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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Most often, Schoenberg uses multiple dissonances: where there is one, there is also another. This is particularly true in mm. 21-24, though less so when he introduces chromaticism in mm. 26-28. Lauridsen, on the other hand, is less generous. In the opening passage, most sonorities contain one dissonance. For example, to the initial D-major sonority, the alto parts adds E, and in m. 2, the altos add D to an A-major chord. Where there are two dissonances, one is a passing tone that obeys the traditional rules governing non-chord tones. It does not puzzle the listener’s ear. By most often using only one dissonance at a time, Lauridsen’s sonorities may be easier for a listener’s ear to comprehend.

This passage of “O Nata Lux” exhibits many contrasts when compared to “Friede auf Erden.” Spacing is an immediate one. The initial octave span between the bass and soprano parts becomes almost referential, as the sonorities expand and contract around the octave. This ebb and flow relates to a motivic ascending fourth in the soprano’s melody, from D up to G on the syllables “de lu-” in m. 1. The range from bass to soprano contracts from an octave to a sixth moving into the syllable “de,” and then expands out to a compound sixth on the syllable “lu-” before a small contraction that will lead to the two-octave span on the final syllable of this opening phrase on the downbeat of m. 3.

In this phrase, the inner voices remain conjunct, while the outer voices highlight the isolated leaps in their lines. Even so, the contour of the bass and soprano lines display careful construction. The soprano line in m. 1 highlights G on the syllable “lu-”, in that it is approached by leap and departed by leap. It is a local apex. Through the remainder of the line, “Jesu redemptor saeculi,” the melody ascends by step from E through passing tone F-sharp to sing G on three syllables “-demp-tor sae-”. And then it continues, stepping up to A, reaching just beyond the previously established local apex G. Lauridsen is being gentle. The bass line doesn’t exhibit the same preparation, in that it leaps down a 5th on the syllables “de lu-” from F-sharp to B, but then remains on B, steps up to C-sharp, and returns to B before finally arriving on A. In this passage, the bass line exists in two registers, leaping between the two, but not connecting the two by step.

The next phrase introduces a new line of text, but returns to the octave spacing between the bass and soprano. The contraction from two octaves to one prepares another expansion that corresponds to the motivic ascending fourth in the melody on the syllables “dig-na-.” The soprano’s leap up by fourth is not only countered by the bass’s descending third in contrary motion, but also by the tenor’s descending fourth. The alto’s repeating dissonant Es are an anchor, albeit a temporary one. But over the barline from m. 3 into m. 4, the altos ascend by fourth into another dissonance, an A within an E-major chord. The alto’s leap contrasts with the step-wise motion in the other voices. Through m. 4, the soprano ascends by step preparing its next motivic leap. This ascending fourth is an octave higher than that in m. 1, but still accompanied by the same descending fifth in the bass. The tenor takes hold of the anchor, while the alto part divides. The highest parallels the soprano’s ascending fourth, which both fills in the octave space opened up by the soprano and thickens the texture.

Having reached the apex of this whole passage––the highest pitch, the thickest texture, and the fullest volume––the denouement follows. The spacing contracts from its farthest reach on “na-” in m. 4 of almost three octaves to just more than one octave at the end of m. 5’s “supplicum.” The final phrase in m. 6 contracts further––to only a fifth––before settling into a range of between one and two octaves. Above the tenor’s anchor of repeated Ds in m. 5, the soprano leaps down from F-sharp to D to A, the pitch on which it began this phrase in m. 3. It continues downward by leap to its lowest pitch yet sung, D on the downbeat of m. 6. The melody for “laudes preces que sumere” begins and concludes with the motivic fourth on the original D and G, connected by stepwise motion to balance the opening phrase.

Schoenberg and Lauridsen are both masters of the craft of composition. They use the building materials well, providing balance and contrast in a way that guides the listening ear through the passages we examined. But on the surface, their music sounds very different. Schoenberg at the beginning of the 20th century was reaching beyond functional tonality, and yet was still bound to it in the passage from “Friede auf Erden.” Lauridsen at the end of the 20th century lives in a time when composers are free to operate within the realm of functional tonality, and just as free to create unique systems for each new composition. “O Nata Lux” certainly relies on familiar tertian structures, but progress from one sonority to another outside the rules of functional tonality.

The compositions of both Schoenberg and Lauridsen have been judged as being beautiful, not in any formal contest, but by their repeated performances. Are there elements to their music that can be termed universal, or that can be judged as beautiful in any style period? Certainly the passages we examined model formal designs that have successful precedents in Western music. But that is only one component. They remain models of beauty, representing their time and place in history.

Cynthia Gonzales is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Texas State University-San Marcos. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.