Quotations: Wagner’s Cakewalk Down Tone Row

Richard Wagner is considered by many to usher in modern music, cultivating the ground for new possibilities for composers well into the 20th century. Composers had to respond in some way to the shadow that Wagner cast on them.

Two composers in particular respond. Their means is quoting Wagner’s calling card: the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, that love-death motif. The results of this quotation, however, couldn’t be more different.

Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner sneaks in Wagner’s Prelude in the sixth movement: Golliwog’s Cakewalk. The yearning first bars are introduced only to be interrupted with these tossed off and cheeky rolls. To supplant Wagner in a cakewalk, a cheery provincial dance, is a tease on Debussy’s part: a finger in the nose at Wagner. That is the stance Debussy takes in his music, finding an alternative route to Wagnerian grandiosity: running out of his shadow as quickly as he can.

Alban Berg supplants Wagner’s love-death motif in the sixth movement (coincidence?) of his Lyric Suite: Largo Desolato. He states that the “entire material, the tonal element too…as well as the Tristan motif” is developed by “strict adherence to the 12 note series”. Now it’d be a stretch to say that Berg designed the tone row of this movement around a bar or two. Yet one does not accidentally quote Wagner. 12 Tone music was seen by Schoenberg and his successors (Berg!) as an extension of the Germanic tradition. And who’s a big part of that tradition? Wagner. To quote Wagner using 12 tone is both an homage to the past and a declaration of the future.

What’s fascinating about quotation, especially in these two cases, is that it isn’t a matter of simply stealing someone else’s music because you couldn’t think of something. It’s an intentional act. Quotation is a response to whatever is quoted: insult in Debussy’s case, homage in Berg’s.

Shadows are always cast in music. It’s how they are responded to and how those responses are responded to ad infinitum that shapes music.

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