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Encyclopedia of Microtonal Music Theory

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A century of new music in Vienna,
from Beethoven to Webern,
featuring Mahler and Schoenberg

[Joe Monzo]

© 1999-2010 by Joseph L. Monzo

Introductory notes:

Around 1900, Vienna was paradoxically both the strongest bastion of musical conservatism and simultaneously (along with Paris) the birthplace of the most radical new ideas in Western music.

map of central Europe in 2005 -- the red star designates Vienna, Austria

map of Vienna in 1999
central Vienna in 1999

At that time, with only a few exceptions, Europe, and places colonized by European countries, were the only cultural areas whose music was characterized by the use of harmony. A clearly-defined system had been established whereby one particular note was felt to be the central, primary note over all the others, and a piece would be said to be "in the key of" that note. This type of music is referred to as "tonal".

After several centuries (c. 1500-1900) of this, a few bold composers began writing music which did not give a single note primacy. The two earliest significant examples were Charles Ives, in America (notably, his Unanswered Question, composed originally in 1906), and Arnold Schoenberg, in Vienna -- I find it interesting that Schoenberg and Ives were born within about a month of each other.

The first truly atonal pieces were Schoenberg's 2nd Quartet 4th movement, 3 Piano Pieces, and song-cycle Book of the Hanging Gardens, all written in 1908. Ives's work could really be characterized more as 'polytonal', while Schoenberg preferred the term 'pantonal' for the pieces he composed which disregarded traditional ideas about tonality.

It was Schoenberg's belated but extreme admiration for Mahler's work and ideals, not to mention Mahler's selfless support, that encouraged Schoenberg to be true to himself, stick to his radical inspirations, and not be swayed by criticism; he also learned from Mahler the importance of a polyphonic mode of composition, something that stayed with Schoenberg the rest of his life.

Apparently Schoenberg's student Webern was the one who really stimulated Schoenberg into giving full rein to his most progressive tendencies and into finally abandoning traditional concepts of tonality. From what I've been able to deduce, the pivotal period, when all this really began to emerge, was the summer of 1905 (which is when Mahler wrote the piece that opens with this page).

Here is a detailed chronology, centered mainly around Mahler's life, with several decades of background sketched in, and the years after World War I as an epilog. The "century" in the title refers roughly to the period 1803-1908 (Beethoven's Eroica to Schoenberg's first atonal pieces), and the entire period covered in detail, from the French Revolution to World War 1, corresponds surprisingly closely to the "long 19th century" defined by historian Eric Hobsbawm. Most of the events take place during the reigns of Napoleon and the Habsburg Emperors. This work is not strictly limited to descriptions of musical life in Vienna -- because of the important role it played in the arts during the Romantic period, I inevitably had to include many of the events that occurred in Paris. In particular, Liszt had little association with Vienna but was too important to leave out. I've used the present tense in an attempt to convey the sense of excitement surrounding these events.

This webpage also documents, more completely than any other source I know of, something which really surprised me as I learned more and more about it... the interest in Viennese musical circles in my other favorite musical subject (besides Mahler and Schoenberg): microtonality.

While the facts presented here have been taken from a very wide variety of sources (many of them still remaining to be cited, those which are have been listed at the bottom of this page), there is much original speculative material of mine sprinkled throughout the documentable chronology. Some examples:

* The likelihood that Mahler intended meantone tuning to be used for his symphonies, at least partly, based on the possibility of his familiarity with the teachings of Josef Petzval on 31-edo during Mahler's stay at the University of Vienna, and on his later remarks to Schoenberg lamenting that "European music, in giving up Meantone tuning, had suffered a great loss".

* Mahler's possible re-use of material from his abandoned opera project Rübezahl in his Symphonic Poem [1st Symphony], and the likelihood that his original conception of the piece was as a 4-movement work without the 'Blumine' movement, and that adding 'Blumine' was an afterthought over which he changed his mind back and forth several times.

* The influence the success of Strauss's early Symphony in F minor had on Mahler just before the latter completed his Symphonic Poem [1st Symphony].

* The possibility that what later became the base layer of Mahler's 1893 "Hamburg" manuscript of Titan [1st Symphony], was originally written out in 1891 as a Stichvorlage ['engraver's model'] of what he was still calling a Symphonic Poem, now with the title From the Life of a Lonely One, in hopes of getting it published by Schott, and that in this form it was again a 4-movement work that did not include the 'Blumine' movement.

* The influence Brahms had on Mahler at several various times as their personal friendship deepened. This relates to some of Mahler's important early compositional decisions (concerning Mahler's 1st and 2nd Symphonies) as well as his habit of secluding himself in the country during the summer to compose.

* The influence Tanaka's pseudo-just-intonation (really 53-edo) "Enharmonium" may have had on Bruckner's harmonic experiments in his 9th Symphony.

* The possibility that Hanslick's death in August 1904 may have been the catalyst for Mahler to end his 6th Symphonic as a tragedy - the only one of his symphonies which does so.

* The "program" of Mahler's 7th, influenced by Mahler's fascination with the program of Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica.

* The influence Schoenberg had on Mahler before the latter composed the 3rd, 5th, and 1st movements (in that order) of his 7th Symphony during the summer of 1905, and the influence this Mahler piece in turn had on Schoenberg when he wrote his Kammersymphonie the following spring and summer.

* The influence Webern had on Schoenberg in the fall of 1905 when the latter was composing his 1st Quartet and Webern brought his single-movement String Quartet to Schoenberg for his composition lessons.

* The possibility that Mahler's comment about "being too old to have the ears for Schoenberg's music" and the argument that the two of them had about klangfarbenmelodie, were connected to Mahler's possible loss of high-frequency hearing from his listening to large orchestras every day.

* The possibility that the opening of Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler's rendering in music of the horrible wheezing he heard as his 5-year-old daughter Maria lay dying after her tracheotomy (as documented in Alma's book).

* The possible influence Scott Joplin may have had on Mahler while they both lived in New York 1907-1911 (reflected in a motive and harmonic progression very typical of a Joplin ragtime near the end of Mahler's 10th Symphony, and possibly also in the irregular meters of the 2nd movement of the same symphony).

* The possibility that the sonic inspiration for the dissonant 9-note chord at the climax of the first and last movements of Mahler's 10th Symphony may have been the sound of the orchestra tuning-up before a performance, because of the long-held "A" and the seemingly random dissonance of the chords, and because of the way the chord first builds up in sections, then after another held "A", the whole orchestra plays the dissonance.

* The possibility that Schönberg knew of Mahler's association since childhood of the popular Viennese tune "Ach, du lieber Augustin" with tragedy, because of Schoenberg's use of this tune in his 2nd Quartet.

* The experimentation with microtones by Schoenberg and Webern in 1909 leading to the development of sprechstimme ['speech-voice'] the following year.

* The influence of Möllendorf on Hába and Wycschnegradsky to adopt the use of quarter-tones.