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

Pynchon Notes 2008, Spring-Fall, 54-55

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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).

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