Anton Webern: Symphony (op. 21)

Among Schoenberg's finest students in Vienna were Anton Webern and Alban Berg; becuase of their collective embrace of the twelve-tone method, the three composers are often referred to as the "Second Viennese School." (The first was the trio of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.) While Schoenberg would move to America to flee the Nazis and Berg would die young from leukemia, Webern remained in Austria throughout the war years. Shortly after the armistice was signed, Webern went out his door to smoke a cigar. Confusion reigns about the events that followed, yet the result was clear, Webern had been shot by Raymond Bell, an American soldier, and was dead.

More than anyone else, Webern personified the difficulties of pursuing atonality. Without clear goal-directedness, it became increasingly difficult for composers to create larger-scale structural coherence. Consequently, he turned to miniscule movements - writing expressive multi-movement works that clocked in at three minutes time or less. In the preface to Webern's Bagatelles for String Quartet, op. 9, Schoenberg wrote: "Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. You can stretch every glance out into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, joy in a breath - such concentration can only be present in proportion to the absence of self-pity."
Like Schoenberg, Webern turned to the twelve-tone method as a way of adding greater cohesion to his music. Though his twelve-tone works remained miniatures; in their rigor and fleetingness, they were remarkably expressive. As a student Webern studied the works of the Flemish master Heinrich Isaac and applied obscure contrapuntal devices to his twelve-tone music. The sounding result is often extremely abstract, or for some almost pointilistic.
The Symphony, Opus 21, was written in 1927-8 and was dedicated to Webern's daughter Christine. It would be enormously influential on the composers of the second half of the twentieth century. It was premiered in Vienna in 1930: Webern wrote in his diary, "Great delight. Turned out really well."

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

The Twelve Tone Method
In order to assert order on the presumed anythin-goes chaos the atonality, Schoenberg developed what came to be known as the twelve-tone method. This method can be considered as a chromatic analogue to tonal functional harmony, this is to say, a way of incorporating new dissonant melodic and chord structures within a conscious and systematic order.
The basic principles are simple. Each compositon creates for itself a unique sequence of the twelve chromatic pitches, known as the row. In addition to the original (prime) form of the row, there are also three other forms derived by thematic transformation: the inversion(I): essentially the row is turned upside-down, retrograde (R): the row backward, and retrograde inversion(RI): backward and upside-down. These terms have the same meaning that they had in fugue. In addition to these forms, as with a scale, the composer can transpose the row or its other forms to any of the twelve chromatic pitches and maintain the integrity of the row. While the row determines the succession of pitches in a work, it does not prescribe rhythms, textures or forms. In a way the row can be considered as an abstract structure, a set of potential relationships that must be embedded in a particular compositon.

Contrary to Schoenberg's use of the row, Webern tends to treat the row more as the "soul" of the work than as a "theme." Conseqeuntly, we never hear the row clearly in the work - it is instead buried within the contrapuntal texture: at times divided between instruments, at times heard in simultanieties.
What to Listen for
One technique which Webern pioneered is particularly evident in this work: klangfarbenmelodie, or tone-color melody. In klangfarbenmelodie, the melody is "passed off" from one instrument to another. For instance if "Happy Birthday" were played orchestrated using klangfarbenmelodie, the first two notes might be taken by a trumpet, the third and fourth by a flute, and the five, sixth, seventh and eighth by a violin. Webern uses this technique most clearly in his orchestration of the Ricercare of Bach's Musical Offering
Webern's Symphony is in two movements and uses symmetry as its guiding force. The row is symmetrical: its final six pitches are a transposed retrograde of its first six pitches. Similarly, many of the vertical relations contain mirror symmetry (the intervallic content of the upper half of the chord is mirrored in the lower half of the chord) and some sections are in effect palindromes - reflecting around a central point. Both movements contain complex canons. The first is in a binary form with internal retrogrades of large sections, while the second proceeds as a theme with seven variations and a coda.
Webern was clearly proud of his accomplishments. He writes of the Symphony in a 1932 lecture:
"Greater unity is impossible. Even the Netherlanders didn't manage it. In the fourth variation there are constant mirroring. This variation is itself the midpoint of the whole movement, after which everything goes backwards. So the entire movement is itself a double canon by retrograde motion!
Now I must say this: what you see here ... - constantly the same thing - isn't to be regarded as a "tour de force"; that would be ludicrous. I was to create as many connections as possible, and you must allow that there are indeed many connections here!
Finally I must point out to you that this is so not only in music. We find an analogy in language. I was delighted to find that such connections also often occur in Shakespeare, in alliteration and assonance. He even turns a phrase backwards. Karl Kraus' handling of language is also based on this: unity also has to be created here, since it enhances comprehensibility.

Rest assured, the structure and row usage is difficult to hear with the naked ear. While one can pick up divisions in the work and perhaps central points, it is not the goal of this music for the row to be heard as such. Instead, revel in the mobile-like sounds and the evocative textures.

Those interested in learning more about the technical details of the piece are encouraged to consult Kathryn Bailey's The Twelve-note music of Anton Webern.

Listening Chart

Anton Webern: Symphony, Op. 21 (1927-8)
Timings match Naxos recording
Movement 1: Binary Form (||:A:||:BA:||): First Half: Pointilistic, canonic
Repeat of first half
Second half: Contrasting B section: more lyrical, contrasting section
Central reflecting point of contrasting B section.
Reflection of Contrasting B section ends. Reflection of A section begins. Though somewhat more lyrical than initial A section.
Repeat of second half.
Movement 2(Theme and Variations): Theme: Sehr Ruhig (Very quiet): Winds and Harp - two voices
Variation 1: Lebhafter (Livlier) Strings, Double Canon by Inversion - second half of variation repeats first half in retrograde
Variation 2: Sehr lebhaft (Very Lively): Horn playing two row forms; clarinet, bass clarinet, strings and harp.
Variation 3: Wieder mässiger (Again more moderately): Two and Three note groups - in pintillistic style
Variation 4: Äusserst ruhig (Extremely Quiet) The Central Measure - fermata, ritard (slowing down) - dense counterpoint
Variation 5: Sehr lebhaft (Very Lively): Two, three, five and seven-note groups; strings and harp
Variation 6: Marschmässig (Marchlike): Horn plays two row forms
Variation 7: Etwas Breiter (Somewhat Broader): Quadruple Canon
Coda: Violin, Cello, Clarinet and Harp - two voices: theme and its retrograde

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.