Josef Matthias Hauer

Josef Matthias Hauer

Over the last few weeks, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the atonal mysticism of the Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), a marginalised figure in 20th century music. If he is mentioned at all it is usually as a footnote to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, for Hauer himself developed a method of composing with all twelve tones shortly before Schoenberg’s ’emancipation of dissonance.’

Although both composers corresponded and planned to co-author a work on atonal composition, differences in their respective musical philosophies soon led to animosity between the pair, leading Hauer to stamp his correspondence:

The spiritual father and 
(in spite of many imitators!) 
still the only 
master and connoisseur 
of twelve-note music.

Hauer’s own theories of atonal music, underpinned by mystical hypotheses, stand in opposition to the type of strict statistical unity that Schoenberg’s ‘method of composing with twelve tones’ ensured (- in which all tones will be represented an equal number of times in the piece). Such a disconcertingly ‘modern’ conception of ‘unity’ is absent from Hauer’s approach, which scholar and composer Dominik Šedivý has called ‘anti-expressionistic.’

While Schoenberg’s pupil Webern was lionised after the second world war by a new generation of composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hauer seemed to lapse into outmoded obscurity, although there are aspects of his all-but-forgotten work that would resurface later in the 20th century. For example, there are particular resonances with the philosophy of John Cage (indeed, apparently the only book he possessed on his death was the I-Ching) and later developments in algorithmic composition.

Hauer manuscript.

Of particular interest in respect of the latter is Hauer’s mode of semi-automated composition called the zwölftonspiel, or twelve-tone game. Hauer composed hundreds of zwölftonspiel, using an idiosyncratic method of notation on an eight line staff (zwölfton-notenschrift), an illustrative page of which is shown here. A zwölftonspiel typically starts with a twelve-tone row, taken from Hauer’s system of 44 tropes (in which all 479,001,600 combinations of twelve tones can be expressed). Schoenberg’s technique is to realise the tone row as a matrix of 48 possible transpositions, inversions, retrogrades and retrograde-inversions. Hauer, however, does something different: he harmonises the series with itself to build up a series of tetrachords, which form a harmonic continuum for the piece, the basics of which are illustrated in this example from Dominik Šedivý’s Serial Composition and Tonality, probably the most detailed explanation of Hauer’s various 12-tone techniques in English:

Harmonising a 12-tone row

Harmonising a 12-tone row into a harmonic continuum. The original 12-tone row is shown as white note heads (Sedivy, 2011).

To expand this into a continuum of 12 tetrachords, the harmonisation ‘wraps round’ – so the ‘eb’, ‘b’ and ‘g#’ in the twelfth tetrachord will be repeated in the first. In a typical zwölftonspiel, the continuum repeats throughout the piece and is distributed through four voices, instruments or registers by the use of a sort of magic square indicating the melodic structure (melischer entwurf), as illustrated in the above manuscript.

The results are very different from those of Schoenberg’s methods, as in this particularly funky, toe-tapping harpsichord piece in which the continuum provides the chords, and the left-hand part is created by breaking apart the tetrachords into melodic figures:

And here’s a zwölftonspiel consisting solely of melody:

For Hauer, the zwölftonspiel was a kind of philosophical or mystical game, played not by a composer, but by a ‘hearer’ – each piece of music a window into the particular twelve-tone universe within a ‘trope’ or ‘constellation’ in his system. As with Cage, Hauer used chance to a philosophical end in his zwölftonspiel compositions. This ensured a direct relation between the zwölftonspiel and the transpersonal order of musical and spiritual reality was free from the emotive influences of the composer and could be contemplated on its own terms. Hauer underlines this in his 1937 manifesto:

Twelve-note music is the revelation of world order, religion in its truest sense, the only one there is and the only one there can be. 
Twelve-note music offers the deepest insight into cosmic order. 
Twelve-note music cannot deceive, cannot lie. 
Twelve-note music is the unchangeable sacred scripture, the eternal language of the universe. 
Twelve-note music is the spiritual reality. 

It is interesting that the equal tempered scale is vital to Hauer’s musical philosophy. Earlier speculative theorists such as Fabre d’Oliviet often proposed that equal temperament had destroyed something miraculous (and intimately connected to nature) that was possessed by earlier modes of tuning: that which embodied a power by which Orpheus and Amphion were able to perform miracles. For Hauer, however, equality of temperament is vital (hence his use of a mandala-like motif on his publications, shown at the end of this article). He even declared that “the tempered system having twelve equal steps is the mouth of God, which proclaims life’s commandments which, in turn, provide order to the world and plot the course of the planets.” (Gustafson, 1979)

As a way to begin exploring certain aspects of Hauer’s technique (in preparation for working on some new musical ideas), I composed some ‘tropic’ reinterpretations of the first three preludes in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I – I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

For those interested in exploring or developing Hauer’s theories, I have created two types of manuscript paper:

Zwölfton-notenschriften only [pdf]
Zwölfton-notenschriften & conventional staves [pdf]

Further reading

There hasn’t been much written on Hauer in English, but the following have been useful to me:

John R. Covach. ‘The Zwölftonspiel of Josef Matthias Hauer’ in The Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 149-184.

Roger S. Gustafson. ‘Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959)’ in Tempo, New Series, No. 130 (Sep., 1979), pp. 20-25.

Lauriejean Reinhardt. Josef Matthias Hauer’s Melischer Entwurf. [pdf]

Dominik Šedivý. Serial Composition and Tonality: An Introduction to the Music of Hauer and Steinbauer. 2011. Society for Klangreihenmusik. (Šedivý also presented a paper on Hauer’s mysticism at the recent Enchanted Modernities conference.)

Additionally, there are many interesting Hauer resources at AEIOU Musik-Kolleg and the Wellesz Company have new recordings of 36 Hauer compositions on YouTube.

There is also an LP of zwölftonspiel compositions released by Philips in 1973, some of which are played by one of Hauer’s students Viktor Sokolowski (1911-82).

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