Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 1 Research, Part 1: The Use of Whole-tone Scale until Liszt

For my first example, I chose to explore the whole-tone scale. It belongs to the category of symmetrical scales, in which the scales are built from symmetrical repetition of an interval or a short intervallic pattern. In the case of the whole-tone scale, the interval of major second is repeated between the neighboring tones, resulting in the scale having six tones within an octave – being a type of hexatonic scale. (Fig. 1a) It can also be conceived as two augmented triads a major second apart. (Fig. 1b)

Some trace that the earliest use can be identified in Bach’s chorale Es ist genug, where the opening fragment of ascending tones match the four notes of the whole-tone scale. (Fig. 2) As a closing of his Cantata BWV 60 – a dialogue between Fear and Hope, together with the irregular phrases and chromatic harmonies, some may theorize that the whole-tone tetrachord in was used subconsciously in order to generate a sense of instability, redeemed by the end by an acceptance of death.whole-tone bach.PNG

 Fig. 2. Opening whole-tone tetrachord of Bach’s Es ist genug

Though, I would argue that the whole tone tetrachord here was the consequence of the more conscious use of the dissonant tritone. It is important to remember that the melody was originally composed by Johann Rudolph Ahle, published in 1662 as a sacred vocal piece – arien in six parts, in a collection of church compositions. The tritone was known as diabolus of musica, forbidden dissonance in the church music of the earlier times. I think Ahle was quite aware of the tritone, which he brought about through the ascending whole tones, using it with a purpose to convey the dramatic unease and disruption – the fear of death. While the whole-tone tetrachord disturbs the tonal frame a bit, it doesn’t really change it. For that reason, in my opinion, it should be seen in the context as the lower tetrachord of the lydian mode rather than an example of the whole-tone scale.

Either way, the peculiar melody received attention and in fact remained Ahle’s best-known work. There is satisfying symmetry present in his melody, which balances the first four ascending whole tones with the four final, almost identical descending pitches, but this time without the E natural which creates the tritone, but rather a pentatonic tetrachord F D C Bb – representing the acceptance of death and farewell to life. In fact, with this descending motive, Ahle anticipated the farewell symbol that will appear in the opening gesture of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26 “Les adieux”, (Fig. 3) which uses the last three notes from Ahle’s figure, with each syllable of the word lebewohl (farewell) attached to them. In Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, viewed as his farewell to the world and to life, this lebewohl-motive is deliberately referenced to.

lebewohl beethoven

Fig. 3. Lebewohl-motive in the introduction of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26

Bach took the last verse of Es ist genug and harmonized the melody for four voices, not only with rhythmical changes, but there’s also the difference in the use of the tritone. (Fig. 4)

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Fig. 4. The comparison of Bach’s and Ahle’s Es ist genug

Back to the whole-tone scale, it is interesting that Mozart used it, but in the context of satire in his Musical Joke K. 522, a four-movement parody. He also referred to the piece as Peasant Symphony and Village Musicians’ Sextet. While it seems that the scale, together with the consecutive fifths, polytonal cadences, various irregular phrases and failed attempts at modulation, is used to ridicule the dissonances and forbidden progressions of the unskilled composer, the piece equally represents bad performers. Hence, the whole-tone scale in the violin cadenza (Fig. 5a) could easily portray the violinist playing out-of-tune in the upper register, the same way that we find the discord of horns (Fig. 5b), poking fun at the players that grab the wrong crook, and the polytonal ending (Fig. 5c) that achieved the impression of the collapse of orchestra with out-of-tune strings. In any regard, Mozart certainly couldn’t have predicted that some of the things he implemented in this comedic piece are about to be used seriously in the art music of the future decades.

mozart joke 1

Fig. 5a. Whole-tone scale in the violin cadenza of Mozart’s Musical Joke

Mozart joke 2

Fig. 5b. Discord of the horns in Menuetto of Mozart’s Musical Joke

mozart joke 3Fig. 5c. The polytonal ending in Mozart’s Musical Joke

With the change of musical thought in Romantism, there was the growing importance of mediant (third) relations and diminished 7th chords, which began the process of tonality shifting from unequal to equal division of the octave (Beach, 249), and consequently, the symmetrical scales emerged. This is still quite intuitively though. More in detail about the kinds of mediant relationships read this post, which also contains information about another symmetrical scale – nonatonic scale. There is also this post, which describes the octatonic symmetrical scale.

As Taruskin writes, Schubert‘s interest in full circles of thirds showed “an alternate course of harmonic navigation that bypassed the circle of fifths”. Especially important for the emergence of the whole-tone scale in his works written between 1824 and 1828 is the interest in major thirds, with the scale functioning:

“As a means of connecting the roots (and . . . not only the roots) in a symmetrical, descending progression by major thirds.”

shubert whole-tone 1.PNG

Fig. 6a. Whole tone scale in the bass of Schubert’s Sanctus from the Eb Mass, bars 1-8

We see this in the Sanctus of the Mass in Eb Major. (Fig. 6a) The whole-tone scale is materialized by inserting passing whole steps to the partially resolved harmonic progression, tonic – chromatic lower third – diatonic upper third– tonic (Fig. 6b) that leads to equal subdivision of the octave with roots major third apart – Eb Cb (B) G Eb. With the added notes, we get the scale Eb Db Cb (B) A G F Eb.

schubert 2

Fig. 6b. Harmonic abstraction of the progression from Schubert’s Sanctus

In the development of the second bar from the opening theme (Fig. 7a) in Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, the scale occurs in the violins. One whole-tone scale is provided by dominant seventh chords that are major-third apart – Eb7, B (Cb) 7 and G7, with the resolution of their seventh into the third of the minor chords – Abm, Em and Cm. (Fig. 7b) Thus, the scale formed is Db – Cb (B), A – G and F – Eb. Within this descending progression of major thirds, in the second violin, the complementary whole-tone scale is produced by a chain of suspensions, connecting each root or fifth. The suspended tone is major 2nd above the root or the fifth in the new chord, resolving into them – Bb – Ab (root), G# (Ab) – F# (fifth), F# – E (root), E – D (fifth), D – C (root).

schuber whole-tone 3

Fig. 7a. First two bars from the opening of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony

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Fig. 7b. Development of the second bar in Allegro of the Great C major Symphony

Other examples of Schubert are a bit hidden by the added decorative notes. Illustration of this is his G Major Quartet, where the whole-tone scale is masked by chromaticism, which exists only at the immediate surface, resulting from the inclusion of ornamental auxiliary tones. (Fig. 8a) Underlying this surface is a sequential harmony with a clear pattern of descending major thirds, connecting tonic to flat submediant, tenth below G – Eb – Cb (B) – G – Eb. (Fig. 8b) Together with the passing tones, it forms a descent by whole steps.

g major symph 1.PNG

Fig. 8a. Whole tone passage in Schubert’s G Major Quartet, bars 413-429

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Fig. 8b. Harmonic abstraction of the passage, bars 413-429

This passage from the end of the movement recalls the opening phrase of the development section. (Fig. 8c) The bass motion also spans a major tenth, grouped into a pattern of descending major thirds D Bb F# (Gb) D Bb, filled in by passing tones, also disguised as the chromatic passage by the surface of auxiliary decorative tones.

g major symph 3.PNG

Fig. 8c. The original appearance of the passage, bars 168-177

Similarly, there is even an example of the rising whole-tone scale in the finale of the String Quintet in C major, concealed by the superficial ornamental notes, diatonic this time. (Fig. 9a) If we look past these melodic decorations into the interior harmony, we will see the framework of the ascending major thirds both in the dominant chords and their resolutions – Eb, Bb – Eb, D – G, F# – b. The rising scale is formed by leading the fifth from the dominant chords into the third of the next chord – Eb, F – G, A – B, C#. (Fig. 9b)

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Fig. 9a. Rising whole-tone progression in the finale of Schubert’s Quintet in C major

rising schubert

Fig. 9b. Melodic progression of the rising whole-tone scale

As the auxiliary notes are diatonic and not chromatic, it is interesting to mention that this rising major third/whole-tone progression, in terms of overall pitch content, assembles the nonatonic scale, another symmetrical scale connected to the major-third cycle. Again, you can read about the latter here.

We also find passages of the scale in the music of Berlioz, towards the end of the Overture ‘Les Franc Juges’ and later in the prelude to Les troyens a Carthage. (Fig. 10)

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Fig. 10. Whole-tone passages in Les Franc Juges (upper) and Les troyens a Carthage (lower)

Once again, the scale is blurred by the chromatic notes, however, the chromaticism stands in a very different relationship to the whole-tone scale, because both are produced by the simultaneous contrary motion within the successive diminished 7th chords; In order for the contrary motion to correspond to the notes of the diminished 7th chords, one direction needs to proceed by semitones, while the reverse motion has to be by whole tones – they generate each other. This was a dramatic way of creating a sensation of growing excitement by escaping the diatonic landscape, until the final tutti – leading back to the conventional triumphant ending.

While Schubert’s whole-tone scale was coincidentally generated by the conscious experimentation of the mediant relationships within the diatonic setting, Colles writes that Berlioz wasn’t very sensitive to qualities of melody and harmony in the early stage of his career. He speculates that the accidental use of the whole-tone scale was probably created from his preoccupation with the problem of orchestral color, solved by escaping the diatonicism:

“He wanted to get the shot effect of the upper wind [Oboe] and lower strings [Violas] crossing the strands of tone of the lower wind (bassoon) and upper strings (violin), and this implied descending whole-tones against ascending semitones.”

There are similar diminished 7th chord passages in Liszt’s Grand Solo de Concert and Transcendental Etude No. 10, difference from Berlioz being that the chords are arpeggiated. The whole-tone scale progresses upward in the former and downward in the latter, with the chromatic scale in reverse. (Fig. 11)

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Fig. 11. Whole-tone passages in Grand Solo de Concert (upper), bars  278-283, and Transcendental Etude No. 10, bars 127-128

Like Berlioz, Liszt’s progression was also used in order to escape the diatonic setting, but not only for orchestral effect of growing excitement, but with the goal to regain the tonal center. In the Etude, similarly Grand solo, the dominant seventh fails at tonicizing the unstable tonic, which keeps dissolving into diminished seventh chord – now it is a tonic, now it is a diminished seventh. Even with two more attempts of dominant to strengthen it, the only way to regain the centricity of tonic seems to be by the complete dissolution of diatonicism into the whole-tone and chromatic steps, formed by the sequence of the diminished 7th chords, which indeed manages to revive the tonic.

There is a far-reaching influence of Shubert’s mediant relations upon Liszt, who from all Western European nineteenth-century composers, was most fascinated by them. So, it is not surprising that in Un sospiro‘s alternate conclusion, we see Liszt using a major third progression identical to Schubert’s – Db, B double flat, F, Db, similarly generating a whole-tone scale by adding the passing tones – Db Cb Bbb (A) G F Eb Db. (Fig. 12)

un sospiro

Fig. 12. Whole-tone passage from Un sospiro’s alternate conclusion

However, going past Schubert and Berlioz, in Liszt’s music, we find new progressions from which the whole-tone scale emerges. See the next blog post about that.


 

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1a

Fig. 1b

Fig. 2. Opening whole-tone tetrachord of Bach’s Es ist genug

Fig. 3. Lebewohl-motive in the introduction of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26

en.wikipedia.org

Fig. 4. The comparison of Bach’s and Ahle’s Es ist genug

Fig. 5a. Whole-tone scale in the violin cadenza of Mozart’s Musical Joke

Fig. 5b. Discord of the horns in Menuetto of Mozart’s Musical Joke

Fig. 5c. The polytonal ending in Mozart’s Musical Joke

Fig. 6a. Whole tone scale in the bass of Schubert’s Sanctus from the Eb Mass, bars 1-8

Fig. 6b. Harmonic abstraction of the progression from Schubert’s Sanctus

Fig. 7a. First two bars from the opening of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony

Fig. 7b. Development of the second bar in Allegro of the Great C major Symphony

Fig. 8a. Whole tone passage in Schubert’s G Major Quartet, bars 413-429

Fig. 8b. Harmonic abstraction of the passage, bars 413-429

Fig. 8c. The original appearance of the passage, bars 168-177

Fig. 9a. Rising whole-tone progression in the finale of Schubert’s Quintet in C major

Fig. 9b. Melodic progression of the rising whole-tone scale

Fig. 10. Whole-tone passages in Les Franc Juges (upper) and Les troyens a Carthage (lower)

Fig. 11. Whole-tone passages in Grand Solo de Concert (upper), bars  278-283, and Transcendental Etude No. 10, bars 127-128

Fig. 12. Whole-tone passage from Un sospiro’s alternate conclusion

References:

Beach, David (2007) ‘Shubert and Equal Division of the Octave’ In: Hascher, X. (ed.) Le style instrumental de Schubert. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne

Colles, Henry Cope (1947) Ideals of the nineteenth century. Oxford University Press

Colles, Henry Cope (1919) The Growth of Music: From the troubadours to J. S. Bach. Oxford University Press

 

 

 

 

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