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Contents

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

EPITOME

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

Even more economical are the Webern compositions in which the row itself is so contrived as to do “double duty,” reducing the number of independent row forms and multiplying the field of potential relationships among them. In the two-movement Symphony, op. 21 (1928), the second hexachord is the first reversed at the tritone, as tracing them from the middle out to the ends will quickly show. But this means that the entire row is an intervallic palindrome: its retrograde form is the same as the prime transposed by a tritone, so that Po = R6 and Ro = P6. This eliminates the retrograde as an independent row form, leaving only twelve possible primes and twelve possible inversions (= retrograde inversions).

With the row its own retrograde, and with inversion therefore the only meaningful transformation of it, the Symphony became inevitably (“by nature”) what the Piano Variations were by artful design: a study in tightly controlled multidimensional symmetry. That seems in fact to be what Webern meant by calling the work a symphony. There is little or nothing in its formal procedures to compare with those of the traditional symphony; but the texture, as we are about to discover it, is maximally “harmonious” or “sym-phonic” in the etymological sense (well known to antiquarian musicologists) that everything in it fits ideally with everything else.

The first movement of the Symphony consists of three elaborately worked out double canons that pit two prime forms against two inversions. The three canons are presented in a binary form in which the first repeated part consists of the first canon (mm. 1–26), and the second contains the other two (mm. 25–44, 43–66). This may in fact have been a “neoclassical” reference to the traditional first-movement form, in which the section up to the first double bar was the exposition, while the section up to the second double bar contained both a development and a recapitulation.

By constructing canons by inversion on a self-reversing row, Webern assures a constant multidimensional intervallic symmetry throughout the movement, combining the palindrome effect from the first movement of his Piano Variations with the invariant harmonic axis of the second (again located on A, the starting note of Po). The first canon by inversion (Ex. 12-29) begins in the horns at the unison: the second player enters first with Po (=R6) and the first answers with Io (=RI6). After the first four pitches have been sounded, the dux or leading voice moves to the clarinet for the next four and the cello for the last four, while the comes or following voice moves to the bass clarinet for the next four and the viola for the last four. The second canon shadows the first at the major third, both below (I8) and above (P4). Both of these row forms begin in the harp, I8 in m. 2 (continuing in the cello) and P4 in m. 4 (continuing in the viola).

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ex. 12-29 Anton Webern, Symphony, Op. 21, I, mm. 1–25

The fact that both canons begin with similar tone colors but then shift to others, and the fact that some of the same colors are used in both canons, suggests that Webern was not interested in having his canons perceived by the listener as coherent lines. Instead, they are absorbed into a kaleidoscopically fragmented texture that has often been compared with the painterly technique known as pointillism, in which solid objects are rendered as multitudes of individual daubs and dots of pigment, and become unrecognizable when viewed up close.

It may not be the best analogy for Webern’s fragmentation technique, since there is no standpoint from which the linear coherence of his canons becomes salient. But that is not surprising. As we have long since observed, a canon as such is of no particular interest (and shows no particular skill on the part of the composer) once dissonance has been “emancipated.” Webern has simply relied on the device in order to generate a profusion of symmetrically related intervals that can be mined for motivic connections. It was the patterning of these smaller units—as a means for achieving what Webern called “the greatest possible unity in music,” and “the utmost relatedness between all component parts”40 —that provided the point and purpose of this or any twelve-tone composition. That is what we need, however briefly, to investigate.

The reason the beginnings and ends of the three canons—mm. 1–26, 25–44, 43–66—overlap by a measure is that throughout the movement Webern proceeds from row form to row form by a sort of punning process that the structure of the row was designed to make possible. The C and E♭ in the cello in mm. 11–12, for example, are at once the last two pitches of Po and the first two in I3, while the F♯ and E♭ in the viola in mm. 13–14 are simultaneously the last two pitches in Io and the first two in P9. (Note, by the way, that the new row forms are now shadowing Po at the minor third, another potential axis of harmonic symmetry.) But these correspondences are only the beginning. As Ex. 12-24b shows, four dyads in I3 have exact counterparts in Po (and so will all the other P/I pairs at a transposition of a minor third in either direction). And as the same example also shows, any P/I pair at the unison will also have four dyads (two the same, two different) in common.

And that is why Webern so elaborately fixed (or “hypostatized”) the relationships between pitch and register and between pitch and rhythm in this movement. For the duration of the first canon, pitches are assigned registers strictly according to the symmetrical distribution shown in Ex. 12-24b, which is derived from the ordinary axis of symmetry around A by transforming the chromatic scale (or “circle of minor seconds”) into a circle of fifths (here represented, by inversion, as fourths). Only E♭, the antipode to A, appears in two registers (and in the actual music, always in harmony with A: see the harp in mm. 7 and 9, the viola in m. 19, the cello in m. 21). All the other pitches appear in one register only.

Comparing the actual music now with the abstract representation of the row forms in Ex. 12-24b, we find the paired dyads expressed as actual recurring motives: the GA♭ in the horn in mm. 3–4 (from Po) is answered in the bass clarinet in mm. 9–10 (from Io), using the exact same pitch placement and rhythm: similarly the BB♭ in the first horn in mm. 5–6 (from Po) and in the clarinet in mm. 7–8 (from Io), the DC♯ in the bass clarinet in m. 8 (from Io), in the cello in m. 10 (from PO), and again in the cello in m. 13 (from I3). And so it goes throughout the movement.

In the second double canon, all of these conditions continue to hold (although the particular pitch-register distribution changes somewhat), and in addition, the two canons use the identical sequence of rhythms. These reverse midway, like the rhythms in the first movement of the Piano Variations but on a much larger scale, so that the whole section from m. 25 to m. 44 (Ex. 12-30) is a pitch-rhythm palindrome that reverses around the downbeat of m. 35. Another way of putting it would be to say that mm. 35–44 are a literal retrograde of mm. 25–34.

It has been claimed, on the basis of movements like this, that (unlike Schoenberg and Berg) Webern sought what Milton Babbitt once described as “a completely autonomous conception of the twelve-tone system,” in which all components of a composition “would be determined by the relations and operations of the system.”41 But while Webern was obviously more concerned than his colleagues were to systematize all the details of his works, and while he achieved a sometimes astoundingly thorough organization of their textures, his conception of twelve-tone music was not completely “autonomous,” if by that one means completely independent of traditional criteria of “tonal” coherence.

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ex. 12-30 Anton Webern, Symphony, Op. 21, I, mm. 27–42 (the pitch-rhythm palindrome minus the ends, which overlap with other material)

The pitch-register distribution in the first canon, for example, with its ascending fourths in the bass, could not have been selected without awareness of the “tonal” properties of such progressions. Indeed, Webern seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize them by the frequent placement of the low Ds and Gs in strong metrical positions: for example, in the bass clarinet (mm. 8–9), the cello and harp in mm. 13–14 (the harp’s low G not only metrically strong but unaccompanied), or even at the very outset, where the second horn’s repeated F♯ in m. 2 acts as an upbeat (ineluctably suggesting the leading-tone function) to the strongly placed G in m. 3.

This residual or reflexive bond with “tonal” tradition was a facet of the early twelve-tone composers’ high consciousness of their role, within their idiosyncratic conception of music history, as custodians of a great tradition who kept faith with it by maintaining it in a state of incessant stylistic and technical evolution. The “progressive” and the “traditional” were thus held in a conceptual or “dialectical” balance that made it possible for the Viennese dodecaphonists to disdain with equal fervor both those who (in the name of conventional standards of beauty) resisted the progress that atonality exemplified and those who (in the name of primitivism or in that of radical politics) denigrated tradition.

We have seen Schoenberg declare his loyalty to that tradition, and also assert leadership within it, by quoting the B-A-C-H cipher in his Variations for Orchestra, op. 31 (1928). Ten years later, Webern brought that assertion to a characteristic climax in his String Quartet, op. 28, by basing the entire composition on a row consisting of three statements of the cipher, which thus became its all-pervasive Grundgestalt (Ex. 12-24c). The first and last statements are related by simple transposition both to the original BACH cipher and to each other. The middle tetrachord employs a version that could be described either as the inversion of the cipher or as the retrograde, since the cipher happens to be structured in such a way that the two forms coincide. And therefore the row constructed from it will also have remarkably “redundant” properties of a kind that, as we already know, Webern loved to exploit.

The BACH tetrachords that make up the row have been ingeniously chosen so that the two halves of the row—that is, its hexachords—reproduce one another by inversion if one proceeds from the middle out to the ends. The interval separating them at the midpoint is a minor third. Thus the entire row is its own retrograde inversion, a minor third “up” (and its retrograde is its own inversion by a complementary transposition of a minor third “down”). But at the same time the first and last tetrachords stand a major third apart, so that row forms at that transposition will overlap by an entire tetrachord. The implications of this unique feature are shown in Ex. 12-24c, where the three versions of P(=RI) and the three versions of R(=I) that may be related by transpositions of a major third are shown to break down into a fund of only three constituent tetrachords, each of which occurs in two orderings. That is the material out of which the first movement of the quartet is constructed.

In a lecture that he gave in March 1932, Webern exulted in the tightness of structure he had achieved in his Symphony thanks to the palindromic row on which it had been based: “Greater unity is impossible. Even the Netherlanders didn’t manage it.”42 But in the Quartet he did manage to exceed it, and in the first movement he went even further in limiting his material to recurrent motives by hypostatizing not only the registers in which pitches could occur, but also the instruments to which they were assigned. The first section of the movement (Ex. 12-31) uses the scheme shown in Ex. 12-24c, in which the first violin plays only two pitches, a′ and g♯″; the second violin only b♭, d♭ and c′; the viola only g, e, f′, and f♯′; and the cello only b, e♭, and d′.

Webern’s Quartet thus epitomizes the Janus-faced aspect of early twelve-tone music. It goes further than any other composition of its time in the tightly organized direction that Webern and his colleagues identified as progress—that is, the inevitable fate of music as mandated by its history—at the same time that it asserts, in every single note, its claim of lineal descent from Bach (or from the “Netherlanders”), from whom that history was traced. And yet it was another, slightly earlier composition of Webern’s from the same period that would have the greatest influence of all on the later development of twelve-tone music, although no one at the time foresaw it.

Webern worked on his seven-minute Concerto, op. 24, for nine instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano) over a three-year period, from 1931 to 1934. Ex. 12-24d shows its row, perhaps the most famous individual tone row ever devised, and Fig. 12-5 shows a sketch page, dating from February 1931, on which Webern worked toward fashioning it. At the end of the first day’s work (4 February), at the beginning of the seventh staff, Webern entered what looks something like a tritone transposition of the row he finally adopted: F E G♯ A C C♯ D B♭ B G G♭ E♭. The next day he made two minute adjustments, exchanging the positions of the CC♯ and GG♭ pairs, and then he had it: a row that could be divided into four trichords that would sum up among them all the standard “operations” of the twelve-tone technique.

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ex. 12-31 Anton Webern, String Quartet, Op. 28, I, mm. 1–15

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fig. 12-5 Webern, sketch for the first movement of Concerto, op. 24.

Labeling the trichords a, b, c, and d, and using the German abbreviations U (for Umkehr, inversion), Kr (for Krebs, “crabwise” or retrograde), and Ukr (for umgekehrter Krebs, or inverted retrograde), Webern noted with schoolmasterly meticulousness that a was the Ukr of b, the Kr of c, and the U of d; that b was the Ukr of a, the U of c, and the Kr of d; that c was the U of b, the Kr of a, and the Ukr of d; and that d was the Ukr of c, the Kr of b, and the U of a. Next he wrote out the retrograde form of the whole row, and noted its corollary property: that applying the four operations to the whole row reproduced the four trichords in a different order and at a uniform transposition (in this case, a tritone). Restoring the original order of the constituent trichords at the pitch of the retrograde produced the row form with which the composition would eventually start, and which is therefore now regarded as the prime form.

The strange inscription entered twice beneath these musical sketches—“Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas”—is a famous Latin palindrome that had served as Webern’s inspiration in deriving his row from a single trichord. Near-gibberish, it may be translated into English in a number of equally cryptic ways: “The sower Arepo holds the works of his hoe,” and “The sower Arepo keeps the work circling” are among the translations that have been proposed. But its meaning is altogether secondary to its “structure”: for it is more than a palindrome. When arranged as a square, thus—

S

A

T

O

R

A

R

E

P

O

T

E

N

E

T

O

P

E

R

A

R

O

T

A

S

—its five five-letter words can be read from left to right starting at the top, from right to left starting at the bottom, down the columns starting at the left, or up the columns starting at the right, producing a very suggestive analogy, made explicit in Ex. 12-24e, to the U, Kr, and Ukr trichords and the way they reconstitute themselves in various permutations of the row.

As might easily be inferred simply from knowing the properties of the row, the music of the Concerto (so called, evidently, on the basis of the way in which the piano interacts with the instrumental group) is a kaleidoscope of trichords, all of which have the identical intervallic shape of the Grundgestalt: a semitone and a major third, with “circumflex” contour, or a chord (like the ones near the end of the Piano Variations) with a double-inflected third. The first five measures (Ex. 12-32) are a paradigm: the oboe, flute, trumpet, and clarinet give the four trichords of the prime form, their contrasting tone colors and implied speeds (in a ratio of 8:4:6:3) giving the contrapuntal texture maximum clarity. Then the piano, with its uniform tone color, plays the row’s retrograde inversion with the rhythm reversed and at the transposition of a minor third, which reproduces the pitch contents of the trichords in their original order of succession but with their internal pitch orders reversed.

It is notoriously easy to overestimate the complexity of this music. Both its highly rationalized compositional (or “precompositional”) methods, and the immense sum total of motivic relationships to which nearly everything else is sacrificed, lend themselves to exhaustive verbal or graphic description that, like any other kind of detail-heavy programmatic paraphrase, can all too readily replace the sound-object so described as focus of attention. But the sound-object as such is neither dense nor arcane. Webern’s textures are famously spare and transparent, and in terms of events-per-unit-time, his music is far less heavily laden than Schoenberg’s—or, especially, Berg’s, whose music has always been regarded by audiences as far more “accessible.” It is the description, not the music, that boggles the mind. The music lays everything bare. The description all too easily covers it up again. And that may be because the description is usually cast entirely in “poietic” terms—in terms, that is, of the relationship between the music and its maker—or else in what is sometimes called “neutral” terms (in terms, that is, of an “objective” inventory of its “purely musical” content). As there has already been occasion to observe, the “esthesic” aspect—the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer—is rarely addressed.

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ex. 12-32 Anton Webern, Concerto, Op. 24, I, mm. 1–5

In part this has been a deliberate strategy. Surrounding modernist art with a cult of difficulty has been a trusty protective measure, keeping the hostile crowd at bay. As the hostility of the crowd became more and more overtly political, in the context, first, of “Weimar culture” (not limited, of course, to Weimar or even to Germany) and later in that of the totalitarian Nazi state, which threatened and eventually swallowed up Webern’s Austrian homeland, resistance of this kind was hardened. Webern himself tended to cast the difficulty of his art in heroic terms, as a bulwark of embattled high culture. “It’s nonsense to advance ‘social objections’” to the difficulty of the new music, Webern told a lecture audience in 1932, when most of the opposition came from the political left. “Why don’t people understand that? Our push forward had to be made, it was a push forward such as never was before. In fact we have to break new ground with each work: each work is something different, something new…. How do people hope to follow this? Obviously it’s very difficult.”43 But in private correspondence, and in one exceptional case in an article meant for publication (but unpublished until 1978), Webern described his music “esthesically”—and with enormous emotional excitement—in terms of the impact his achievements had on himself as an ideally informed listener. The article, significantly enough, concerned the String Quartet and its total governance by the BACH cipher. It had been commissioned in 1939 by Erwin Stein (1885–1958), a close friend of Webern’s and a fellow former pupil of Schoenberg, who had been forced to emigrate to England as a result of the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Stein had become a music editor for the London firm of Boosey and Hawkes, which had agreed to publish the Quartet. He commissioned an analysis from Webern to appear in Tempo, the firm’s house organ. Webern sent it off for translation during the summer. But the publication both of the Quartet and of the analysis were thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War in September, which made commerce, or even correspondence, between London and Vienna impossible.

From this article, which runs about 2,500 words, three selected paragraphs will suffice to give the extravagantly hyperbolic flavor. The first concerns the structure of the third movement, which Webern describes as a synthesis of two “classical” or academic forms that are usually deemed incompatible.

Formwise, this structure is but a periodic scherzo subject in the shape of the third exposition of a double fugue; that is to say (with reference to my fugue subject which begins in the development of the Scherzo): a stretto of “subject” and “countersubject.” As far as I know, this had never been done before; as a double canon in retrograde, moreover, it had never been done at all!!! Therefore, does this not justifiably constitute also the third exposition of a double fugue? And to repeat it once more, it is yet but nothing other than a period, in compliance with the principles of construction of a scherzo subject, as in Beethoven. Thus, it obeys the laws of horizontal construction. But as the stretto, the third exposition of a double fugue, at the same time it is also in compliance with the principles of vertical construction, as in Bach. Now then, is this or is this not a synthesis of the two styles?44

A little later, Webern reveals the intimate relationship between his success in fashioning an unprecedented canon in retrograde and the structure—but not only the structure!—of his row:

The question could be raised how this is possible, I mean the canon just described: one pair of voices has Notes 5–12 and the other pair Notes 1–8. And is a strict canon among all four parts possible in spite of this? Well, now I must finally reveal how the “row” is constructed; this is, indeed, one of the most important concerns in this Quartet, perhaps the most fundamental one! You see, the second four notes of the row fashion their intervals from the retrograde of the first four, and the last four notes relate to the second four in the same way. But this means that the entire Quartet is based on nothing else than this specific succession of four pitches! Now it so happens that the first four notes of the “original” form of the row, transposed to B♭, yield the four letters BACH. Thus, my fugue subject presents this name three times (with the subject’s three motives of four notes each making up the 12 notes of the row), but only secretly because, on the other hand, the original form NEVER occurs in this ostentatious transposition!!! All the same though, the four notes do underlie the entire Quartet!!45

And here is the conclusion:

Perhaps one could ask: what does the fugue subject “really” have in common with the scherzo subject, so that the reprise of the latter can also function as the third exposition of the fugue? Answer: in both cases the 12 notes of the row; that is, what rules here is altogether the MOST FAR REACHING RELATIONSHIP which can exist between two forms: they are identical!!! In both cases, moreover, the grouping of 3 × 4 notes; for it is also present in the subject of the Scherzo, even if it is not so conspicuous there. But it is there—and this I still would like to say in closing—, even reaching as far as it does in the row itself. Namely, as each successive four notes in the row constitute the retrograde of the preceding four, so is such a relationship given also in the scherzo subject’s rhythmic structure from four-note group to four-note group, even if it does not become so clearly visible there because of the variations. For such a relationship within the row must also carry an obligation for everything else that follows!! And with this I am saying that the subject is based not only on a group of FOUR PITCHES, but also on their rhythmic configuration!46

The italics, the capitals, the double and triple exclamation points (all of which would surely have been edited out for publication in English) convey tremendous pride in authorship, of course; and there is also the specific combination of satisfaction in the achievement of structural consistency and triumph at its concealment from the uninitiated that was so typical of elitist modernism, and that reached its peak in the literature dealing with twelve-tone music. There is also the familiar joy in synthesizing the two great Bs—something that goes back at least as far as the “third B,” Brahms, and constitutes the composer’s claim to a place in an anointed line of succession.

What there is not is the thing one always finds in Berg: the assurance that the elaborate compositional means were a conduit to a cathartic emotional payoff. Webern’s esthetic had become as “dehumanized” and impersonal as Stravinsky’s. The joy he sought (and sought to convey) was the joy of wondrous contemplation. After the experience of Webern’s sparse and attenuated sound-patterns one is not surprised to learn that his great passion outside of music was mountain climbing. If Schoenberg’s expressionist music proffered a whiff of “air from another planet,” Webern’s rarefied twelve-tone compositions exuded the atmosphere of a solitary Alpine peak.

But there is something else as well in Webern’s exuberant description of his creative produce—something that goes beyond esthetics into the domain of ethics—in all the talk of constraint, obedience, compliance, and obligation. We have circled back to the veneration for the Law with which we started (with Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex as our example); and it is hard not to connect Webern’s artistic vision, in the context of the turbulent 1930s, with the Utopian or Arcadian (futuristic or nostalgic) cravings that dominated European social and political thought. Like Stravinsky’s contemporaneous parables of submission, Webern’s musical Utopias, the most orderly and disciplined worlds of music ever to have been conceived and realized by that time, seem in their tidy beauty of conception and their ruthlessly exacting realization to broach a theme that was on the mind of every artist then alive: the theme—ominous to some, inspiring to others—of art and totalitarianism.

Notes:

(40) “The Path to Twelve-Note Composition,” in Webern, The Path to the New Music, ed. Willi Reich, trans. Leo Black (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Theodore Presser Co., 1963), p. 42.

(41) Milton Babbitt, “Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition,” The Score, no. 12 (June 1955), p. 53.

(42) Webern, The Path to the New Music, p. 56.

(43) Ibid., p. 45.

(44) Anton von Webern, “Analysis of the String Quartet, op. 28,” trans. Zoltan Roman, in Hans Moldenhauer and Rosaleen Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 754.

(45) Ibid., pp. 755–56.

(46) Ibid., p. 756.

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. 12 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012010.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 12 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012010.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 12 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012010.xml