Unity and Pluralism in Selected Works by Joseph Schwantner  




Cynthia Folio



          Joseph Schwantner's recent works allude to a multiplicity of musical styles, both past and present.  The works from 1977 to 1979 represent a turning point in this direction, moving from a concentration on serial procedures to greater stylistic diversity.  One of the  most eclectic works from this period is Sparrows, which contains references to renaissance, baroque, romantic, and contemporary styles.[1]  The following discussion will concentrate on two other works from this period:  and the mountains rising nowhere (1977), for wind ensemble; and Aftertones of Infinity (1979), for orchestra.  The latter work was winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.[2]


          While the compositions from this period exhibit stylistic pluralism, there are several factors which guarantee unity.  One is the consistent use of serial procedures in both the tonal and nontonal areas.  Another is the use of motivic parallelism, or the reflection of surface events at other structural levels of the composition.  Schwantner's pieces are also unified by his distinctive use of timbre, which gives older stylistic references a distinctly contemporary sound.     


          The serial procedures that are applied to both diatonic and non-diatonic materials include the transposition and invariance of basic sets, combinatoriality, and the derivation of formal structure and harmonic structure from the primary motives.  This will be illustrated through selected examples of some unifying factors in and the mountains and Aftertones.


          First, I would like to point out a few general features of his style.  It is in the areas of timbre and texture that we find many of Schwantner's most distinctive stylistic traits.  As an example, his fondness for sounds which "hang in the air" (as he has described it) rings through all of his works.  This is seen immediately in his choice of instruments, such as crotales, vibraphone, tubular bells, piano, harp, glass crystals, tam-tams, and wind chimes. The characteristic amplitude envelope of the ringing sound is used as a formal device; in fact many of his compositions, such as the two discussed presently, end with a fade-out or a ringing sound.


          The many stylistic references within Schwantner's compositions are allusions to particular styles, not true imitations.  Each reference borrows some obvious features of a style, so that the listener forms associations.  Like dreams, these references float in and out of the music's progress; transformed by the context in which they appear, they are given


new meanings and new implications.


          Features associated with the frequent references to tonality include the selection of musical materials from the diatonic scale and the emphasis on a specific pitch-class (pc). These "tonal" areas do not invoke the rules of tonal syntax; the syntax is instead derived from the structure of the musical materials themselves.


and the mountains rising nowhere


          and the mountains[3] is scored for wind ensemble with a few unusual doublings and an expanded percussion section.[4]  It is constructed primarily from nine motivic elements illustrated in Ex. 1.  Many of these motives are derived from one another, or at least share some characteristics of other motives.  Numbers 2, 5, and 7 represent the diatonic set-class (SC) 7-35[5]. Since B is the pitch-class center when these motives are introduced, we might say that these motives are from the B aeolian scale (or in one case, B dorian). Motive #3 (which Schwantner calls the "bell chord"), is a subset of B aeolian, representing SC 5-20.


          Numbers 4 and 6 are both inversionally symmetrical SCs, the first representing SC 8-28, or the octatonic set; while the other is SC 7-34. Motive #4 actually presents the set 8-28 so that it is registrally symmetrical around F/B; this is significant, since B is the pc center. Both of these motives also share five pcs with motive #2.


          The first five notes of #8 are the same pitches (in the same register) as the "bell chord." Motive #9 is in turn derived from #8 in that it is based on SC 6-20, represented also by the last six pcs in motive #8. In addition, there is an important trichord that is present within several of the motives and which is sustained by the flutes and singers at the end of the piece.  This trichord is B-F#-C#, or SC 3-9, which is generally presented as two superimposed perfect fifths.  This trichord is imbedded within motives #2, 3, 5, and 7 in an obvious way (shown by brackets in Example 2).  Furthermore, B and C# are the boundary pitches for motives 2,3, and 7. This B-C# is presented motivically at the opening of the piece as a trill in the piano.



                                    Example 1: Motivic materials from Schwantner's and the mountains


          Although and the mountains is divided into eleven distinct sections, each with a different style and incorporating different musical materials, the general shape is A B A. This ternary structure is shaped primarily by the change in pc priority in the composition:  there is an emphasis on B at the beginning and end and a shift to A flat in the middle section.  The sonority of the glass crystals reinforces the idea of return, appearing only at the beginning and end of the composition.  Many of the motives from the opening are transposed down a minor third (or T9) in the middle section and appear at their original transpositions (T0) at the end.  Motive #5 is presented as a canon in the middle section (example 2) at both transposition levels, thus reflecting the overall form in a microcosm.  Even motive #4, which is octatonic, is transposed down a minor third in measure 73.  Since this transposition is totally invariant with the original, the change is in pitch and not in pitch-class.


                                    Example 2: Canon, m.71 in and the mountains rising nowhere, m.85


          A brass chorale, (example 3) seems to "rise from nowhere" in the middle section.  Although it has not been heard before in the composition and never returns, it outlines the aeolian mode on A flat (and is therefore related to motives #2 and 7).  Furthermore, the structural tones, A flat - E flat - B flat are a transposition of the important B-F#-C# segment discussed earlier.

                       Example 3: Brass chorale, and the mountains rising nowhere, m.85


          As an example of contrasting compositional styles, compare the modal "brass chorale" with motive #9, which combines complement-related hexachords to form total aggregates.  The hexachord which is transposed several times is the all-combinatorial SC 6-20.  The combination of A + B in example 1 includes all twelve pcs.  Example 4 illustrates a situation in which aggregates are formed both melodically and harmonically.  In measures 100-105, each of the flutes and piccolos present SC 8-28 melodically a total of six times in the pattern of T0 - T2 - T1.  However, each instrument starts on a different transposition so that the pattern is rotated (see ex. 4b).   The result is a pattern of T0 - T2 - T1 - T0 - T2 - T1 in both the horizontal and vertical directions, creating two twelve-tone aggregates at a time harmonically and melodically.




                 Example 4a: and the mountain rising nowhere disposition of SC 8-28 in m.100-105

                                  Copyright 1977 but Helicon Music Corp.  All RIghts Reserved.  Used by permission of Helicon Music Corp.


                                                              T0  T2  T1  T0  T2  T1

                                                              T2  T1  T0  T2  T1  T0

                                                              T1  T0  T2  T1  T0  T2 

                                                              T0  T2  T1  T0  T2  T1

                                                              T2  T1  T0  T2  T1  T0

                                                              T1  T0  T2  T1  T0  T2


                 Example 4b: Transposition pattern in m.100-105 of and the moutain rising nowhere




Aftertones of Infinity


          Aftertones is scored for an orchestra  of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, with several interesting additions and doublings[6]. Example 5 is a sketch  that Schwantner prepared for his own lecture on Aftertones.  This piece is more highly integrated than and the mountains in that all the motives in the piece are related to one basic set, which Schwantner calls the "protoset."  This set opens the piece in the form of motive #1.  As he points out, the SC (9-10) is the octatonic scale plus one note - C#.  He also arranges this set (directly under motive #1 on the sketch) to show its symmetry around the C#.  Motives #2 and 8 are different arrangements of this protoset:  motive #2 is a harmonic statement in which the range is compressed into a major seventh;  motive #8 is a melodic ostinato that is arranged into two tetrachords plus C#.  As Schwantner illustrates in the sketch,  this particular arrangement emphasizes the symmetrical properties of the set;  the two (0167) tetrachords, or SC 4-9s, are themselves inversionally symmetrical sets.  The C# is the lowest and last note, thus isolating the (abstract) axis of symmetry for the entire set.


          In the second row of the sketch, Schwantner shows how other motives are derived, either literally or abstractly form the protoset.  The first three pcs in motive #1 form the same augmented triad that is present in the glass crystals, or motive #3.  All four glass crystals form SC 4-19, as do the first four pcs of motive #1 (C#-A-F G flat).  The "bell chord" from and the mountains returns in Aftertones as motive #6.  Although all of the pcs of the "bell chord" are not in the protoset, its SC (5-20) is contained in 9-10 twice as a subset.  Motive #5 represents SC 3-5 (016) which is found as a contiguous segment several times in motive #1 (see example 6).  This SC is also the building block for motive #9.


          Finally, motive #4, a simple descending whole step, is an important motive in the piece.  The descending whole tone is used, for example, in motive #9 to transpose successive statements of 3-5.  (see bottom of example 5). Although the protoset is strongly octatonic, the addition of the C# gives the set five notes from the whole-tone scale plus one note, or SC 7-33 (motive #7).  Some of the motives from the beginning are transposed a whole tone lower at the end and, in general, the whole tone and the major third (derived from the augmented triad of #1 and #3) are used as transposition levels for different statements of the same motive.  It should be noted that because many of the motives in Aftertones contain the whole-tone scale or part of a whole-tone scale as a subset, transposition by whole step or major third results in a considerable amount of pc intersection, sometimes total or maximum invariance.  As in and the mountains, where one motive appears in a canon at the structural interval of the minor third, motive #9 of Aftertones is stated once in a canon at the major second.



                                     Example 5: Aftertones of Infinity, Schwantner's sketch

                                                                  Example 6: Trichordal subsets of [1] .


          The form of Aftertones is an almost symmetrical arch, shaped primarily by the reappearance of key events.  It is much less sectional than and the mountains and appears to be almost "seamless."  It also differs from the earlier composition in that the motives not only relate more strongly to one another, but they also interact in various ways.


          One remarkable example of the interaction (example 7) shows the operation of several motives at three different structural levels.  At the foreground, we have whole-tone transpositions of SC 3-5 (similar to motive #9);  the notes that are picked up and sustained (C#-B, A-G, D-E flat) present motive #4 at T0, T8, and T4,  and the first note of each of these groups, plus the A flat at the top, form SC 4-19, with the same pcs as motive #3 in the glass crystals.  Schwantner refers to this layering technique as a "kind of filling-in or elaboration process."




                                                            Example 7: Motivic Interaction, Aftertones of Infinity, m.3


          A long oboe solo over repetitions of the "bell-chord" (measures 124-130), illustrated in example 8 appears at first to present new material.  But there are several features in the solo that reflect elements of the piece.  (White notes in the example represent sustained notes, while the black notes are quicker, embellishing tones.)  A predominant feature of the solo is the whole-tone descent of C to B flat, an application of motive #4 and a reflection of the boundary pitches of the repeated "bell chord."  This motive occurs on three structural levels in the solo:  (1) from the opening C to the closing B flat; (2) three times between two consecutive white notes; and (3) twice between ornamental notes.  SC 3-4 (subset of a common tetrachord in the piece, SC 4-5) and SC 3-5 (motive #5) are frequent in the oboe solo.  Note that one 3-4 is nested within a larger (structural) 3-4 and that the white notes of D flat-A-A flat-F outline SC 4-19 (motive #3).


                                    Example 8: Oboe solo, Aftertones of Infinity, mm.124-130


          A type of texture which is used frequently in this piece involves the use of parallelism whose harmonic aspect is governed by important motives.  Therefore, there is complete control of the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  In measures 148-163, SC 4-19 is applied harmonically to a variation of motive #9.  Example 9 shows only four chords from the passage to illustrate aspects of the "chord progression."  The spacing of 4-19 is the same as it is in motive #3.  Also, there is always at least one common pc from one chord to the next:  one when there is a motion of interval-class 1 or 5;  and three with a motion of interval-class 4 (shown by arrows in example 9).  In measure 160, two consecutive 4-19 sonorities are isolated and sustained: A flat-C-E-G in the brass and G-B-D#-F# in the winds - so that the harmonic basis of the passage is put in relief.  Other combinations of motives harmonically and melodically include 4-19 with 7-33, 7-33 with 4-5, 3-5 with 4-19, and 7-33 with 3-8.


                                                                        Example 9: Motive #3, "harmonized"


          It can be seen from these selective examples that compositions with a broad spectrum of stylistic references can have a highly unified, coherent structure.  Through the application of serial procedures and a sensitivity to motivic development at several structural levels, Schwantner achieves a unique synthesis of past and present.


     [1] Cynthia Folio "The Synthesis of Traditional and Contemporary Elements in Joseph Schwantner's Sparrows," Perspectives of New Music 24/1 (1985):184-96.

     [2] These two works are included in my dissertation, An Analysis and Comparison of Four Compositions by Joseph Schwantner. (Ph.D. dissertation, Eastman School of Music, 1985).

     [3] Besides the one in my dissertation, there are two analyses of this work: (1) John R. Locke, "A Performance Analysis of Joseph Schwantner's and the mountains rising nowhere," Winds Quarterly 1/2 (Summer 1981): 40-45 and 2/1 (Winter 1981): 4-20; and (2) Jeffery Briggs, The Recent Music of Joseph Schwantner: Unique and Essential Elements (D.M.A. dissertation, Memphis State University, 1980).

     [4] Winds, brass, amplified piano, amplified contrabass, six percussionists: 4 timpani, 2 xylophones, 2 vibraphones, 2 glockenspiels, marimba, tubular bells, a chromatic set of crystals, bell tree, water gongs, cymbals, tom-toms, bass drums, triangles (contrabass bows are used over the edge of gongs, crotales, and the metal bars of a vibraphone) and seven glass crystals (played by the oboists).

     [5] For a definition of set-class and many of the set-theoretical terms that are commonly used in the analysis of atonal music, see Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

     [6] Winds: 2 flutes (1st - piccolo); oboe (doubling on 2 glass crystals, C# and G#)); english horn (doubling on 2 glass crystals, A and F); two B  flat clarinets; two bassoons. brass: 6 horns, in F; 2 trumpets in C; 3 trombones (3rd - bass); tuba. strings; violins 1 and 2; violas; cellos; contrabasses. percussion: piano/celeste; harp; timpani; 2 percussionists playing the following instruments: bell tree; 3 tom-toms, 3 timbales; medium and large bass drum; small, medium and large suspended triangle; medium and large tam-tams, 2 small gongs; small, medium and large suspended cymbal, 3 Japanese temple bells, tubular bells, vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba, crotales and celeste (bows are used for playing the vibraphone, crotales, and tam-tam, and a "clusterboard" is used for the keyboard instruments to cover the entire length of the keyboard.)