On Duration and Developing Variation: The Intersecting Ideologies of Henri Bergson and Arnold Schoenberg

By Salley, Keith | Music Theory Online, December 2015 | Go to article overview

On Duration and Developing Variation: The Intersecting Ideologies of Henri Bergson and Arnold Schoenberg


Salley, Keith, Music Theory Online


Are we not moving here toward a musical form of complete stream-of-consciousness, in which no exact recapitulation is possible because no two moments of our lives are ever alike? It is hardly a coincidence that the composer who argues most explicitly that music reproduces our inner life should produce a dramatic work notable for its apparently complete lack of recapitulation--Erwartung.

--Edward T. Cone (1968, 86-87)

Either there is no philosophy possible, and all knowledge of things is a practical knowledge aimed at the profit to be drawn from them, or else philosophy consists in placing oneself within the object itself by an effort of intuition.

--Henri Bergson (1912, 43)

I. Introduction

[1] Several scholars have addressed philosophers that influenced Arnold Schoenberg, but the majority of this literature has focused on German thinkers such as Heidegger, Schopenhauer, and Hegel.(1) Schoenberg scholars have only recently turned to Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a French philosopher who achieved considerable renown at the turn of the twentieth century.(2) This resurgence of interest in Bergson is important, and thanks to the work of scholars such as Cherlin (2007), Hulse (2008), and Cleland (2003 and 2011), we now have a more comprehensive view of the intellectual culture of Vienna specifically and of Europe more generally in the years that immediately precede the First World War.

[2] Exploring the relationship between Bergson's and Schoenberg's thinking also affords us an opportunity to change the way we understand and even experience one of the Schoenberg's most recognizable compositional techniques: developing variation. This article discusses the intersection of Bergson's philosophy and Schoenberg's music by showing a connection between Bergson's concept of duration (durée) and Schoenberg's idea of developing variation. Part II presents archival evidence from Schoenberg's personal library that invites our consideration of Schoenberg's music through a Bergsonian lens. Part III cites relevant scholarship concerning Bergson and music, and delves into the specific ideas that relate duration and developing variation. Part IV addresses and clarifies the epistemological and ontological issues that arise when applying Bergson's ideas in musical analysis. Part V presents analyses of three pieces from Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19--analyses that consider developing variation as inward, even metaphysical experiences. Part VI offers a brief conclusion.

II. The Dissemination of Bergson's Works in Austria (1909-13)

[3] Bergson had several academic appointments over the course of his career, and in 1927 won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, one of two doctoral theses he submitted to the University of Paris in 1888, was published in 1889. This text discusses duration--the conceptual center of Bergson's theory of subjective time--quite extensively. A German translation of the thesis, Zeit und Freiheit, was released on January 1, 1911, only a month and a half before the day in mid-February 1911 when Schoenberg composed the first five miniatures of op. 19.(3) Bergson wrote another text, Matière et mémoire (Matter and Memory), in 1896, and its German translation, Materie und Gedächtnis, appeared in 1908; this book delves more deeply into memory, and thus requires an especially sensitive and thorough understanding of Bergson's concept of duration. A third, shorter work, Introduction à la métaphysique (1903), summarizes the major points of both Essai and Matière. Einführung in die Metaphysik, the German translation of Introduction, began circulating in 1909, actually preceding the release of Zeit und Freiheit.

Figure 1. Facsimile from the catalog of Schoenberg's personal library (1/23/1913)

[4] Archives indicate that Schoenberg owned the German translations of all three of these texts. (See Figure 1, a scan of a page from the catalog Schoenberg made for his personal library. …

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