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date: 24 October 2020

Grundgestalt (Ger.: ‘basic shape’)locked

  • Michael J. Schiano


(Ger.: ‘basic shape’)

A term used by Schoenberg for basis of coherence in a musical composition. According to Schoenberg: ‘Whatever happens in a piece of music is the endless reshaping of the basic shape … There is nothing in a piece of music but what comes from the theme, springs from it and can be traced back to it; to put it still more severely, nothing but the theme itself’ (‘Linear Counterpoint’, 1950). Schoenberg neither defined Grundgestalt precisely in musical terms nor provided examples from the literature. Rather, inferences must be drawn from his writings on related topics, his own musical analyses and accounts from his students.

The Grundgestalt is an important part of Schoenberg's musical thinking; at the centre is the axiom that music must be comprehensible in order to create intellectual and emotional satisfaction. The most direct means through which this is achieved is by the frequent repetition of the basic motif. Sometimes the repetition will be ‘exact’, as for Schoenberg in literal transpositions, inversions, augmentations, diminutions and retrogrades. More often, repetition involves variation, where the features and note-relations of the motif are not strictly preserved. This process, which Schoenberg called ‘developing variation’, is meant to overcome the monotony potentially created by exact repetition; it also produces new motivic forms adapted to fulfil various compositional functions that become necessary as the piece progresses. In a masterwork, even so-called transitional passages and cadential figures are developing variation....

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