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Tonal and extratonal functions of the augmented triad in the harmonic structure of Webern's "Dehmel songs" Preston, Robert Garth


The composing of the 'Dehmel Songs' marks a pivotal juncture both in Webern's oeuvre and in the history of music in general. The years that saw the birth of this cycle of five songs, 1906-8, comprise what is generally regarded as a period of transition, in the work of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, from a 'late tonal' style of composition to an early 'atonal' style. In this study I approach the 'Dehmel Songs' from the perspective that its harmonic structure as a whole can be rendered intelligible in a theoretical way by combining a simple pitch-class-set analysis, which essentially involves graphing the pattern of recurrence of the 'augmented triad' as a motivic harmonic entity—a pattern which is in fact serial in nature-through the course of the unfolding harmonic progression, with a tonal interpretation that uses that pattern as a referential pitch-class skeleton. In this way I show that the tonal structure of these songs is congruent with an expressive effect comprised by the serial patterning. The latter effect I term extratonal by which I mean that the intelligibility of such patterning is not necessarily contingent upon a perceiving of the pitch-classes involved as having tonal-hierarchic meanings. I am concerned, therefore, with three sorts of expressive effects arising from the harmonic structure of this music: tonal and extratonal effects and effects of congruency between tonal and extratonal patterning. I set forth a theoretical framework for the analysis by developing some criteria with which to distinguish various ways an 'augmented triad'--any pc-set 3-12 [0,4,8] occurring as part of a harmony--could conceivably arise in a tonal-harmonic progression, thereby deriving a vocabulary of distinct triad-types. The most basic premise of my characterization of tonal functions of a pc-set occurring as part of a harmony is that each distinct harmony in a progression can be perceived as having a prevailing root (a psychoacoustic phenomenon), such that a pattern of recurrence of a set-class is heard tonally as overlaying a perceivable root progression. Study of the songs takes the form of commentary on a series of graphic analyses of their pitch-structures. The graphic analysis consists of a chorale-style rendering of the harmonic progression which attributes an appropriate diatonic 'spelling' to each harmony so as to characterize the tonal-hierarchic functions of each of its component pitch-classes with respect an immediate voice-leading context, a Roman-numeral-style analysis of the root progression which reflects the hierarchic overlayings of allusions to various referential tonics, and a jazz-style characterization of each pitch-class component of a harmony in terms of its scale-degree function with respect to a locally prevailing root--essentially, then, a "figured-root"-style characterization of each harmony, as opposed to a traditional figured-bass analysis. The format of the tonal-harmonic analysis in the graphs facilitates a simple representing of an extratonal skeleton formed by the pattern of recurrence of the augmented triad so that the graphs clearly reveal something of the nature of the congruence between the tonal and the referential extratonal patterning. In the first part of the study I discuss in turn each of the triad-types occurring in the songs. Each is defined, with reference both to abstract chorale-style examples and to examples from the songs, in terms of the kinds of contrapuntal contexts which would tend to concretize an instance of that type as such. As assembling of a series of type-models proceeds, such definition gradually comes to include consideration of functional relationships associating particular transpositions of various types; in the process each type-model is invested with a range of possible sorts of tonal meanings. At the same time, consideration of tonal functions of particular type-instances in the songs serves as a referential scaffolding around which to build interpretations of the tonal designs of the voice-leading contexts in which they occur. In this way I gradually assemble a collection of analyses of foreground and middleground progressions in sections of each song and in passages spanning connections between songs. The second part of the paper constitutes an interpretation of the background structure of the song cycle which draws together the various pieces of analysis gathered in the first part by relating those to the effecting, towards the end of the third song, of a major pivotal juncture in the song cycle as a whole, and to the large-scale effectings of recapitulation in the fourth song and of closure in the fifth. In the course of this background analysis I am eventually able to propose a tonic key with reference to which one may take one's ultimate tonal bearings in these songs. I further suggest what relevance the issue of an unequally-tempered, as opposed to an equally-tempered, circle of fifths might have with respect to the song cycle's tonal and extratonal structure. Finally I offer a hint as to what sorts of issues might be relevant as regards the relationship between the harmonic structure and the structure of Dehmel's text in the songs. With reference to the conception of the songs as being in a key, I then attempt to clarify in a theoretical way what Webern might have meant when, in the course of his lectures of 1933, entitled The Path to the New Music, he characterizes in a poetic way, with the terms "invisible tonic," "suspended tonality" and "the farthest limits of tonality," the radical nature of his compositional experiments during the years 1906-8. On the basis of the demonstration that, in the 'Dehmel Songs', the effecting of a congruence between tonal and serial effects of pitch-patterning produces a formal coherence which extends from the foreground to the very deepest levels of structure, I suggest that this analytical approach may serve as a model for future attempts to hear tonal-hierarchic relationships in the pitch-structures of Webern's later pre-serial and serial works, works that have been rendered intelligible in a theoretical way using pc-set analysis, but that are, so far, little understood in terms of their tonal structures. A suggestion is Implicit, of course, that at least some aspects of the analytical technique might be useful as well in refining analytical approaches to the harmonic structures of more conventional tonal works.

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