Webern and his Melodic Motivic Development in Early Atonal Music - part 1

This is part one of a four part series (one paper broken into four for ease of reading on a blog). The rest of the paper will be posted under the same title (part 2-4)
part 2
part 3

Anton Webern wrote a number of atonal pieces and is associated with Arnold Schoenberg, the second Viennese School and the twelve-tone technique. However, it wasn’t until Drei Geistliche Volkslieder (1925) that he began using the twelve-tone technique which dominates his works from this point on.1 After gaining his PhD in Musicology, Webern wrote a tonal piece in 1906-8 entitled Five Songs after Poems of Richard Dehmel which is derived from the Romantic styles of his predecessors.2 His first work worthy of an opus, Passacalia Opus 1 (1908) was still tonal in nature, written primarily in D minor and heavily influenced by Brahms.3 What was the transitional process from tonal to atonal and eventually to twelve-tone technique and what effect did this have on Webern’s early melodic atonal development?

    Webern wrote:
    About 1911 I wrote the "Bagatelles for String Quartet" (Op. 9), all very short pieces, lasting a couple of minutes — perhaps the shortest music so far. Here I had the feeling, "When all twelve notes have gone by, the piece is over." Much later I discovered that all this was a part of the necessary development. In my sketchbook I wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off the individual notes. Why? Because I had convinced myself, "This note has been there already."... In short, a rule of law emerged; until all twelve notes have occurred, none of them may occur again. 4

Strictly using all twelve notes without reiteration would be problematic. George Perle writes, “A strict interpretation of this ‘rule of law’ would imply that within a movement the twelve notes must be continually reiterated in the same order, since otherwise some will necessarily recur before all twelve are ‘crossed off.’"5 By turning to the canon, a form where continual repetition is integral, Webern explored the function of melody as both thematic motive and harmony with his last pre-dodecaphonic work The Five Canons of Latin Text, Opus 16 (1923-24). His last tonal work Entflieht auf leichten Kahnen (1908) was also a canon, suggesting Webern’s focus on the relationship between melody and harmony, principle and secondary parts, was already in his thought process prior to writing atonal works.6

A difficulty arises when trying to analyze atonal works for melodic and harmonic structure. These structures are not built on the same notions of chord progression present in tonal music. Allen Forte’s book, The Structure of Atonal Music, discusses the process of analyzing atonal music using pitch classes, the relationships of these classes to one another by inversion, transposition or both. 7 Since much of Webern’s music is motivic driven, 8 using Forte’s pitch classes, I will look at the melodic development and its relation to the harmony in perhaps the first atonal work of Webern, Six pieces for Large Orchestra Opus 6 (1910), in exploring how his melodies develop in early atonal music, and their relationship to the underlying harmonies.

1 Forte, Allen, The Atonal Music of Anton Webern, Yale University Press (1998) p. 3
2 Cone, Edward T. Webern’s Apprenticeship, Musical Quarterly LIII (1967) p. 40
3 Author: 'Juvenilia and student works, 1899–1908', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [12 January 2008]),
4 Webern, Anton The Path to the New Music, Bryn Mawr, Pa. (1963), p. 51
5 Perle, George, , “Webern’s Twelve-Tone Sketches”, Musical Quarterly LVII (1971) p. 3
6 Perle, George, “Webern’s Twelve-tone Sketches”, Musical Quarterly LVII (1971) p6
7 This book is based on the work of Milton Babbitt with his article “The Structure and Function of Musical Theory” first published in College Music Symposium 5 (Fall, 1965): 49-60, although this was arguably started with his previous article Some Aspects of Twelve Tone Composition, published in 1955 where he speaks of pitch classes in terms of Stravinsky’s music. - Peles, Stephen, ed. The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, Princeton University Press (2003), p 155
8 Whittal, Arnold, “Post-Twelve-Note Analysis” J Royal Music Assn 94 (1987), p4


This is excellent -- rarely do I see such detailed musical analyses on the 'blogosphere.' I look forward to reading more of your posts!
Chip said…
Part of what this blog is a clearing house for random thoughts about what's happening in the industry. But part of it is also a chance to explore deeper thoughts in music. So, yes, there will hopefully be many more posts with analysis in them. Right now I'm studying Rachmaninoff with Beethoven sitting in the wings. I'd like to also study scores for more recent composers like James Horner and John Williams - but they're more difficult to get hold of.

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