“What does ‘twelve-tone’ actually mean?”
In October 2010 Wolfgang Rihm gave an
introduction to Arnold Schönberg’s Variations op. 31 at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.
Listen to a recording of the talk here (in German).
The music was performed by the
Ensemble Modern Orchestra under Peter Eötvös.
Translated excerpts from the talk
“Schönberg wrote these variations
for orchestra in 1928. At that time, the art world was permeated by
classicistic ideals. Some music represents historical models – ‘rehashes’ them,
according to its opponents. Schönberg was not unaffected by this. He responded
to the trends that were typical of the era in his characteristic, highly individual
Variations for orchestra do not
actually have a long tradition. The prototype was probably Brahms’ Haydn Variations
the finale of Symphony No. 4, a chaconne. In Schönberg’s circle,
there were very strong links to this late work by Brahms. Anton Webern’s opus
these styles of composition very precisely. But that came before these
orchestral variations. Max Reger wrote great cycles of variations for
orchestra, always with a fugue. And there is a very popular piece in the
English-speaking world, which is a true masterpiece – namely Edward Elgar’s Enigma
Variations – which Schönberg
also studied in depth. I recently discovered a notebook in which Schönberg had
played around with Elgar’s theme. That must have been during his American period.
So he definitely had the piece in
mind. But opus 31 is about variations – not on a theme supplied by someone else
but, as in Elgar’s case, on a theme written by the composer himself.
It is a twelve-tone piece,
something that can still make people shiver today. They envisage something that
explodes immediately when it comes into contact with air or water …
What does ‘twelve-tone’ actually
mean? To Schönberg, it never meant a list of tones that had to be counted off
and added to the score. Instead, he saw them as themes, as structures, as
this row now, with its transformations – retrograde, inversion, retrograde
inversion – it sounds complicated, but it’s child’s play really. One simply
keeps on rearranging elements on a flat surface. For Schönberg, however, it was
never merely a game of abstract symbols – it always involved flesh and blood
and nerves. Just the way in which he invented a row was true composition. I
haven’t changed anything. I have only added fermatas. The structure is
basically that of a song:
The second part answers the first.
This makes it a little musical form. It is not just an idea; it is actually
already like a little invention. These were thematic forms. When played from
the end to the beginning – in other words in retrograde – the row sounds as
It is almost Bach-like in style.
And the inversion:
And from this inversion comes the
Something can be done with this.
But, as always in art, it doesn’t mean anything yet. In the right hands, it can
become art. It is the same with scales. Mozart made something of them. But
Dittersdorf? In other words, a row can be transformed into music or into
something dull. (…)
The theme is a structure with
manifold substructures, a lovely piece of music which offers many options. It
has a drive for change in it. It soon begins varying itself as the articulation
becomes eloquent, then ever more eloquent and ever more expressive. This now
serves as the basis for a sequence of nine variations.
Taking the work as a whole, with
its introduction, theme, variations and finale, it also has twelve parts. It is
therefore clearly a musical form based on numbers.
Any music can be expressed in
numbers – even Mozart. It doesn’t mean that working with numbers automatically
results in music. But Schönberg always proved the contrary, with everything he
produced in such a seemingly intellectual way. In the 1920s and ’30s, discussions
revolved around whether Schönberg was merely an ‘intellectual musician’ who
only continued something that his emotional and artistic energy had set free in
the first place.
inventing a system is ultimately a conservative act, psychologically speaking.
One is trying to preserve something. By inventing a system, Schönberg firstly wanted
to counter all the animosity that had accused him of caprice – wanted to
reassure people that everything was being done correctly. It was the law that
On the other
hand, he wanted to further codify the state of freedom which he had achieved
around 1909 or 1910 – in other words, working totally chromatically and freely
without being bound by keys. He wanted to make it subject to a law, as a
language, and thereby to save or preserve it. The fact that this can lead to
problems is not our concern at present – but is something we should remember.
I am someone who doesn’t really
think much of introductions to art, because I believe that art cannot
ultimately be understood in the sense of a puzzle where the solution can
suddenly be found. Art is not a crossword puzzle. Art is not suddenly revealed
by adding or explaining something. The best approach is to play a piece twice and
then it generally explains itself. (…)
Elegant waltz tone
Today, there is a lot of talk
about networking. People say they can get from A to B at the speed of light.
One only has to press a button and whole realms of opportunities open up. But
what is the point of that? It is only relevant in any kind of way to someone
who has an overview, who is able to organise things, who has an aesthetic
overview with respect to art.”
then played the opening bars of the variations. He sees them as character
variations, as shown by his comments. The start of the first variation
demonstrates “nervous counterpoint”. The second variation has a canon form with
a “very chamber music-like tone”, while the third variation, which responds, is
“definitely to be understood as a derivation from a baroque suite, a variation
with a dotted rhythm.”
fourth variation, on the other hand, expresses the elegant tone of a waltz –
“albeit with a broken tone, very Viennese, very ‘Schrammel’-like … with great
fifth variation has “a symphonic tone in a varying sense: the developed
variation is an element that conveys something. Schönberg is thus familiar with
these forms of development from tiny parts and the development of large
sixth variation is classic chamber music: “The chamber music parts always stand
in contrast to the orchestral developments. The seventh variation is dominated by
a very elegant bassoon part, which plays around with the theme. The whole thing
is playful, light and bright.”
contrast to this lightness, the eighth variation consists of “rhythmic, hard,
powerful music. Instrumented almost clashingly, as though armed.”
the greatest possible contrast – the ninth variation consists of solos, and is
very transparent. There is almost a shadow of a Mahler-style march. This
variation builds up at the end and makes way for the finale. Why didn’t
Schönberg write a fugue in the tradition of Reger? He didn’t write one because
polyphony is in evidence from the beginning. An atmosphere of methodical
polyphony pervades the entire piece. The polyphonic sound does not need to be
highlighted again by a fugue. The whole piece is polyphonic and the finale
references the ‘master of polyphony’ at the very beginning: Bach.
monogram originates in the row, but not directly. It is constantly present in
the row through semitones – somehow it is always there, but never mentioned directly.
And then suddenly it is mentioned directly. Just as the introduction gradually
presents parts of the theme, the whole cycle of variations gradually moves
towards this B-A-C-H (B flat-A-C-B in English notation) as though it has already
been heard the whole time. But it is not heard before. There seem to be hints
of it, but it first appears high up and flickering and then on all different
B-A-C-H (B flat-A-C-B) therefore
appears in several places and is no longer contained within a cycle of
variations. Instead, it introduces a symphonic movement which is structured
with varying parts like a type of sequence. The principle, however, is that the
fast element becomes ever faster and the slow chamber music element ever slower
and ever rich. Throughout the whole of the finale, the fast element becomes
stretto-like and the slow element increasingly polyphonic. Building up,
releasing. Building up, releasing. A rippling motion, which pervades the whole
After the motion, there is a
sudden pause that builds up like a wall of sound. And, after this wall, comes
the greatest contrast of all – the gentlest part of the whole piece: an adagio,
which introduces the final stretto, in which the theme is present on many
different levels, and which shows the whole piece in a different light, as though
There you find the twelve tones of
the theme in inverse order. It is simply there, but is answered or rather accompanied:
by the cor anglais, among other instruments, which plays with the theme in ever
new forms. A wonderful creation.
In the harp
part, we can hear the B-A-C-H theme again, but transposed. It is a moment of
tranquillity before the final storm, a stretto, which seems to summarise everything.
The final recapitulation is a chord, a closing chord formation, during which
one has the feeling that all the energy that came before and the whole
development of the theme seem to be bundled into the one chord, creating a