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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Concepts of musical beauty change over time. The origins of harmony—influenced by the Pythagorean mathematical ideal of whole-number ratios—adored perfect intervals in parallel motion. By the time of the Renaissance, imperfect consonances were the aesthetic model. They displaced consecutive perfect intervals with such thoroughness that even today, beginning students of music theory are prohibited from writing parallel perfect fifths and octaves as they learn to master the principles of common-practice music.

To be sure, aesthetic ideals at the beginning of the 20th century differ from those governing today. We have heard medieval, Renaissance, Classical, Romantic, and a plethora of 20th century styles of music. And yet, some aspects of musical beauty transcend time. My purpose in this paper is to begin exploring these ideals of beauty by comparing passages from two compositions written almost a century apart. In doing so, I will focus on the music’s structure, rather than the less tangible affect that music has upon the listener. The sources of the two passages are Arnold Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” of 1907, and Morten Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux” of 1997.

Both works feature a sacred text for unaccompanied choir. “Friede auf Erden” sets a four-stanza poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898), reflecting Schoenberg’s typical habit of choosing texts written by poets who were his contemporaries. The theme of Meyer’s poem is Christ Jesus, deliverer of the world from darkness to peace. Most often, I believe, public attention remains on the poem’s title “Peace on Earth.” As a case in point, I share a personal anecdote: I first heard this work performed live by an exceptional choral ensemble in Boston, the Cantata Singers. It was January 18, 1991—two days after the start of Desert Storm. So much like today, war was in the headlines. The audience’s response to the stirring performance was overwhelmingly enthusiastic—the applause and cheering continued for several minutes. And then the extraordinary happened: the Cantata Singers repeated the entire piece. To this day, I believe the audience was responding both to the exceptional performance and to the work’s title, but not the poem’s essential message of Christ as the peace-bearer. Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” has since become a signature piece for the Cantata Singers. When they performed the work in concert this past spring, it was again presented twice, first in the program and then as an encore.1

Although Schoenberg most often set the poetry of his contemporaries, Lauridsen’s chosen texts represent a broad historical spectrum, including Biblical Psalms and poetry by Robert Graves, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rainer Maria Rilke. “O Nata Lux” is a Latin text that describes Christ as the world’s redeemer, Light born of Light. This a cappella motet is the central movement of a larger work, the other movements set for choir and small orchestra. Lux Aeterna has been described as a non-liturgical requiem. Lauridsen composed the work following his mother’s death, which parallels the circumstances under which Brahms composed his German Requiem. Although Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was written less than ten years ago, it has received numerous performances and has been released on three recordings.

This reveals a stark contrast between Schoenberg and Lauridsen. During his lifetime, Schoenberg’s compositions often generated more controversy than congratulations, and more puzzlement than praise. Even by modern standards, some of his compositions sound avant garde. Lauridsen, on the other hand, has achieved a level of acclaim in the classical choral music world that compares to that of Ray Charles or Dolly Parton in their respective genres. Over one million copies of his music have been sold. He has the distinction of composing the highest-selling choral scores published by the American distributor of his music, Theodore Presser Company, which has been in existence since 1783. This level of popular acclaim evaded Schoenberg during his lifetime. Even today, only a few of his works are performed with any regularity, and “Friede auf Erden” is certainly to be counted among that group.

Of course, Schoenberg’s music has survived the test of time that Lauridsen’s has not yet sustained. Will his music still be performed in a hundred years? Or will his music be a phenomenon isolated to this generation? Will the beauty of his music transcend time?

Another point of comparison between Schoenberg and Lauridsen is their musical training. Unlike the leading musicians of his time, Schoenberg did not receive conservatory training. Lauridsen, on the other hand, earned graduate degrees in music from the University of Southern California, an institution at which Schoenberg taught in the mid-1930s and which housed the Arnold Schoenberg Institute from its founding in 1973 until its transfer to Vienna in 1998. Lauridsen joined the USC faculty in 1967, where he remains still.

But Schoenberg lived in a musical milieu that was confronting a confluence of crises. Richard Wagner, who died in 1883, bequeathed innovations in harmonic language that still captivate audiences and vex music analysts. He developed a style abundant with musical signifiers, but almost devoid of key-defining resolutions. Working more within traditional forms of symphony and lieder, Johannes Brahms died in 1897. And in these same waning years of the 19th century, organist and composer Anton Bruckner taught a generation of musicians at the Vienna Conservatory. His students, many of whom became successful musicians in their own day, recalled that he taught traditional harmony and counterpoint, not composition in the modern style. They studied musical principles formulated in the mid-1800s based on even earlier practices. Yet, Bruckner himself composed in a style influenced by the modernism of his time.

Several years after beginning his own musical studies, Schoenberg received instruction from Alexander Zemlimsky, a conservatory graduate who championed his music. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were also among Schoenberg’s encouragers. But Schoenberg was exploring new harmonic territories. Although his earliest works have been assessed for their Brahmsian qualities,2 Schoenberg’s compositions from around the time of “Friede auf Erden” have been identified as “transitional works,” in that they are neither fully tonal in a 19th century fashion, nor truly atonal in the style that Schoenberg would develop later.3 Most significant for our purposes is what Schoenberg referred to as the “emancipation of dissonance.”4

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.

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.

1Reviews of the Cantata Singers’ 2005 concert with two performances of “Friede auf Erden” are here (

2Walter Frisch, “The ‘Brahms Fog’: On Analyzing Brahmsian Influences at the Fin de Sìecle,” in Brahms and His World, ed. Walter Frisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 81-99.

3Allen Forte, “Schoenberg’s Creative Evolution: The Path to Atonality,” Musical Quarterly 64 (1978): 133-76.

4Arnold Schoenberg, “My Evolution,” in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 79-94. From p. 91: “…a convincing development which enabled me to establish the law of the emancipation of the dissonance, according to which the comprehensibility of the dissonance is considered as important as the comprehensibility of the consonance. Thus dissonances need not be a spicy addition to dull sounds. They are natural and logical outgrowths of an organism. And this organism lives as vitally in its phrases, rhythms, motifs and melodies as ever before.”

5Anton von Webern, “ Schoenberg’s Music,” in Schoenberg and His World, ed. Walter Frisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 210.