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Approximate Timing:

Orchestration: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 31, 1970, Pierre Boulez conducting (Royce Hall).

Anton Webern (1883-1945) was perhaps the most single-minded composer of the first half, if not the entire 20th century. That is to say that from the beginning to the end of his compositional career he pursued an ideal of unity of musical structure that derived from what he perceived as “natural laws” implicit in the phenomenon of sound itself. He derived this concept of natural laws as applied to art from the later scientific writings of the great German poet, philosopher, and scientific theorist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Webern made explicit use of Goethe’s concepts and language in a series of 16 lectures he gave at a private home in Vienna in 1932 and 1933, now known and published as The Path to the New Music.

By this time he had fully embraced, and was never to abandon, the method of twelve-tone composition invented by his much venerated teacher and friend, Arnold Schoenberg.

During the course of these lectures Webern made use of Goethe’s ideas by way of paraphrase: “…there is no essential contrast between a product of nature and a product of art…that what we regard as and call a work of art is basically nothing but a product of nature in general.” For Goethe, then, as well as for Webern, art as a product of nature finds expression in works created by and through natural laws implicit within and illumined by human genius. Works of nature and great works of art are dependent upon laws that lie hidden, that are embedded within and inseparable from the expression itself. One must approach
a great work of art as one would a work of nature, “…with the necessary awe at the secrets they are based on,
at the mystery they contain.” The mystery is the unity underlying the surface manifestation.

Webern’s recognition of and reliance upon the language expressed in Goethe’s observations came after 25 years of an aesthetic and compositional odyssey away from key-centered music that, in hindsight, led him toward the adoption of the law of the twelve-tone method. “Before we knew about the law we were obeying it. The twelve notes, in a firmly fixed order, form the basis of the entire composition”. In this method he found the all-embracing unity that could support the most far-reaching variations without violating the idea or “primeval form” of the series. He metaphorically described this organic unity in the images of the poet as: “Goethe’s primeval plant; the root is in fact no
different from the stalk, the stalk no
different from the leaf, and the leaf no different from the flower: variations of the same idea”.

Webern’s odyssey from a key-centered musical material to the total chromaticism of the twelve-tone or serial method referred to above began in 1904 when he became a student of the remarkable composer and theorist Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).
Two years prior to his becoming Schoenberg’s student he had entered the University of Vienna, where he studied musicology under the tutelage of Guido Adler, a distinguished pioneer in the field. In 1906 he received a Ph.D. for his work on the Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517), a composer whose polyphonic technique was to have a profound influence on Webern’s work. His edition of Isaac’s Choralis constantinus, a virtual summa or comprehensive compendium of contrapuntal techniques found in the polyphony of the Netherlands composers of the Renaissance, was published in 1909. Webern continued his studies with Schoenberg until 1908; under his instruction he acquired a strict discipline involving the use of traditional techniques in the handling of sonic materials and their consequent expression in classical forms, especially those of continuous variation extending from the work of Brahms. Webern indeed had a studied, if not a unique, perspective of music history.

His concept of the variation form was a combination of two strains: the polyphonic and/or contrapuntal use of musical space found in the works of the Netherlanders and J. S. Bach (canon, free imitation, and fugue),
and the compression, fragmentation, and variation of thematic materials found in the development sections of the classical sonata or first-movement form. In each case, it is the reliance upon the single “idea,” the “primal form,” or the “theme” that permeates the contrapuntal texture. As Webern himself phrased it: “To develop everything else from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity – when everybody does the same, as with the Netherlanders, where the theme was introduced by each individual part, varied in every possible way, with different entries and in different registers. But in what form? That’s where art comes in! But the watchword must always be ‘Thematicism’…One form plays a special role – the variation.” It is this idea of the one and its matrix
of variations presented as a weave of polyphonic webs that was at once the path and the destination of Webern’s odyssey as a composer.

Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, his penultimate work, was composed in 1940. Webern thought of the work as being an overture in “adagio” form, akin to Beethoven’s Prometheus and Brahms’ Tragic overtures. It seems that he used this term to distinguish the form of this work from overtures
written in sonata form. In any case, Webern, in a letter to his student Willi Reich, described the form as an introduction and six variations. The introduction exposes the theme “…two ideas given in the first and second bars (double bass and oboe!)”, which is distributed throughout the orchestra as melodic cells or motives all based upon the structure of his twelve-note series into three groups of four notes.

The series that Webern constructed for Variations is characteristically remarkable in its symmetry. As with all the series he made for his twelve-tone compositions, this one reproduces itself on every conceivable level from the smallest motivic cells to their augmented replication as delineators of formal proportion. In further discussing the piece with Reich, Webern makes this point clear: “…that’s how it goes on throughout the whole piece, whose twelve notes, that’s to say the row (series), contain its entire content in embryo! In miniature!” Goethe’s primal plant.

The Variations are equally characteristic of Webern’s entire oeuvre in the brevity of duration (in terms of clock time), the transparency of the orchestration, and the utter clarity of the part-writing at all times. Variation 1 introduces the first subject in the first violin accompanied by a repetitive chord in the brass. This process continues with statements of the subject and accompaniment distributed throughout the orchestra. Variation 2 is a bridge passage. Variation 3 introduces the second and third subjects (motives based on smaller rhythmic subdivisions). Variation 4 is a recapitulation of the first subject. Variation 5 combines materials from the introduction and bridge passage. Variation 6 functions as a coda.

-- Steven Lacoste, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Archivist, lectures on music theory at California State University at Long Beach.