Etha Williams – Singing in "thinner and thinner air": Schoenberg and Ferneyhough's works for soprano and string quartet

Schoenberg's Second String Quartet occupies a particularly special place in my musical life; indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that this piece is what eventually prompted me to pursue a career in musicology. I first heard the quartet – or rather, just its final movement – under what might at first seem not the most promising circumstances: an undergraduate music course for non-majors in which I was enrolled. Our TA gave us – most of whom had at best a somewhat shaky conceptual understanding of what exactly “tonality” entailed – a brief explanation of the work's historical significance: that the first three movements, each in keys only distantly related to one another, became progressively less and less strongly rooted to their home tonality, and that the fourth and final movement departs entirely from tonality as the soprano sings Stefan Georg's words: “I feel the air of another planet...”

Georg's text in this movement – “Entrückung” (“Rapture”) from his collection Der siebente Ring, which also provides the text (“Litanei”) for the quartet's third movement – treats, among other themes, that of transcendence: transcendence of the earth for “another planet,” of the self for “the holy voice..” The indescribability, the fundamental other-ness, of the transcendent is integrally bound up in our cultural understanding of it (indeed, it is arguably this issue that underpins the Old Testament ban on images). Thus Dante, attempting to describe a vision of Beatrice's face upon arrival at the Empyrean, could only convey it by describing his inability to convey it: “Here I concede defeat. No poet known,/comic or tragic, challenged by his theme/to show his power, was ever more outdone.” Transcendence, so emphatically outside human experience is by necessity difficult to capture sensibly. Indeed, even Georg's poem, with its descriptions of “unfathomable thanks and unnamed love” and “swimming in a sea of crystal radiance” can begin to seem almost kitschy, or at least over the top, at times. And so when I prepared to listen to the last movement of Schoenberg's quartet that day, I wasn't sure how to imagine what the “air of another planet” might sound like.

Whatever I might have imagined, the music was radically different from that imagination. I have long struggled to put into words just why this movement made such an impression on me at the time. Perhaps it was because it truly did sound as though “from another planet,” and yet it was also immanently sensible. It was strangely beautiful, and beautifully strange – and it made me want to learn more about music so that I could understand how a piece like this came about, and what gives its musical substance such great expressive and significant force.


In its 1908 premiere, Schoenberg's Second Quartet prompted a small succès de scandale on account of precisely one of the features for which it is now celebrated: the inclusion of a soprano, singing the aforementioned Stefan Georg texts, in its third and fourth movements. (Reportedly, following the third movement there came calls to end the performance, and by the close of the quartet, Schoenberg's music was more or less inaudible under the din of the crowd.) The first intimation of a vocal intrusion into the quartet, however, comes even earlier, in the middle of the second movement where, after building up to a fortissimo climax with tremolos in the first and second violins, the quartet quotes the Viennese song “Ach du lieber Augustin.” (The song's refrain: “Oh, you dear Augustin/All is lost.”) The tune at once evokes programmatic allusions (in particular, the line “all is lost” can be read as referring both to Schoenberg's dissolution of tonality in this quartet and the simultaneous dissolution of his first marriage) and sounds markedly – even comically – out of place. Eventually, the tune itself dissolves and “is lost” as it becomes chromatically inflected and is subjected to Schoenberg's process of “developing variation.”

When the voice – a solo soprano – itself comes in in the third movement, it, too, seems to be something of an alien intrusion into the string quartet even as it helps provide extra-musical significance for the work's audacious moves away from tonality. In many ways, including a solo voice – particularly one that, like the soprano, floats above the quartet redo – seems to go against many of the central principles of the quartet genre – those of equality of instrumental parts, of relative textural homogeneity, and of “durchbrochene arbeit” (the practice of developing musical material by splitting it amongst various instruments).

Schoenberg actively foregrounds such tensions in his setting of Stefan Georg's “Litanei” in the third movement: written in variation form, the movement's quartet part treats the principal themes from the previous two movements (continuing in the venerable tradition of cyclic form; compare Schoenberg's use here with the invocation of previous themes in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) while the soprano sings new, thematically independent material. The result is a remarkable, anguished commentary of sorts on the music that has come before – a commentary that, moreover, seems to derive its force as much from the gulf between the vocal and the quartet parts as it does from their union. This anguished prayer leads to the fourth movement's other-planetary “rapture” – and, moreover, to the quartet's most radical movement: not only is the final movement largely removed from tonality (though it touches on triadic harmonies and does end, albeit somewhat tentatively, on a F# major chord, the parallel major of the key in which the first movement began), but it is almost entirely athematic, privileging texture over themes and departing entirely from traditional forms. Much of the harmonic and melodic motion occurs by fifths – an interval that traditionally forms the bedrock of tonality, yet here is presented divorced entirely from its conventional harmonic function. Tonal and formal gravity, so to speak, have been suspended on this new musical “planet.”

Extra-musical associations have long been used to justify transgressions of musical norms; indeed, such practices can be traced back at least as far as Monteverdi's seconda prattica, in which Monteverdi justified departures from Palestrina-style perfect counterpoint through the demands of attentive text setting. But what seems remarkable to me in Schoenberg's employment of this device is that while Georg's texts help articulate the decisive strangeness of the quartet, they do not explain this strangeness away. Rather, the quartet's deliberate incongruities – which caused such a stir at the quartet's premiere – expressively heighten this strangeness, and in so doing begin to make it sensible.


In an essay exploring the relation between music and language – and, in particular, music's Sprachähnlichkeit, its similarity to language –, the philosopher Theodor Adorno likewise touches, from a slightly different angle, on the work's complex mediation between expressiveness and expressionlessness: “Schoenberg...had to find means of composition that would rise above the gliding of the chromatics without reverting back to a lack of differentiation. The solution lay precisely in those extraterritorial chords that had not yet been occupied by musical-linguistic intentions – a kind of musical new-fallen snow in which the subject had not yet left any tracks. … In the last movement of the F-sharp Minor Quartet, the new chords have been inserted as literal allegories of 'another planet.' It follows that the origin of the new harmony must be sought in the realm of the emphatically expressionless, as much as in the realm of expression, as much in hostility to language as in language – even though this hostile element, which is alien to the continuum of the idiom, repeatedly served to realize something that was linguistic in a higher degree, namely, the articulation of the whole.”

Such issues lie at the heart of another work that has been very important to me in my explorations of recent music, Brian Ferneyhough's Fourth String Quartet (1990) – which, like Schoenberg's Second Quartet, employs the unusual combination of string quartet and soprano and which the composer wrote in conscious response both two Schoenberg's work and to Adorno's larger treatment of the issue of Sprachähnlichkeit. Crucially, Ferneyhough was concerned with exploring the viability and limits of the music-language relationship in contemporary music; as he writes in a discussion of the work, “I don't take Sprachähnlichkeit for granted; in fact, the appropriateness of the concept was part of the problem I set myself. … In my Fourth Quartet, I set myself the task of examining, one more time, how, and if, the phenomenon of verbal language and the essentially processual nature of much recent musical composition could be coaxed into some kind of Einklang, some mutually illuminating coexistence.”

In contrast to Schoenberg's quartet, whose movements progress with ever-increasing tension to the final movement's ecstatic Entrückung, Ferneyhough's quartet employs a rather different strategy. It is structured in two pairs of movements, each consisting of a rather short instrumental movement (the first of which Ferneyhough compares to the “curiously truncated sonata allegro structures in the opening movement of Schoenberg's Second Quartet”) followed by a longer movement with voice (setting Jackson Mac Low's “Words and Ends from Ez,” a deconstruction of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos). In both of the pairs, the vocal movement quite audibly mirrors the structural organization of the preceding instrumental movement.

The first movement consists of progressive, though often somewhat violently fragmented, developments of the opening idea, a rapid repetition of a single pitch played on two alternating strings; the second movement shares not only the first's impulse towards linear development, but also its fragmentary, fractured quality, now expressed directly through frequent grand pauses between sections. In this movement, the vocal part is consistently directly tied to the quartet part, constantly imitating (in various, constantly shifting fashions) material heard in the latter; however, this imitation seems to become increasingly free over the course of the movement, particularly in the middle of the movement when the soprano begins speaking parts of the text – emphasizing that Sprachähnlichkeit can describe not only a similarity to abstract language, but also to spoken language itself. The third movement moves to a different type of fragmentation – one of instrumentation, as different instruments drop out and are foregrounded over the course of the work, casting into question the concerted nature of the string quartet. This reaches an extreme in the fourth, vocal movement, which concludes with a remarkable lengthy passage for solo, unaccompanied voice. In both pairs of movements, the opening instrumental movement sets up the problem (fragmented variation, disintegration of the concerted quartet) that is qualitatively transformed, and placed into dialog with the problem of linguistic and musical expression, through the vocal movement.


Retrospectively discussing his Second Quartet in 1949, Schoenberg let his sci-fi side show through for a moment, remarking, “The fourth movement, Entrückung, begins with an introduction, depicting the departure from earth to another planet. The visionary poet here foretold sensations, which perhaps soon will be affirmed. Becoming relieved from gravitation – passing through clouds into thinner and thinner air, forgetting all the troubles of life on earth – that is attempted to be illustrated in this introduction.” Thinner air, but still breathable – and it is this that, for me, makes much of “new music” so fascinating.

Sources Consulted:

Adorno, Theodor. “Music, Language, and Composition.” In Essays on Music, edited by Richard Leppert, 113-126. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Arnold Schoenberg Center. “Zweites Quartett (fis-Moll) für zwei Violinen, Viola, Violoncello und eine Sopranstimme” Accessed July 9, 2013.
Crispin, Darla M. “Arnold Schoenberg's Wounded Work: 'Litanei' From the String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 10.” In Austrian Studies 79 (2009), 62-74.
Ferneyhough, Brian. “String Quartet No. 4.” In Collected Writings, ed. James Boros and Richard Toop, 153-164.