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Composed: 1934

Length: c. 7 minutes

Orchestration: flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, violin, and viola

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 20, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting

About this Piece

If in Webern’s Six Pieces “thematic relations do not exist,” his Concerto for Nine Instruments seeks as many relationships as possible. His adoption of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, beginning with the String Trio (1927), gave him what he needed – a single idea or “primal form” that permeates a symmetrical contrapuntal texture, meaning canons and palindromes. As Webern phrased it, “To develop everything else from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity…”

The Concerto for Nine Instruments embodies those principles from beginning to end. The 12-tone series that Webern invented for this piece is one of perfect symmetry, made up of four three-note segments in which each succeeding segment is either the inversion or retrograde inversion of the previous. All three movements reflect the series structure through canons, mirror canons, and palindromes.

In the first movement, the three-note motives are revealed canonically. The second movement is dominated by the piano in a kind of question-answer play with the other instruments, using two-note motives. Finally, canons made up of three-note segments are given a march-like rhythm that becomes increasingly pointillistic to the end.