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Debussy or Berg?

The Mystery of a Chord Progression

Author(s): H. H. Stuckenschmidt and Piero Weiss
Source: The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 453-459
Published by: Oxford University Press
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VOL. LI, No. 3 JULY, 1965



HAT distinguished Alban Berg from the rest of Schoenberg's circle

even in the earliest days was an esthetic outlook that inclined more
to mediation than separation. To be sure, his style was nurtured by the
same German-Austrian traditions, the same Classic and Romantic
influences, especially by the music of Wagner, Brahms, and Richard
Strauss. In his view all these currents flowed together in Schoenberg,
the father-figure. When his friend, then living in exile in America, cele-
brated his sixtieth birthday in 1934, Berg drafted a letter (quoted in
Willi Reich's biography [1963]) that contained this phrase: "in the
field of music that is most German, that will forever bear your name."
Berg's works nevertheless show early traces of familiarity with modem
French music. Schoenberg, in an obituary of 1936, mentioned Berg's
involvement "with Mahler, Strauss, perhaps even Debussy, with whom I
was not acquainted .."
The origins of that familiarity are obscure. Was it fostered by his
sister Smaragda Berg, a talented pianist who took an interest in modern
music? Neither Berg's essays nor the books by Reich and Hans F.
Redlich furnish us with evidence on this point. But in Berg's music
? Copyright, 1965, by G. Schirmer, Inc.
454 The Musical Quarterly

the influence of Debussy becomes apparent no later than in the setting

of Carl Hauptmann's Nacht, from Sieben friihe Lieder. It was composed
at the beginning of 1908; by then, Schoenberg had also become
acquainted with Debussy. French culture meant more to Berg than to
any other member of Schoenberg's circle except Egon Wellesz, who was
soon to move in a different direction, and Eduard Steuermann, a fine
Debussy pianist. This affinity is recognizable in many (chiefly harmonic
and formal) elements of Berg's musical idiom long before it found its
clearest expression in the Wein aria (1929), a setting of three poems by
Baudelaire. No Frenchman was closer to Berg than Debussy, for whose
music he showed a high regard in private conversation. Recognition of
Debussy, however, would certainly have been considered improper in
the Schoenberg circle. A reverential father-son relationship precluded
the worship of other divinities; besides, Schoenberg's cultural nation-
alism played a role in such matters even before the First World War
long before it assumed the shape of a political manifesto in Nationale
Musik, an essay published in 1931.
Debussy's early influence on Alban Berg is not the only mystery,
however. Far more enigmatic is the case of two identical passages in
works by Berg and Debussy. Their identity is so absolute that resem-
blances between themes by Mozart and Beethoven (finale of the G
minor Symphony, scherzo of the Fifth) seem negligible by comparison.
Five chords glide down chromatically from G to Eb; the bass rises by
fourths or falls by fifths, sequentially: Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb. The two
measures occur in the fourth of Debussy's Six epigraphes antiques, an
andantino for piano duet entitled Pour la danseuse aux crotales:
Ex. 1 Debussy 1914

Poco rubato

p r

We find the same passage in the last of Alban Berg's Vier Lieder, Op. 2
(the third lied to words by Alfred Mombert), as is shown in Ex. 2.
Each of the right-hand chords, here appearing in a sequence accom-
panied by a different sequence in the bass, consists of a tritone with a
perfect fourth above it. Now, if a major third is added beneath the
lowest note, the result defies tonal analysis. Chords of this sort often
show up in the works Debussy wrote after 1910, e.g. in Feuilles mortes
Debussy or Berg? 455

8- -?_-
8? ---- - - -- - - - - - _- --WI
__ -

(Priludes, Bk. II), where the sonority is further expanded in a five-part

texture by the addition of the fifth above the bass. Berg uses the same
five-part version of the chord (B-F4-Eb-A-D) at the end of the pro-
gression cited above as well as at the conclusion of the piece:
Ex. 3 Berg

Schoenberg found this so extraordinary that he quoted the relevant

passage from Berg's lied in his Harmonielehre (ed. of 1922, p. 504).
An extraordinary chord indeed; but was it new? The literature on the
New Music has dealt with it more than once. Rene Leibowitz has
pointed out that Schoenberg himself used it as early as 1899 in one of
the lieder from his Op. 2, a setting of Richard Dehmel's poem Erwar-
tung (not the same as the homonymous monodrama of a much later
date); but there it appears in an inversion, its notes grouped differ-
Ex. 4 Sch6nberg, Op.2

The chord acts as an appoggiatura to the Eb major triad that follows

and resolves it.
Chords can sometimes be transformed beyond recognition, if their
component notes are permuted (in other words, if the chords are in-
verted). The Schoenberg school thinks in terms of such permutations
as a matter of course. Berg, especially in the later works, beginning
with Wozzeck, made occasional use of chord inversions. Usually, how-
ever, he felt a chord had the value of a specific tension and atmosphere
456 The Musical Quarterly

only when it was in a given position. Evidence of this approach in

terms of sonority and atmosphere may be seen, in Wozzeck, in the in-
vention on a six-note chord that dominates all of Act III, Scene iv
(Wozzeck's Death). Moreover, there exists a certain relationship be-
tween the atmosphere of this six-note chord and that of the five-note
chord in the Mombert lied. Berg himself, speaking of the death scene
in Wozzeck, alluded to the "strongly impressionistic impact" of music
constituted solely of chordal sonorities and its aptness for the illustra-
tion of purely natural phenomena. The Mombert poem ends with the
words: "Stirb! Der Eine stirbt, daneben der Andere lebt: Das macht
die Welt so tiefsch6n ("Die! The one dies, the other meanwhile lives:
This is what makes the world so inexpressibly beautiful"). Here too,
Berg uses a progression of parallel chords to illustrate death's entrance
on a scene filled only with natural phenomena ("Grass on sunny
meadows... the nightingale sings .. . high up in the gloomy mountain-
forest . . . glitters the cold snow . . ."), very much as he does later in
The five-note chord can also be permuted so that a B-major triad
will lie above the fifth D-A. If we then transpose this up by a whole
tone, we obtain the configuration used by Richard Strauss in Elektra,
to the horror of his contemporaries:
Ex. 5 Strauss, Elektra chord

This Elektra chord is a phenomenon about which theorists have written

whole treatises. Yet surely it is only a bitonal synthesis of E major and
C-sharp major. As such, it is closely related to harmonic norms, current
since Zarlino, concerning added thirds. Traditional harmony has ex-
plained the sonority in Debussy's Feuilles mortes as an appoggiatura to
the minor ninth chord. In Berg's case this explanation is impossible,
since the chord remains basically unresolved, indicating, as do all of
Schoenberg's quartal chords since 1908, a state of suspended tonality.
Gosta Neuwirth, in his studies on Franz Schreker's harmony, has pointed
out the frequent occurrence and structural significance of this chord in
Der ferne Klang, whose piano score Berg prepared for Universal Edition
in 1911. The extent to which these harmonic structures were in the air
at the time is demonstrated by Scriabin's Sixth Piano Sonata, which
repeatedly shows the chord to be an integral component of its harmony.
In Schreker and Scriabin it can be understood as a derivative of a
Debussy or Berg? 457

scale that goes beyond the realm of the seven-note scales current until
then in the West (i.e. the church modes and the more recent major and
minor modes). The scale is found as a descending upper part in meas-
ures 11-15 of the Prelude to Der ferne Klang. It reads:

Ex. 6 Schreker, Der ferne Klang

It shows up in a similar form in the Scriabin sonata (m. 69 f.) and

differs from the traditional scales through a consistent alternation of
whole tones and semitones, which in turn postulates an eight-note scale.
Some thirty years later, in his Technique de mon langage musical
(1944), Messiaen classified this scale, along with some others, as a
"mode a transpositions limitees." He designated it as "Mode 2." Now,
while the chord can be adapted to the norm of added thirds only in
the bitonal arrangement used by Strauss in Elektra, and even then with
difficulty, it can be interpreted in two ways as a stacking up of fourths.
Schoenberg's inversion of 1899 (Eb-A-D-Gb-Cb) has an augmented
fourth (tritone) at the bottom, a perfect fourth above it, then a dimin-
ished fourth, and a perfect one again on top. If the low B in the group-
ing used by Berg and Debussy is placed an octave higher, the resultant
form is Ft-B-Eb-A-D; that is, perfect fourth, diminished fourth, tritone,
and perfect fourth again. Archetypes of this chord can be found in
Romantic music (Liszt, Wagner, Bizet). But what interests us is the par-
allel progression of such chords in Debussy and Berg, and the chrono-
logical order of their appearance.
According to Reich, Berg's Op. 2 was written in the summer of
1908; Redlich informs us that it was completed at the beginning of
1909. It was published in 1910 by Lienau in Berlin (Haslinger in
Vienna). Furthermore, the last lied (with the unusual chord progres-
sion) also appeared in the Blaue Reiter at the beginning of 1912,
together with Schoenberg's Herzgewdchse and Webern's Ihr tratet zu
dem Herde, from Stefan George's Jahr der Seele. Debussy's Six epi-
graphes antiques were composed in the summer of 1914. Berg's priority,
therefore, appears to be established beyond dispute. Still, the problem
is not quite so simple. We know that Debussy's suite for piano duet
agrees at several points with a much earlier composition. On October
25, 1900, Pierre Loujs asked his friend to provide the music for a
recitation and mimed performance of some of his Chansons de Bilitis.
The production took place in Paris at the beginning of February 1901,
458 The Musical Quarterly

and Debussy's incidental music was reviewed in the Journal on Feb-

ruary 8. For thirty years this occasional work was thought lost, but in
1932 Mme. Lilly Debussy-Texier gave the biographer Leon Vallas a
manuscript copy she had preserved; the scoring is for 2 flutes, 2 harps,
and celesta. The piece has nothing in common with Debussy's later
settings of Louys's Chansons de Bilitis, but it has a great deal in common
with the Six epigraphes antiques. The long-lost work was performed by
Pierre Boulez at the Theatre Marigny in Paris and later in Cologne. The
score does, indeed, show many traits in common with the Six epigraphes
antiques composed fourteen years later; but the tenth number, La
Danseuse aux crotales, is only 18 measures long, and only 13 of these
are quoted literally in the piece for piano duet. The modulating middle
section is absent, nor is there any trace of the quartal chords, the
chromatic descent, or the bass progression in alternating fourths and
fifths. It follows that all this was added by Debussy only in 1914
that is, four years after the publication of Berg's lied.
How can the striking similarity between the two passages be ex-
plained? The identity of the chords' positions must rule out the simplest
explanation, namely, that such things are in the air at given times. My
original supposition that Berg might somehow have heard or seen
Debussy's earlier composition was invalidated by the discovery that the
incidental music does not even contain the passage in question. Besides,
in all of Berg's works there is not a single "loan" from other composers.
I have corresponded on the subject with two musicians who are
thoroughly at home in the works of Debussy and Berg: Ernest Ansermet
(who has made an orchestral version of the Six epigraphes antiques)
and Pierre Boulez. Both were amazed at the similarity; but they were
at a loss to explain it. As a matter of fact, Ansermet quite rightly em-
phasized that the contexts in which the passages occur in Debussy and
Berg are very different. Debussy has an upper part that repeats Ab
ten times before going on to Db. In Berg's lied, the voice sings a melody
that winds round the note A and rises as far as Eb, while G# and C#
appear only fleetingly. Nevertheless, I felt my thesis had to stand: this
was a "loan" (only malice would call it plagiarism). I arrived at the
following hypotheses: 1) Berg, an admirer of Debussy, might have sent
him a copy of the lieder. 2) Debussy, who took an interest in new
artistic manifestations, might have known or even owned a copy of the
Blaue Reiter. Either way, therefore, he could have come upon the lied
that contained chord progressions of undoubted interest for him; per-
haps they settled in his subconscious, only to emerge, unbeknown to
Debussy or Berg? 459

him, in 1914 while he was composing Pour la danseuse aux crotales.

Debussy's works contain some precedents for this assumption. The
most famous case is that of an unusual chord in Ravel's Habanera
(1895) that is repeated literally in Debussy's Soiree dans Grenade
(1903). It is generally known that Debussy had no penchant for bor-
rowing from other composers. But his highly susceptible mind evidently
stored up certain sound-impressions so faithfully that they later showed
up unchanged in his own music. There can be little doubt that here we
have a similar instance of a memory-trace later becoming integrated into
his own work.
Strangest of all is the fact that this similarity remained so long un-
noticed. I myself discussed Berg's chord progression at the Colloque
Debussy held at Jacques Chailley's Institute in the Sorbonne (Paris,
1962); but I was not yet aware, at the time, that Debussy, far from
having inspired the progression, had in fact reproduced it literally. This
I only realized in 1963, while playing through the Debussy pieces, and
the discovery was followed by an investigation, detective-style. But was
Berg aware of the similarity? If he was, it must surely have pleased him
without lessening his admiration for Debussy.

(Translated by Piero Weiss)