Webern: Symphony, op. 21

performed by members of the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, or the below with (members of) the Berlin Philharmonic also under Boulez

Greater unity is impossible. Even the Netherlander didn’t manage it. In the fourth variation there are constant mirrorings. 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! … I was to create as many connections as possible, and you must allow that there are indeed many connections here!


I think it’s only appropriate at this junction that, in considering where we’ve come from and where we’re going, we finally discuss Webern’s symphony. (This junction also being that the end of the day tomorrow, July 1, marks the halfway point of 2016. You’ll soon see why that’s super cool.) We’ve just come off discussing one of the largest symphonies (in terms of both performing forces and content) in the standard repertoire, and now, arguably the smallest. It’s also a fantastic segue into where the blog will be going next month (no spoiler alerts).

I started back in May a long string of posts dealing yet again with Austro-German composers and their symphonies (and string quartets), and for a while there (about half of May) we did a post every day. Five symphonies of Haydn, then of Mozart, then a few string symphonies of Mendelssohn before his first in Cm, then Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler… and how do you top that? It’s hard to. In any case, I’ve toyed with the idea of packaging those up into another Summer Series with a link on the homepage, and I probably will. There’s another (shorter but far more intense) one coming up next month, so today’s post is both an end and a beginning, which, as we shall see, is apropos to the work at hand.

If you haven’t noticed by this point, with the few works of Webern we’ve discussed so far, he tends to like miniatures. The passacaglia has been the biggest we’ve discussed so far, and is one of the largest in his oeuvre, and here we are at his symphony, which is, perhaps at this point unsurprisingly, also quite a compact thing. Perhaps ‘concentrated’ is a better word than compact. Tom Service, in his fantastic article on the piece, says of the work:

… it’s so focused in its choice of notes and precise disposition of rhythm and texture, that the result is a distilled expression and extension of symphonic logic into every dimension of music that’s pretty well unparalleled in the story of the symphony.

So what we have is not a compactness, necessarily, but a concentration. Service uses the words “focused” and “distilled”, and those it is. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has a wonderful set of program/listening notes on the work, which, after describing Webern’s almost overbearing adoration of Schoenberg, says:

Even when, starting in 1924, Webern followed his teacher into explorations of 12-tone music (using ordered series of pitches instead of free atonality), he maintained his hallmark purity of gesture and musical pointillism. Following his first complete 12-tone work, the String Trio, Op. 20, he moved next to a Symphony, Op. 21.

And if you want a spoiler for what’s coming in July, it’s also in their write-up:

Webern’s serial compositions often “follow the rules” of 12-tone writing more precisely than those of Schoenberg, and prefigure the extreme serialization of mid-century High Modernism advanced by composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen. The High Modernists lionized Webern’s technical achievements, pointing out, for example, the canons, mirrors and palindromes that run throughout the Symphony.

Okay, done quoting, at least for now. But I do want to mention that the same St. Paul notes express that what gets overlooked (they use the word “lost”) in discussions/analyses of Webern’s music is how the piece sounds, which they (or the writer Aaron Grad) describe as “delicious.”

Coming off Sunday’s little collection of expressions for string quartet, it might not surprise you that what we hear in this work is so condensed, so bare, as to seem almost incomplete. Alexander Carpenter at AllMusic, though, describes the work in a way that makes it sound hefty, talking about it beginning with a four-part double canon, and the second movement being a theme with seven variations and a coda. The first movement even has an ‘exposition’ or introduction that repeats.

But we haven’t listened yet. And as usual, there are a few different directions we can take with talking about this music. Carpenter says of it that “The astute listener can spend a lifetime hearing an intricate web of such structural correlations within the Symphony, which is a sort of super palindrome.” I’m going to try to do it in just a few thousand words, so we’re going to dispense with the heavy theoretical analysis, as usual. Glen Charles Halls has prepared a wonderful analysis of the work in terms of its palindromic nature based on the use of the tone row and all the rest, and it is here. He has his own references, but if nothing else, read his final paragraph. It’s beautiful. Ultimately, the main point of Webern’s tone row is that it’s a palindrome, like the word racecar, or the name of the Indian language Malayalam. However, Webern’s tone row can’t be exactly the same, because it has to contain all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Instead, it takes the first six notes, reverses them, and then transposes them up a tritone (six half steps, or three whole steps, hence the name tritone), and a whole matrix is here if you want to see it.

We should be aware of something else that’s common to the Second Viennese School, something called KlangfarbenmelodieGerman for ‘sound-color melody’, “a musical technique that involves splitting a musical line or melody between several instruments, rather than assigning it to just one instrument (or set of instruments), thereby adding color (timbre) and texture to the melodic line.”An example would be ‘twinkle twinkle little star.’ Sing that to yourself, and then think of having six or seven different instruments, each playing a tiny portion of that melody, maybe only two or three notes, like six people taking turns each reading a word of a bedtime story. It sounds disjointed at first because things are always changing, but they’re all part of the same line.

If you try to think of the first movement in terms of a canon, you might be able to hear a bit of what’s happening. Take note of the horn that opens the piece, like a horn call you might hear from a Mahler symphony (maybe?), as the two horns carve out an opening gesture of the A part of the movement, which repeats. So listen for that horn figure again and you’ll know where you are. It’s about 1:20 into the work that we get our first repeat or so, depending on the recording. A second pass at this four-part canon can do us good. Would you ever be able to identify that this content is repeated completely by listening? How many times would it take? Don’t worry. I had to look at the score.

At around bar 27 (after the repeat of the A section), around two-and-a-half minutes in, is a softer section, relatively speaking. It’s marked by longer lines, higher notes held by the clarinet, horn, and a string here and there. There are some pregnant pauses, especially bookending a cello and harp question-and-answer at bars 34 and 35. This B section continues and the second half is repeated as well. At the very end of the repeat of this latter section is a violin solo that leads to a viola solo. Listen for that.

The second movement is made up of a theme with seven variations, and my god, if you look at the score, you see that each of these eleven-bar variations is not only based on the opening theme and uses serial structures, but is a palindrome of itself, revolving around the sixth bar as a mirror. Just have a look at bar 12 and 23 of the cello line, or 15-16 and 18-19 of first violin. They are each others’ reflections! That’s from the first variation. The original statement is 11 bars long, as is each variation. 7×11 = 77 plus the original 11-bar statement is 88…. DOES THE CODA BEGIN AT BAR 89? OMG IT DOES. Would you expect any less? and it, too, of course is 11 bars long, giving us a mind-spinningly perfect theme and variations movement, where everything refers to itself and everything else, in 99 bars.

Go have a look at the score here on IMSLP, and follow each variation. They’re marked in the score, so you don’t even have to count 11 bars. They begin at 12, 23, 34, 45, 56, etc. all the way up to the coda at bar 89. Especially obvious might be the clarinet’s stair-step like ascent and descent at the beginning of the third variation that’s repeated at the end of the variation, but backward. Of seven variations, the middle is obviously number four, as quoted above, and the center of that variation is the sixth bar, set off by fermatas, the very center of which is a G#/C# on harp. That’s the very center of this movement. The fifth is punctuated by shrill strings and the harp plucks out a triplet heartbeat (harpbeat?) over it.

Once you’ve seen these parallelisms and have convinced yourself that they do indeed exist, toss all that aside and sit back and listen to the music like you’d listen to, oh, Haydn or Schubert. Is it different? Do you appreciate it more?

Folks, that’s about as far as I’m going to go with this piece. There’s so much to read about it, so much to discover, but this is at least the very beginnings of what the piece represents. It’s a slippery slope of asking why and picking apart and finding and learning, but, despite all the analytical talk around this piece, it is still shimmeringly beautiful. It reflects back on itself, using an incredible economy of material to do amazing things, and is outstanding proof that there is beautiful order in what may appear at first glance to be chaos.

This is the prequel to the prequel of what’s coming in July, so stay tuned for that. Phew.



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