Webern: Variations for Piano, op. 27

performed by Mitsuko Uchida, or below by Krystian Zimerman, or Pollini w/ the score

(cover image by Mitch Lensink)

Of all forms and structures of music, the variation form may be the easiest to understand: a theme… with variations, or changes, to it. Sometimes those changes are quite extensive. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and many others may go so far as to take the theme and invert it (so that all the movement up goes down and vice versa), or play it backwards, or both, so that this relationship may not be as obvious, but it can be fascinating to see, in a piece of music that is beautiful in its own right, what the composer did to get us there, what the connection to the original theme is.

Beyond that, composers like Henri Dutilleux did fascinating things like what he (or someone) called ‘reverse variation form,’ where material is presented, and the underlying theme that connects them all is only revealed at the end.

However, today’s piece, building on what we discussed yesterday, takes Schoenberg’s sparse, perhaps almost obscure-seeming variations to even greater extremes. Some say that of Webern’s Variations, only the third is a ‘true’ variation form. Let’s see.

The set of pieces was composed in 1935 and 1936, and is the composer’s only published work for solo piano. Wikipedia calls it “one of his major instrumental works and a signal example of his late style.” The piece is dedicated to Eduard Steuermann, the same man who would later premiere Schoenberg’s piano concerto.

Webern suffered from the loss of his conducting career due to criticism from the Nazi party, so he took on private students, and thankfully, as a result, had more time to compose. Despite the obscure, haphazard sound that some may attribute to this piece, it took him a full year to complete.

The three movements are as follows, with a total duration of eight-ish minutes:

  1. Sehr mäßig
  2. Sehr schnell
  3. Ruhig fließend

The pieces were not written in this order. Wikipedia gives the following order of composition:

  • Third movement: begun 14 October 1935, completed 8 July 1936
  • First movement: begun 22 July 1936, completed 19 August 1936
  • Second movement: begun 25 August 1936, completed 5 November 1936

As discussed above, there’s some disagreement as to what’s actually going on here. The music is based on the below series, again per the Wiki article:

Maybe that doesn’t make sense to any of you, but it has some interesting qualities, which you can go read about in the caption. Webern loves his palindromes.

One Kathryn Bailey, a Webern scholar, claims that the piece could be viewed in a number of ways, but most everyone agrees that the final movement is a set of variations. Bailey says the first movement may be in a sonata form, with the second serving as a sort of scherzo, or perhaps a suite with the first and second movements in ternary and binary form, respectively.

But what this really tells me, aside from analyzing things like “simultaneous pairing of row forms” and emphasizing hexachords and tritones and all the rest… is that some of this may just be left up to interpretation. I am often sort of just… reporting on this because I read it somewhere and it’s new to me as well, but it isn’t always so cut and dry. If you’re really interested in untangling it, or developing your own theory, listen to the music, score in-hand, and see what connections you can make. What intervals are used? What’s mirrored or repeated somehow? What’s changed, and what stays the same?

For those of you not interested in what may seem like a pedantic analysis, what is there to enjoy? I particularly like Uchida’s recording, because I feel she plays it the way she plays Berg, or even Schubert. The idea of the music may sound cold and dry, but even in the first movement, after some little pairs of phrases, or even just syllables, really, there are bursts of intensity before the piece calms back down to its more stepwise-like sound. From a simple outline type viewpoint, this gives us a central climax with cooler, quieter outer sections.

There’s something about the second movement (‘very fast’) that I find just thrilling. I think perhaps… if you gave Bach a five-minute primer (if he even needed five minutes) on serialism, he would be thrilled at the textures and shapes that Webern throws in our faces in less than a minute. The music is dry, sparse, angular, but at the same time somehow vibrant and exciting. I love it.

The finale, at nearly five minutes in Uchida’s recording, and much shorter in others, is finally what we can all agree on as variations. There’s plenty of other reading you could do about the mechanics or theory or techniques in this music, but what’s exciting to me is the sound world, the palette we have, the way the music bustles and is somehow sparse and dry but also emotional. There is, too, the excitement that things are, even tenuously, familiar, related. It’s a little bit like keeping your bearings in a new city: I turned right this many blocks ago, and then a left, and then another left… so you’ll do the reverse when you go back. That kind of process can help you identify at least some of the ‘shapes’ of Webern’s music, but at the very least, it’s just a fascinating accomplishment, something I enjoy listening to on an artistic, emotional and cerebral level, and isn’t it wonderful to check all three of those boxes?

We’ll see a bit more Webern this weekend, and then will be wrapping up our petite piano series, so do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading!

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