Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Atonalism, Nietzsche and Gravity's Rainbow: Pynchon's Use of German Music History and Culture

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Atonalism, Nietzsche and Gravity's Rainbow: Pynchon's Use of German Music History and Culture

Article excerpt

Henry-Louis de la Grange, a scholar of Gustav Mahler's life and works, tells us that an "early plan of the Fourth Symphony, put together some time before that symphony was composed ... contained a 'Scherzo in D major' entitled 'Die Welt ohne Schwere' ('The World Without Gravity')" (2.800). Given this suggestive title, any reader well trained by Pynchon to see connections and affiliations in the most trivial detail may recall the dialogue between Saure Bummer and Gustav Schlabone in Gravity's Rainbow and wonder whether Gustav's given name is meant to evoke Mahler's, and wonder also whether the song's words, if any exist, have some relevance to Pynchon's novel. Any account of the German dialectic in music that Schlabone trumpets would surely include Mahler, a contemporary of Strauss and a composer much admired by Schonberg for taking German music the first steps away from tonality, deploying dissonances first initiated by Wagner (Friedrich 167). La Grange describes the fruitful period in which Mahler wrote a series of songs including "Die Welt ohne Schwere," but he says nothing about the song's words. The instrumental music itself, according to La Grange, became the fourth movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Whether or not Schlabone's first name alludes to Mahler is much less significant than the use Pynchon makes of the sociology and politics of German music during the Weimar and National Socialist eras. Arguments of the sort carried on by Gustav and Saure did in fact occur in the 1920s. As in Gravity's Rainbow, the debates were provoked by Arnold Schonberg's atonalism and his invention of the twelve-tone row, though they had begun earlier in response to the composer Frederico Busoni and the music critic Paul Bekker. Schonberg himself sounded a bit like Gustav when he declared in 1921 that his invention of the Row would "guarantee the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years" (qtd. in Friedrich 178). Similarly, Gustav praises the Row as the culmination of "'the German dialectic, the incorporation of more and more notes into the scale, culminating with dodecaphonic democracy, where all notes get an equal hearing'" (440). With Webern, this dialectic had reached "'the moment of maximum freedom'" (441).

Gustav's contempt for tonality (621) is a direct paraphrase of Schonberg's own attack on tonality in his Manual of Harmony (1911), where he argues for an equality of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Whereas the notes in the standard eight-tone system always retain "a simple relationship to the ground note" or root, dissonance goes beyond this loyalty or obedience to the dominant tonic: "Every musical configuration," Schonberg writes, "every movement of tones has to be comprehended as a mutual relation of sound" (qtd. in Friedrich 177). Gustav's association of this music with freedom is a common theme in commentaries about Schonberg. William Austin, for example, writes:

   Schonberg was fascinated equally by the infinite, ungraspable
   extent of the tonal realm and by its continuity, its absolute
   oneness. In nearly every composition he tried to suggest both. He
   was hardly interested at all in any alternative selection of the
   intervals--he wanted complete, continual freedom for all. (37)

As Marc A. Weiner points out in Undertones of Insurrection: Music, Politics and the Social Sphere in the Modern German Narrative, there was in the early Weimar period a "widespread association of sociopolitical issues with music" in German culture (56). Schonberg himself understood his attack on tonality in just such terms, describing the tonal system as a monarchy ruled by a dictator:

   The fundamental tone ... has a certain sovereignty over the
   structures emanating from it just because the most important
   components of these structures are, so to speak, its satraps, its
   advocates, since they derive from its splendor: Napoleon, who
   installs his relatives and friends on the European thrones. … 
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