Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 1 Research, Part 2: Whole-tone Scale in the Music of Liszt

Continuing on from my last post, where I wrote about the early occurrences of the whole-tone scale, here, I will focus on its manifestations specifically in the music of Liszt (Fig. 1), who developed unique progressions from which the scale emerges.

Note that most of the examples given here were analyzed by Harold Adams Thompson (1974: 133-278) in his dissertation, so I cite this work as the source for a large part of this blog post.


Fig. 1. The young Franz Liszt

In his Grand Galop chromatique, the scale is achieved in a downward sequence of dominant sevenths in 6/5 inversion and root major triads, by the use of suspended tones, repeated for two octaves and a major third. (Fig. 2)

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Fig. 2. Whole-tone passage in Grand Galop chromatique, bars 232-238

If we look past the chromaticism, which in the zigzagging bass, connects the third (leading note) of the dominant 7th to the root tone of the major triad, and descending chromaticism in the upper voice, which resolves the 7th into the third of the root; We will see a clear pattern of the descending whole-tone scale, created by the suspended tones of the dominant seventh chord. In the fifths, doubled at an octave, we have the scale G F Eb Db B (Cb) A G, and the root of the dominant seventh chord forms the scale C Bb Ab Gb Fb (E) D C. The suspended notes from the sequential dominant 7th chords produced the appearance of whole-tone scale by sampling every second step from the concurrent chromatic scale, one of the processes (2016: 263) which Taruskin described.

This transient non-diatonic modulation, as Addams Thompson writes, had a goal “…to free the dominant of its rather persistent and aggressive adversary”, the flattened 6th. As he continues, the fleeting tonicization of the suspended notes, tracing every second step of the chromatic scale, was established to “…stabilize the utter confusion of the immediately preceding measures by neutralizing momentarily all diatonic associations,” to find the tonal center of the dominant of the key. Hence, once again, the coincidental whole-tone scale was a factor of Liszt’s attempt to temporarily disband all key sensations in order to regain the tonal center – being a passing neutralizing agent.

We find a similar progression in Galop in A minor, but with a rising sequence. (Fig. 3) This non-diatonic modulatory passage has the accent on the chromaticism, which conceals the whole-step tones. The hidden scale is formed by the common tone – the root in the 6/5 inversion of the dominant 7th chord, which is the fifth of the following root chord, leading to B C# D# (Eb) F G A B, repeated for another octave.

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Fig. 3. The whole-tone passage in Galop in a minor, bars 309-315

In Hunagarian Rhapsody VII, there also seems to be a similar zigzagging phrase, with another appearance of the suspending whole-step tones, which we’ve seen in the Grand Galop chromatique, also with the aim to obscure the diatonic structure, this time in order to lead into the final cadence. (Fig. 4)

rhapsody 7

Fig. 4. Whole-tone passage in Hungarian Rhapsody VII, bars 245-250

However, the chords are not sequential dominants, and there is no chromatic scale underneath. The suspended tones are simply following a progression, which itself breaks away from the diatonic framework. There are two ways to look at the progression, either consisting of subdominant-root triad relationship, or consecutive seventh chords. Either way, the diatonicism disappears in bar 247 with the appearance of VIIb (C), from where the progression itself moves in whole-tones. This is an example of the whole-tone scale developing into an individual harmonic and melodic idea – an independent musical device. However, this passage was composed after the Heroischer Marsch in ungarischem Stil, which really kindled the evolution, being the seed for the progression in Rhapsody.

Heroischer Marsch leads us into the whole-tone scale, by the major triads, which start acting outside the diatonic setting, at first forming mediant relations between each other (Fig. 5a), with only their root notes left to hint at the system in the progression – D (I) B (VI) G (IV) – E (II) – C (VIIb).

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Fig. 5a. The third cycle of major triads in Heroischer Marsch, bars 170-174

This is actually an extended version of the third cycle which already appeared in section B of the piece. In the original appearance, the first phrase progresses in Bb – g – Eb, while the similar second phrase folds directly dow to G, where it cadences. (Fig. 5b)

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Fig. 5b. The two phrases of B section, bars 40 – 47

In the first return of B, an embellished extension of the first statement with arpeggiation appears, with the basic progression remaining the same until it reaches the turn to G, this time continuing downward in thirds. (Fig. 5c) The progression extends into: Bb – G – Eb – C – Ab. The roots of the triads are the only tones left to fall upon diatonic degrees of the B-flat major with one exception, A-flat (VIIb).

fig 4b.PNG

Fig. 5c. The arpeggiated and extended phrase of B section, bars 85-94

The final statement of Section B, which leads to the whole-tone passage (Fig. 5a), is almost a literal restatement of the first return, transposed from Bb major to the home tonic, D major.

From the VIIb – C major chord in the final statement of Section B, the successful lengthening of the chain of major triads seems to have inspired the idea of lengthening the major second chain present in another progression – i – VIIb – VIb – V, which appears frequently through the piece, beginning with the opening in d minor. (Fig. 5d)


Fig. 5d. The i – VIIb – VIb – V progression in the opening of Heroischer Marsch, bars 1-9

In order to continue this progression into the whole-tone succession, all that is needed to do is increase the interval between VIb and V by a semitone, thus surpassing the dominant – C – Bb – Ab – F# – e – g 6/4 – D. (Fig. 5e)

fig 4e

Fig. 5e. The whole tone progression in Heroischer Marsch, bars 177-181

Although still improvisatory, this passage carries a logical conclusion that if the common major triads may progress successively by the interval of the thirds, then they may also progress by the interval of the major second. Thanks to the mediant relationship of major triads, the possibility of their whole-tone relationship was revealed.

We encounter this new procedural concept again in Hungarian Rhapsody IX. First, the progression I-VIIb-VIb-V appears in the melodic form of a musical sentence, in the bass theme of the presto finale – pitches Eb – Db – Cb – Bb. (Fig. 6a) After the allegretto section – the presto theme is repeated, however, this time as the extended progression we saw in the Heroicher Marsch, I – VIIb – VIb – Vb… – pitches Eb – Db – Cb – Bbb. (Fig. 6b) It is interesting that chromaticism in the upper part – G Gb, and then – Fb – Eb, traces this whole-tone progression and not the other way around. Finally, after the repetition, the progression is completely extended into the full descending whole-tone scale – Eb Db Cb(B) A G F Eb. (Fig. 6c) Like the chromaticism, the major third cycle in the upper part – Eb Cb G Eb, seems to be following the extended progression, and not the tones of the progression filling in the tones of the major third cycle.

In Dante Sonata, the extended progression is used directly in the right hand, with the continual octave leaps and change of position on each triad – D (I) – C (VIIb) – Bb (VIb) – Ab (Vb) – F# (III with #3) E (II with #2) D. (Fig. 7a) The chromaticism again results from the progression. In the right hand, this is from the third of one triad moving into the fifth of the next one. In the left hand, especially with the rhythmic arrangement, we see that it tonicizes the triads. After the rest on the downbeat, the bass comes into the root of the triads from a semitone below. The third of each triad begins the second-beat triplet, and the fifth of the triad the third-beat, from there the bass continues chromatically up to the root. From bar 230, the movement doubles from one to two triads per measure, and here, the lower semitone again strengthens the root. More importantly, the whole-tone progression appears in the final measures completely free from the chromaticism, in full root-position major triads. (Fig. 7b)

There is also a passage from the set of variations on a theme by Bach – Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, which shows the augmented triad in a whole-tone succession (Fig. 8), but it’s the only such example.

Carrying on, most of the above use of the whole-tone scale was rather improvisatory, but Liszt reached another phase in his tonal experiments, developing a unique system – Metabolons, the idea of transformation based upon the variable tetrachords.

Beethoven was Liszt’s point of departure, whose tetrachords consist of two constants – the outer notes, and two variables – inner notes (second and third degree in the lower tetrachord and sixth and seventh in the upper). In the scale, Beethoven’s tetrachords were disjunct with a major second between them. Liszt inherited this set of variables, expanding it to a system in which “… any set of variables may enter into a basic set”. The tetrachords may consist of any set of intervals and they may join together in a variety of ways. If they connect disjunctly, this is not only by a major second, but also minor second. The tetrachords can also be conjunct, linked by a common note, both diatonically as well as encharmonically. They may also overlap.

Fetis and his ordre omnitonique, whose theory is based on the final aim of music to “…consist in an increased approximation of all tones and of all keys, and consequently also of all harmonious progress”, opened certain avenues for Liszt’s tonal exploration. While Fetis said that his own hypotheses of omnitone were too vague and reserved for later generations, the thought of omnitony incited Liszt.

Another source of inspiration was the ancient Great Perfect system of Greek modes, which, as Szeleny writes, Liszt noted down in his sketchbooks. However, Liszt’s fascination with the Greek system did not lead him to experiment with the microtones, present especially in the encharmonic genera, where there are nineteen pitches to the octave. Instead, he adapted only some of the ideas in order to vary the intervallic sets within the tetrachords and join them in a variety of ways. By the way, you can read about the Greek systems in a research I did on the blog.

In the case of the whole-tone scale, the passages polarize around the same set of basic pitches: b, c, d, e, f and a, with a curious absence of g. With certain chromatic changes of Metabolons, the whole-tone shapes arise.

In Sursum Corda, Liszt builds dissonant tensions with the changing set of the basic pitches, using transformations from Metabolons. First, the dominant seventh chord B D# F# A opens the piece. The upper B remains, while the lower B rises stepwise to the third, D#. A third voice joins, filling the gap between the fifth and seventh – F# – A. In the left hand, after a leap of seventh, there is the contrary motion, filling in A – F#. Addams Thompson shows how the main cells – major second and minor third change through the piece. The sixth transformation, in which the leap of seventh is inverted into the second, expands the third from minor to major, filled by major seconds, and thus, the right hand begins ascending in whole-tones. In the following seventh transformation, two such cells connect, and by enharmonically changing gb to f#, Liszt creates a whole-tone scale in both hands, which dissolves the dissonances accumulated through the piece, clearing the air for the final cadence.

In Premiere Valse oubliee, the basic set is a symmetrical arrangement, D# C# A# – F# D# C#, which despite the two tones in common, are treated as two separate formations. From the Metabolons in measures 174-84, the whole tone is formed after the disappearance of f-sharp – B, C#, D#, E# (F) and A, with the absence of G. The same pitches for whole-tone scale appear in The Struggle for Existence, in measure 136. In these two examples, we see the importance of the French sixth— B – D# – F – A, in forming the whole-tone scale, with any of its inversion consisting of major seconds and major thirds. There is also an incomplete whole-tone formation, in the following movement, however with tones B D# F G A – interestingly without C#. The listener is not aware of having left this tonality until the minor second seconds in bar 23-25.
The same tones appear in the whole-tone passage of the Mephisto Waltz no. 3, except with E# as the enharmonic variant of F. The French sixth is already stated in the opening of the piece in the key of six sharps, and its extension into the whole-tone formation is quite obvious in measure 28, in modulating back to six sharps. In the first section of Unstern, the French sixth again generates the whole-tone scale, this time with the presence of G. In the final moments though, the scale arises from the Metabolons’ idea of mirroring of modes. In this case, the whole-tone tetrachord could result from the lydian mode mirroring the Locrian, leading into the final E. Besides having the tonic – E in common, they also share the same center of the octave – Bb. Finally, in the Bagatelle sans tonalite, once again the familiar b – c# – f – a chord will be the basic chord from which the whole-tone shapes appear.

But there is one piece, whose use of whole-tone scale is the most striking and distinct from all other – the monodrama, Der Traurige Monch, The Sad Monk. What separates this composition from the others, beside the fact that there is no singing with the piano accompaniment, but only a monologue declamating the ghostly tale, is that much of the piece, its melody and harmony, are based and derived from the whole-tone scale. Already in the opening, there is a direct use of the complete ascending whole-tone scale repeated in a sequence, appearing two more times with variation. By using the scale head-on, atonality was created, carried out by Liszt in order to evoke the setting of the text, symbolizing the supernatural. Liszt was quite aware of the peculiar tonality he produced here, describing it in 1860 as “tonartlosen Dissonanzen”. He even feared that the melodrama’s “keyless discords” would prove impossible of performance, stating: “so indescribably wild and monstrous do these bleak dissonances sound.” In fact, the work wasn’t published until 1871, and there is no record of it ever having been performed during his lifetime.

However, Liszt wasn’t the first to use the scale in order to convey the supernatural. He was preceded by Glinka. Known as “the father of Russian music”, he used the whole-tone scale in his opera Ruslan and Ludmila in 1842, for the dramatic characterization – the leitmotiv of the wicked magician, Tchernomor. It appears similarly independent, appearing almost unharmonized. It became so popular among the Russian composers for suggesting evil or ominous personages or situations, that even today Russian musicians refer to the whole tone scale as “Chernomor’s scale”. There is some debate over whether or not Russian composers influenced Liszt’s use of whole-tone scale in Der Traurige Monch. For a closer look at this, and the general use of the whole-tone scale by Russian composers, read my next post. I will include there the information about the transposition of the scale and also its use by the impressionists.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. The young Franz Liszt (1858) featured in Die berühmten Musiker by Lacroix Jean, Kunstverlag by Lucien Mazenod, 1946. […/what-makes-franz-liszt-still-important/]

Fig. 2. Whole-tone passage in Grand Galop chromatique, bars 232-238

Fig. 3. The whole-tone passage in Galop in a minor, bars 309-315

Fig. 4. Whole-tone passage in Hungarian Rhapsody VII, bars 245-250

Fig. 5a. The third cycle of major triads in Heroischer Marsch, bars 170-174

Fig. 5b. The two phrases of B section, bars 40 – 47

Fig. 5c. The arpeggiated and extended phrase of B section, bars 85-94

Fig. 5d. The i – VIIb – VIb – V progression in the opening of Heroischer Marsch, bars 1-9

Fig. 5e. The whole tone progression in Heroischer Marsch, bars 177-181


Thompson, Harold Adams (1974) The Evolution in Whole-Tone Sound in Liszt’s Original Piano Works. [PhD] Louisiana State University.  At:

Taruskin, Richard (2006) Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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