We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

Contents

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CLARIFICATION

Chapter:
CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia
Source:
MUSIC IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin
Clarification

fig. 12-4 Webern in the Ötztal Alps, July 1937.

With Webern the situation has been somewhat different. Drawn even more strongly than Schoenberg or Berg to symmetrically constructed rows, he was also drawn to extremes of structural rigor and economy that vastly exceeded theirs, reflecting his own personal predilections as we have already come to know them from the radically compressed “expressionistic” works encountered in chapter 6. “Adherence to the row is strict, often burdensome,” Webern wrote, “but it is salvation!”39 It provided a “new law”—Nomos—that made larger forms possible again. But even Webern’s larger forms were tiny. And his utopian vision of twelve-tone music as a discipline for musicians and a salvation for music has come, for reasons neither he nor any other composer could have predicted during his lifetime, to characterize the technique in the eyes of those who have cast themselves as his creative progeny, and to limit its scope.

ClarificationClarification

ex. 12-22 Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, coda

Webern’s first twelve-tone composition was a little piano piece called Kinderstück (“Children’s piece”), composed in 1924. His next twelve-tone study, a piano piece in the form of a minuet (1925), again underscored the close relationship between the new technique and the general “disciplinary” aims of neoclassicism. Over the course of the next twenty years Webern completed a round dozen works intended for publication—two orchestral, three choral, one for piano, four for chamber ensembles, and two sets of songs—using the technique his teacher had invented. Their total duration is less than the combined length of Berg’s Lyric Suite and Violin Concerto. But their impact would be extraordinary. While Schoenberg invented (or, as he preferred to say, “discovered”) the twelve-tone technique, it was Webern who provided the paramount model for its later development and use.

Clarification

ex. 12-23 Jacob Obrecht, Missa Graecorum, cantus firmi from Gloria, Agnus I and Agnus III

It may have been Webern’s training in musicology, then primarily an antiquarian field, that predisposed him to take a more purely intervallic view of twelve-tone composition than the other members of his circle. He was aware of the many works by such fifteenth-century masters as Henricus Isaac (on whom he wrote a doctoral dissertation), Jacob Obrecht, Josquin des Prez, and others, in which a cantus firmus was turned upside down or back to front for the sake of variety or for the display of a sometimes hermetic virtuosity, and liked to claim the “Netherlanders,” as they were then called, as his immediate forebears. Comparison of three versions of the tenor in Obrecht’s Missa Graecorum (Ex. 12-23), a “Webernian” work dating from around 1490, might almost seem to validate the whimsical claim.

But the properties that ideally remained “occult” in the work of the Netherlanders, buried in the middle of the texture, often played on the crystal-clear surface in Webern’s work. The first and second movements of his Variations for Piano, op. 27 (1936), for example, of which the row is given in Ex. 12-24a, respectively “foreground” or “thematize” intervallic symmetry in two dimensions. In the first movement, row forms are consistently paired with their retrogrades and juxtaposed in counterpoint to form little palindromes that are nothing if not salient to the ear.

The first such palindrome (Ex. 12-25) can serve as paradigm. The right hand begins with Po, the left with Ro; at the halfway point, when each has completed one hexachord, the hands reverse their assignments so that the left completes the prime, the right the retrograde. Not only the registral distribution of the two row forms and the pitch succession, but also the rhythm is exactly reversed around the fulcrum symbolized in notation by the sixteenth rest in m. 4; that is what makes the mirror-writing so easily observable. And so it remains throughout. Note that the row has been deliberately constructed so as to make the distinctively thematic alternation of dyads (sevenths and ninths) and single notes all but unavoidable. And note, too, that the trichord produced by order positions 6–8, which crosscut the hexachords, can be arranged to form the equally distinctive “atonal triad,” a chord that by the 1930s had (as we know) a distinguished history. Again, a distinctive sonority is given a distinctive (in this case conjunctive) function.

Clarification

ex. 12-24a Anton Webern rows and their properties: Variations for Piano, Op. 27 (1936)

Clarification

ex. 12-24b Anton Webern rows and their properties: Symphony, Op. 21 (1928)

Clarification

ex. 12-24c Anton Webern rows and their properties: Quartet, Op. 28 (1938)

Clarification

ex. 12-24d Anton Webern rows and their properties: Concerto, Op. 24 (1934)

Clarification

ex. 12-24e Anton Webern row forms arranged in magic square: Concerto, Op. 24

Clarification

ex. 12-25 Anton Webern, Variations for Piano, Op. 27, I, mm. 1–7

In the second movement (Ex. 12-26), row forms are paired contrapuntally with their inversions around an axis of symmetry that can just as easily be discerned by ear: the first full measure has the first of four pairs of As played by the two hands in succession. (The others are in mm. 9, 13, and 19; they come once per “cursus,” or run-through, of the paired rows.) Thus A is identified as the axis of a fully elaborated symmetrical array such as we first encountered in Richard Strauss in chapter 1, and in Bartók in chapter 7 (but also, incipiently, in early Webern in chapter 6):

A

A

B♯

G♭

B

G

C

F♭

C♭

F

D

E

E♯

E♯

E

D

F

C♭

F♭

C

G

B

G♭

B♭

Any Bb in one hand will be paired with a G♯ in the other, B with G, and so on. Not only the As at the axis, but every pitch is assigned a specific “hypostatized” register in this composition such as we have already observed in some of Stravinsky’s earlier music, radiating out from the axis (see Ex. 12-24a). The only consistent exception to this rule is the note E♭, which appears in three different registers. E♭, of course, is the tritone-antipode of A, and the only other note that pairs with itself in the array shown above. Precisely for that reason Webern went out of his way to minimize its role in the movement. In m. 6 it occurs in both hands (in octaves) as a grace note to a main note played fortissimo. That is one way of sweeping it under the rug. The other way is to make it the last pitch of the first pair of row forms and the first pitch of the second; in this way the single grace note can do double duty in the row-count, and thus appear only once in the whole first section.

Clarification

ex. 12-26 Anton Webern, Variations for Piano, Op. 27, II

In the second half, the E♭ appears twice. In m. 21 it does what it did in m. 6; in m. 15, it appears as part of a three-note chord, where its own specific identity is muted by the overriding harmonic color (as usual, an “atonal triad”; in fact, all the three-note chords in this movement, as in the first, are drawn from order positions 6–8, so that the atonal triad is the only chord that appears). The systematic minimizing of E♭ leaves A as the perceptually undisputed tone center of the movement. We could not have a better illustration of the way in which the twelve-tone system was seen by its early practitioners not as a way of excluding pitch hierarchies (or “tonal” references), but as a way of asserting them in new, context-specific ways.

The third movement is the most straightforwardly composed of the three, and the most conventionally laid out as a set of variations. It consists of a theme and five variations, set off from one another by tempo and texture. The theme (Ex. 12-27), consisting of R4, RI4, and P4 laid end to end, sums up within itself the inverse and reverse symmetries of the preceding two movements; its middle part is a contour-mirror of the first, and the last is the first reversed. Not by accident, the starting (and hence the finishing) note is E♭, the suppressed tritone complement from the preceding movement, now given its complementary place in the sun.

Clarification

ex. 12-27 Anton Webern, Variations for Piano, Op. 27, III, mm. 1–12

It is with reference to this movement, and particularly to the theme, that the stems and beams have been added to the usual note-heads in the row as given in Ex. 12-24a, for it is here that the row is partitioned most rigorously into its constituent semitones, presented always in inverted or compound form (that is, as sevenths or ninths). The very beginning of the theme, which uses the reversed row, shows most clearly the way the two semitones in order positions 9–12 (grouped 9/12 + 10/11) are associated (or, if one prefers, differentiated) by means of texture and articulation: the outer pair are long and detached, the inner pair short and legato. In m. 3 the two semitone pairs that occupy order positions 3–6 (3/5 + 4/6) are similarly associated. For the rest, the variations consist of additional studies in inverse and reverse symmetry, using the restricted harmonic vocabulary with which we have become familiar: single notes, sevenths and ninths, and “atonal triads.” Only the last variation (Ex. 12-28) introduces a new chord: /0 3 4/, sometimes called the “double-inflected third” since it combines /0 3/ (a minor third) with /0 4/ (a major third).

Clarification

ex. 12-28 Anton Webern, Variations for Piano, Op. 27, III, mm. 56–end

As a succession, these intervals are found in two places in the row: order positions 1–3 and 9–11. Webern seizes the opportunity this coincidence offers for constructing symmetries. Since 1–3 can do double duty as the beginning of a prime or end of a retrograde, Webern begins with the latter, R4 (the row form with which the theme had originally begun), and follows it with P4 (with which the theme had originally ended), allowing the first right-hand chord in m. 58 (AFG♯) to serve as fulcrum for a pitch palindrome such as formed the substance of the first movement.

Another pitch palindrome begins at the upbeat to m. 60. This time, Webern chooses to begin with a transposition of the retrograde-inversion, RI5, that allows the two /0 3 4/ trichords to exchange places and functions when followed by the similarly pitched inversion, I5. The E♭ that closes I5 in m. 64 does double duty as the first note of RI6, with which the variation, and the Variations, come to an end. Beginning with that E♭ in m. 64, then, the last three measures of the piece are, in effect, mm. 60–61 transposed down a “cadential” semitone. More importantly, the transposition allows the Variations to end with A, the pitch center of the second movement and the tritone complement of E♭, in the melodically exposed top voice.

Notes:

(39) Anton von Webern, The Path to the New Music, trans. Leo Black (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1963), p. 54.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012009.xml