Grundgestalt Analysis and Schoenberg's Op. 19


1. Arnold Schoenberg's "Musical Idea" is a complex and nebulous term that attempts to describe the generative core of a piece of music. As Grundgestalt, or "basic shape," the musical idea is the principle germ of a work: it is motivic, but only in the sense of a fundamental motive. It develops throughout a musical work, as a "techincal idea," as Patricia Carpenter writes, but also has a more complex, ontological function" it drives the work, representing simultaneously stability and instability. Schoenberg writes that the musical idea is "unrest," which creates imbalance. Unrest creates a desire for rest: this drive towards reestablishing balance is the other face of the idea. Rather than simply a technical idea, the musical idea becomes both the locus for logic and coherence, and, as Schoenberg writes, for "richness, diversityl, and feeling." Furthermore, while the muiscal idea must be conceived of materially and presented logically, Schoenberg indicates that the musical idea also has a psychological and metaphysical nature. It is a polysemous term, part of a partially developed theory of musical logic and comprehensibility that, while presenting numerous difficult challenges to the analyst, also offers many exciting possibilities. In this paper, I will offer an analysis of two of Schoenberg's short piano pieces from the Six Little Pieces for Piano, Op. 19, with the theory of the musical idea in mind. The purpose of this analysis is threefold: firstly, to test the applicability of Grundgestalt analysis to atonal music; second, to test the applicability of Schoenberg's paradigm to his own music; and finally, to observe the process of a Grundgestalt analysis in order to determine its efficacy in general, along with its faults.

2. Schoenberg's musical idea has a double nature, as is evident from reading his theoretical writings on the musical idea, coherence, and comprehensibility. On the one hand, it is the "plan" of the musical work, the material from which the work is created an built upon. On the other hand, it is a semantic unit which derives its meaning from both its musical context, and from its interaction with the projected listener, whose ability to comprehend the idea and its development in part determines its epistemological significance. The fundamental principle fo Schoenberg's that this analysis is based on is that of coherence. Schoenberg indicates that coherence depends upon repetition of the familiar, and a disregarding of the dissimilar. However, he also suggests that features and connections identified as either important or unimportant do not always retain their respective status; rather, they can change, and have different functions at different levels. Furthermore, Schoenberg writes that the coherent development of the musical idea is in no way standardizable: the significance of the parts in common can change during the composition. While these principles may simply point to the imcompleteness of Schoenberg's theory, I will argue, through two analyses, that this analytical approach represents a powerful, intuitive, and, above all, musical way to attempt to understand atonal music.

3. The analyses presented here will be necessarily brief: musical examples exist in a hard copy version, but I have had some difficultly posting them on the web. The first piece to be considered is no. 2 from Schoenberg's Op. 19. In short, the piece appears, from the outset, to be based upon a major third built on g. This interval is repeated througout the piece in the left hand, in short, fragmented bursts. I would argue that this is part of the musical idea of the piece, but this is not immediately apparent: to be the musical idea, it must in some way function as "unrest," driving the piece towards some sort of conclusion, towards rest. While the short melodies that appear erratically over the third appear to "tonicize" g, I don't think that this is the main "idea" of the piece. Instead, the prevalence of e-flat, or d#, rather than emphasizing the fifth of g, points to the ambiguous third of a c minor chord. Also, the clear statement of G7 in the second measure suggests to me an orientation towards the tonal area of c major/minor. The interval of an augmented fifth is also significant in the piece, occuring throughout the work and forming the basis of the final chord. This final chord represents, I think, the working out of the musical idea: it is part G7 chord, and part C minor 7. The idea is then something like a G major chord, functioning as a dominant, with a melodic d#, suggesting the presence of C minor. This idea represents unrest, and toncizes C minor. The recurring third built on g is not the tonal centre of the piece, but rather V in a 9 measure V-I progression.

4. The second piece, no. 1, is more difficult to sort out. Intentionally ambiguous, it offers a "musical idea" in the opening measures that does not appear to be immediately viable. I would argue, however, that the idea of this piece is a textural one, and also an idea of contours, rather than intervals and rhythms. The opening measures, in both hands, suggest an arch-like shape, and the different gestures, to a certain extent, share the same harmonic and melodic material. Common rhythmic, contrapuntal gestures unite the middle section, which ends with a rearticulation of the contour of the opening measures. In the final measures of the piece, a widely spaced melodic progression in the left hand recalls, unambigiously, the arching "idea," closing with a restatment of many of the pitches from the opening measures.

5. Grundgestalt analysis, through its processes, provides, like Schenkerian analysis, many valuable insights into a musical work by identifying a multiplicity of events and details. However, the difficulty that both methodologies share comes with making critical conclusions about a work. The value of Schoenberg's analytical theory lies, I believe, in its open-endedness: it may be incomplete, but it also describes a methodology that considerst the musical work as multifarious in nature, attempting to describe its "logical", "psychological," and "metaphysical" character. While the notion of the musical whole, to which the idea of a basic shape or fundamental motive points, is an idea that is no longer considered valid, the processes of Grundgestalt analysis can sitll play an important role in the critical study of music.

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