Bartók.36 All the different parts have the same tonal center,
but use different scales or keys. Specific to Weill’s polymodality is a very careful
entanglement of vertical and horizontal events (i.e. harmony and polyphony). The
different layers are brought into a hierarchy: Most important is the voice leading of
the first violin, which has a clear tonal center derived from a mixture of A Dorian
and E Dorian. (The embellishments sometimes alter this mode to A Mixolydian). In
the second violin, Weill writes a type of harmonic counterpoint. This part is rhyth-
mically parallel to the first violin, but some passages express different keys. The
bass line is composed in a similar way. The result of this combination is a highly
consonant sound (especially on the first beat of each measure), achieved through an
uncommon progression of chords. At the same time one finds residues of traditional
functional harmony, although modified through chromaticism and interchange of
major and minor chords or double functions (e. g. the last chord in m. 19, which
mixes dominant and subdominant functions). The latter point might be properly
characterized as “alienation” (Verfremdung), a recourse to older harmonic progres-
sions but with significant changes. More pertinent, however, is Weill’s art of mon-
tage, which has polyphony as a precondition37. This sort of montage has the effect
that the single elements, which evoke archaism through simple rhythmic pattern
and diatonic melodies in church modes, create as a whole a new and modern musi-
cal language. In contrast to the montage in Stürmer’s piece, the polymodality and

36 The concept of polymodality is illustrated in Béla Bartók, “Harvard Lectures,” in Béla Bartók,
Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London: Faber & Faber, 1976), 354–92.
37 For a more detailed description of the principles of Weill’s technique of montage cf. Tobias
Faßhauer, “Des Songstils Nagelprobe. Anmerkungen zu den Kurt-Weill-Arrangements von
Jerzy Fitelberg,” in Zwischen Komposition und Hermeneutik. Festschrift für Hartmut Fladt, ed.
Ariane Jeßulat, Andreas Ickstadt, Martin Ullrich (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann,
2005), 316.
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 217

j j
4 >
Mäßig bewegt {q = etwa 66-76}
& 4 b ww Œ b œ œ œœ . œ œœ b b œœ .. b b œœ œœ .. ‰ Œ n œœ b œœ b œœ œ .. œœ b œœ .. œœ
Flügelhörner etc.
f J J J J
b ww> b œ œ œœ b  œ œ œ bœ
Hörner u. ?4
4 Œ b œ .. ‰ Œ œ œ œ œ. œ b œ œœ
können in der unteren Oktave durch Tuben verstärkt werden

j j j œ j
. bœ œ bœ œ œ
& œœ . œ œ b œ b œœ œœ Œ Œ ‰ œœ œœ Œ Œ ‰ œœ œ Œ Œ ‰

œ bœ Œ 
J pJ J J

f j œ b œ  œ bœ b
? œ. bœ œ ‰ œ b œ œ œœ œ b œ . b œj
bœ bœ œ œ œ
Œ Œ ‰ J b œ Œ Œ ‰ œJ œ Œ Œ ‰ J Œ 
Hr. u. Pos.

>j >
∑ ∑ b œ b Œœ ‰ b œ  Œ b b œœ b œœ b œœ n 

& œ b bœ  b b 
Œ b. Jj

F f> > F
b œ b  b œ b b w b œ œ bœ  Œ bœ œ œ b. bœ bœ
? bœ b œ ‰ 
bœ  Œ
∑ J ∑
Hr. u. Pos.
>j >
#œ  >
bw Œ b b œœ b œ b œ

&  b Œ ‰n œ  b ww

f #>œj > ƒ
? b b  b b 
b œ b b  b n ww>
Œ ‰ nœ  Œ
Hr. u. Pos.
Paul Hindemith, Plöner Musiktag, Morgenmusik, 1st movement, mm. 1–19
© Schott Music GmbH & Co. KG

the logic of the voice leading in Weill’s Der Jasager make this montage stringent.
Thus, what Marzynski considered as one of the main points while composing for
musical amateurs is at the same time the solution for Weill’s desire to turn away
from song-style. In this respect, the genre of school opera and Weill’s musical or
stylistic reorientation matched perfectly.

Paul Hindemith was surely the most prominent composer in Germany during the
1920s and early 1930s. Since the late 1920s he had been very much involved with
Gebrauchsmusik and with music for amateurs. Well known among his oeuvre at
this time are works like Lehrstück (1929) and Wir bauen eine Stadt (1930), but he
also wrote pedagogical music for amateurs and—after 1927—a lot of so-called
Spielmusik for various ensembles.38 The most extensive of these latter works is

38 The “Spielmusiken” are published in the Hindemith Complete Edition, Series 8, Sing- und
218 Ullrich Scheideler

Plöner Musiktag from 1932, consisting of four parts (Morgenmusik, Tafelmusik,

Kantate, Abendkonzert) and written for a music school in the small north-German
town of Plön.39 The first part, Morgenmusik (Morning Music), is divided into three
short movements,40 and the following short analysis will concentrate on the open-
ing of the first movement, for wind instruments only.
Like Stürmer and Weill, Hindemith’s Morgenmusik contains references to older
music, this time to an Intrada type of the Renaissance. This is obvious in the instru-
mentation, meter, and musical gestures. The tonality of this piece at the beginning is
Bb major. Measure 7 starts a transition passage which leads to Eb minor (mm. 10–13),
followed by another transition, in which the harmony returns to Bb major (m. 19).41
Again we have a mixture of melodic and harmonic tonality, in which the tonality
of the melodic lines became the more important one. The melodic line of the up-
per part seems to be composed very traditionally in two respects. First, it uses the
diatonic scale of Bb major as a frame, stressing the triad notes B (m. 1), D (m. 4)
and F (m. 10). Second, phrases end on the supertonic on two occasions (see m. 3 and
m. 7). However, these common elements are treated in an unconventional way. The
diatonic outline is disturbed quite unexpectedly in mm. 3 and 6 by chromatic notes.
And concerning the supertonic, which is normally combined with a half-cadence,
Hindemith does not satisfy our expectation. In place of an F major dominant, absent
throughout the piece, Hindemith uses a chord consisting of layered fifths (Eb-Bb-F-
C, m. 3) and a chord without a third (C-G, m. 7). This observation shows us a trend
already present in the opening measures, which do not very often use major or
minor chords. In the first seven measures there are only two: the Bb-major chord in
m. 1 and the Eb-major chord in the middle of m. 5.
Two elements seem to be important in the other sections: the substitution of
non-traditional chord structures, and the polyphonic musical texture. Essential for
Hindemith’s choice of chords is his tendency to employ non-traditional sonori-
ties such as the unison (m. 2, 5) or chords consisting of fourths or fifths (m. 3, end
of mm. 6 and 7, m. 13) at important points such as the beginnings and endings of
phrases. The major triad is reserved exclusively for beginnings, endings, and con-
trast-sections (m. 13 and m. 17).
The polyphonic texture, on the other hand, leads to sounds which are equally
careful in their planning. In his book Craft of Musical Composition—published in
1937 and hence five years later than Plöner Musiktag—Hindemith made a decisive
distinction between chords which contain a tritone and those that do not.42 This

Spielmusik, Übungsstücke, Etüden 2 vols. (Mainz: Schott, 2000 and 2009). Hindemith also
published some articles concerning music for amateurs. Most important are “New tasks” (Neue
Aufgaben), written for the 1929 Baden-Baden festival, and “Demands made to the amateur”
(Forderungen an den Laien) from 1930. Both texts are reprinted in Paul Hindemith: Aufsätze,
Vorträge, Reden, ed. Giselher Schubert (Zürich: Atlantis, 1994).
39 The music festival at Plön took place on 20 June 1932. It is described in detail in Gerd Sanne-
müller, Der ‘Plöner Musiktag’ von Paul Hindemith (Neumünster: Wachholtz 1976).
40 I: Mäßig bewegt, II: Lied. Langsame Viertel, III: Bewegt.
41 The harmonic stations in the second part of the piece are Eb major (mm. 23–29) and Bb major
(m. 32 to the end).
42 Paul Hindemith, Unterweisung im Tonsatz (Mainz: Schott, 1937), in particular p.  102f. and
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 219

distinction seems important for the first movement of Morgenmusik as well, be-
cause Hindemith avoids this interval to a large extent. Therefore, sonorities like the
dominant-seventh chord are excluded from this movement. This avoidance might
be an explanation for some alterations, for example, the D instead of D at the end of
m. 6. The minor second and major seventh are often abandoned as well. Hindemith
has other reasons for altering pitches as well, often preferring to have an upper lead-
ing tone falling by semitone to cadential goals (see mm. 3, 6–7, 18–19).
Avoidance of major and minor chords, traditional dominants or cadences,
and tritones as well as semitones within the chord structure are negative criteria.
What, then, serves as a positive criterion for the musical texture and tonality in
Hindemith’s Morgenmusik? This is voice leading, and five elements seem to be
of importance in this regard: the motion in seconds, the contrary motion of the
outer parts (see mm. 2–3, 5–6, 7–10), linkage of parts in parallel fourths and fifths,
sustained notes, and (already mentioned) downward resolution of melodic leading
tones. All these elements show recourse to music of the sixteenth and seventeenth
century and perhaps even medieval music, or at the very least a turn away from the
romantic. For the listener, the impression of archaism is obvious.
However, the lack of chromatic progressions does not mean that there is only
one key. The tonality of this short passage is, in fact, primarily based on a diatonic
scale, but Hindemith makes an uncommon use of it. Remote tonal regions or chords
like D major in m. 10 or the D-major chord in m. 17 are reached through diatonic
motion, not through nineteenth-century-style chromaticism. It is here that the po-
lyphony comes into play. Polyphony is not used as imitation (with the exception of
mm. 7 and 8), but is rather a means to create the different sonorities. In comparison
to Stürmer’s Feierliche Musik, the relationship of harmony and counterpoint is in-
terchanged: In Feierliche Musik chord progression is the foundation and counter-
point often seems merely accidental. In Hindemith’s Morgenmusik, counterpoint
asserts priority, while chords can be regarded (or heard) as a result of the movement
of individual parts.43
In Morgenmusik, Hindemith retained some formal principles of tonality, but
weighted them in a new way: Leading notes resolve downwards, major and minor
chords are repressed in favor of other sonorities, and the relationship of harmony
and counterpoint is changed. That this unfamiliar tonality is interpreted as a ref-
erence to older times despite no actual citation of fifteenth- or sixteenth-century
music is a symptom of its alignment with the Intrada type. Only in combination
with a much older musical texture can this new sort of tonality suggest an archaic
musical language.

p. 118f. Every chord which contains a tritone has the function of a dominant.
43 There are still some residues of functional harmony. This is obvious in the transition from m. 4
to 5, in which the melody in the upper voice (D–D–D–G) implies a dominant-tonic relation in
G  minor. This chord progression indeed seems implied, but the D-major chord is replaced
through a chord which sounds more like Bb major with a minor seventh. However, this chord
has a dominant function because of the tritone Ab/D. Nonetheless, these sections with some
kind of functional chord progressions are rare. Even in the case of mm. 4 and 5 the linearity of
the middle parts seems to be more important than the resulting chords.
220 Ullrich Scheideler


In his article “Gegen die neue Tonalität” (Against the new tonality), written in 1931,
Theodor W. Adorno criticizes some tendencies of music written around 1930, es-
pecially tonal music, which “is praised as being in compliance with community.”44
Adorno does not refuse tonality in toto, but rather bases his ideas on two primary
conditions: First, that tonality bears inherently its own history, which must not be
neglected in new tonality. Second, that music (as all genres of art) should not con-
firm but alter the consciousness of mankind. In this respect, Adorno demands a
tonal practice in which conclusions are drawn from historical conditions. Adorno’s
main formal category for this tonality is “Stimmigkeit” (coherence), which he only
sees in a dialectic handling or even “Zersetzung” (disruption) of old tonality.
The works by Stürmer, Weill, and Hindemith were written under different con-
ditions than those Adorno had in mind. They wanted to fulfill what Adorno had
criticized: they wanted to be “gemeinschaftsbildend” (community building), and
to reconcile average listeners with modern music. However, Adorno’s categories
of historical determination of tonality and coherence are also relevant. One gets
the impression that all three compositions (at least in the analyzed sections) had
clearly in mind the historical conditions of tonality. Under the condition of music
for amateurs, however, different conclusions were drawn. Their tonality can be in-
terpreted as an attempt to elude this historical conditionality by going back to a state
of tonality which is quasi pre-historical. In this sense, archaism represents a way
out of the historical implications of tonality. The question is whether this tonality
is nonetheless coherent, and whether in this archaicizing tone a modern element
is contained. Coherence is thus mostly the result of a cooperation of melodic and
harmonic tonality or counterpoint and harmony.
Stürmer’s tonality is highly eclectic, a sort of patchwork. There is no synthesis
of the different tonalities or historical references: We have diatonic modality, six-
teenth-century chromaticism akin to that of Gesualdo, romantic chromaticism, and
textural and rhythmic features traceable to the baroque music of Bach or Handel.
The archaic tone results from the collective impression of these elements, espe-
cially the absence of tonal sequences and normal dominant-tonic relations. In this
piece we find melodic tonality in only a very restricted sense. The upper voice ex-
presses the main tonality, and the function of counterpoint is either to create a chord
progression through contrary motion (within a limited selection: only major and
minor chords are allowed) or to make this tonality more diversified through motivic
motion in the bass line or through chromatic notes in the inner parts. Counterpoint
is therefore mostly accidental.
The modernity of Weill’s Der Jasager lies in a form of tonality which can be
labelled as “polymodality.” As in Stürmer, we have melodic tonality, but this time
organized in a quite different way. In this tonality not all the notes within a part are

44 Theodor W. Adorno, “Gegen die neue Tonalität,” in Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften
18, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984), 103. “während eine ungebro-
chene und ernsthafte Neutonalität, die man als gemeinschaftsgemäß anpreist, gerade die Ver-
fallenheit ihrer Mittel verschweigt […].”
Tonality in Music for Amateurs in Germany around 1930 221

important, but only the voice leading (e. g. the main notes at the downbeat of a mea-
sure). The counterpoint of this voice-leading, which is characterized through asyn-
chronous motion (in respect to the speed of its progression through scale material)
in the three parts, is responsible for a type of tonality which resulted in common
chords as a basis for uncommon chord progressions. Because the voice-leading of
every part has its logic and spans over the entire twenty measures, there is a coher-
ent tonality for the whole section, one which simultaneously shows a tendency to
disrupt older models: The traditional concept of voice leading is duplicated as in a
Cubist picture, giving a fresh new perspective on a familiar object.
Hindemith’s music after 1925 was characterized by Adorno as “archaic and
classicistic.”45 If we compare Stürmer’s music to Hindemith’s Plöner Musiktag, we
find similar elements of “melodic tonality”: the diatonic melody, the avoidance of
major and minor chords, and the principle of contrary motion. Insofar as this goes,
we could agree with Adorno’s assessment. However, Hindemith’s archaicizing tone
is—in respect to tonality—not the result of going historically backwards to a spe-
cific point, but rather the result of a new tonality. To put it in a formula: Hindemith
is an archaistic modernist, who creates archaistic music with modern means. Most
important in this respect is the relationship of harmony and counterpoint or voice
leading. While Stürmer and Weill use traditional chords as in seventeenth-century
music (Stürmer) or in an untraditional way (Weill), Hindemith relinquishes the use
of these chords and uses other forms which derive their consistency through po-
lyphony. Hindemith’s tonal usage is affirmative. He has no interest in disturbing to-
nality. Rather he wants to establish a new tonality, which avoids romantic concepts
of chord progressions (through leading notes), but simultaneously provides space
for a new concept, in which untraditional sonorities of far distant harmonic regions
could be incorporated through counterpoint.
As Stephen Hinton has shown in The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik, the quarrels
between the exponents of the youth music movement and those of state-supported
pedagogical music were yet to be settled in 1930.46 Hindemith could perhaps be
interpreted as the composer who tried to reconcile the two branches of music for
amateurs. In the works for amateurs, the archaistic tone is neither combined with
eclecticism (as in Stürmer’s Feierlicher Musik) nor disturbed by montage of differ-
ent tonal layers of voice leading (as in Weill’s Der Jasager). His popularity might
be a sign that this reconciliation was successful to a certain extent. Beginning only a
few years later, in 1933, however, the situation was to change fundamentally.

45 Theodor W. Adorno, “Ad vocem Hindemith. Eine Dokumentation,” in Theodor W. Adorno,

Gesammelte Schriften 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), 217.
“Hindemiths neuen Ton, den archaisch-klassizistischen.”
46 Hinton, The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik, in particular 194–212.
222 Ullrich Scheideler


Adorno, Theodor W. “Ad vocem Hindemith. Eine Dokumentation.” In Theodor W. Adorno, Gesam-
melte Schriften 17, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 210–46. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982.
— “Gegen die neue Tonalität.” 1931. In Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften 18, edited by
Rolf Tiedemann, 98–107. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984.
Höckner, Hilmar. “Die Musik in der deutschen Jugendbewegung.” 1927. In Die deutsche Jugend­
musikbewegung in Dokumenten ihrer Zeit von den Anfängen bis 1933, edited by Archiv der
Jugendmusikbewegung e.V. Hamburg, 928–30. Wolfenbüttel: Möseler, 1980.
Eschen, Andreas. “Kestenberg und die Jugendmusikbewegung: Von der Reichsschulkonferenz und
Jödes Musikalische Jugendkultur bis zur Ernennung Jödes zum Professor.” In Leo Kestenberg:
Musikpädagoge und Musikpolitiker in Berlin, Prag und Tel Aviv, edited by Susanne Fontaine,
Ulrich Mahlert, Dietmar Schenk, and Theda Weber-Lucks, 69–87. Freiburg: Rombach, 2008.
Faßhauer, Tobias. Ein Aparter im Unaparten: Untersuchungen zum Songstil von Kurt Weill. Saar-
brücken: Pfau, 2007.
Hindemith, Paul. “Neue Aufgaben.” 1929. In Paul Hindemith, Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden. Edited by
Giselher Schubert, 34–36. Zürich: Atlantis, 1994.
— “Forderungen an den Laien.” 1930. Paul Hindemith, Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden. Edited by
Giselher Schubert, 42–44. Zürich: Atlantis, 1994.
— “Berlin 1930.” 1930. Paul Hindemith, Aufsätze, Vorträge, Reden. Edited by Giselher Schubert,
45–46. Zürich: Atlantis, 1994.
Hinton, Stephen. The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik. New York: Garland, 1989.
— “Lehrstück: An Aesthetics of Performance.” In Music and Performance during the Weimar
Republic, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 59–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Kemp, Ian. “Der Jasager: Weill’s Composition Lesson.” In A Stranger Here Myself: Kurt Weill-
Studien, edited by Kim H. Kowalke and Horst Edler, 143–57. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1993.
Krabiel, Klaus-Dieter. Brechts Lehrstücke: Entstehung und Entwicklung eines Spieltyps. Stuttgart
and Weimar: Metzler, 1993.
Marzynski, Georg. “Musik für Dilettanten,” Melos: Zeitschrift für Musik 9, no. 1 (1930): 6–8.
Sannemüller, Gerd. Der ‘Plöner Musiktag’ von Paul Hindemith. Neumünster: Wachholtz 1976.
Schenk, Dietmar. Die Hochschule für Musik zu Berlin: Preußens Konservatorium zwischen roman-
tischem Klassizismus und Neuer Musik, 1869–1932/33. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2004.
Shin, Hyesu. Kurt Weill, Berlin und die zwanziger Jahre: Sinnlichkeit und Vergnügen in der Musik.
Berliner Music Studien 23. Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2002.
Stürmer, Bruno. “Die neue Tonalität.” Die Musik 24, no. 2 (November 1931): 118–20.
Weill, Kurt. Musik und Theater: Gesammelte Schriften, mit einer Auswahl von Gesprächen und In-
terviews. Edited by Stephen Hinton und Jürgen Schebera. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1990.
— Briefwechsel mit der Universal Edition. Edited by Nils Grosch. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2002.
Among the Ruined Languages: .
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940
Philip Rupprecht

Implicit in the widely circulating trope of an artistic avant-garde is the figure of a

creator breaching uncharted territory, working ahead of contemporary audiences and
beyond extant theoretical frameworks or linguistic norms. From a longer historical
perspective, though, the shock of the new often fades, and a composer’s language
may later be seen to have roots in prior conceptual and artistic traditions. Benjamin
Britten was from an early point in his career identified as precocious and modern,
frequently with the slur of being merely clever.1 For later listeners, though, Brit-
ten’s music contributes to a mid-twentieth century “moderate mainstream”2 and
his language is construed as basically tonal in outlook. With such identifications,
commonly, go assumptions about the music’s presumed distance from avant-garde
developments—developments identified primarily with tonality’s alleged exhaus-
tion, rather than its flourishing. A history of tonality in the early twentieth century
necessarily encompasses, as Michael Beiche has noted, its relation to a conceptual
opposite, atonality.3 From an early twenty-first-century vantage point, though, the
familiar evolutionary narrative positing the demise of tonality ca.1910 ignores the
realities of a century of subsequent musical history. What Brian Hyer has termed
the “technological allegory” in which tonality “collapses, breaks down or wears
out from overuse”4 fails to explain the continuity and renewal of tonal practice
signaled (by title alone) in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C of 1940. Where, then, do we
situate Britten in an account of twentieth-century tonal composition, particularly in
one acknowledging composers who retained the most familiar elements of a “tonal”
vocabulary—major or minor triads—within their idiom?
Britten’s early successes from the Bridge Variations (1937) through Les illu-
minations (1939) and the Michelangelo Sonnets (1940) display luminous triadic
sonorities and reach clear tonal conclusions, emulating the neo-classic euphony

1 The following remark is typical: “Experience and depth should not be sought in Britten … for
they are apparently deliberately avoided. But his technical equipment is of a virtuoso order and
he uses it with noteworthy ease and skill.” Nicolai Lopatnikoff, “England’s Young Compos-
ers,” Modern Music 14 (1937): 206.
2 Arnold Whittall, “Individualism and Accessibility: the Moderate Mainstream,” Cambridge
History of Twentieth Century Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 2004), 365.
3 Michael Beiche, “Tonalität,” Terminologie der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Hans Heinrich
Eggebrecht (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1995), 425.
4 Brian Hyer, “Tonality,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. Stanley
Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), 25:591.
224 Philip Rupprecht

of Stravinsky’s works of the later Twenties—Apollon Musagète, for example—or

the more austerely tempered triadic formations of Symphony of Psalms. Absent
is the attenuated key feeling of Schoenberg or the linear-polyphonic emphasis of
Hindemith. Tonality never seems lost in Britten, and by the post-war era his contin-
ued embrace of triadic resources set him apart from what Hans Keller dubbed “the
anti-diatonicism of the present.”5 To position the mature Britten as a conservative,
though, is to overlook his early exploration of an idiom closer to what one Thirties
critic mischievously called the “official revolution”6 of atonalism; the danger is
that we misconstrue the historical genealogy of what might be termed Britten’s
triadic modernism.
As a schoolboy, Britten briefly essayed a Schoenbergian style of intense mo-
tivic concentration, a direction that eventually faded during his formal training at
the Royal College of Music in London. Even at the RCM, though, the young com-
poser continued to take more stylistically from his mentor Frank Bridge than from
his official composition teacher, John Ireland. Several works from this period—the
Quartettino, the Sextet for Wind (both 1930), the Quartet in D (1931) and the Sin-
fonietta, Op. 1 (1932)—eschew common-practice formulae, exploring pedal point
and ostinati as agents of tonal definition. These early scores argue that Britten’s
more triadic style, when it finally emerged, was no disavowal of the new but a
purposeful and individual embrace of “major-minor” resources by a composer well
versed in recent, “advanced” stylistic developments. Much the same might be said
of Walton’s turn to a relatively diatonic idiom after the chromatic works of the early
The present chapter will reevaluate Britten’s triadic modernity first by sketch-
ing some motifs in the British debate around musical modernism, in which the
issue of harmonic innovation was central. Next, a glance at one of the more self-
consciously advanced of Britten’s early works, the little-known Sextet, confirms
just what the young composer had taken from modernist quarters. Against this
backdrop the music of Britten’s first maturity a decade later represents a stark con-
trast, more overtly tonal in effect and simpler in chordal vocabulary. Scott Goddard,
writing in 1946, spoke for many in praising Britten’s “unusual ability to combine
the cultures of an old and a new art,” achieving “a freshness unlike anything in our
music.”8 Through analytic readings of two songs—“Villes” from Les illuminations
and “Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi” from Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo—I will ex-
plore the hexatonic orientation of Britten’s subtly shifting key sense, most audible
through prominent major-third shifts between triads. Mapping the distance between
diatonic tonal practices and Britten’s more symmetrically deployed arrangements

5 Hans Keller, “The Musical Character,” Benjamin Britten: a Commentary on his Works from a
Group of Specialists, ed. Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller (1952; repr. Westport: Greenwood
Press, 1972), 343.
6 Constant Lambert, Music Ho! (1934; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948), 208.
7 Walton’s early String Quartet, performed at the ISCM in 1923, was admired by Berg.
8 Scott Goddard, “Benjamin Britten,” British Music of Our Time, ed. A. L. Bacharach (Harmond-
sworth: Pelican Books, 1946), 216.
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 225

among triads, it may be possible to get at the modernity of his language, its familiar-
ity and its freshness.

1. “Half-decided on Schönberg”: .
British Views of Harmonic Innovation, 1910–1930

Debating whether Impressionism, Expressionism, Classicism etc. are right. I have half-decided
on Schönberg. I adore Picasso’s pictures.

Britten, 20 November 1929 diary entry9

That Britten himself was usually reticent when it came to discussing his own art
need not detract from critical awareness of the historical and technical debts he
owed to wider musical developments of his own youth. Influences on Britten’s
juvenilia ranged from the Wagnerian and Debussyan echoes of teenage orches-
tral works (of 1926) to the Bergian trichordal sequences of the Quatre Chansons
Françaises (1928), perhaps Britten’s most psychologically acute early setting of
texts.10 That the 14-year old composer was, at the time of his first private lesson
with Bridge (January 1928), absorbing an eclectic range of modern French, Ger-
man, and Russian music, seems clear. The precise nature of Bridge’s influence in
matters of style and technique, though, is harder to pin-point. Nor should we as-
sume Britten’s development proceeded entirely by osmosis, through score-reading
or live contacts with works of Schoenberg, Scriabin, Stravinsky or by Bridge him-
self, miraculously unmediated by any theoretic perspective. Britten’s development
as a teenage composer in the Twenties and early Thirties might be considered not
only in closely biographical terms, but equally with attention to the British recep-
tion of modernist developments recorded in journalistic and published sources of
the day. British versions of musical modernism were as complex and self-contra-
dictory as those of any other national culture, this despite perpetual retrospective
jibes against the purported dominance of an English pastoralist idiom of “folksily
wistful meandering.”11 The goal here is not to re-construct a whole climate of opin-
ion, but rather to draw out those threads of the culture pertaining most directly to
Britten’s stylistic-technical evolution. A particular focus will be British journalistic
and academic-pedagogical reactions to what one writer termed the “widening of the
harmonic field” in early twentieth-century music.12
No one attitude defines British discussions of chromatic or atonal music, but af-
ter about 1910, the latest music of Schoenberg and others was reviewed frequently

9 John Evans, ed. Journeying Boy: the Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten (London: Faber,
2009), 27.
10 See Christopher Mark, Early Benjamin Britten: a Study of Stylistic and Technical Evolution
(New York: Garland, 1995); and idem, “Juvenilia (1922–1932),” The Cambridge Companion
to Benjamin Britten, ed. Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
11 Peter Maxwell Davies, “The Young Composer in America,” Tempo 72 (1965): 2.
12 G. H. Clutsam, “The Whole-Tone Scale and its Practical Use,” Musical Times 51 (Nov. 1910):
226 Philip Rupprecht

and intensively by many observers. If the spectrum of opinion is broad, Ernest

Newman in 1914 almost spans it single-handedly in one of his biting formulations:
“As Schönberg’s name is at present a byword among us for calculated and mean-
ingless cacophony, it is important to insist on the absolute sanity and sincerity of
the mind that is revealed to us in the Gurre-Lieder.”13 The Twenties brought a more
temperate rhetoric, even among detractors: George Dyson attributed “aimlessness”
in Schoenberg’s Op. 11 to the composer’s invention of an “unknown tongue”; for
Cecil Gray, the same opus sounded “almost classical in form and style.”14 A decade
later, public knowledge of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and the works up to
Op. 31 produced more complex assessments; both Constant Lambert in his widely-
read Music Ho! and John Foulds (in a less well-known book) praise the pre-war
romanticism of Pierrot before dismissing row composition as cerebral and academ-
ic.15 Glancing ahead, momentarily, one notes a critical retreat in later decades from
blunt outrage at the fact of atonality, but the advent of a challenge to tonal traditions
continued to remain controversial. As late as 1949, the issue was still being framed
by British writers as a stark question—“music’s future: tonal or atonal?”16
For the context of Britten’s teenage studies with Bridge, though, I return for
a moment to one mainstream record of taste, The Musical Times, a journal Britten
himself may be presumed to have read from at least 1926 (when, aged twelve, he
contributed a letter to the editor) until his later prep-school years.17
Harmonic novelty is a leitmotive of Musical Times articles after about 1910 and
throughout the Twenties, reflecting a sense that “The balance of the old theoretic es-
sentials has been relentlessly upset.”18 An unsigned review of Henry Wood’s 1912
London premiere of Schoenberg’s Op. 16 pieces reports shock at that composer’s
alleged “protest against all preconceived notions of music and harmony.”19 The
journal mostly eschewed bald objections to harmonic “ugliness.” Still, one article
(titled “The New Harmony”) prints the third Schoenberg Op. 19 piece together
with a bowdlerized upside-down version of the score. The accompanying text, sent
in by one wag (“Bewildered”),20 confirms that new pitch structures bothered lis-
teners more than melodic or rhythmic novelty. Schoenberg’s music “is certainly
creating a stir,” another writer notes, while emphasizing the need for critical open-

13 Ernest Newman, “Arnold Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder,” Musical Times 55 (Jan. 1914), 12.
14 George Dyson, The New Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 112, 114; Cecil Gray,
A Survey of Contemporary Music (1924; 2nd edition, London: Oxford University Press, 1928),
15 Lambert, Music Ho!, 208–18; John Foulds, Music To-Day (London: Ivor Nicholson, 1934),
16 Rollo H. Myers, ed. Music Today (London: Dennis Dobson, 1949), 132–52. On Schoenberg’s
later English reception, see Arnold Whittall, “Schoenberg and the English: Notes for a Docu-
mentary,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 4 (1980): 24–33.
17 See E. B. Britten, “Beethoven and Davy,” Musical Times 67 (May 1, 1926): 448; a 1930 diary
entry reads: “Musical Times is sent from home”; Evans, Journeying Boy, 31.
18 G. H. Clutsam, “The Harmonies of Scriabine,” Musical Times 54 (March 1913): 156.
19 Anon, “The Promenade concerts,” Musical Times 53 (Oct 1, 1912), 660.
20 Musical Times 55 (March 1914): 168. The notational trick skews chordal and melodic struc-
tures, a point the writer does not own up to.
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 227

mindedness: “We in England shall require to become much more familiar with this
music before we can say anything very definite about it.”21 Newman’s Gurrelieder
analysis, in 1914, cites an “expressive range” in Schoenberg’s harmony wider than
that of any other German composer of time.22
In stark contrast with Schoenberg’s reputation was the pronounced enthusiasm
among British critics for Scriabin’s music. One of them, G. H. Clutsam, a prolific
Musical Times contributor after 1910, devotes two early articles to the whole-tone
scale.23 Clutsam’s articles, like Schoenberg’s well-known Harmonielehre chapter
(whose publication they preceded by a year), emphasizes the proximity of whole-
tone sonorities to dominant ninth chords, though he is more interested in analyz-
ing recent repertory—from Strauss’s Elektra, Ravel, Debussy, and younger British
figures—than in theoretic generalization. Clutsam’s 1913 articles on Scriabin jux-
tapose score excerpts with chordal and scalar reductions,24 expressing admiration
for the composer as pioneer and experimenter. The analyses attend closely to domi-
nant functions and embellishing appoggiatura figurations in the composer’s later
work. Commentary is foreground-oriented, but confirms the author’s clear grasp of
harmonic function in scores that were in 1913 brand-new: the Sixth and Seventh
sonatas. A focus of British enthusiasm for Scriabin was the 1913 London perform-
ance of Promethée, but the fashion continued after the composer’s death in 1915.25
The writings of Clutsam, Newman and others exhibit the essentially empiri-
cal tone of British discussions of musical modernity after 1910. There is nothing
in British journals or books of the period to rival Busoni’s visionary tone, or the
experimentalist outlook of a Henry Cowell. Nor do British analysts develop any-
thing approaching the system-based orientation of Schenker, Kurth, or Riemann.26
While German theorists of the early twentieth century were delving deeply into a
bygone tonal era, British writers—with the notable exception of Tovey—embrace
a looser taxonomy of the new. Arthur Eaglefield Hull’s book Modern Harmony
(1913) almost celebrates as a virtue the “formidable hiatus between musical theory
and practice,”27 attempting to map the gulf with a hectic selection of musical ex-
cerpts up to and including Schoenberg’s Op. 16. Hull’s harmonic analyses are apt to
miss conventional tonal explanations of musical detail in their uncritical zeal for the
new; he is less aware of appoggiatura figures in Ravel, for instance, than his French
colleague René Lenormand—author of a comparable 1913 study soon translated

21 D. C. Parker, “The Futurist in Music,” Musical Times 54 (Sept. 1913): 590.
22 Newman, “Gurre-Lieder,” 12.
23 Clutsam, “Whole-Tone Scale,” cited above; the second part appeared in Musical Times 51
(Dec. 1910): 775–78.
24 Clutsam, “Harmonies of Scriabine,” and idem, “More Harmonies of Scriabine,” Musical Times
54 (July 1913): 441–43 and (Aug 1913): 512–14.
25 See A. Eaglefield Hull, “The Pianoforte Sonatas of Scriabin,” Musical Times 57 (Nov. 1916):
492–95; (Dec. 1916): 539–42.
26 For brief admiring reference to Kurth’s writings, see Musical Times 66 (April 1925): 333. Brit-
ish references to Schenker or Riemann are more fleeting still in the Twenties.
27 A. Eaglefield Hull, Modern Harmony: Its Explanation and Application (London: Augener,
1913), v.
228 Philip Rupprecht

into English.28 Hull’s outlook at times can seem almost naively empirical: a 1924
article finds him (and several eminent co-authors) asserting the irrelevance of
the older Rameauian system of chordal inversions to modern practice, defined as
loosely as possible: “harmony may be built upwards on a bass, downwards from the
uppermost part, or around an inside part.”29
To ascribe such open-ended claims to a stereotypically British suspicion of
theoretic universals, or a pedagogical emphasis, would be too glib.30 It would be
truer to say that by the Twenties many writers simply felt that music’s radical har-
monic developments had out-flanked theoretic grasp. Edwin Evans, a keener ana-
lyst than Hull, observes in 1929 that “at present very few people appear to have
a definite conception of what constitutes atonality.”31 Even the occasional article
aspiring to deal comprehensively with harmonic issues remains at a basic theoretic
level. H. Walford Davies, for example, in 1920, introduces a six-note collection—a
“sounding,” in his terms—comprising pitches C E E G A B, from which he de-
rives major and minor triads on C, E and A.32 Modern readers expecting an early
discussion of hexatonic harmonic resources, however, will be disappointed: to illus-
trate this “entrancingly interesting” sounding, Davies concocts a prosaic phrase in
C major with perfunctory excursion to E. His discussion ignores actual nineteenth-
century practices, and fails to explore alternate partitionings of the same collection
by augmented triads or major-seventh chords. Despite his taste for mathematical
flourishes (“exactly four hundred and sixty-two seven-note soundings”), Davies
lacks a theoretic perspective.
Nothing in the inter-war British discussion of newer harmonic resources ap-
proaches the subtlety of writings on what was now being called the “old” sys-
tem—tonality. Donald Tovey’s 1928 essay “Tonality in Schubert” lays Riemannian
emphasis on the parallelism of major and minor-mode chord functions and shows a
fascination with freedom of modulation.33 Tovey’s few technical pronouncements
on recent developments, though, make little of atonality. Introducing an excerpt
from Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, Tovey elsewhere observes that most
modern harmonic tendencies are “essentially matters of instrumentation.”34 Evans,
meanwhile, ventures a broader perspective: atonality is harmonically a “logical

28 René Lenormand, A Study of Twentieth-Century Harmony (1913), trans. Herbert Antcliffe

(London: Joseph Williams, 1915). For a review of Hull, see G. H. Clutsam, “Questions of Mod-
ern Harmony,” Musical Times 56 (Jan. 1915): 18–21.
29 “Harmony,”A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians, ed. Arthur E. Hull (London: Dent,
1924), 218. Hull’s named co-authors include Bax, Vaughan Williams, Edward Dent, Donald
Tovey, and Bartók.
30 Matthew Shirlaw’s historically oriented The Theory of Harmony appeared in 1917; on Prout,
Stainer and other Victorian-era theorists, see David Damschroder, Thinking About Harmony
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
31 Evans, “Atonality and Polytonality,” Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, ed. Wal-
ter Willson Cobbett (London: Oxford University Press, 1929–30), 1:30.
32 H. Walford Davies, “Some New Scales and Chords,” Musical Times 61 (Nov. 1920): 736–38.
33 Reprinted in Donald Francis Tovey, The Main Stream of Music (Cleveland: Meridian, 1959).
34 “Harmony” (1929), Donald Francis Tovey, The Forms of Music (New York: Meridian, 1957),
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 229

sequel to the ambiguity fostered by chromaticism and constant modulation,” and

contrapuntally a matter of “self-preservation”; bitonal contexts, he notes, bind indi-
vidual parts to simple diatonicism since “the first invasion of chromaticism … will
make the two tonalities indistinguishable.”35 Like many writers of the day, Evans
ponders the historical situation of tonality and its potential loss as lingua franca,
though not everyone shared his basically optimistic position vis-à-vis the advent of
atonality. George Dyson in a 1927 article for Grove’s Dictionary stresses the power
and precision of “classical” tonality, before sternly warning: “Should these conven-
tions be permanently displaced, then only a new and equally rigid system can hope
to offer an imaginative field of comparable promise.” For Dyson, modern chromati-
cism (he cites Schoenberg’s Op. 11) remains “an intellectual abstraction.”36
Did the schoolboy Britten read the likes of Hull, Evans, or Dyson in the later
1920s? No direct evidence of such theoretical proclivities has come to light, and his
admiration for Tovey was primarily as fellow composer-pianist.37 One intri­guing
clue to Britten’s theoretic outlook goes back to his piano lessons, aged eight to
fourteen, with Miss Ethel Astle, teacher of the “Seppings method” of sight reading
and transposition. Britten himself explicitly recalled Amelia Seppings’s primer as
late as 1937, in terms far from irrelevant to his stylistic choices as a professional
composer in the Thirties: “In this method transposition is made so simple, because
the pupil is taught to feel a great sense of key relationships—which is valuable even
in these days of atonality.”38
That the teenage Britten came of age in a local musical culture quite conversant
with harmonic developments from Schoenberg, Stravinsky and others is obvious;
but it is equally clear that culture lacked a developed theoretic vocabulary for de-
scribing such music. Nor could Britten expect much receptivity to the new at the
RCM. The College examiner’s question upon the 16-year old’s admission—“What
is an English public school boy doing writing music of this kind?”39—remains em-
blematic of a reactionary mainstream that Britten himself, “half-decided on Schön-
berg,” was already moving beyond. The need to decide one way or the other—for
or against tonality—tells its own story about the Twenties debate.
What Britten took directly from Bridge, as already observed, is hard to limn
precisely. In later life, Britten recalls that he had started writing in a “much freer
harmonic idiom” once under Bridge’s regime, adding “he gave me a sense of tech-
nical ambition.”40 His lessons began soon after the composition of Bridge’s Third

35 Evans, “Atonality,” 34, 45.

36 George Dyson, “Harmony,” and “Chromaticism,” in Groves’s Dictionary of Music and Musi-
cians, 3rd ed., ed. H. C. Colles (1927; repr. New York: Macmillan, 1944), 2:538; 1:646.
37 Britten heard Tovey perform in 1931.The two composers played piano duets privately in 1939;
Evans, Journeying Boy, 73; Letters From a Life, ed. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed (London:
Faber, 1991), 2:687–88.
38 Cited Mitchell-Reed, Letters, 1:82–83. Amelia Seppings, The Elements of Music Illustrated
(London: Morton and Burt, n.d. [ca. 1902]).
39 Quoted by John Ireland in Murray Schafer, British Composers in Interview (London: Faber,
1963), 30.
40 Britten, “Britten Looking Back” (1963), Britten on Music, ed. Paul Kildea (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2003), 251, 253.
230 Philip Rupprecht

Quartet, a work Britten certainly knew closely: “I also learned about bitonality
from Bridge (one of his favourite later devices was to harmonise with two common
chords simultaneously)—more than from Holst, whose music I didn’t know well
then … . I studied Bridge’s own music avidly, of course. It was at this time that he
was consolidating his later style, highly intense and chromatic, although never ac-
tually atonal.”41 Bridge himself was not the only influence, and in considering the
harmonic dimension of Britten’s early music, one more name deserves mention:
Gabriel Fauré. While Bridge’s own admiration of Fauré is well-known, his former
pupil’s interest in the French composer is rarely invoked. Britten and Peter Pears
performed La bonne chanson in 1958, but Britten encountered the work in 1936,
if not before.42 The boldly juxtaposed common triads of Fauré’s songs offer a sug-
gestive precedent for the kind of personal language Britten was to evolve himself
during the Thirties. To get there, though, he needed to conduct a number of stylistic

2. “Days of Atonality”: Britten’s Sextet for Wind (1930)

One such experiment is the Sextet for Wind Britten sketched some time between
May and August 1930, just weeks before leaving school, aged 16, to enter the RCM.
On 7 April he heard an all-Schoenberg concert (Op. 9, Op. 25, Pierrot) “on the Bil-
lison’s wireless,” and within a week had purchased a score of the Op. 19 pieces,
which he performed later that month at school (along with works by Holst and
Ireland).43 Diary entries for these months also record the writing of the motivically
taut Quartettino, and the modal-diatonic Hymn to the Virgin. The Sextet, however,
is not mentioned, perhaps because Britten abandoned its second movement.44 The
main influences are clearly evident: Schoenberg and Scriabin principally, mediated
by Bridge, and it’s just possible Britten knew Janáček’s identically-scored Mládi.45
But the score catches attention here less as a record of early stylistic models than as
a snapshot of Britten’s rapidly evolving harmonic thinking. Even in this strikingly
chromatic milieu, Britten continues to define tonal arrivals at pivotal moments of
the form, though major-minor resources—actual triads—play very little role as lo-
cal harmonies.
Chromaticism is rife on the musical surface, a fin-de-siècle world of melodic ap-
poggiaturas and creeping bass lines. Example 1 shows score excerpts from the first
two thematic groups. For all the intricacy of inner-voice figuration, Britten follows

41 Ibid., 251.
42 Sophie Wyss sung Fauré’s cycle at a December 1936 concert at which Britten’s Temporal Suite
was premiered; Letters, 2:784; see Andrew Martin Plant, The Life and Music of Christian
Darnton (D.Phil. diss., University of Birmingham, 2002), 150. Britten likely knew La bonne
chanson through Bridge.
43 Evans, Journeying Boy, 36–38. Britten chose a score of Pierrot among his graduation prize
44 Colin Matthews, Note in the score, published as Movement for Wind Sextet (London: Faber
Music, 1996).
45 Philip Reed, note to the work’s first recording, Hyperion CDA66845, 1996.
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 231

Scriabin by grounding highly diffuse harmonies in a classical phrase scheme. Two

five-bar phrases (4 + 1), followed by a more leisurely continuation phrase, make a
clear sentence. The harmony, meanwhile, unfolds in five- or six-pitch whole-tone
groups. Key feeling varies; in a sense, this is the “constant modulation” Evans cited
as a hallmark of chromatic music. Even so, a loosely functioning hierarchy asserts
itself. The Sextet departs from an F# pedal point, then moves to a rhetorically promi-
nent arrival on the conventional dominant region (spelt Db), clearly prepared and
supporting a more triadic surface.
The F# bass note below the first melodic phrase (Ex. 1, first measure) grows from
an ex nihilo muted horn pedal whose harmonic function, for all its static persistence,
remains ambiguously open—do we hear a tonic or a dominant?46 Upper-voice har-
monies, meanwhile, float in a Scriabinesque modal situation with characteristically
flatted fifth (C) and ambiguous major/minor third coloration over the pedal. In the
first melodic phrase (at m. 9), the oboe’s prominent C# confirms a consonant perfect
fifth over the tonic. The chromatic bass of the continuation phrase (m. 19 ff.) quickly
slips down to a low G, underpinning a first climax (m. 23), pivoting further by tri-
tone down to D. Melodically and contrapuntally, the passage’s strenuous build-
up—echoing Schoenberg’s Op. 9, by way of Bridge’s Third Quartet—pits questing
seventh leaps against sliding linear chromatics. In Britten’s second-theme group
(m. 38 ff.), finally, the D bass acquires a supporting fifth (Ab), thereby achieving
local stability as a tonicized second-key area. The touch-down on D major and the
momentary hint of triadic euphony is transitory, but enough to reassert the residual
pull of diatonic functions—a dominant to the Sextet’s F# home tonic.

3. Hexatonic Britten: Triad and Key in “Villes” (1939)

The freshness that critics discovered in Britten’s music of the late Thirties reflects
the composer’s return to triads as basic harmonic building-blocks. The early Sex-
tet, with historical hindsight, is a Schoenbergian experiment, a path not taken. In
Britten’s case, the music historian must jettison the cliché of a twentieth-century
progression from triadic euphony to post-tonal idioms; the plot goes in reverse.
The richness of added-note harmonies and beckoning appoggiaturas gives way in
later scores to a comparatively simple surface—restricted to major or minor triads
(often in close position). Britten’s early interest in Schoenberg, likewise, was super-
seded by attention to Mahler and Shostakovich. Amid many exemplars of the newly
triadic ambience of Britten’s music in the Thirties, the proto-minimalist fixation
on A-major chords in Young Apollo (August 1939) is only the most vivid: a case-
study in just how boldly radiant “simplicity” could be. But it is another score from
1939—the orchestral song “Villes,” composed for the Rimbaud cycle Les illumina-
tions—that reveals facets of Britten’s insistent triadicism with particular clarity.
Three aspects of “Villes” are readily audible to listeners and provocative for
analysts: the marginalizing of tonic-dominant relations in favor of mediants, par-

46 Britten was to use a comparable opening gesture in the Op. 2 Phantasy (1932).
232 Philip Rupprecht
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 233

Example 1: Benjamin Britten, Sextet for Wind (ca. May–August 1930),

first and second thematic groups, excerpts

ticularly between chords with roots a major third apart; a focus on modal paral-
lelism—the duality of major and minor—at various levels of structure; and the
prominence of smooth (i.e., semitonal) voice leading. The harmonic language of
“Villes,” in short, presents the central features of the hexatonic system, a mode
of tonal coherence that often operates, as Richard Cohn notes, alongside familiar
diatonic or octatonic models.47 That Britten’s music easily reveals a hexatonic as-
pect—as does work by Poulenc, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and any number of
twentieth-century figures—should come as no surprise to analysts charting the his-
tory of triadic music after 1900.
“Villes” is through-composed, its continuous rushing eighth-note motion
matching the sequence of fleeting illuminations in Rimbaud’s verse: texture and
tonal emphasis shift rapidly with each new image. Writing to the soprano Sophie
Wyss before the premiere, Britten pointed out that “the poem […] was written in
London and certainly is a very good impression of the chaotic modern city life.”48
Trimming Rimbaud’s prose original, Britten chooses to repeat the poet’s opening
declaration—“Ce sont des villes!”—as a verbal refrain at four points later in his
song; the text moves meanwhile between images of dream, “chalets de cristal et de
bois” (Rimbaud’s defamiliarizing description of streetcars) and “vieux cratères.”49

47 Richard Cohn, “Maximally Smooth Cycles, Hexatonic Systems, and the Analysis of Late-Ro-
mantic Triadic Progressions,” Music Analysis 15 (1996): 33.
48 Letter of 19 October 1939; Mitchell-Reed, 2:714.
49 My commentary assumes the reader’s access to Britten’s score.
234 Philip Rupprecht

New racing figurations arrive for “Bacchantes” (m. 39), “Vénus,” and references
to the sounds of bell towers and unknown music from “châteaux bâtis en os.” To
this point, the poem’s fantastical juxtapositions are matched in the song’s harmonic
world, a jostling of tonal claims and counter-claims. At the climactic image of a
“paradis des orages,” a V-I cadence in C major intervenes briefly (m. 60), before
further chordal restlessness whisks the listener’s tonal-attention off elsewhere, to
the eerily muted close over a low B pedal.
For all its surface consistency of triadic vocabulary, “Villes” as a whole eludes
any too-neat harmonic scheme. There are, nevertheless, clear patterns—above all
in the song’s already-noted tendency towards root motion by major thirds. A quick
sense of the harmonic and motivic milieu may be had by inspecting the voice lead-
ing of the opening more closely (Ex. 2). The Bb+ and G+ triads (i.e., B major and
G major) traverse only a minor third, but the returning move, up a major third from
G+ (metrically stressed) to B+, proves paradigmatic for what follows. Britten’s
bass line through “de rêve” (m. 11) strides D-Bb-Gb, traversing two major-thirds in
a row (brackets in Ex. 2 mark major-third shifts). A more assertive juxtaposition of
major-third related triads follows the first “Villes!” refrain. The new phrase (see
score, mm. 14–26) sits on an F pedal, root of an F+ triad framed symmetrically by
Db+ and A+ triads.

Example 2: Britten, “Villes” (Les illuminations, 1939): motives and harmonies at the opening

Also prominent at the start of “Villes” are rapid major-to-minor chordal oscillations.
The combination of root motion by major-third and modal mixture of the associ-
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 235

ated triads argues a symmetrical harmonic dimension to the song—its exploration

of so-called hexatonic pitch relations—rather than a diatonic background. Britten’s
harmonies shift continuously by rising and falling thirds, and they do so in pairs of
triads—a Petrushka­-like push-pull oscillation.50 The opening G+/Bb+ motion be-
gins with Bb+ as the accented pole (through metric and durational emphasis), but as
alternation accelerates, G+ gains the upper hand metrically. There’s a Chaplinesque
jerkiness to the shunting rhythms of the first four measures. Chord “progressions,”
meanwhile, seem fully reversible, or they might be said to wear themselves out by
incessant repetition.
A blurring of chord identity (Bb+ or G+, which is “home”?) in the opening mo-
ments is resolved by the m. 5 arrival of B+, a new sonority. Since shifts of mode
(B+ to B-, e. g.) are ubiquitous in “Villes,” they deserve a leitmotivic name. I will
refer to glitter, as at m.7, to describe motion by half-step displacement from ma-
jor to minor third and back (or vice versa) within a common fifth (Ex. 2). Glitter,
effectively, denotes a consecutive, self-reversing instance of Cohn’s P (Parallel)
function. A second motive, shimmer, is identified in Ex. 2; this is a linear variant
of glitter, unfolding a major-minor modal ambiguity by embellishing chromatic
passing tones over a static triad root (the m. 9 shimmer oscillates between D- and
D+ triads).
What kind of tonal claims does Britten put into play in “Villes”? It would be
simplistic to conceptualize the initial Bb+ chord as a straightforward home tonic—
for one thing “Villes” doesn’t end in (or even on) Bb; and with glitter and shim-
mer in play, the tonal milieu is intricately non-diatonic from the start. Nor will it do
to posit major-third shifts among triads as some alternate syntax, for Britten’s song
does still admit occasional diatonic gestures (the V-I cadence, m. 60, e. g.). Neither a
diatonic nor a hexatonic ground plan fits all Britten’s pitches; one might do better to
consider “Villes” as the product of an interplay of tonal systems, and my discussion
will concentrate on the basically eclectic character of Britten’s triad-rich idiom.
Again: what sort of tonal hierarchy is in play, what sense of key do listeners experi-
ence? Example 2 tackles the question by attending to prominent half-step displace-
ments (marked graphically with arrows) and makes a proto-Schenkerian attempt
to distinguish dependencies from more structural pitches. Reading the top level of
the graph (Ex. 2a) left to right, one sees first an upper-voice ascending arpeggio B-
D-F# preparing the arrival on B+ at the word “villes.” The motion is underlined by
outer-voice counterpoint in parallel tenths. The following motion, by major thirds,
recontextualizes the opening Bb+ as part of a chain of triads <D-/D+ Bb+ Gb+>. The
second tonal arrival of the passage coincides with the second “villes!” refrain: this
landing on F+ (m. 14) becomes the launching point of a new major-third chain.
Pitch hierarchy here is ambivalent. Not all analysts will accept the functional
implications of old-fashioned Roman numerals in Ex. 2, but they capture, to my
ears, one facet of the passage’s ambiguity.51 The apparent I to V tonic-dominant re-

50 On B and B as opposed triad roots in “Villes,” and for analysis of long-range tonal motion in
Les illuminations, see Mark, Early Benjamin Britten, 182–200.
51 On tonal function in Britten’s triadic discourse, see David Forrest, “Prolongation in the Choral
Music of Benjamin Britten,” Music Theory Spectrum 32 (2010): 1–25. Poulenc’s music offers
236 Philip Rupprecht

lation spans the entire phrase, from an opening Bb+ to a closing F+. But the framing
tonic and dominant encloses the complicating B+ arrival followed by a major-third
chain;52 further tonal uncertainties of the opening involve the modally promiscu-
ous glitter and shimmer motives. Those outer-voice parallel tenths (m. 1) trace a
major-minor tetrachord (0347), formed at the intersection of the Bb+ and G+ triads
(Ex. 2b). The same (0347) harmony recurs in the glitter motive on B, and then
the shimmer on D (Ex. 2c). Plain major or minor triads crowd Britten’s musical
foreground, but the middleground too sparkles with modal ambiguity.

E+ E- C+ C- Ab+ G#- E+ Northern

Eb+ Eb- B+ B- G+ G- Eb+ Western
D+ D- Bb+ Bb- Gb+ F#- D+ Southern
Db+ C#- A+ A- F+ F- Db+ Eastern

(8) 7 8

Figure 1: Britten, “Villes,” opening: motion between hexatonic triad systems

The triad progressions parsed so far might be conceptualized visually as in Figure

1, as motions about a grid-like tonal space comprising four distinct chains of triads
a major-third apart. Each chain is a six-pc hexatonic system, unfolding in a cycle of
major and minor triads on three roots.53 Horizontal motions along each system fea-
ture the half-step displacements already familiar from shimmer and glitter. A sin-
gle move changes triad mode (e. g., that numbered 2a on the grid, where B+ shifts
to B-) or both mode and root (as at 4: D- to Bb+). Double horizontal moves change
the root of modally identical triads by a major third (numbers 2, 5, etc.). Vertical or
diagonal arrows trace moves between the four discrete hexatonic systems. Recall-
ing the striding end of Britten’s opening phrase, then, the descending triad sequence
<D- Bb+ Gb+> traverses the Southern hexatonic system (numbers 4 to 5) before the
chromatic shift Gb+ to F+ drops vertically to the Eastern (at 6); subsequent triadic
maneuvers <F+ Db+ A+> travel between all three roots in that system.

a rejuvenation of triadic function comparable to Britten’s; see David Heetderks, “Open or

Closed? Poulenc’s Major-Third Cycles of Minor Triads,” unpublished paper (2010).
52 Finding F+ (m. 14) to have a “less directional quality than conventional dominants,” Mark
stresses its relation to B+ (m. 5) as a derivation of the tritone motto prominent throughout Les
illuminations; Early Benjamin Britten, 182.
53 For grid representations of hexatonic middlegrounds, see Richard Cohn, “As Wonderful as Star
Clusters: Instruments for Gazing at Tonality in Schubert,” 19th-Century Music 22 (1999): 213–
32. Formal properties of triadic systems are explored in Cohn, “Maximally Smooth”; and idem,
“Neo-Riemannian Operations, Parsimonious Trichords, and their Tonnetz Representations,”
Journal of Music Theory 41 (1997): 1–66.
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 237

4. “Mes moindres mouvements”: .

Hexatonic Progression, and a Somber Ending

The prismatic quality of Britten’s “Villes” harmony reflects available tonal motions
between hexatonic systems of triads. Example 3a reconfigures the Figure 1 grid
into Cohn’s map-like schema of four pc-distinct hexatonic systems, supplemented
by notational representations of “maximally smooth” cycles spanning triads of
the Western and Southern systems. The symmetries of hexatonic space are appar-
ent visually in the circular arrangement of each six-triad system. Between triads,
smooth voice leading embodies the half-step displacements of alternating P (paral-
lel) and L (leading-tone) functions. In the Southern system, for example, major and
minor triads cycle smoothly, one pc at a time—F# to F, A to Bb, D to Db, and so on.54

Example 3: Britten, “Villes”: moving from Western to Southern hexatonic system

54 The circular arrangement in Ex. 3a follows Cohn, “Maximally Smooth,” 17. On formal proper-
ties of <LP> cycles, see Cohn, “Neo-Riemannian,” 33–37.
238 Philip Rupprecht

The Figure 1 grid already shows frequent darting moves between hexatonic sys-
tems, with glitter and shimmer motives elaborating more local major/minor os-
cillation between triads. Example 3b homes in on a single phrase of Britten’s open-
ing (corresponding to Figure 1, numbers 4–5). The vocal melody traces a West-
ern-to-Southern pivot motion whose sounding logic reflects common pitch-classes
(shown at Ex. 3c). The texture fuses a simultaneity of competing triadic claims.
Lowermost in the texture one hears the singer’s rising G+ arpeggio (“c’est un peu-
ple”); above in the strings is the characteristic oscillation of glitter, spelling out
B+ and B- triads in conjunction with the voice’s B emphases. Together, voice and
accompaniment triads reference the Western hexatonic system, then shift South at
“Libans du rêve.” Britten’s melody sinuously interweaves falling thirds with half-
step displacements, outlining the trichord {D,Bb,F#} common to adjacent Western
and Southern systems.
The strongly hexatonic arrangement of triads at the opening of “Villes” gives
way, later in the song, to a newly varied triadic discourse. To observe the smoothly
alternating triads depicting Rimbaud’s urban revelers—“Bacchantes des banlieus”
(m. 39)—is to encounter Britten’s interest in modal ambivalence and uncanny
pitch dichotomies. The so-called slide motion at such moments (at m. 39, between
A- and Ab+ triads) prefigures much of the characteristic harmonic uncertainty of
Britten’s later operas.55 slide links simple triads, but its pc progression no longer
articulates discrete hexatonic systems, and still later on, at the phrase “musique
inconnue,” Britten’s dizzying tour of triads abandons clearly symmetrical harmonic
Britten himself described the ending of “Villes” as “simply a prayer for a little
peace”—far from a glib comment in 1939, just weeks after the declaration of war
in Europe.56 The penitential mood does depend on a motion towards a low, darkly-
hued B- triad (Ex. 4), and with so much of the emphasis throughout “Villes” falling
on major triads—albeit tainted modally by glitter or shimmer—this Schubertian-
Mahlerian modal shift certainly undergirds the somber effect in performance. But
there is more to the passage, and I will highlight three expressive features briefly
with reference to the Ex. 4 analysis: (i) a return to the hexatonic pairing of the open-
ing; (ii) interpolated octatonic arrangements of triads; and (iii) Britten’s layering of
adjacent hexatonic harmonies in contrasting registers.

55 On the leitmotivic centrality of slide in the opera Billy Budd (1951), see Philip Rupprecht,
Britten’s Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 90–96. The term
slide is David Lewin’s; Riemann calls the same relation between triads a Gegenterzwechsel.
56 Letter to Sophie Wyss, in Mitchell-Reed, Letters, 2:714.
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 239

Example 4: Britten, “Villes,” ending: Western hexatonic pole triads, octatonic interpolations

The song’s closing return to a Western hexatonic system is projected by a grace-

fully drawn-out phrase stretching between Eb+ and B-, two triads that share no
common tones and thus together define opposing poles within the six pcs of the
Western system. This pole relation—a simultaneity of three half-step displacements
between triads—has a tonally transgressive effect; as Cohn argues, hexatonic poles
undermine the coherence of a consonance/dissonance binary, depriving listeners of
familiar tonal-perceptual bearings.57 Britten states the Eb+/B- pole relation twice,
first (after the phrase “bons bras”) amid a series of chromatically driven chords, the
second time (at “mes sommeils et mes moindres mouvements”) as the passage’s fi-
nal bass motion. Both poles, meanwhile, attract modal ambiguity over their roots—
Eb from the high-register glitter ostinato (G, major third of Eb+, moving to F#/Gb);
Cb/B with the slower-motion Eb-D progression at “moindres mouvements” (marked
P in Ex. 4; the single displacement is half of a glitter motive). The expressive and
syntactic novelty at the close, then, is Britten’s slowing down of the nimble and
self-reversing major-minor shifts in glitter and shimmer to end with a Mahlerian
trope—the measured darkening coloration of a single Cb/B root.
While Britten’s closing phrase is framed by Western hexatonic pole triads, its
interior touches on alternate pitch symmetries, notably the octatonic collection that
links E by minor-third cycle (to triads on F#, A, and C roots, i.e.). The octatonic
dimension is marked in the lower system of Ex. 4 with closed noteheads, though its

57 See Cohn’s analysis of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in the present volume.
240 Philip Rupprecht

most conspicuous intervallic sign is the singer’s drooping melodic tritone (E-Bb) at
“mes sommeils,” in parallel motion with a tritone bass (A-Eb). The octatonic inter-
polations within a basically (Western) hexatonic phrase contribute to a motivically
rich synthesis. The arrival of the final C bass pitch finds its upper-voice preparation
in the singer’s graceful falling “major-seventh” figure (Bb-Gb-Eb-Cb). As at one ear-
lier climactic moment (the prolonged dominant-thirteenth tetrachords at “paradis
des orages,” m. 60), Britten makes his expressive point by a sudden shift away
from simple triads toward sonorities of greater complexity. The singer’s dissonant
B (on “moindres,” m. 81) is held over by suspension from the preceding Eb+ chord,
smoothly fusing triads on C and E roots.
Listening from the bass upward, the concluding B- triad of “Villes” appar-
ently functions as a tonal anchor (if not a conventional home tonic).Yet it is pre-
cisely here, as the music’s frenetic rhythmic energies subside, that upper-register
events assert unprecedented autonomy. With close-position triadic sonority central
in “Villes,” the wider registral distances defined by the violins’ shimmer’, high
above a static chordal bed (at m. 81) are something new. This particular shimmer
figure is a variant (its passing chromatic thirds are major, not minor) arpeggiating
the augmented trichord Gb-Bb-D, common term between Western and Southern sys-
tems. And Britten gives the last word—in the descending violin arpeggio, m. 83—a
Southern hexatonic accent. By such delicate shifts of triad and mood “Villes”
achieves a kind of local vertical synthesis of symmetrical triad systems previously
heard only in succession. By such hexatonic “smallest movements,” Britten finds
new expressive potential in simple triads.

5. “Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi” (1940): .

Simultaneity of Triadic Function

The mediant relations that saturate “Villes” are by no means a special effect for
Britten. The song’s forthright triadic patterns conjure strangeness, transforming the
most familiar chords into tokens of a vision removed from the everyday. But while
the sense of key and home tonic in “Villes” is transitory, a hexatonic triadicism need
not preclude stronger assertion of pitch hierarchy, as the opening of Britten’s Violin
Concerto (also 1939) suggests.58 By the late Thirties, the composer was explor-
ing hexatonic third relations in more straightforwardly diatonic environments. Both
the second and third songs of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo of 1940 project
clear tonic triads (in C minor and G major, respectively), yet in each case, “simple”
triads seem to blur against sharp intervallic discrepancies highlighted by registral
contrast. This is more than Britten’s characteristically vivid response to poetic im-
agery; the blurring technique continues the vertical interplay of registrally dispa-
rate activities heard at the close of “Villes.” An interest in cognitive and harmonic

58 The Concerto’s F+ tonic is prolonged by a Db+ hexatonic counterpole.

Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 241

uncertainty—invariably between the layers of a stratified texture—becomes more

pronounced in Britten’s later music.59
“Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi,” in mood and harmonic means the most limpid of
the Michelangelo Sonnets, matches triadic euphony to the poet-lover’s invocations
of celestial illuminations—the sun, or its reflection as moonlight. At the largest
level the song’s G-major tonality unfolds a serenely classical structure. An opening
tonic triad, G+ with fifth uppermost, moves swiftly to its relative minor (E-, at “son
mosso,” m. 27), broaches mediant-hexatonic territory (emphasizing Eb+ and B+),
but quickly returns to the home tonic, secured by a traditional V-I cadence and step-
wise melodic descent. A coda briefly revisits the previous mediant-distant triads,
but tonal closure in G+ prevails. Above the tonic triad, the tenor’s melody floats
down from E to D, an unperturbed cover tone, the sun in the sky.
The classical diatonic account just sketched reflects a coherent frame, and yet
it leaves out much of what seems most expressive in Britten’s music, including the
edgy dissonances. Britten’s root-position G+ tonic, however well established in
the middle register, is inflected by tingling half-step dissonances; the classical tri-
adic exterior seems to accentuate the stinging intervallic effects, when they arrive.
Among many examples, the tenor’s gentle alighting on F#3—“lu-me,” m. 5—of-
fers mild dissonance, quickly taken up and heightened by the piano’s F#+ arpeggio
(m. 6). The direct clash of triads—F#+ against G+—is unmistakable, packed into
the harmony-defining tenor register, and only with continued ascent does interval-
lic tension dissipate: higher-register F#s assume an overtone-coloristic identity,60
all dissonant friction finally vanishing in a simple leading tone-to-tonic resolution
(m. 7). The tenor’s A# (m. 8) at once echoes the F#+ triads just passed, while locally
defining a Purcellian false-relation (acting as Bb, a minor third against the piano’s
G+ triad).
Britten’s song dramatizes the textural interplay of chords and arpeggios, such
that the mysteriously floating melodic arches do not always obey the gravita-
tional pull of the chords beneath: the vocal B+ arpeggios at “volo con le vostr’ale”
(m. 22), pulling against the piano’s C+ chordal pedal. Such effects intensify during
the song’s central episode (mm. 27–39). Space allows for only a glancing analysis
of this passage, but the central issue remains Britten’s interest in registrally defined
harmonic ambivalence. Commentary here will focus on his ability to project more
than one transformational path between triads juxtaposed in the same texture.

59 As at the opening of the 1962 War Requiem, for example; cf. Rupprecht, Britten’s Musical
Language, 197–99.
60 Daniel Harrison’s register-specific model of tonal pitch relations—comprising root, chord and
overtone space—is suggestive in Britten’s case. My thanks to Professor Harrison for sharing
unpublished work.
242 Philip Rupprecht

Example 5: Britten, “Veggio co’ bei” (Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, 1940),

central episode: simultaneity of contrasting triadic progressions, treble and bass registers

Britten’s arrival on E- at m. 27 is the beginning of a tenor-register triadic progres-

sion, by slide, from E- to Eb+ (m. 31). Meanwhile, in the upper register, the mo-
tion to Eb+ traverses an alternate pathway, the Parallel progression unfolding in
arpeggios, D#- to Eb+ (see letter a in the graph). The listener hears two chordal
transformations, simultaneously: below, there is a change of root and mode; above,
simply change of mode. To insist on the hegemony of only one of these two tri-
adic pathways is to negate the simultaneity of registrally defined processes in Brit-
ten’s texture. Simultaneous triadic and registral claims intensify further in what
follows. First, the lower Eb+ triads are challenged by upper-register D+ arpeg-
gios (letter b). D+ above now begins a four-octave arpeggiated descent, breach-
ing its upper-register confines to supersede Eb+ below as harmony-defining agent
within the texture. The passage (letter c) has a through-the-looking-glass quality,
as the relative position of “upper” and “lower” voices in the texture reverses it-
self. Treble becomes bass. Finally (letter d), the approach to the closing B+ triad
(m. 39) is again plural, a process reflecting two simultaneous triadic pathways in
contrasting registers. Above, the motion is a hexatonic major-third shift (Eb+ to
B+, marked LP to emphasize voice-leading smoothness); below, the progression
from D+ to B+ is of a different order, that of conventional transposition by minor
third. Again, chordal motion sounds over-determined and Britten’s intricate juxta-
position of registrally distinct processes presents listeners with competing models.
of triadic progression. In closing, one might consider both the intermediate Eb+ ar-
rival (m. 31) and the B+ arrival of m. 39 on a larger level, as stages in an unfolding
Western hexatonic triad system, one completed by the return of the song’s G+ home
I have two concluding thoughts. First, it is worth emphasizing the evolv-
ing formal-syntactic dimension of Britten’s triadic modernism. The 1930 Sextet,
while retaining a background diatonic framework of tonic and dominant key ar-
eas, largely eschews simple triads as elements of the note-to-note surface. By the
Britten’s Triadic Modernism, 1930–1940 243

time of “Villes,” Britten’s return to triadic consonance is blatantly audible, but

the harmonic arrangement is strongly hexatonic-symmetrical in orientation, with
prominent ambiguity of mode. The third Michelangelo song takes Britten’s har-
monic ambivalence a step further. A proto-classical harmonic framework is reas-
serted, but the hegemony of the bass register—traditional determinant of a chord’s
function—is challenged by competing voice-leading processes in higher registers. .
While analysts of the hexatonic realm invariably model harmonic progression as
a parsimonious motion between pitch-classes, Britten’s hexatonic music suggests
a notion of voice-leading more attuned to the functioning of the “smallest move-
ments” of harmony as experienced by most listeners—as pitches, within specific
A second conclusion picks up on the wording of my title, and returns us to the
conceptual and historical context of tonality in early twentieth-century British mu-
sic. W. H. Auden’s vision of “children casual as birds, / Playing among the ruined
languages” comes from his 1940 “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day,” a poem inscribed
to Britten. One might invoke Auden’s image as a gloss on the status of many artistic
languages by the early twentieth century, including what is usually called tonality.
While for many writers in the Twenties and Thirties, the survival of a living tonal
tradition seemed a distinctly open question in the face of the revolution of atonality,
the landscape several decades later appears very different. To very few musicians
these days does tonality still appear as a ruin. Britten’s shifting attitude to triadic
consonance in the Thirties and beyond can shape our own evolving historical view
of tonality as an expressive resource, the center of an old and a new art.


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Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance
Beth E. Levy

In 1969, at the end of a rambling series of oral history interviews that extended for
nearly seven years, American composer Roy Harris attempted to sum up his posi-
tion in history. In response to the loaded question “Do you think of yourself as a
traditionalist” he replied:
Well, of course. I hope that I am going to be a contemporary classicist. A lot of people have
called me that […]. I am trying to make forms which have contemporary rhythms, twentieth-
century harmony, twentieth-century instruments and forms as large as our nation. I am trying
to write something which has a large proliferation, something which has a sense of dimension,
something which has ritual in it, something which is not ashamed to believe something or not
afraid to make a declaration. I don’t believe in ambiguity at all. I don’t think nature believes in
it. Nature doesn’t try to have a rose grow on the pine tree.1

Presumably spoken more or less off-the-cuff, this is typical Harris. It bears his
trademark nationalism, his unabashed embrace of artistic “truth,” and his character-
istic botanical metaphors. Not too far below the surface it also reflects his attempt to
distance himself from neoclassicism without yielding the resources of the classical
tradition. Chief among these resources were the melodic contours and harmonic
palette arising from the canon of common practice, resources that he used with
conviction and imagination from his earliest works in the 1920s until the end of his
life in the late 1970s.
Musicologist Larry Starr, in his chapter on twentieth-century “Tonal Tradi-
tions” for the Cambridge History of American Music, observes astutely that “for
virtually all American composers of this generation ‘tonality’ and ‘atonality’ were
not central theoretical and stylistic issues, as they were for many European com-
posers at the time […]. The music of Gershwin, Copland, and many of their dis-
tinguished contemporaries is incidentally ‘tonal’ by virtue of the character of its
basic material […] rather than as a consequence of adherence to any preordained
philosophical tenets.”2 Harris is indeed unusual among his compatriots for mak-

1 Roy Harris, Composer of American Music, interviews by Donald J. Schippers and Adelaide
Tusler, 2 vols. (Los Angeles: Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles,
1983), 722–23. These interviews took place in 1962, 1966, 1968 and 1969, and they constitute
one of the richest sources of information about Harris’s life. Hereafter this source will be cited
in the text as OH with the relevant page number(s). For helpful perspectives on Harris’s com-
plicated relationship to neoclassicism, see among others Henry Cowell, “Roy Harris, An Amer-
ican Composer,” The Sackbut 12, no. 3 (April 1932): 133–35; Peter Hugh Reed, “Roy Harris–
American Composer,” American Music Lover 3, no. 11 (March 1938): 406–10; and Carol J.
Oja, “A Quartet of New World Classicists,” Chap. 16 in Making Music Modern: New York in
the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 271–75.
2 Larry Starr, “Tonal Traditions in Art Music from 1920 to 1960,” in The Cambridge History of
248 Beth E. Levy

ing such strong aesthetic pronouncements about melody, harmony, consonance and
dissonance for more than five decades: already in the 1930s, with greater technical
specificity in the 1940s and ‘50s, and with increasing indignation as his own largely
tonal scores grew further and further out of step with the critical touchstones of
younger composers. In this essay, I will show how Harris developed a theory of
tonality and consonance for his own time and place and, perhaps most important,
for his own personality—a theory firmly rooted in his understanding of Nature, but
also self-consciously inflected by his changing situation in Depression-Era, post-
war, and Cold War America.
Tonality and consonance are, of course, not synonymous. Yet for Harris the
relationship between the two was both obvious and far-reaching. Sidestepping the
constraints of key signature and scale, Harris’s harmonic idiom was built, from the
ground up, on the principle that both tonality and consonance could and should be
defined in relation to a single, anchoring entity: the sounding fundamental tone.
Investing this tonic note with all the weight of science and nature, Harris theorized
a sense of tonality that was only vaguely related to his famous folk-based or Ameri-
cana scores but quite concretely tied to his position at a cusp between two distinct
understandings of organicism: a romantic emphasis on spontaneous growth and a
modern preoccupation with systematic control.
Harris came by his rich organicism more naturally than most. He was a farm-
er’s son, always ready with an agricultural analogy. In the oral history interviews,
he explained:
I was born into a family of farmers. Farmers don’t talk very much, the ones that I’ve known
anyhow. They sit around the table, have dinner and very little is said. That doesn’t mean that
they are not thinking, but they are thinking in other terms. They are not thinking in the conven-
tional word terms. They are thinking in terms of the essence of things […]. I think, in a way,
that is a wonderful and fortunate beginning for a person who is going to become a composer.
This is because music is not a word language, but a time-space language. (OH, 2–3)

Despite his considerable activity as a critic and lecturer, Harris often labeled his
commitment to composition as a shedding of intellectual baggage. When asked to
speculate on the sources of his creativity, he maintained, “I think that it is a natural
function for a naturally creative person to be creative. I think if he examines it too
much, he’ll destroy it. My farmer’s background would say, ‘Digging up the pota-
toes to see whether or not they’re growing’” (OH, 41). In this worldview, training
was both a necessity and something of a threat particularly if, like Harris, one’s
formal education included a stint under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger when
Franco-American neoclassicism was, as Carol Oja has shown, truly a trans-Atlantic
Looking back on the aesthetics prevalent during and after his time in Paris, Har-
ris recalled an unhealthy emphasis on dissonance at the expense of attention to form
and melody: “We had a long period which I called modern academic. You could
take the most obviously dull melodies and put them in the most square melodic de-

American Music, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 472.
3 Oja, Making Music Modern, 231–84.
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 249

signs with very little formal development, just boxlike pieces. But, you could make
them very dissonant, and that made it modern. Of course, we’ve grown out of that
pretty well because it was too easy to do” (OH, 112).4 Harris chose for himself what
he believed to be a less traveled path. He explained:
I concentrated harmonically on the development of modern consonance, exactly the opposite
of the way most of them have been concentrating on dissonance […]. I felt the greatest part of
music was a consonant thing, and of course, this was supported by my philosophical attitudes,
that nature keeps the world in perpetuity through coordination, not through disorientation. I’m
sure I’m right about it. Even the physicists say that. (OH, 288–89)

Clinching his argument with a not-quite-deferential bow to the hard sciences, Har-
ris posited a natural truth in consonance—what he liked to call an “a priori value.”
Hand in hand with this affirmation of faith came the more strident assertion
that composers who did not share Harris’s convictions were false in some way,
either to their own better judgment or to their audiences. In the 1960s, for example,
the composer recalled his initial reaction to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: “Melody
was poor, there was hardly any harmony; it was all orchestration and rhythm and
dynamics […]. What happened was that music was really doing exactly what we
were doing in our marketing: it was all going into packaging. You see? Very few
people have agreed with me” (OH, 286–87). With this single gesture, Harris ef-
fected a surprising reversal of conventional modernist wisdom: lyrical melody and
consonant harmony, so often linked with pandering to the public, here became the
tools that would save music from the perils of the marketplace that had driven poor
Stravinsky to rhythmic and orchestral extremes. The lever that allowed Harris to
make this reversal (and to make it respectable for mid-century readers and listen-
ers) had nature at its fulcrum, with romantic assumptions at one end and scientific
systematizing at the other.
Harris’s melodic writing shows the varied aspects of his organicism in action.
Treating the tonic note itself as a seed from which many scales might grow, he was
inclined to write melodies in which a clear tonal center provides solidity while the
superimposition of two or more modes allows for interestingly variable scale de-
grees.5 One particularly lovely example of this practice comes from the Symphony
1933, the work that brought Harris to national prominence (Ex. 1). A more thor-
oughgoing exploration of this principle appears in Harris’s Third String Quartet,

4 See also Harris, “Composing–An Art and a Living,” Music Journal 11 (January 1953): 31.
“Harmony to a large extent has been developed on a strict tonality. The composer who would
add variation to his harmonic texture and form, must learn how to preserve a sense of tonality
while avoiding the worn-out authentic and plagal cadences and obvious harmonic textures. In
the matter of harmonic textures, the composer must not make the mistake of thinking that he is
being modern by simply sticking in arbitrary seconds, sevenths, and ninths to an otherwise trite
harmonic procedure. If he wishes to heighten and multiply his harmonic colors, he must de-
velop them in conformance with the physical laws of sound, namely, the overtone series. This
holds equally true for the color of harmonies invented as well as their relationships.”
5 Biographer and expert on Harris’s music Dan Stehman sums up this aspect: “each phrase in the
unfolding of a melody generally possesses a tonal center, though one often enriched through the
application of a mixture of modes on the same tonic.” Dan Stehman, Roy Harris: An American
Musical Pioneer (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 36.
250 Beth E. Levy

which is organized into a series of preludes (on pure modes) and fugues (on “mixed
modes”) as follows:

Prelude I (Dorian), Fugue I (Dorian/Aeolian)

Prelude II (Lydian), Fugue II (Lydian/Ionian)
Prelude III (Locrian), Fugue III (Locrian/Phrygian)
Prelude IV (Ionian), Fugue IV (Mixolydian, Ionian)

Example 1: Roy Harris, Symphony 1933, first movement, mm. 174–94

At times, Harris intended his meandering melodies to evoke the pre-tonal music of
the Renaissance. Pieces by Josquin, Victoria, and Lassus were among his favorite
discoveries during his years in the Boulangerie, and no less an authority than Arthur
Mendel ratified the analogy between Harris’s scores (in this case his Piano Sonata)
and the “masterpieces of the sixteenth century.”6 All the same, we should not lose
sight of the fact that Harris wrote from a particularly twentieth-century position. By
calling himself a “modern” or “contemporary” classicist, Harris attempted to carve
out a place for himself between, or at least alongside, Stravinskian neoclassicism
and Schoenbergian serialism. This is most apparent in his theory of “autogenetic
Obviously organic in conception, autogenetic melody attempted both to natu-
ralize the Schoenbergian “Grundgestalt” and to fertilize the potentially sterile forms
of neoclassicism, by grafting onto traditional structures an impression of continu-
ous growth and development. Take, for example, the Passacaglia theme from the
first movement of Harris’s 1936 Piano Quintet (Ex. 2). In the words of Arthur Men-
del, this theme “is so eminently singable, so strongly diatonic and tonal in feeling,
that one is surprised to realize that it contains every note of the twelve-tone scale.

6 Arthur Mendel, “Music: A Change in Structure,” Nation 134, no. 3470 (1932): 26.
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 251

In this characteristic, which it shares with the other three themes of the work, it rep-
resents […] Harris’s conscious affirmation that one may employ the full resources
of the twelve-tone system without falling into either chromaticism or atonality.”7

Example 2: Harris, Passacaglia theme from Piano Quintet (1936)

When it came time to record his Piano Quintet thirty years later, Harris himself took
up Mendel’s rallying cry:
The Piano Quintet was written as a conviction and prediction concerning the twelve-tone tech-
nique. At that time I was convinced, […] that the dodecaphonic restriction of no repeated notes
in a twelve-tone row was the weak link in this school of thought. Guided by these convictions,
I planned my Piano Quintet […] using twelve-tone melodic materials in such a way as to
emphasize tonality rather than as an atonal technique to destroy tonality […]. In the Fugue (a
triple fugue) the first subject is presented as an eleven-tone subject in which I purposely omitted
the augmented fourth or diminished fifth (musica diabolus [sic] of the ancients, but a supreme
entity of the Viennese School) until the last section in which it is used as a structural accent.8

In a way, this species of twelve-tone music represents the limiting case of Harris’s
multi-modal practice: a chromatic scale can just as easily arise from a given tonic
as a Dorian one. Yet Harris’s language of “dodecaphonic restriction” and “structural
accent” shows his desire to situate his thinking in a distinctively twentieth-century
context. He conceived of a twelve-tone music that would strengthen the gravita-
tional pull of the tonic rather than breathing the air of other planets. In similar fash-

7 Arthur Mendel, “The Quintet of Roy Harris,” Modern Music 17 (October–November 1939):
26. It is worth noting that Harris recognized twelve-tone music as “a tradition,” though a small
one, with some exemplary works, e. g. the Berg Violin Concerto. Nonetheless he noted that “A
composer cannot invent a whole new vocabulary every time he writes a new piece. This is quite
out of the question and is a little bit crazy. I mean demented.” OH, 119, 120.
8 Harris, liner notes for 1964 recording of the Quintet for Piano and Strings (Contemporary
Records Contemporary Composers Series S8012).
252 Beth E. Levy

ion, his characteristically polytonal harmonies (at least in theory) typically affirm
rather than undermine the power of a single, underlying root.
Ever insightful, the critic Nicolas Slonimsky noted in an unpublished biogra-
phy of the composer: “The Harrisian system of harmony has its own semantics, a
blend of acoustics and psychology.”9 Harris seems to have preferred to articulate
the intuitive, psychological side of his aesthetic, while leaving more technical ex-
plications to his students, close associates, and critical allies. Thus the most detailed
exploration of Harris’s harmonic writing comes from a 1946 article by one of his
pupils, the composer and conductor Robert Evett.10
Evett states outright that “Harris has always accepted tonality as the basis of
composition, and polytonality as an intensification of the principle of tonality. His
linear materials are based on the diatonic scales and their combinations, his har-
monic textures on the major and minor triads, their inversions and combinations.”
The three functions of harmony that Harris describes—enhancing resonance, in-
flecting a given melodic line, and achieving “architectural definition” or form—are
perhaps unsurprising. More striking are the procedures Evett’s article outlines for
understanding and creating harmonic progressions.
In Harris’s harmonic universe, triadic building blocks are linked one to the
next, not so much through the voice-leading of their individual members but rather
through two other means of navigation: the first involves movement along a path-
way of common tone relationships. A given chord is considered to be closely re-
lated, and even (depending on inversion and spacing) functionally equivalent to
those chords with which it shares important members; for example, a C-minor triad
in first inversion can substitute for a root-position Eb-major triad because their two
lower notes, E and G, are identical. Evett used the illustration reproduced as Ex. 3
to show that “This system gives any triad direct access to triads on six tonal centers,
and through the parallel set of relationships through the dominant and subdominant,
close relationships to every tonal center except its own tritone […] [giving] any root
easy, logical reference to eleven major and eight minor triads, and consequently
enormous possibilities for inflection without losing a sense of tonality and without

9 Nicolas Slonimsky, “Cimarron Composer” (carbon copy of typescript, UCLA Music Library
Special Collections, 1951), 114 (hereafter cited as CC). See also CC, 66: “Harris has always
emphasized that he is a Man of Nature. His melodic inspiration comes to him from communion
with nature, during his solitary walks, ‘listening to bird songs, looking at the blue sky through
the thick green foliage of summer trees.’ In this he is entirely a romantic, with this difference:
that he translates his immediate moods into a rational and self-consistent language of rhythms
and modes. In Harris’s musical semantics, optimistic moods are expressed in modes with large
open intervals at the tonic; the moods of sadness are translated into a narrow gauge of intervals.
It is the old ‘ethos’ of the Greeks in a new psychological—and logical—form.”
10 Robert Evett, “The Harmonic Idiom of Roy Harris,” Modern Music 23 (January–February
1946): 100–107. Along with Slonimsky and Evett, other close associates of Harris who have
produced scholarly treatments of his work include his friend and mentor Arthur Farwell, whose
1932 article, “Roy Harris” Musical Quarterly 18 (1932): 18–32, helped launch Harris’s career
and Sidney Thurber Cox, whose master’s thesis, “The Autogenetic Principle in the Melodic
Writing of Roy Harris” (Cornell University, 1948) was completed using examples provided by
Harris himself. For details, see Beth E. Levy, “‘The White Hope of American Music’; or, How
Roy Harris Became Western,” American Music 19 (2001): 131–67.
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 253

going into complex harmony.”11 (Note that all eight minor and ten of the eleven
major triads that he mentions appear here. To get the eleventh major triad, A-major,
requires adding one extra entry to the subdominant chord series, raising the C-
natural to C#.) Harris was selective in deriving his common tone relationships; for
example, while the root of a given chord can serve three functions, the major third,
minor third, and perfect fifth above that root are only allowed to serve as roots of
other triads.

Example 3: Common Tone Relationships as presented in Robert Evett,

“The Harmonic Idiom of Roy Harris” (1946)

It should go without saying that although Harris’s harmonies are almost exclusively
triadic, root position analysis at the phrase level is frustrating at best. In this respect,
Harris resembles Claude Debussy, one of the few twentieth-century European com-
posers whom Harris professed to admire. In contrast to Debussy, however, Harris
placed great emphasis on cadential moments. Yet he damned the conventional dom-
inant seventh chord as a “bastard harmony of a major triad mated with a diminished
triad” (CC, 100) preferring instead to approach cadences through the superimposi-
tion of two triads with roots a third apart–for example, G (G-B-D) and B (Bb-D-F).
Also unlike Debussy, Harris rigorously eschewed as many equal divisions of
the octave as he could (including not just tritones but also whole tone and octatonic
scales, augmented triads, and diminished triads and seventh chords). In fact, he
considered most forms of musical symmetry not as reflections of a perfect natural
order but rather as symptoms of a man-made artificiality that ran counter to organic
unfolding. In a 1938 conversation with critic Peter Hugh Reed, for example, he
praised the melodic construction of Gregorian chant for “the asymmetry of the de-
sign,” which he believed to be “closely related to the asymmetry of Nature.” Harris
continued: “The design, one might say, grows out of itself; it is not symmetrical in
the way that man-made things are, on the other hand it is not disproportionate, but
its proportions are regulated by its growth from within in adjustment to its environ-
ments. Symmetrical patterns have their definite limitations. Symmetry, for exam-
ple, belongs to industrialism.”12

11 Evett, “Harmonic Idiom,” 104–5.

12 Peter Hugh Reed, “Roy Harris–American Composer,” American Music Lover 3, no. 11 (March
1938): 407.
254 Beth E. Levy

Rather than relying on equal divisions of the octave, Harris’s second way of
creating harmonic syntax without the tensions and releases of traditional voice-
leading makes use of a carefully regulated spectrum of chord colors, stretching (in
Harris’s words) from “savage bright” through less bright and neutral tones down
toward “dark” and “savage dark.” The measure of a chord’s relative brightness or
darkness has everything to do with the overtone series. Bright chords are those
whose upper tones are supported by the overtone series generated by the fundamen-
tal; dark chords are those whose upper notes persist in dissonance with this funda-
mental series. According to this logic—and here I am paraphrasing Slonimsky’s
paraphrase of Harris—the first inversion of a minor triad in open harmony (say, C-
E-A) has greater brightness or resonance than the first inversion of the major triad
C#-E-A because the bass note C generates a fifth partial E while the series on C# does
not. By contrast, the major 6/4 chord (again in open position) is considered more
consonant than the minor 6/4 because, taking the tonic C as an example, the major
third E is prominent in the overtone series on G while the minor third E is not.13
Similarly, major thirds (and their inversions, minor sixths) are more consonant at
a distance from the root, while minor thirds and major sixths grow more dissonant
with distance.
The same basic principles that Harris applied to simple triads extend to his
frequently polytonal writing, which is also organized according to common-tone
relationships and categories of relative consonance and dissonance derived from
the overtone series of the lowest sounding note. In fact, because of these priorities,
it can be difficult in practice to distinguish between a Harrisian polychord and, say,
a dominant ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth chord. We can find one such instance in
the pastoral midsection of the famous Third Symphony, which features what Harris
always called “bitonal” or “polytonal” string arpeggios underneath suitably bucolic
woodwind fragments (Ex. 4).

Example 4: Harris, Third Symphony, arpeggiated harmonic background reduced

by Don Stehman to block polychords

13 In Slonimsky’s words, “[Harris] points out that fifths become more consonant at a wider range
because they coincide with the third, sixth, twelfth, and twenty-fourth partial tones; on the other
hand, fourths become more dissonant when removed from the bass, because of the interference
with the major third, which is the fifth partial of the fundamental tone.” CC, 114.
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 255

Example 5: Polychords from “bright” to “dark” [as organized by Robert Evett]

Although he was writing well before the Third Symphony, composer and theorist
Walter Piston reflected on Harris’s polytonality in 1934, writing that “while it is
true that a combination of two different chords may have been used, it is equally
true that it takes more than one chord to establish a tonality. In listening to [Har-
ris’s] music one is practically always conscious of a tonal center. Whether or not the
composer intended this to be the case is not quite clear […].”14
Piston’s parting shot has a significant element of truth. In Ex. 5, Evett attempted
to organize Harris’s “basic polychords” into “a graduated scale from very bright to
very dark.” Yet, even with the composer’s probable input, Evett had to acknowl-
edge that the measure of brightness and darkness was somewhat subjective. Speak-
ing for himself, Harris preferred to relate how he learned his harmonic colors by
attempting to match in sound his own impressions of the gradually changing light
he experienced near his childhood home in California. He recalled:
I remember there was a period when I went up on a hill to see the sunset at the same time every
day. Gradually, it came a little bit earlier and a little bit earlier. That was in the fall. I wanted
to see […] if I could find the harmony of the mood if I could. Then I did the same thing with
sunrises. I did the same thing at noon every day to see if I could find out what the pantheistic
color was, what the sounds were that surrounded the valley below, and all that whole thing. I
would listen very carefully, conceive a harmony, write it and play it to see if I got it right. It
was a very relaxed, but concentrated way. That’s really the way one should study harmony, I
think. (OH, 30–31)

When Slonimsky was preparing his biography, Harris told him that the idea for
the Third Symphony’s “pastoral scene” was linked to an experience he had at the
MacDowell Colony in the summer of 1926. He recalled “a tremendous storm of
lightning, wind, rain, and hail, which began from an ominous calm, and grew in
intensity to the greatest storm I ever witnessed” (CC, 138–39). There is, however,
another more widely publicized narrative linked to the Third Symphony, one in
which Harris wanted to capture in its single movement the entire sweep of western
music history. He recalled:

14 Walter Piston, “Roy Harris,” Modern Music 11 (January–February 1934): 77–78.

256 Beth E. Levy

I remember I wrote it as a kind of survey of the evolution of western music. Instead of writing
about it, you know, I wrote the actual music, starting with monody and organum, and going
on into fauxbourdon harmony, gradually into polytonal counterpoint, and then into fugue. The
whole thing was a kind of survey. […] that’s the way it was conceived, but I also wanted to
write a work which had a large Gothic arch, which began at the beginning and never did stop
until the end.15

Given this continuously unfolding trajectory, saturated with its own sense of his-
tory, we would do well to examine the climax of Harris’s Gothic arch, the moment
at which his cloudy pastoral polychords yield to the best known tune Harris ever
wrote. If there were ever a melody unafraid to pledge its allegiance to tonality, this
is it (Ex. 6). For all its rhythmic punch, the pitches of the fugue subject are essen-
tially a collage of cadential formulas, each landing emphatically on tonic bedrock.
In some circles, Harris has been called a radical among conservatives, a con-
servative among radicals, and the ambiguity of his position is closely tied to his
ideas about harmony. If there is a radical element in Harris’s conception of tonal-
ity, it lies in the tremendous weight assigned to the tonic and the relative lightness/
looseness of the corollary key or scale. In a 1932 essay about Harris, composer
Henry Cowell wrote:
Modernism and originality have been so associated with harmony that if one performs for a
sophisticated audience works with new harmonies, it is taken for granted as modern; but if one
performs for them a work with old types of harmony, but with real innovations in rhythm, form,
or even melody, it will be called old-fashioned, and the newer elements will pass unnoticed.16

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Harris advocated to bring these innovations to
wider recognition, and he did so with some success. But it did not take long for his
stance to become more frankly embattled. In a program note from the 1960s (writ-
ten for the Piano Quintet), he declared: “Throughout my lifework, my purpose has
been to affirm tradition as our greatest resource, rather than to avoid it as our great-
est threat.”17 As I hope this chapter has shown, the particular tradition that Harris
meant to affirm was built on tonality and guided by a quest for modern consonance.
I am not the first to point out that Harris considered it part of his continuous
mission to emancipate consonance. He was a conscientious objector in the midst
of a crisis, or at least a crossroads, the point at which the supposed dissolution of
tonality and the emancipation of dissonance became the very “historical truths”

15 OH, 387. This story is repeated with varying amounts of detail in Evett, “Harmonic Idiom,”
102–3; Robert Strassburg, Roy Harris: A Catalog of His Works (Los Angeles: California State
University, 1974), 13; and in many interviews preserved at the Roy Harris Collection at Cali-
fornia State University, Los Angeles. The instance in Evett’s article is particularly important: it
lacks the retrospective contextualization, but includes the idea that the symphony “parallels the
growth of the form [i.e. genre] itself: it begins with a single line in the middle-low register, then
expands to a simple organum harmony, and grows to a richer fauxbourdon triad treatment, be-
coming always more concentrated, more heavily scored. Over a rich texture of constantly mov-
ing polychords, a set of variations progresses from woodwinds to brass, as the harmonic vol-
ume expands and becomes constantly brighter and more concentrated, breaking into the fugue.”
16 Cowell, “Roy Harris, An American Composer,” 133.
17 Harris, liner notes for 1964 recording of the Quintet for Piano and Strings (Contemporary
Records Contemporary Composers Series S8012).
Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 257

Example 6a: Third Symphony, emergence of the fugue

Example 6b: Third Symphony, fugue subject

258 Beth E. Levy

Example 7: Harris, Ode to Consonance, mm. 1–16

Roy Harris and the Crisis of Consonance 259

that this volume seeks to interrogate. Harris made his objections public. Indeed, in
1956 he wrote an Ode to Consonance (Ex. 7) which was heard the following season
in Cincinnati, Chicago, Brooklyn, and Detroit and praised by Edward (not Olin)
Downes for its “indefinable outdoor atmosphere.”18 A moment’s reflection will
make plain that by the time something needs an ode it is already in serious trouble.
All the celebratory tone in the world cannot obscure the fact. Perhaps John Keats
recognized this in 1819, when his celebrated “Ode to a Grecian Urn” gave that relic
everlasting fame and offered up a motto that Roy Harris came close to claiming as
his own.19 But as Harris saw even in the 1930s, and certainly by the 1950s and 60s,
beauty may be truth, truth may be beauty, but this is definitely not all we know or
all we need to know.


Cowell, Henry. “Roy Harris, An American Composer.” The Sackbut 12, no. 3 (April 1932): 133–35.
Cox, Sidney Thurber. “The Autogenetic Principle in the Melodic Writing of Roy Harris.” Master’s
thesis, Cornell University, 1948.
Evett, Robert. “The Harmonic Idiom of Roy Harris.” Modern Music 23 (Spring 1946): 100–107.
Farwell, Arthur. “Roy Harris.” Musical Quarterly 18 (1932): 18–32.
Harris, Roy. Composer of American Music. Interviews by Donald J. Schippers and Adelaide Tusler.
2 vols. Los Angeles, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles 1983.
— “Composing–An Art and a Living.” Music Journal 11, no. 1 (January 1953): 31, 78.
Levy, Beth E. “‘The White Hope of American Music’; or, How Roy Harris Became Western.” Amer-
ican Music 19 (2001): 131–67.
Mendel, Arthur. “Music: A Change in Structure.” Nation 134, no. 3470 (1932): 26.
— “The Quintet of Roy Harris.” Modern Music 17 (October–November 1939): 25–28.
Oja, Carol J. “A Quartet of New World Classicists.” Chap. 16 in Making Music Modern: New York
in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Piston, Walter. “Roy Harris.” Modern Music 11 (January–February 1934): 73–83.
Reed, Peter Hugh. “Roy Harris–American Composer.” American Music Lover 3, no. 11 (March
1938): 406–10.

18 Commissioned by the Sinfonia Foundation for the 1956 National Assembly of Phi Mu Alpha
Sinfonia Fraterity, the Ode to Consonance was dedicated to Thor Johnson, who conducted the
Sinfonia Orchestra when it met in Cincinnati. Subsequent performances took place in Chicago:
6 July 1957 (Ravinia, All-Harris program); Detroit: 26 December 1958 (Detroit Symphony
Orchestra, Paul Paray); Brooklyn: 9 November 1957 (Brooklyn Philharmonic, Siegfried
Landau). Ironically, in one of his last oral history interviews, Harris states: “A person might, for
instance, write a whole work for an orchestra which had nothing but the most brilliant conso-
nances and no dissonances at all. We would be ready for something like this because we have
already exhausted dissonance. There is nowhere else to go. It has been used as far as you can
use it. However, consonance hasn’t made any great development for a long time. Polytonality
has a great possibility there.” OH, 713.
19 For details on Keats see “Ode on a Grecian Urn,”
onagrecianurn.html. Keats’s other Odes include those to Psyche, the Nightingale, Melancholy,
and Autumn; there’s also an Ode to Indolence. The Ode to Consonance was likewise not Har-
ris’s only ode. He also wrote an Ode to Truth (for Stanford University) and an Ode to Friend-
ship (to be performed in the Soviet Union).
260 Beth E. Levy

Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Cimarron Composer.” Carbon copy of typescript, UCLA Music Library Spe-
cial Collections, 1951.
Starr, Larry. “Tonal Traditions in Art Music from 1920 to 1960.” In The Cambridge History of
American Music, edited by David Nicholls, 471–95. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Stehman, Dan. Roy Harris: An American Musical Pioneer. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Strassburg, Robert. Roy Harris: A Catalog of His Works. Los Angeles: California State University,
Samuel Barber’s Nocturne:
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism
Daniel Harrison


Conventional wisdom holds that tonal and serial compositional techniques are in-
compatible.1 Serial works that seem to mediate between the two, such as Alban
Berg’s Violin Concerto, with its overlapping major and minor triads built into the
tone row, can be seen as special cases. No less special are tonal works that incor-
porate serial gestures, but here the effects are rather more fraught. For while triadic
segments can be folded into a row, as Berg did, these need not be foregrounded in
the composition or otherwise made to be tonality-expressive; various manipulations
of the row and its unfolding can see to that. But the aggregate-forming requirements
of a twelve-tone row can easily frustrate if not overwhelm the framing and ranking
requirements of tonal hierarchies. It goes without saying that the “classical” de-
mands of the tone row in composition—that it be the chief source of structural pitch
deployment—can hardly be met in this environment. Hence, whereas Berg could
“compose around” and ignore the row’s tonal connotations in the Violin Concerto, a
tonal composer must “compose around” and even against a row’s lack of hierarchy
and anchoring. It is hardly surprising, then, that serial techniques in tonal environ-
ments have been described as “experiments.”2
Samuel Barber’s Nocturne: Homage to John Field, op. 33, (1959), is such an
experiment, and, according to his leading biographer, a “tentative” one as well.3
Curiously, it takes place within a conservative genre, a circumstance that Barber
underscores by explicitly honoring, in the subtitle, the genre’s comparatively little-
known founder rather than its leading exponent, a puzzlement to be discussed at
the end of this essay. Figure 1 makes it immediately apparent that Barber made his

1 And by “tonal,” I mean here not only the common-practice classical repertory of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, but descendents and relatives of it as well—twentieth- and twenty-
first-century adaptations (both art and pop), and any other practices that mimic the harmonic
style and tonal hierarchy of the lower overtone series. On the point of “incompatibility,” see
Ernst Krenek, Studies in Counterpoint (New York: Schirmer, 1940), 1: “Avoid more than two
major or minor triads formed by a group of three consecutive tones [in a twelve-tone row], as
for instance: because the tonal implications emanating from a triad
are incompatible with the principles of atonality.” Krenek could have overemphasized his point
had he put “II–V–I” under the last three notes of the tone row.
2 See, for example, David Neumeyer, The Music of Paul Hindemith (New Haven: Yale Univer-
sity Press, 1986), 242.
3 Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music (New York: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1992), 403.
262 Daniel Harrison

Figure 1: Samuel Barber, Nocturne, mm. 1–5

homage by composing a strong overtonal foundation with characteristic 128 chordal

arpeggios in the left-hand accompaniment and providing a John Field-like “chro-
matically decorated coloratura melody” in the right.4 This melody happens to be
serially structured. Notice the right-hand part, which starts on middle C4, finds C6
in the middle of m. 3 after completing an aggregate, and then returns, via pitch-class
retrograde, to middle C on the downbeat of m. 5. This gesture is built over an arcade
of arpeggiated chords, all major or minor triads except for the [026] chords over an
A pedal point in mm. 2–3.
The emphasis given pitch-class C discloses a crucial departure from classic
twelve-tone technique, for C is both the first and last pitch class of the row, which
means that, strictly speaking, the Nocturne is not a twelve- but a thirteen-tone work:
C6 is the pivot between the prime and retrograde versions of the tone row. The
figuration leading up to C reinforces its delimiting function. Overcoming a rhythmi-
cally stuttering start, the melody catches on in m. 3 and rapidly accelerates upwards
from the fourth octave before reaching the climactic C6. The sudden “stop & hold”
there gives the pitch an exceptionally strong agogic accent. A similar technique is
used to mark middle C in m. 5 as well as many other endings throughout the piece.5
This consistent treatment of row statements in the Nocturne suggests that their tele-
ological directive is not to seek chromatic exhaustion in the aggregate, but to embed
an opening/closing pitch into a tonal hierarchy after discharging chromatic debts.

4 The quoted phrase is from Robin Langley’s description of Field’s nocturne style in “Field,
John,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and
John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), 8:777.
5 This feature was identified by James P. Fairleigh, “Serialism in Barber’s Solo Piano Works,”
Piano Quarterly, no. 72 (Summer 1970): 13–17.
remarkably limited aftervocabulary.
motivic dischargingThe
chromatic debts.

An Experiment
our motivic morphemes, all of which are in Tonal Serialism
found in Figure 1. 263
The tone row is further disciplined by a
μ ¥. and its contour, characterized
The tone row is above disciplined
further as a kind ofbystutter,
right-hand part utters onlya four
motivic limited motivic
morphemes, vocab-
all of
ulary. The right-hand part utters only four motivic morphemes, all of which are
e-order statements, strongly announcing row
found in Fig. 1. The Theopening figure ¢ | ¤.†¤ ¤μ ¥.  and
openingfigure and its
above as a kind of stutter, are specifically
rappel à l’ordre. The series of running sixteenths that follows in associated with prime-order statements,
strongly announcingare row beginnings
specifically as a literalwith
associated rappel à l’ordre. The
prime-order series strongly
statements, of run- announcing row
ning sixteenths that follows
ning figure, in m. 3—with
is also associated withthe same up-down contour of the open-
ing figure—is also beginnings as a literal
associated with prime-order
rappel àmotion. The
l’ordre ideas found in m. 4, 
are less
¤ ¤ ¤³ and ¤¸.³μμ, are less typecast.
m. 3, with the same up-down contour of the opening figure, is also a
tone-row usage, imparting a teleological tonal spin to row
order motion. The ideas found in m. 4, ¤ ¤ ¤³ and ¤¸.³μμ, are less typecast.
d number of highly marked motives, may be
These features of Barber’s tone-row usage, imparting a te
the row inside the cornerstone of structure
statements and associating them with a limite
ent of surface decoration. But what, then, is
seen as compensation for the refusal to place
Nocturne? AFigure
formal overview
2: Barber,
is presented
in Figure breve
2. represents global tonal center;
and to use form chart. Square
it instead as the dominating elem
rounded breve is the upper fifth of the center; upstemmed half note is major third;
the structural quarter note of
cornerstone is major sixth.
the Nocturne
gh, “Serialism in Barber’s Solo Piano Works,” Piano
These features of Barber’s tone-row usage, imparting a teleological tonal spin to row
statements and associating
4 them with a limited number of highly marked motives,
This feature was identified by James P. Fairleigh, “Serialism in Barber’s Solo Piano Works,”
may be seen as compensation for the refusal to place the row inside the cornerstone
of structure and to useQuarterly
it instead as the 1970),
(Summer, dominating
14–17. element of surface decoration.
But what, then, is the structural cornerstone of the Nocturne? A formal overview
is presented in Fig. 2. Part (a) represents the tonal centers of the work as members
of an integrated “dissonant” tonic chord, A major with an added sixth, symbolized
hereafter as AM+, with the initiating moments of the tonal span represented by
measure numbers attached to the chord tones. A glance back at Fig. 1 shows the
AM+ structure appearing as a tonic chord in mm. 2–3 (the first and second halves,
respectively), an explicit linking of surface to depth that gives the Nocturne a tonal-
ity-driven form different in degree rather than kind from common-practice forms.
Indeed, as part (b) of the example discloses, Barber’s Nocturne is cast in ABA’ ter-
nary form, the generic default of the nineteenth-century piano nocturne. And like its
models, the piece composes out tonic as it unfolds formally. Note that the bass-staff
notes in the first and third sections are identical to those in the overtonal tonic at (a),
but horizontalized and mostly notated according to their place in the generalized
overtonal hierarchy. The contrasting middle section, fittingly enough, is not struc-
tured with tonal centers; the first part, mm. 20–4, is tonally opaque (hence, marked
with an ), while the second, mm. 25–9, offers figurated amplified-root chords
(i.e., generic verticalities over strong bass notes) that are generally Dominant in
function. A return to overtonal opacity follows in a roughly 15-second, small-note
cadenza filling out the remainder of m. 29.
Sonata elements are overlaid on the ternary form, which the treble staff of
Fig. 2(b) highlights. The first section is an exposition that moves from the opening
264 Daniel Harrison

A tonic to closing E dominant; the middle is an unstable development; and the

third, a recapitulation that maintains A tonic focus throughout. The lower of the
two treble-staff lines shows this most clearly, with the large-scale activation of G/7̂
(as an agent of Dominant function) in the first part answered by the maintenance of.
A/1̂ in the third.

The Tone Rows

So far, the discussion of Barber’s Nocturne has not taken opportunities to interpret
its tone row as anything other than coloratura filigree. Thwarted from underscoring
atonal chromatic aggregation by its obsessive thirteen-tone behaviors as well as by
ubiquitous tonal elements in the piece—ranging from details of accompaniment
figuration to overall form—the row is also restrained by a limited motivic vocabu-
lary, a figurative bell around the neck that prevents it from moving unnoticed any-
where except the surface. And even there, it proves to be dispensable, as tone-row
organization is pointedly allowed to break down in the later parts of the develop-
ment, mm. 25–9. The rhythmic and contour motives cited above are stripped out of
their strict tone-row environment and presented essentially as counterfeit row frag-
ments—so strong is the association of these motives with tone-row unfolding that a
less loaded characterization does not come easily to mind—so that these measures
sound of a piece with the strict-row measures but are in fact not organized by tone
row at all.
The emphasis on these features has steered the analysis close to substantiating
the label “tentative” that was applied to row usage in the piece. Further, the weight
of evidence that Barber subjected the row to a domineering tonal lordship has in-
timidated previous analysts of the work, whose readings are, if not tentative them-
selves, somewhat incurious about the state of affairs.6 Are there, however, enough
incongruities to lead us past the apparently settled matter of the merely decorative
and dispensable function of the tone row?
Figure 3, a collation and analysis of all the row forms used in the Nocturne,
initially suggests that there are not. Consider first only the top staff, leaving aside
all the various annotations except for the slurs. The notes are taken from the right-
hand part of Fig. 1. The arhythmic representation in the present figure brings out
an additional, previously unnoted discipline upon the row in mm. 2–3: the strict
segmentation into three, T8-related 4-6 [0127] tetrachords—or, rather, into three
pitch-spaced tetrachords, eight semitones apart and consistently ordered by the in-
terval series 〈+5, –6, +11〉. This kind of pitch-space deployment is used throughout

6 Besides Fairleigh’s article cited previously, other studies of the Nocturne are found in James
Sifferman, “Samuel Barber’s Works for Solo Piano” (DMA diss., University of Texas, Austin,
1982) and Laurie Young, “The Solo Piano Music of Samuel Barber” (DMA diss., University of
Cincinnati, 1989). Another work of Barber’s that has received attention for its serial elements
is the Piano Sonata, op. 26, which, besides being discussed in the studies just cited, is also the
subject of Hans Tischler’s “Barber’s Piano Sonata, op. 26,” Music and Letters 33 (1952): 352–
54. Many of Tischler’s observations are pertinent to the Nocturne.
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 265

Figure 3: Barber, Nocturne, Tone-row chart

the piece; most prime-order row statements are characterized by the consistently
ascending zigzag linear vectors found in Fig. 3.
A certain problem of melodic variety emerges from the analytical observa-
tions—pronounced articulation of row beginning and endings, small rhythmic
vocabulary, and limited sets of pitch and contour gestures. At this point, we can
see that the fundamental tone-row idea as an augmented triad {0,8,4} infilled with
chromatic aggregate. The elements of the {0,8,4} triad serve as stable “nodes” of
the tone row, while the infill is passing and unstable—suitable for filigree and orna-
The stability of the nodes is further underwritten by the limited possibilities for
transposition and rotation. That is, if considered in pitch-class space, a transposi-
tion of the row in the top staff of Fig. 3 by four or eight semitones is equivalent to
starting the given row on the ninth and fifth pitch classes, respectively, and amounts
essentially to circulating the same pitch-class adjacencies. For this reason, the top-
staff row is labeled P0,8,4. Statements of it that begin on pitch class 0, 8, or 4 will be
said to belong to the same row-form family.
What previous analysts have identified as a second row is shown on the staff
below, labeled S0,8,4. This ordering underscores the fundamental tone-row idea by
refilling the unstable space between the stable {0,8,4} nodes with different aggre-
gate. Hence, it is not so much a different row as an adjustment of the first row. From
the “semitonal offset” numbers between the staves, we can imagine the nodes to be
connected by an elastic string that is bowed into the S(trecthed) version of the row:
266 Daniel Harrison

the closer to the nodes, the less semitonal displacement (i.e., 1), and at the midpoint
between them, the most (2).7

Figure 4: Barber, Nocturne, mm. 5–10

The rhetorical purposes of the P and S rows can be identified in Fig. 4, which shows
the music immediately following Fig. 1. The first row statement, mm. 5–6, a ret-
rograde of P0, exposes all four of the tone-row nodes clearly for the first time;
the agogic accents on pitch classes 0, 4, and 8 cannot be missed. This statement
coincides with a shifting of tonal center into C Major, transforming the relationship
between the first/last row element (pitch-class 0) and the tonal center from chordal
third to chordal root. This promotion calls out the first stretched version, S0, which
appears in m. 6 and is repeated in m. 8. (Imagine the S0,8,4 row in Fig. 3 with an 8va
sign and compare with the statements in mm. 6 and 8; the elastic relationship to the
P form is unmistakable.) Significantly, the S obliviates the “node & fill” revelation
of the previous RP0 by passing quickly and unagogically through the intermediate
nodes while locking in the coincidence of C as tonal center and chief pitch class
of the tone row. The undifferentiated rhythmic profile of the row presentation, its
immediate repetition, and the strong sense of overtonal arrival at C combine to give
the impression that S0 functions here as rhetorical closure, sealing off the first part
of the exposition. The beamed progression, part of this rhetorical function, will be
explained later.

7 Sifferman, “Barber’s Works for Piano,” 114, noticed the similarity of interval succession be-
tween the two rows but did not investigate it further.
The second part, containing the move to C minor and Eß Major, is marked by the
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 267
appearance of a new tone-row family: P7,3,11, as designated in Figure 3.7 Obviously
The second part, containing
reflecting the move to C minor and Efrom
traditional organization—transposition Major,
markedformby on pitch-class 0
the appearance of a new tone-row family: P7,3,11, as designated in Fig. 3.8 Obviously
reflecting traditional organization—transposition
to the “dominant” from the
form on pitch-class 7—the “tonic”ofform
entrance the Pon pitch-
7 row in m. 11 completely
class 0 to the “dominant” form on pitch-class 7—the entrance of the P7 row in m. 11
completely recapitulates
recapitulates the signature ¢ | ¤.†¤ ¤μ ¥. rhythm
the signature rhythm of
of the
the opening
opening row
row form
form and, as a result,
and, as a result, acquires an initiating function that confirms the suggestion of clos-
ing given by the previous S
0 statements. But the presentation pointedly departs
an initiating function that confirms the suggestion of closing given by the
from the contour of both the original and the immediately preceding S0 statements,
differentiating S0 statements.
the second part from But the presentation
the first pointedly
by this feature departs
as well as by rowfrom the contour of both
the original and the immediately preceding S0 statements, differentiating the second part

from the first by this feature as well as by row family.

More information about the relationship of parts in the outer sections of the Nocturne

can be gleaned from Figure 5, which collates the rows used in the exposition and

recapitulation and charts

 the consumption of registral space, denoted by octave designators along the

left vertical (e.g., “3” = C3–B3);

It is perhaps useful to remind the reader that there are only four distinct row families for a given P or S

form, just as there are only four distinct forms of the 3-12[048] trichord.

Figure 5: Barber, Nocturne, register chart.

Italics mark the initiating measure of row; left hand column indicates the octave
using ASA standard (middle C = C4).

8 It is perhaps useful to remind the reader that there are only four distinct row families for a given
P or S form, just as there are only four distinct forms of the 3-12 [048] trichord.
268 Daniel Harrison

More information about the relationship of parts in the outer sections of the Noc-
turne can be gleaned from Fig. 5, which collates the rows used in the exposition and
recapitulation and elements to be noted include:

– the consumption of registral space, denoted by octave designators along the left
vertical (e. g., “3” = C3–B3);
– the direction in which the rows move, indicated by an arrowhead;
– the particular row form used, with labels drawn from Fig. 3 (“R” = retrograde);
– the measure in which the row form begins, shown with italic numbers; and
– the tonal centers noted in Fig. 2(b).

The figure highlights the unusual registral behavior of the P7 statement in m. 11: its
registral flatness contrasts markedly with the other row statements, almost all of
which are upwardly directed. Only two, at m. 3 and its recapitulatory correspondent,
m. 31, are downward, and these rhetorically balance the opening thematic launch by
retrograding to the pitch of origin, creating a large registral arch that can be heard to
magnify the shape of the accompanimental arpeggio figures.
After its unusual launch, the second part of the exposition does, however, fol-
low the registral template set by the first: an RP presentation from the fourth to fifth
octaves that uncovers the “node & fill” row structure followed by two closing S
forms ascending from the fifth to the seventh. To remain parallel with the trajectory
of the first part, in which the first/last row element was eventually aligned with the
local tonal center, the RP presentation in m. 14 begins on a different node, pitch
class 3, and finishes as the tonal center shifts to E.
Although Fig. 5 highlights the use of S rows for rhetorical closure in the exposi-
tion, the S3 row of mm. 15–19 has an additional and remarkable property not enjoyed
by the S0 row of mm. 6–10, which the bottom part of Fig. 3 reveals: S7,3,11 preserves
dyadic adjacencies of P0,8,4, but reverses their order. The “S7→P0 mapping” makes
this apparent by showing the order-number mapping, with the extended dashes be-
tween numbers connecting the reversed dyads. (For example, consider the first two
pitch classes of the S7,3,11 row, shown in the upper staff of the bracketed system in
Fig. 3. These are pitch classes 7 and 1. Using the “S7→P0 mapping,” note that the
first pitch class maps to the 7th, and the second to the 6th. Going now to these order
positions in P0,8,4, discover that the respective pitch classes are 7 and 1.)
This relationship between the two row families might be merely theoretical
had Barber not composed a pointedly ambiguous S3 row unfolding of mm. 15–17,
shown in Fig. 6. Despite the departures from strict ordering (noted as “anomalies”
in the example), the row offers the dyads as harmonic, unordered intervals.9 These

9 It is, of course, impossible to determine what kind of events these “anomalies” are. Sifferman,
“Barber’s Works for Piano,” 122, suggests that they are deliberate departures from the row to
accommodate overtonal harmony. Given Barber’s deliberate forsaking serial ordering in
mm. 25–29, this explanation cannot be dismissed. Yet the “missing” natural signs in m. 14 (as
well as another in m. 12) may be uncorrected misprints. The “off by a third” substitutions of G
and E for E and C, respectively, in m. 15 are more likely candidates for editorial correction.
Note how the m. 17 version of the figure has the E and C in correct order, and note as well the
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 269

Figure 6: Barber, Nocturne, mm. 14–19, right hand. Anomolies (mistakes?)

in row usage are marked

sonorities belong to both row types, so that it could fairly be said that S3 row here
proclaims its affinity to the P0,4,8 family. It is only with the second S3 row, mm. 17–
19, where the dyads are broken up and presented melodically, that the ambiguity
is partly erased.10 Even so, dyadic invariance allows the S3 rows to reference the
opening P0,8,4 while simultaneously fulfilling their closing, S-row function.

Summary: The Opening Section

Despite the clear formal and rhetorical features of the exposition, an interpretive
summary of the section is difficult to produce. The remarkable similarity of melodic
gestures—contour, interval, rhythm, direction—endows it with a certain immobil-
ity, which is abetted by the repetitive accompanimental figuration. The preceding
discussion has of necessity highlighted changes over time—in row form, tonal
center, register—since the progression of the these perhaps offers occasions for
hermeneutic work. Indeed, the pervading sense of restriction in the exposition cre-
ates expectations for and highlights moments of difference. Thus, the RP presenta-
tions of m. 5 and 14 that make explicit the underlying principle of the row families
are particularly noteworthy, followed as they are by repeated “change of subject”
(and register) S rows, which suggest that the underlying principle is a touchy sub-
ject. But, even so, we are left with a vague impression that the piece is not comfort-

corresponding passage in the recapitulation, m. 40, where the second—but not the first—of the
two “wrong” notes is corrected.
10 But only partly, since the thirty-second-note diminution “flutters” between the two notes of
the dyad, presenting them in both P0,8,4 and S7,3,11 order: e. g., in m. 17, E–A–E–A, C–D–C–D,
270 Daniel Harrison

able in its skin despite the beautifully flowing cantilena and accompaniment, the
familiar expressive rhetoric, and the lucid overtonal form. We await further clarifi-
cation, which the development section supplies.

The Development

The development, like the exposition, is in two parts, finished off by a free, small-
note cadenza that is almost lengthy enough to be considered its own part. The
- 12 - first
part, mm. 20–4, gives the serial element greater structural influence than it has en-
joyed up to this point while fully exposing it as a creature of tetrachordal transposi-
tion. All the while, John staff.
Thearpeggios gamely soldier
first developmental move onisintothe interior. Figure
confirm the suggestion that S7
7 analyzes the first part, condensing the arpeggios into block chords and separating
them into a separate staff. The
powersfirst developmental
(because move is to confirm
of the dyadic-exchange property the with
tion that S7 has initiating powers (because of the dyadic-exchange property with P0)
by marking each of the {7,3,11}
{7,3,11} nodes
nodes with the ¢ | ¤.†¤ ¤μ ¥. rhythm
with the rhythm characteristic
characteristic of P-form exposi
of P-form exposition. Further development results from the intense focus on node-
to-node motion through development
theof imitation. Whereas the RP
presentations of mm. 5 and 14 had tentatively uncovered the nodal structure of the
tone rows, the opening of unpredictably
the development spaced points of imitation.
emphatically proclaims Whereas
it. Alsothe RP pres
fied here, on two levels, is the teleological spin of row structure and presentation
had tentatively uncovered the nodal structure
encountered in the exposition. Just as the P and S row forms were anchored by a
thirteen-tone technique in which the first
development and last notes
emphatically of theit.row
proclaims Alsowere the same
pitch class, the presentation of rhythmicized row nodes in the development pro-
ceeds from and concludes with the same
teleological spinelement. Thus, S
of row structure7 and to Spresen
3 to S11 and conclud-
ing with S7 in mm. 19–21, and similarly with the S0,8,4 family in mm. 22–4.11 On a
smaller scale, the figuration
the PofandtheS cycle
row formsis likewise end-directed,
were anchored departing from
by a thirteen-tone technique in
one node and arriving at the next thanks to the rhythmic figure, whose five elements
cover not only the nodal last
notes of butthe
row thewere
the same node, agogically
pitch class, theaccented
as usual.
Other annotations on Fig. 7
nodes in deal with the harmonic
the development proceeds andfrom
c of the
passage. Under pressure from S-row saturation, the accompanimental arpeggios
to Sdeform
verticalized on the top staff 3 to S11into
concluding with S7 intetrachords,
whole-tone mm. 19–21,departing
and similarly with the S
from the expositional norm of consonant triads. The deployment of S-row nodal en-
mm. 22–4.10 On a smaller scale, the figuration of
tries creates gently ascending whole-tone step progressions, which the beams bring
out, another departure from the generally
departing from one diatonic progressions
node and arriving atofthe theneexposition.
As the pace of imitative entry picks up in m. 21, appoggiature chords contrib-
ute to the buildup, which culminates
five in the not
elements cover highest
only tension
the nodal chord
tetr (third chord in
m. 21), resolving to the relatively relaxed fourth chord, which in turn prefaces a
low-tension E-minor triad on theas
accented downbeat
usual. of m. 22. A somewhat inelegant seam
separates this chord from a T5 repetition of the preceding music that reestablishes
the “tonic” {0,8,4} nodes after Other annotations
a period on Figure {7,3,11}. This
of “dominant” 7 deal with thetakes harmonic
placeand lin
passage. Under pressure from S-row sa
11 The anomaly noted in m. 21—the substitution of F4 for G4 in m. 21 in the midst of this very
strict motivic treatment—is most likelyon
verticalized a mistake.
the top staff deform into generally whole-tone tetrach

the expositional norm of consonant triad. The

gently ascending whole-tone step progressi

An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 271

- 13 -

As the pace of imitative entry picks up in m. 21, appoggiature chords contribute to the

buildup, which culminates int he highest tension chord (third chord in m. 21), resolving

to the relatively relaxed fourth chord, which in turn prefaces a low-tension Eß-minor triad

on the downbeat of m. 22. A somewhat inelegant seam separates this chord from a T5

repetition of the preceding music that reestablishes the “tonic” {0,8,4} nodes after a

period of “dominant” {7,3,11}. This takes place covertly, under cover of tonal occlusion,

so what had been well marked in the exposition—the change from P0,8,4 to P7,3,11 row
Figure 7: Barber, Nocturne, analysis of mm. 19–24
families—is in the development folded into a larger gesture.
covertly, under cover of tonal occlusion, so what had been well marked in the expo-
sition—the changeThe from P 0,8,4 to P
impressive 7,3,11 row
exertion families—is
of row organizationin the development
in the first part offolded
the development is
into a larger gesture.
The impressive
followedexertion of row organization
by a surprising in thein
collapse. Starting first
25, of the development
a move towards rhetorical climax has
is followed by a surprising collapse. Starting in m. 25, a move towards rhetorical
climax has familiar
familiar rhythmic
rhythmic and and contour
contour motives
motives (¤¸.³μμ and ¤ ¤ ¤³) soundsound pitches
pitches unorganized by
unorganized by any row. Just below this disintegrating surface, newly reactivated
{0,8,4}nodesanycan be heard,
row. but these
Just below this too are lost by surface,
disintegrating m. 28, along with
newly the arpeggios.
reactivated {0,8,4} nodes can be
Figure 2 showed the emergence of amplified-root chords in this section, and these
take over the butstructural
leading these too role
are lost
28, along with the arpeggios.
tone rows. The Figure
strongest of2 showed the
these is sounded in m. 29: a bass E supporting a dominant seventh-chord. Above,
familiar motivic of amplified-root
figuration finally gives chords
way toinnewthisrhythms,
section, and
pitchthese take over
relations, andthe leading
contour as the bass note decays; the remainder of m. 29 is filled out with a small-
structural role from the obliterated tone rows. The strongest of these is sounded in m. 29:
note cadenza that consistently descends from the opening high point. Settling into
an highly octatonic
a bass Eß nadir, the cadenza
supporting a dominant peters out with an Above,
seventh-chord. allargando…molto and figuration finally
familiar motivic
two fermate over the octatonic-minus one set 7-31[0134679]. A short general pause
ensues, andgives
then follows
way to newthe recapitulation.
rhythms, pitch relations, and contour as the bass note decays; the

remainder of m. 29 is filled out with a small-note cadenza that consistently descends from

the opening high point. Settling into an highly octatonic nadir, the cadenza peters out

with an allargando…molto and two fermate over the octatonic-minus one set
272 Daniel Harrison

The emergence of the octatonic soundscape in the cadenza is puzzling, since no

well-marked events that could have foretold it have been previously sounded in the
Nocturne. A search for clues that may prove to be heuristically productive yields
two pieces of evidence. One is the introduction of the S row type, first encountered
in m. 6, which involved a change of nodal tetrachord from the non-octatonic 4-6
[0127] of P to the (possibly) octatonic 4-13 [0136] of S, but these tetrachords are
not highlighted in the presentation of the row, and the change is not easily per-
ceived. It is attended, however, by the other, a noticeable bit of accompanimental
commentary: an unambiguously octatonic scale segment, 4-3 [0134], is sounded in
the highest polyphonic melody line of mm. 6–7—a step progression highlighted by
the beam in Fig. 4. This octatonic comment is partially retracted in the immediately
following repetition, in which an appogiatura prefix, F, changes its character from
octatonic to chromatic. In Fig. 4, a notated tenuto with upward stems (N.B., Bar-
ber’s notation) can be seen to bring out this altered line.
This retraction is of a piece with the “change of subject” heard in the use of S to
cover up the nodal exposure offered by RP, which two events occur nearly simulta-
neously. A trope of diffidence seems to be in play here, a kind of subtle reluctance
to explore implications. This trope can also be read in other features already noted:
the stuttering start of the opening melody, the short-breathed 13-tone row realiza-
tions, and the motivic laconism of both melody and accompaniment. The end of
the development also participates in this reading; the octatonicism is puzzling only
in that it seems not to result from clearly marked pitch relationships earlier in the
piece, but by this very disconnection, it continues and fulfills a pattern of behavior.
Here, this behavior is more overt than in the exposition. The nodal exposure of
the development’s first part is much more intense than in the exposition, with the
whole-tone implication of the {0,8,4} structure made explicit by step progressions
and accompanying harmonies. Proportionate to the intensity of the exposure is the
retraction, which involves the very disintegration of row organization and {0,8,4}
articulation in favor of octatonic ideas. This is a more forceful and dramatic version
of events in the exposition, where node exposure in the RP presentations was im-
mediately succeeded by octatonic events.
Whereas the exposition described a conflicted and hard-to-read relationship
between tonality and seriality, the story of the development is clearer, and can even
be told in a more dramatic tone: an attempted breakout of combined serial elements
(pitches from S, rhythms from P) from the arcaded overtonal prison results in a
struggle, during which the serial pitch relations are lost under the booming can-
nonade of amplified-root bass notes. The struggle ends inconclusively in neutral
territory—downsloped, octatonic, and out of time.


The resumption of A-section material in the recapitulation shows a number of signs

of having been affected by developmental events. Most significant is the change in
treatment of the nodal-exposure figure, RP0, which in the exposition (m. 5) had been
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 273

followed by two S0 closures. After the corresponding passage in the recapitulation,

shown in Fig. 8, the {0,8,4} nodes actually penetrate to overtonal structure, sound-
ing as an augmented triad that diverts the tonal-center trajectory into F minor in or-
der to make the required sonata-style adjustments. (In the formal diagram of Fig. 2,
this moment is marked with an asterisk.) This reconciliation of serial and tonal ele-
ments ushers in a new attitude that subtly affects the remainder of the piece. Note,
for example, the appearance of two successive RP8 exposure figures in the second
half of the recapitulation that are not immediately covered up (mm. 38 and 39); the
“teasing” quality of the figure is hereupon lost.

Figure 8: Barber, Nocturne, mm. 33–5

The registral profile of the recapitulation is also markedly different from that of the
exposition, as confirmed by a look back at Fig. 5. The opening launch (and subse-
quent return) consumes three octaves compared with the exposition’s two, resulting
from a doubling-back upon S0 during the acceleration phase in m. 31 in order to
extend the zigzag ascent. This treatment gives the recapitulated opening gesture
a more exuberant, emphatic effect, and it claims as well the seventh octave for
initiating purposes from its formerly exclusive closing position. And, indeed, the
recovery of the seventh octave at the end of the S8 statement of m. 42 is achieved by
a gentler and less pronounced approach, as if the need to activate it were no longer
a response to previous RP statements.
Despite its relaxed attitude towards issues that troubled the exposition, the re-
capitulation nonetheless repeats the touchy treatment of the octatonic 4-3 [0134]
scale segment in the accompaniment—exposed and then immediately retracted by a
nonoctatonic prefix—but the results are different this time. Formerly, this event had
prefigured an impasse at neutral ground, which was the small-note cadenza in the
development. Now, it leads to a more stable kind of octatonic event: a three-octave
descent in twinned octatonic scales, shown in Fig. 9. The differences are telling:
small notes grow to normal size, the not-quite-complete octatonic chordal figura-
tion achieves full scalehood, and the impasse in the development is in the coda
made into a modest reconciliation, confirmed with a gentle touch by the final har-
monic move of the piece, boxed in the example: the {0,8,4} nodal chord resolves
into the final {0,8,3} tonal A major triad.
274 Daniel Harrison

Figure 9: Barber, Nocturne, mm. 44–5

Why undertake this experiment?

Interpretive engagement with analytic artifacts has led to a rather conventional

reading of the piece: an insecure and diffident exposition is followed by intense
working out in the development and concludes with an irenic settlement in the
recapitulation. This reading is consonant with other conventional elements of the
Nocturne—its meter, form, manner of surface ornamentation, even its very title.
A hermeneutical perplexity remains, however, which is the yoking of John
Field to Arnold Schoenberg as inventors of a genre and technique, respectively.
Field’s presence is, of course, explicit; Schoenberg’s, slightly less so (since one has
to discover the serial elements rather than read them from a subtitle). Yet many pre-
vious commentators have noted the poor fit of Barber’s piece with Field’s nocturnes
and have made strong cases that it is Chopin rather than Field who is honored.12
The subtitle thus is a bit of misdirection, and the diffidence detected in musical
processes appears to extend even to the subtitling. Hiding behind Field is Chopin.

12 Sifferman, “Barber’s Works for Piano,” 78–93 adduces a number of features that are uncom-
mon in Field’s nocturnes but typical of Chopin’s. Additional comparisons are offered by Young,
“Piano Music of Samuel Babrber,” 154–60. Pianist John Browning, who premiered the piece,
also concurs in “Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, op. 33,” Clavier 25 (January 1986): 20–21.
An Experiment in Tonal Serialism 275

This circumstance has us take a second look at Schoenberg, which allows some
space to register a deep bewilderment: twelve-tone music generally bored Barber,
and he was not above making fun of its groupies, even to their face:
Paris, 1950. Samuel Barber arrives with violinist Chuck Turner. They are preparing Barber’s
concerto for recording. Who is the rehearsal pianist? Why, Pierre Boulez. Barber kids the stoi-
cal Frenchman about the twelve-tone system. “Is the Habañera a row?” he asks. (He loathes
the imputations of the serial elite. He persists in addressing the perplexed René Leibowitz as
Mr. Ztiwobiel. “Well, if a composer can’t recognize his own name in retrograde, how can his
listeners be expected … etc.”).13

Yet this scene comes shortly on the heels of the acclaimed piano sonata of 1949, in
which Barber used twelve-tone rows for the first time, only adding to the bewilder-
ment. For curiosity’s sake, one of the six rows used in the first movement of the
sonata is shown in Fig. 10. It is remarkably similar in technique of construction to
those in the Nocturne—partitioning of the octave into equal intervals and filling the
space between these nodes with content identical in interval, rhythm, and contour.

Figure 10: Barber, Sonata for Piano, op. 26, m. 9

At this point, we can perhaps glimpse who stands behind “Schoenberg.” The use
of multiple rows in a piece, the repetitive intervallic content in these rows, and the
influence of tonal considerations upon row structure and usage are not hallmarks
of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques, but of Alban Berg’s. (Among the Second
Viennese, it is Berg whose music Barber apparently found most listenable.14) Al-
though it is not known how Barber acquired his serial technique—might he have
been given a copy of Ernst Krenek’s Studies in Counterpoint (1940) by someone at
G. Schirmer, their mutual publisher?—the clear technical affinities with Berg sug-
gest that Barber had made a quiet study of that composer’s twelve-tone works. In

13 Ned Rorem, Setting the Tone (New York, Coward-McCann, 1983), 264. Heyman, Barber and
his Music, 319, notes that the date is incorrect (Barber was in Paris in 1951, not 1950), as is the
reason for Boulez’s employ (Barber wanted to conduct the violin concerto and thus needed not
to be the rehearsal pianist).
14 The following diary entry is suggestive: “In the evening I escaped to the theatre and saw a
heart-breaking performance of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ done by the Pitoeffs, and also two
evenings given by the Hamburg Opera Company, celebrated for their staging. I was impressed
by ‘Wozzeck’ done easily and effortlessly as if it were chamber music and, thus given, im-
mensely effective; but by the second evening of Schoenberg and Dallapiccola—I was on to
their stage tricks, which led all too directly back to the German 1920s, a style apparently suf-
focated by Hitler and now resuscitated, a little middle-aged and flaccid.” Samuel Barber’s
travel log, 26 April to 26 June, 1955, Quoted in Heyman, Barber and his Music, 356. The loca-
tion of the performances was Paris.
276 Daniel Harrison

particular, the interval-cycle quality of Barber’s rows, especially the one from the
sonata shown in Fig. 10, is a Berg calling-card.15
Perhaps Barber’s ambivalent feelings about “modern” composition and his
“tentative experimentation” with its signature technique are the reasons behind the
misdirection in the subtitle and the expressive diffidence detectable in the composi-
tion: ostensibly honoring the founder, he models the work of a follower. Reading
all the way through, might we conjecture that the Nocturne is an homage to Alban
Berg? In that case, overtonal and serial techniques are not really incompatible after
all if a nocturne on one side can make common cause, though secretly, with a violin
concerto on the other.


Browning, John. “Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, op. 33.” Clavier (January 1986): 20–21.
Fairleigh, James P. “Serialism in Barber’s Solo Piano Works.” Piano Quarterly (Summer 1970):
Headlam, Dave. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Heyman, Barbara B. Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1992.
Neumeyer, David. The Music of Paul Hindemith. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Rorem, Ned. Setting the Tone. New York: Coward-McCann, 1983.
Sifferman, James. “Samuel Barber’s Works for Solo Piano.” DMA diss., University of Texas, Aus-
tin, 1982.
Tischler, Hans. “Barber’s Piano Sonata, op. 26.” Music and Letters 33 (1952): 352–54.
Young, Laurie. “The Solo Piano Music of Samuel Barber.” DMA diss., University of Cincinnati,

15 In this respect, it is instructive to read Dave Headlam’s description of Berg’s general twelve-
tone technique in The Music of Alban Berg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 194–
209, as commentary on the twelve-tone composer Barber could have developed into.
Tonality – or the feeling of key in music – achieved crisp theo-
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