CHAPTER 8: Atonality

 

Listening Guide 8.1.1

Historical Background

Composer: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Era of music history: Romantic / Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work:  Born to a non-musical family, Schoenberg was largely self-taught and, though a notorious composer in his own lifetime, made his living mainly as a composition teacher in Vienna, Berlin, and, later, in Los Angeles, where he had fled after the rise of Nazism.  His work remains very challenging for audiences and musicians today, though certain works of his are often played, and his prominent place in music history is without question.

Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), op. 4 (1899)

Instrumentation: two violins, two violas, two cellos

Duration: 27 minutes and 40 seconds

Mode: minor

Form:  In five parts that closely follow the structure of the poem.  I, 0:00; II, 2:44; III, 11:56; IV, 14:02; V, 21:44

Comment:  Though complex harmony can be found throughout the piece, the passage that most anticipates atonality begins around 8:00.  In the poem, this corresponds to the section where the woman describes how she let a stranger impregnate her, such was her desire to have a child. 

0:14   Two people walk through a bare, cold grove

1:08   The moon races along with them, they look into it.

           The moon races over tall oaks,

           No cloud obscures the light from the sky,

           Into which the black points of the boughs reach.

           A woman’s voice speaks:

2:44   I’m carrying a child, and not yours

          I walk in sin beside you.

          I have committed a grave offense against myself.

3:56   I no longer believed I could be happy

          And yet I had a strong yearning

6:46   For something to fill my life; for the joys of motherhood

          And for duty;

8:12                            so I committed an effrontery.

           So, shuddering, I allowed my sex

           To be embraced by a strange man,

           And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.

11:00Now life has taken its revenge:

           Now I have met you, oh, you.

11:56    She walks with a clumsy gait.

13:18    She looks up; the moon is racing along.

13:32    Her dark gaze is drowned in light.   

14:02    A man’s voice speaks:

             May the child you conceived

             Be no burden to your soul;

15:40    Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!

16:53    There’s a glow around everything;

             You are floating with me on a cold ocean,

17:20    But a special warmth flickers

             From you into me; from me into you.

             It will transfigure the strange man’s child.

20:14    You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;

             You have brought the glow into me,

             You have made me like a child myself.

21:44    He grasps her around her ample hips,

             Their breath kisses in the breeze.

23:48    Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

                                                  ---Trans. Stanley Applebaum

Listening Guide 8.1.2

Historical Background

Composer: Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Era of music history: Romantic / Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work: Not from a musical family, Berg started studying music earnestly only around the age of twenty.  After some years working in music publishing, he found success in the 1920s with his opera Wozzeck and was able thereafter to devote himself to composition.  Though his name will always be linked with Schoenberg’s, Berg’s music is somewhat more popular, and Wozzeck remains a widely performed classic.

Lyric Suite (1926)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 27 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: none.  (The piece is atonal.)

The form of the Lyric Suite is especially complex.  For this reason, as well as the unfamiliarity of atonality, the form is charted in detail below.  Because Berg rarely repeats anything exactly, you should click back and forth between analogous formal sections: juxtaposing them will help you perceive connections that the music’s constant development might obscure.  For example, after listening once straight-through to the first movement, click on the timings for the first theme in the exposition and the first theme in recapitulation: they aren’t exactly the same music, but their likeness should be clear.

I. Allegretto gioviale

Duration: 3 minutes and 10 seconds

Form: sonata, without development

Comment: The bouncy repeated notes of the main theme signal the movement’s jaunty, relaxed mood, as do the pizzicato notes and the exuberant runs; one also hears sweet, contented sighs, as if Berg is daydreaming about his secret crush.  As for the missing development section, this is nothing that more traditional composers wouldn’t do: sonata form depends more on what happens in the recapitulation than the development.  And given how much all the music is subject to constant evolution and variation, there is no need here for a section traditionally devoted to such things.

II. Andante amoroso

Duration: 5 minutes and 40 seconds

Form: rondo

Comment: The waltz-like manner of much of this movement gives the music a courtly feel, just as the overblown fast arpeggios bring to mind someone offering little extravagances to the object of his affection—imagine someone presenting flowers with a gallant bow, for instance.  The recapitulation revisits all the themes of the piece.  The B theme can be heard at 3:57; C at 4:03, and A again at 4:18, before being restated again in the coda.

III. Allegro misterioso

Duration: 3 minutes and 15 seconds

Form: ternary (A, 0:00; B, 1:24; A, 2:12).

Comment: A simpler movement formally than the previous two, the “Allegro misterioso” is a relatively traditional ternary form piece, where the center section differs dramatically from the A sections.  (For another example, see Listening Guide 3.1.4).  Here, the B section’s bold, sweeping gestures contrast markedly with the hushed and frantic secrecy of the outer sections.  The unusual sounds result from using a mute, bowing on the bridge, and using the wooden part (the “stick”) of the bow to make sound.

Note how that, at this point, Berg’s tempos become more extreme: whereas earlier movements of the quartet were in more moderate tempos, now the music starts juxtaposing very fast and slow speeds.

IV. Adagio appassionato

Duration: 5 minutes and 20 seconds

Form: non-standard, though strong gestures toward sonata form are present.

Comment:  Both from the point of view of duration and form, this movement resembles the second, going even so far as to quote its main theme.  But whereas the earlier movement was courtly and graceful, here Berg is frankly erotic: the first theme resembles two bodies rubbing together, and the breathless climactic passage leading into the coda is almost too obviously meant to portray a sex scene.

V. Presto delirando

Duration: 4 minutes and 25 seconds

Form: ternary, with two trios

Comment: Like the third movement, the fifth has a very clear structure.  Also like the earlier movement, the mood is frantic and the pace is breathtaking.  Here Berg articulates a startling anxiety over his affair: one feels his guilt but also his exhilaration.

 

VI. Largo desolato

Duration: 5 minutes and 40 seconds

Form: non-standard – fantasy.

Comment:  The movement flows from passages of bleak desolation to others of passionate confession.  Berg’s ardor has not faded, but his recognition of the impossibility of the affair has grown.  The quote from Tristan and Isolde occurs at 3:12.  At the end, each instrument of the quartet trails off on its own, like lovers going their separate ways.

Listening Guide 8.1.3

Historical Background

Composer: Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: American

Life and work:  Though not from a musical family, Crawford Seeger started piano lessons at age six and by her early twenties she was turning to composition.  The first woman to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Crawford Seeger is best remembered for the music she wrote in the early 1930s.  After marrying musicologist Charles Seeger (father of the famous Pete), she devoted herself to collaborating on his efforts to collect and preserve folksongs.

String Quartet 1931

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 11 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: none.  (The piece is atonal.)

The form of Crawford Seeger’s piece is more straightforward than the Lyric Suite.  However, due to the unfamiliarity of the atonal idiom, I will be giving a detailed outline of the form of each movement.  There are four of these, and they are played continuously.

I. Rubato assai

Duration: 3 minutes and 10 seconds

Form: non-standard

Comment:  Like many parts of the Berg, a surface franticness applies to much of this brief opening movement.  Often, Crawford Seeger organizes the musical strands into duets and trios.  Beneath the surface, long drones begin to appear.  In the coda, they succeed in calming down the music and connect into the second movement. 

II. Leggiero

Duration: 2 minutes and 5 seconds

Form: non-standard

Comment:  This more freely formed movement advances many of the first movement’s strategies—drones, duets, and trios playing an important part of the music’s development.  One feels the music tightening as the duets are becoming more imitative—like a fugue.

 

III. Andante

Duration: 4 minutes and 15 seconds

Form: non-standard

Comment: This is not a movement that has form so much as it has shape: a gradually accumulating mass of sound climaxes around 3:25, then tumbles and subsides.  The static quality of this music, the narrowness of the register (the piece is almost always high, even the cello), and the persistent little swells in volume were radical for their time.  Without question, it’s the most famous movement of the quartet.

 

IV. Allegro possibile

Duration: 2 minutes

Form: ternary (A, 0:00; B, 0:33; A, 1:27).

Comment:  In the A sections, the first violin plays short phrases and the other three instruments respond with longer ones.  During the B section, Crawford Seeger reverses this, letting the violin play longer lines, while the interjections of the trio are brief.

LISTENING LIST 8.2

Listening Guide 8.2.1

Historical Background

Composer: Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Era of music history: Romantic / Twentieth-century

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work: Not from a musical family, Berg started studying music earnestly only around the age of twenty.  After some years working in music publishing, he found success in the 1920s with his opera Wozzeck and was able thereafter to devote himself to composition.  Though his name will always be linked with Schoenberg’s, Berg’s music is somewhat more popular, and Wozzeck remains a widely performed classic.

Drei Bruchstuke aus Wozzeck ("Three Interludes from Wozzeck") op. 7 (1924)

I.

Instrumentation: soprano and orchestra

Text: adapted from the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1813-1837)

Duration: 7 minutes

Mode: atonal

Form: non-standard (Rhapsody, 0:00; March, 2:09; Transition, 4:09, Lullaby, 4:51).

Synopsis: These interludes from Wozzeck are arranged excerpts from the opera made by its composer.  In the first one, Marie, Wozzeck’s wife, is working in their house and sees soldiers passing outside.  She sings of how noble and beautiful they are, then closes the window (4:09) and sings her child a lullaby (4:51). 

Lyrics: -- Marie begins singing halfway through the march section.

The soldiers, the soldiers, are splendid fellows!

4:09     Come, my child.

We shan’t hear their slanders.

You are just a bastard child,

and give to your mother so pure a joy,

although no priest blessed your little face.

Hush-a-bye, baby.

4:51     Maiden, what song shall you sing?

You have a child, but no ring!

Why such sorrow pursue?

Singing he whole night through;

Hush-a-bye, baby, my darling son.

Nobody care, ne’er a one.

Jackie, go saddle your horses now.

Give them to eat and to spare,

No oats to eat today,

No water drink today.

Purest, coolest wine shall it be,

Purest, coolest wine shall it be.

 --English text by Eric Blackall and Vida Harford

Listening Guide 8.2.2

Historical Background

Composer: Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)

Era of music history: Twentieth-century – Post-war

Nationality: Polish

Life and work:  In addition to composing, Lutoslawski concertized as a pianist earlier in his career and conducted.  After the death of Stalin in 1953, the climate for artists in the Soviet Union and the former Eastern block improved, and Lutoslawski was able to experiment with the modern music coming out of Western Europe.  By the late sixties, he had found international fame with his second symphony and his cello concerto.

Les espaces du sommeil (“Sleep’s Spaces”) (1975)

Instrumentation: baritone and orchestra

Text: Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

Duration: 14 minutes and 5 seconds

Mode: atonal

Form: in three sections. (A, 0:00; B, 4:34; C, 9:23)

Comment: Desnos’s poem describes various nighttime sights, sounds, and sensations, always returning to the object of the speaker’s obsession, “Il y a toi” (“There is you.”), who is elusive in night as in daytime.  Some sounds in the poem can also be heard in the music: a piano, a train, and a clock.

Section 1 – The first section sets the scene, the poet singling out various sights, sounds and sensations in the night, the refrain of “There is you” returning persistently.

Section 2 – The second section grows more personal, as we step into the poet’s dream world.  He is waiting for his beloved.  We learn more about her: she is “sacrificed,” a “beautiful spy.”

Section 3 – The third section addresses the beloved, how elusive she is, how the poet does not really know her.  The music climaxes with an image of the “stars and the dark movement / of the sea, of rivers, forests, cities, weeds, of / the lungs of millions and millions of / beings.”

 --translation, Paul Griffiths

Listening Guide 8.2.3

Historical Background

Composer: György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Era of music history: Twentieth-century – Post-war

Nationality: Hungarian

Life and work:  After fleeing during the Hungarian revolution, Ligeti settled in Germany, where he immersed himself in modernist music, especially that coming from Darmstadt, led by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.  After Stanley Kubrick appropriated (without permission) his music for the film 2001, Ligeti became internationally famous and sustained a career that was one of the most successful in twentieth-century music.

Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)

Instrumentation: soprano and chamber orchestra

Text: Michael Meschke (b. 1931) ) and György Ligeti (English translation by Geoffrey Skelton

Duration: 8 minutes and 35 seconds

Mode: atonal

Form: This is a medley of three arias from Ligeti’s opera La grande macabre, originally composed in 1975.  I. 0:43; II. 3:29; III. 6:58

Comment:  At this point in the opera, the hysterical, almost incomprehensible chief of secret police, Gepopo, comes to warn the prince of Breughelland about an impending disaster.  Though the gist of what she is saying is possible for some characters to decipher, the text is sufficiently unimportant that the role can be performed by a solo trumpet.

LISTENING LIST 8.3

Listening Guide 8.3.1

Historical Background

Composer: Shulamit Ran (b. 1949)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Israeli-American

Life and work:  Born in Tel Aviv, Shulamit Ran taught for decades at the University of Chicago and served as the first-ever composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s premiere orchestras.

Legends, I. (1993)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 10 minutes and 10 seconds

Mode: Like Takemitsu, Ran combines modes into a texture that has the density and dissonance of atonality.

Form: non standard.  The table below provides timings for important musical events.

Comment: The exotic modes, the resounding brass writing, the boisterous percussion, and the many themes give Legends the feel of a technicolor Hollywood epic. 

Listening Guide 8.3.2

Historical Background

Composer: Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975)

Era of music history: 20th-Century

Nationality: Italian

Life and work: A longtime professor of piano at the Conservatorio “Luigi Cherubini” in Florence, Dallapiccola was the most important exponent of atonality in Italy.  His style bears the delicacy of Anton Webern (see Listening Guide 8.3.4) while maintaining a lyricism that shows the influence of Italian opera.

Piccola musica notturna

(“A Little Night Music”) (1961)

Instrumentation: eight instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, celesta, violin, viola, cello

Duration: 7 minutes and 5 seconds

Mode: atonal

Form:  This freely formed programmatic piece is centered around five statements of the main theme.  The chart below gives the timing and instrumentation of each entrance and tells you when Dallapiccola turns the theme upside-down (that is, inverts it.).

Comment: The main theme can be thought of as the speaker in the poem “Summer Night” by Antonio Machado that inspired the piece.  The enigmatic weightlessness of the music is like the ghost the speaker compares himself to.  Indeed, there are few low notes at all in the piece.  Below is a translation of the poem.

It’s a beautiful summer night.

They have tall houses

The windows open

On the wide piazza of the old town.

In the wide, deserted rectangle

Benches of stone, hedges and acacias

Draw their symmetrical

Black shadows on the white area,

At the zenith, the moon, and on the tower

The sphere, the clock; illuminated,

I walk in this old town

Alone, like a ghost.

--original translation

Listening Guide 8.3.3

Historical Background

Composer: Arnold Schoenberg, (1874-1951)

Era of music history: Romantic / Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work:  Born to a non-musical family, Schoenberg was largely self-taught and, though a notorious composer in his own lifetime, made his living mainly as a composition teacher in Vienna, Berlin, and, later, in Los Angeles, where he had fled after the rise of Nazism.  His work remains very challenging for audiences and musicians today, though certain works of his are often played, and his prominent place in music history is without question.

Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 16 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode: atonal

Form: in five movements (I, 0:00; II, 2:32; III, 7:38; IV, 11:03; V 13:06).  It’s possible to interpret the five movements as articulating a sonata-allegro form.  The chart below makes the case.

Comment:  Schoenberg suppressed descriptive titles that he had given to these pieces.  Like Tchaikovsky and his fourth symphony, Schoenberg was concerned these titles might over-specify the music, which should speak for itself.  Nonetheless, his suppressed titles reveal how effective Schoenberg was in trying to capture in music a particular experience.

 I.                 Premonitions

II.                 The Past

III.                Colors

IV.                Peripeteia

V.                  Obligato recitative

Listening Guide 8.3.4

Historical Background

Composer: Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Era of music history: Romantic / 20th-Century

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work:  Webern made his living as a conductor, though his posthumous fame is due to his compositions.  He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and his music was later banned by the Nazis.  Webern was mistakenly murdered by an American soldier at the end of World War II.

Concerto, op. 24 (1934)

Instrumentation: nine instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano

Duration: 6 minutes

Mode: atonal

Form: in three movements.  These three short movements actually trace a fast-slow-fast pattern common in concertos—though this is anything but a normal concerto.

Comment:  Webern’s austerity contrasts well with Schoenberg’s lush romanticism.  But Webern is not all abstraction and intellect.  This music is actually filled with expressive indications, including lots of rubato.  This is music that is intensely felt, however concerned Webern might be with regulating the music’s pitch content.  (Webern was a master at devising novel ways to insure perfect atonality, perfect equality among the notes, and the devising of such schemes was certainly part of what inspired his music.)