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Anton Webern: Variationen

  • for orchestra
  • 1 1 2 0 - 1 1 1 1 - timp, hp, cel, str
  • Duration: 8’
  • Instrumentation details:
    clarinet in Bb
    bass clarinet in Bb
    horn in F
    trumpet in C
    violin I
    violin II
  • Composer: Anton Webern
  • Dedication: an Werner Reinhart

Work introduction

Webern wrote his last instrumental work in 1940. It was premiered in Winterthur in 1943, conducted by Hermann Scherchen, with Webern in attendance; it was the last public performance of one of his works which he was able to attend.

Once again, they are variations, a form which especially suited Webern’s use of dodecaphony and which facilitated his amalgamation of several types of form, due to their comparative lack of restriction.

Once again, his style took another decisive turn: his orchestration is more “orchestral.” For instance, doublings at the unison of a melody line occur again and again; although the mixing covers up the instruments’ distinctive sound, it does contribute much to the work’s aural transparency.

The importance of the harmony has grown considerably; broad chordal expanses predominate long passages, such as mm. 21 – 55 of the first variation. In a letter to Willi Reich in 1941, Webern gave a terse analysis of the piece, “which, in its overall result, is a kind of overture:” “The theme of the variations … is conceived periodically, although it has an ‘introductory’ character. – Six variations follow … the first fully unfolds the overture’s main theme (andante form), so to speak; the second is the transition, the third a subordinate [or “second”] theme, and the fourth is a recapitulation of the main theme – it’s an andante form! – but in a developmental way; the fifth, reiterating the fashion of the introduction and the transition, leads to the coda, the sixth variation. Everything that happens in the piece is based on the two ideas appearing in the first and second bars (contrabass and oboe), except reduced still more, since the second actor (the oboe) is already in retrograde: the second pitches are the retrograde of the first two, but in augmentation. Then the trombone again plays the first actor (contrabass), but in diminution and in retrograde of the motifs and intervals. So that is how my row is built.”

Manfred Angerer


World première

Winterthur (CH)
Hermann Scherchen

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