The Dialectical Harmonic Language of Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony

Ben Wadsworth, Louisiana State University

In his 1997 article "The Refractory Masterpiece," Walter Frisch proposes that Schoenberg's Op. 9 Kammersymphonie serves as a dialectical pivot within the Austro-Germanic tradition. Frisch cites various dialectical oppositions such as those between genres (symphony/chamber music) and textures (homophonic/polyphonic); these rhetorical oppositions complement the harmonic opposition, in his earlier 1993 book, between E and F tonal regions (Tonic/Neapolitan). In this earlier opposition, Frisch traces the unfolding of a process having stages of juxtaposition (E and F established side by side), tension (E and F presented simultaneously), and resolution (F resolved to E). Although the dialectical opposition between E and F is significant, it is only one out of a number of processes that are necessary to explain a long-range teleology. Therefore, this paper defines and applies two new types of processes called "Harmonic Practices" and "Tonal Pillars" that intersect in interesting ways. In the "Harmonic Practices," a tonal framework in E major is undercut by three types of tonally ambiguous spans: those asserting various successions of interval cycles (especially subsets of the whole-tone/2-cycle and quartal/5-cycle); those in which tonal harmonies are governed by higher-level cycles (usually interval-1, -3, or -4); and spans in which tonal harmonies are undercut by cyclic or dissonant melodic motives (e.g., set-classes [048] and [016], respectively). The "Tonal Pillars," which show a Schenkerian hierarchy consisting of isolated tonal chords, oppose ambiguous events (chromatic versions of scale degrees and their prolongations) with their normative, diatonic versions. By tracing the two dialectical processes on various formal levels, this paper shows a Hegelian process of becoming. In the "Harmonic Practices," the interpretive focus is on syntheses that point out previously hidden relationships between tonality, cycles, and remote tonal regions. In the "Tonal Pillars," the focus is on form as a continuous process that is valid only when all events from the whole (i.e., each movement) are taken into account. The findings in this paper underscore the dialectical importance of the Kammersymphonie by suggesting other structural parameters that undergo dialectical opposition and reconciliation, and by confirming various non-tonal behaviors of interval cycles, which suggest (in a rudimentary way) the set-class procedures in the more canonical "atonal" works of Schoenberg.