Representations of Beauty in Choral Music at the Beginning of the 20th and 21st Centuries: Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” and Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux”

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Historically, dissonances were treated according to strict rules. The experienced listener hearing a dissonant pitch, even in an unfamiliar piece of music, knew which consonant pitch would follow. But of course, where there are rules, rules are broken. Schoenberg’s treatment of dissonance pitches in the transitional works, and particularly in the songs of 1905, often breaks the bond between a non-chord tone and its resolution to a chord tone. No longer is an ornament and its resolution bound together as one unified musical event. No longer can the experienced listener, upon hearing a dissonance, know what pitch will follow. It is in this sense that Schoenberg sought to emancipate the dissonance; he freed dissonances from being required to resolve in a predetermined way. Dissonances are a primary aspect of “Friede auf Erden” and “O Nata Lux,” which we will compare.

Schoenberg’s student Anton von Webern describes “Friede auf Erden” as “a work of the most artful polyphony, most wonderful tonal effect, and sublimest expression.”5 Of these three descriptions, two can be said to compliment Schoenberg’s compositional technique: “the most artful polyphony” and “most wonderful tonal effect.” But “sublimest expression” describes the music’s beauty that surpasses Schoenberg’s craft. The passage I will examine begins at m. 21 in the score and sets the final line of the first stanza: “Friede, Friede! auf der Erde!” And from “O Nata Lux,” I will examine the opening phrase of “O Nata Lux.”

I begin with a few preliminary observations. I’ll address structural issues such as formal design, spacing, motives, and dissonances. The Schoenberg passage extends a phrase design known as a sentence. A basic idea is presented in mm. 21-22, and varied, but not too much so, in mm. 23-24. The primary difference is that mm. 23-24 are higher in pitch than mm. 21-22. The rising pitch structure prepares the soprano entrance in m. 25 that is the melodic apex of this entire passage. M. 25 begins an expanded continuation that sets the complete text “Friede auf der Erde!”

The spacing, or distance among the voices, is open, usually spanning about two octaves. At m. 21, the interval between bass and soprano is almost two octaves, while it contracts in m. 23 to be only an octave-and-a-half. At m. 25 the spacing almost reaches three octaves, and in m. 29 the passage closes with a range of more than two octaves between the two outer voices. Several other observations related to spacing are worth mentioning. The lower two voices, the tenor and bass, begin a tenth apart, but in m. 22 sing in octaves that continue through m. 24, creating an unusual thickness in the texture. The alto two part moves in parallel motion with the tenor and bass, so that the three lower voices contrast the paired upper voices that move in parallel thirds in mm. 21-24. At m. 25 all the voices except the tenor move homophonically until m. 29, where the altos restate the text “Friede auf der Erde!” To summarize, the texture engages open spacing throughout. The initial paired voices in parallel motion give way in m. 25 to the lone tenor part contrasting the rhythmic motion of the others.

The motives in this passage serve the formal design. The basic idea features the upper, paired voices in parallel thirds skipping through a triad, though each outlines a different chord. The melodic skips become motivic when the varied repetition of the basic idea begins in m. 23. To contrast the upper voices’ disjunct contour, the accompanying lower three voices provide step-wise motion interrupted by an ascending leap of a seventh. This leap transfers the scalar motion into the upper register of all three voices, particularly the alto two and tenor parts in m. 24. To provide balance, the upper voices’ disjunct motion in mm. 21-24 is answered by conjunct motion in mm. 25-30. At the same time, the lower voices’ conjunct motion in mm. 21-24 contrasts with the large leaps in the bass line in mm. 25-30 and the tenor line’s chromaticism.

I now want to focus on Schoenberg’s use of dissonance in this passage. Identifying dissonances is much like positive and negative space with respect to visual art: first identify the chord members of the prevailing harmony, and then determine which are not chord members. The supporting harmony in mm. 21-22 is an A dominant-seventh chord (the V7 of tonic D major). The lower three voices participate in the A7. The paired upper voices do not. Although the soprano and alto one are consonant with the bass, and even form a D-major chord with the bass, they do not contribute to the prevailing A7. Their pitches are off one step––which is a feature that Schoenberg will repeat in mm. 23-24.

A7 chords like to resolve to D chords. The tenor and bass in m. 22 descend by step to Ds in m. 23. After outlining A7 in mm. 21-22, the tenor and bass expect to resolve to D in mm. 23-24. The alto two line, which also descends by step from m. 22 into m. 23 arrives on B, missing a D-major chord member by one step in either direction, but harmonizing with the soprano and alto one, which also miss participating in D-major by one step in either direction. The paired upper voices are more concerned with repeating the basic idea of mm. 21-22 at a higher pitch, though by the end of m. 24 all voices participate in the D-major sonority. This is the first instance in this passage that all voices form a triad together, with no dissonances.

The next instance is the downbeat of m. 25, which returns to the A7 chord, though the alto’s B now thickens the sonority by adding a 9th above chord root A. All voices participate in the A9 sonority; the resolution, however, is problematic. According to the traditional rules, A9 should resolve to D, with chordal sevenths and ninths resolving down by step. The soprano’s G compliantly descends to F-sharp. The alto’s B, however, steps down only to A-sharp, not A-natural. It is the bass that most glaringly breaks the rules. The bass A would typically lead to D, but instead falls short of D by one step, arriving on C-natural. It is only at the end of m. 28 that all voices come together to form an A7 that resolves in a traditional manner to a D-chord.

The intervening measures, m. 26 into m. 28, introduce chromaticism and more dissonances in a succession of dominant sevenths that begin in m. 27. The bass D coupled with the alto’s F-sharp provide the root and third. The tenor’s dissonant C-sharp gives way to C-natural, the seventh above chord root D. The soprano provides chromatic pitch B-flat, which misses chord member A by a half-step, obscuring the D7 sonority. Moving forward in m. 27, D7 expects to resolve to a chord rooted on G. The bass compliantly leaps from D to G. The tenor sustains its C in a 4-3 suspension that predictably leads to B. The alto parts complete the sonority by adding the D and F-natural. But the soprano adds chromatic tone A-flat, missing the chord root by a half-step. It could be interpreted as an added ninth, but its failure to descend by step into the C sonority on the downbeat of m. 28 sabotages this interpretation. The C harmony resolves the G7, and the bass again leaps to chord root C. The tenor descends by half-step to chordal seventh B-flat, while the lower alto descends to chord root C. The upper alto part provides a further 4-3 suspension, delaying the entrance of E. The soprano sustains its A-flat and ultimately ascends to A to participate in the A7 sonority in the cadence on D that closes this passage. That the underlying C7 fails to resolve to F exploits the shared E that is a member of both C7 and A7. After several measures of chromatic dissonances that obscure the harmonies, the close of this passage outlines an identifiable and traditional dominant-tonic cadence. The alto provides dissonances that follow the rules. The D-sharp in m. 28 is the textbook model of a lower neighbor; the E on the downbeat of m. 29, a classic retardation; and the C-sharp another lower neighbor.