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Difference in the Detail: A Comparison of Aesthetic in the 12 Tone Oeuvre of Alban Berg and Anton Webern

 

Up until early last year, it had been a long time goal to spend some extensive time familiarising myself with the 20th Century classical music canon. I had dabbled off and on but like so many facets of ‘dis modern world I couldn’t sustain enough focus to go particularly D&M. I decided to take a C20th classical musicology course as my final year elective. It was an absolute cracker. Starting at Strauss and working through Bartok, Stravinsky, these 12T cats onto Scelsi, Boulez, Stockhausen then Cage and his ground zero team (one of the few schools I had a sound prior knowledge on) up to Grisey and beyond, all the big players got a mention. Really glad I took it. The last couple of names are right up there as my favourites of the course but one man resonated with me more than any other: Charles Ives. I can’t stress how deeply his works aligned with my taste. This blunt beauty paired with the most crafty subversion and tension. Give ‘Three Places In New England’  (which I made sure to poetically blast through my headphones on the snowy Greyhound ride from Vermont to New York :D) and ‘The Unanswered Question’  a spin and you should see what I mean.

The first week of the course was particularly insightful to a non-musicological major such as myself. It first spent time prefacing that although widely encompassing, the course and the canon it studies is still only a single narrative of such a time, one that is stained by euro-centricism and the foundational idea of the ’emancipation of dissonance’, not to mention the non-detachable prejudice of our time. It also lifted some shade on the people’s favourite ‘ism’: modernism. I guess in some ways it’s self explanatory; an interdisciplinary term for people pushing things forward; shifting the status quo etc. etc. Did you know though that the term ‘modernism’ was coined by the conservatives as slag to the movers and shakers. What were they quarrelling about? Meaning in music, believe it or not. The gumbies were rejecting the growing trend of programmatic music (programmatic music didn’t always exist, wahhh?), viewing the attachment of a supporting narrative as defamatory to the puristic power of music that the ‘absolutists’ had long held belief in. Crazy stuff. Before this class I have long deliberated the pros and cons of programmatic vs. absolute music, with special thought to the meaning- if any- I want to fill my music with. In conversation with an intelligent close friend, we came to the conclusion that if you consider the meaning as that digested by the audience (not that imposed by the composer), programmatic music still has much potential to be absolute. In this modern day, it is in many ways how much information the composer/performer is prepared to release to the public, whether it be how much is given away of the mused narrative in the title, the album name, the album cover, the linear notes, lyrics etc. etc. Much music we listen to with absolutist ears has been brought to life through programmatic means, I’m sure. I guess all I’m trying to say is that the listening experience is valid either way.

Anyway, this post is an essay I wrote for the class. I wanted to extent my understanding of the final hooray of tonality- as the harmonic elevator was reaching it’s glass ceiling. I also thought maybe I could superimpose some of the boys 12T ideas into my harmonic improvising approach, but harder said than done, hey. Beyond that, I was also intrigued by Webern and Berg. The former because of his now infamous concision and the posthumous veneration he received by some of the biggest C20th composers including Berlioz and Stockhausen and the latter because of his integration of more old school tonal sounds into this new school practise. He didn’t wanna mess with beauty too bad and I dig that. Anyhow, hope this helps somebody!

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October 2015

Anton Webern and Alban Berg are the two best remembered students of Arnold Schoenberg, architect of the twelve tone row system. Although credited with its inception, his students swiftly adopted the serial system and developed their own compositional aesthetic from their teacher’s method. Through a generalised analysis of the construction of both composers’ tone rows and a comparison of their application and permutation of said rows it will be seen that each composer’s distinct aesthetic has been substantially shaped by their individual interpretation of the twelve tone system. Webern’s “predilection” with row symmetry [1] and frequent employment of the minor second interval will be compared to Berg’s disposition for tonal implications[2]. Furthermore, Berg’s flexible application of Schoenberg’s serial system will be seen against Webern’s resolute adherence and concision.

Although the 12 tone rows of Anton Webern (1883-1945) changed throughout his two decade use of the system, logic and unity can be found to underpin the entirety of his row sketches[3]. He most commonly employed derivation, permuting trichords, tetrachords and hexachords to form an aggregate row[4]. Webern frequently used derivation in such a way to create a row of symmetrical nature. His earliest such row is from Symphony Op 21. where the collection of 12 tones create an “intervallic palindrome” – reading the same both reversed and transposed[5].

Often in conjunction with such a row’s symmetry, although not always mutual[6], Webern sketched many combinatorial rows- where by the nature of the row a hexachord from the prime row can be complied with another from a permutation to form an aggregate.[7] Kathryn Bailey in her research of Webern’s serial output has concluded that 13 of the 21 rows employed in his published 12 tone oeuvre are ‘combinatorial’.[8]

Webern’s penchant for logically formatted rows can be derived from what Shreffler describes as Webern’s “almost religious faith in the row’s power to unify.”[9] This can be seen as both the strength of the row as a unifying undercurrent of a movement but also within the row itself. Shreffler added Webern saw the cellular relationship of three, four and six note grouping into rows as a binding power giving him the “the freedom to construct music of unprecedented motivic density.”[10]

 

 

As frequent as the derivation within Webern’s rows is the employment of the interval of a minor second[11] (including both the interval of a major seventh and minor ninth).  Bailey states that 17 of the 22 rows she examined “exhibit semitone motion in more than four places- with more than 11 having it more than five times.”[12]  Bailey considers Webern’s tendency towards the minor second as a long-held part of his aesthetic dating back to his free-atonal period and “a strongly cohesive device” within his twelve tone works.[13]Not only does the frequency of the minor second create “textural homogeneity”[14] but it also aids in the avoidance of traditional tonal implication, something that his peer was in fact at times trying to achieve.

Of the three best remembered Second Viennese composers, Alban Berg (1885-1935) is well noted for being the most daring in his assimilation of Schoenberg’s serial system into his earlier approach and ideals. [15] Like his peer, Berg sketched rows with symmetrical qualities such as that used in the first movement of the Lyric Suite, whose R and RI permutations match the tritone transposition of P and I, respectively.[16]. But far more noted within Berg’s modest 12 tone oeuvre (five published works in total) was his inference of diatonic tonality, with multiple rows sketches with explicit tonal material.[17] Firstly, the prime set from his 1929 Der Wein can be partitioned to show a D Aeolian hexachord (to the 6th degree) followed by a Gb Major triad and then the outline of an Ab dominant chord (the first, third and seventh chord chord qualities).[18] In addition, dissecting the prime row of his Violin Concerto (1935) reveals a G minor, D major, A minor triad and E major triads all overlapping, with the final four notes suggesting B whole tone scale.[19]

In a letter to his fiancée Frida Semler, the year undisclosed, Berg wrote:

“Wedekind – the really new direction – the emphasis on the sensual in modern works!!…. at last we have come to the realisations that sensuality is not a weakness, does not mean a surrender to one’s own will”[20]

Unlike Webern’s belief in the transcendent adhesion of a logically constructed row, Berg unashamedly aimed to “invest his music with immediate emotional impact”[21]  by referencing the familiar major/minor tonal system footnote[22] among his teacher’s newly developed twelve tone system. Perle even suggests Berg’s “pervasive textures” within Der Wein and Lulu suggest “an enormously extended post Wagnerian chromatic idiom.”[23] This departure from Schoenberg’s system gave Berg a distinct aesthetic of approachability to the day’s listener that translated to a popular success unseen by Schoenberg and Webern in their lifetime. [24]

Beyond the contents of the row itself, Berg also manipulated much of the twelve tone rubric to best achieve his desired romantic impact. The first departure from his teacher’s system is the employment of more than one set in a single movement.[25]. It’s been noted that Berg at times felt restricted by the “intervallic configuration of a single set.”[26] The first movement of the Lyric Suite (1925) utilises three distinctive sets in a leitmotific fashion, and although having a combinational nature nonetheless lack rigid adherence to Schoenberg’s serial guidelines.[27] In fact, Perle deduces that of the six acts, only the first, third and sixth can truly be labeled as twelve tone, with the others integrating twelve note motives into non-serial writing.[28]

 

 

Berg’s further variance of the twelve tone system includes his choice to disregard R and RI, rarely employing the two permutations beyond rows of a symmetrical nature.[29] It’s widely hypothesised Berg chose against R and RI because of how drastically they altered the ‘linear contour’[30] of the row in relation to that of the prime.[31] Berg saw at least a portion of the power of the twelve tone system as a generator of new melodic and harmonic themes. [32]In a letter to Theodore Adorno, Berg revealed the generative nature of his teacher’s serial system, especially in regards to unfound tonal relationships, which he found most attractive.[33] His choice to develop his themes with a level of surface recognition meant that R and RI’s more obscure contour was seldom used independently.[34]

In antithesis to Berg’s emphasis on thematic recognition, Webern had a propensity to utilise a maximal amount of row permutations[35] as possible within his succinctly packaged forms, driven by his faith in adhesive quality of the system. It should be noted that Berg’s personalised approach was no less considered and than Webern’s[36] although it is latters concision and resolute adherence to these serial principles- even more so than Schoenberg himself- that Webern has become venerated for posthumously.[37] His adherence went as far as only extracting consecutive melodic ideas from his rows, including the avoidance of repetitive of row segments as well as the interchangeability of hexachords- both commonly employed by Berg and Schoenberg. [38] Further still, Bailey suggests there is only a single alteration that breaks the row integrity in the entirety of Webern’s twelve tone works (a G natural in Bar 50 of Op 22/ii).[39]

Beyond Webern’s unwavering uniformity in his use of the twelve tone system was the way he expanded his material. Perle notes that “Webern’s notion of a theme was unconventional” [40]; Bare the Symphony’s opening of the second movement and the second section of his Orchestral Variations, Webern could be said to avoid traditional thematic development[41] in turn for the manipulation of small pitch cells (or harmonic motifs) across shifting timbre, texture and duration. This most clearly seen in Op 24 Concert for Nine Instruments where Webern’s use of Klangfarbenmelodie as well as augmenting and diminishing durations give the piece cohesion that otherwise could of have come from more traditional thematic development.

In conclusion, through an analysis of Webern and Berg’s tone rows as well as their application and permutation of said rows it can be seen that both composers built distinctly individual aesthetics from the same serial system. Webern saw the twelve tone row as a cohesive force that could unify his music no matter how removed the alterations. Berg, in contrast, assimilated his teacher’s system to his previous compositional method, creating a hybrid aesthetic: part twelve tone, part tonal. It should be noted that without more contextual research including the composers influence and upbringing, among a myriad of other holistic factors, a purely musical analysis of style is a limited one.

 

[1] Kathyrn Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 170.
[2] Peter Burkholder, Donald J Grout, Claude V Palisca, A History of Western Music,  8th Ed. (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010) 811.
[3] Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New, 170.
[4] Nicholas Cook, Anthony Pople, Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 253.
[5]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 170.
[6]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 24
[7]Robert T. Kelley, “Introduction to Post-Functional Music Analysis: Set Theory, The Matrix, and the Twelve-Tone Method,”Visited October 10, 2015 http://www.robertkelleyphd.com/12-tone.htm#inbr
[8]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 22.
[9-10]Anne Shreffler: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern a Companion to the Second Viennese School, Ed. Bryan R. Sims (Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999) 257.
[11-13]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 22.[14]George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality (California: University of California Press, 1963) 91.
[15]The Berg Companion Ed. Douglas Jarman (Great Britian: Macmillan Press, 1989) 25.
[16]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese School (Hong Kong Macmillan Papermac, 1983) 168.
[17]Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality, 91.
[18-19]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 171.[20]Berg quoted, Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 175.
[21]Nicholas Cook, Anthony Pople, Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, 823.
[22-23]Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality, 92.
[24-25]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 163-164.
[26-27]Tufts University, Twelve-Tone Technique: A Primer, visited October 10, 2015 http://www.tufts.edu/~mdevoto/12TonePrimer.pdf
[28-30]  Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 167-168
[31-32]Tufts University, Twelve-Tone Technique: A Primer, visited October 10, 2015 http://www.tufts.edu/~mdevoto/12TonePrimer.pdf
[33]Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening in the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) pg. unknown.
[34]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 168.[35]Nicholas Cook, Anthony Pople, Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, 823.
[36]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 182.
[37]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 123. [38]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 33.
[39]Bailey, The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, 332.
[40]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 108
[41]Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths, George Perle, The New Grove Second Viennese) 108-39

 

Reference List:

Bailey, Kathryn. The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Burkholder, Peter, Grout, Donald J., Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music,  8th Ed. New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.

Cook, Nicholas, Anthony Pople. Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Kelley, Robert T., “Introduction to Post-Functional Music Analysis: Set Theory, The Matrix, and the Twelve-Tone Method,”Visited October 10, 2015 http://www.robertkelleyphd.com/12-tone.htm#inbr

Neighbour Oliver, Griffiths Paul, Perle George, The New Grove Second Viennese School Hong Kong: Macmillan Papermac, 1983.

Perle, George. Serial Composition and Atonality. California: University of California Press, 1963.

Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening in the Twentieth Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Shreffler, Anne. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern a Companion to the Second Viennese School, Ed. Bryan R. Sims.Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Tufts University, Twelve-Tone Technique: A Primer, visited October 10, 2015 http://www.tufts.edu/~mdevoto/12TonePrimer.pdf

Unknown. The Berg Companion Ed. Douglas Jarman. Great Britian: Macmillan Press, 1989.

 

 


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