Webern and his Melodic Motivic Development in Early Atonal Music - part 2

part 1
part 3

Melodic Development

In Schoenberg's book, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, in classical melodic development the phrase is considered "the smallest structural unit."1 Webern was a devoted student of Schoenberg and would have been intimately familiar with this concept. Arnold Whittal suggests, "Webern never abandoned the most basic of all traditional compositional techniques, repetition, and analysis of his music is most constructive when it interprets his choice of set transpositions and combinations in terms of symmetries resulting from the strategic repetition of certain motives which function as stabilizing and unifying factors."2

4th Movement

In the 4th movement of Webern's Six pieces for Large Orchestra Opus 6 the melodic phrases move from a pair of meta-sets which include eleven of the twelve pitches of the scale, toward a common centre comprising only 4 notes in middle pitch set, then returns to another pair of sets creating a meta-set of eleven pitches. The piece culminates with all twelve pitches sounded with the complementary harmony added to meta-set pitches. Robert Barclay Brown writes, "The appearance of the twelfth as-yet-unstated pitch-type, not infrequently marks the close of a phrase or even an entire movement."3 The relationships between the pitch classes are evident as the piece moves from beginning to end though both the prime form of pitch arrangement and of the pitch sets used. The melodic shape and note duration also give a unity to this movement.

The melody first phrase appears in the Clarinet at rehearsal mark 3 (example 1.a), twenty notes undulating over a set of seven pitches. Using Forte's classification, the pitch class is 7-2, comprising the prime form of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 7 and vector [554331].4 At rehearsal mark 5 the second melodic phrase is played by the alto flute (example 1.b), this time with a pitch class of 7-10, pitches [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 & 9] and vector [445332]. Schoenberg suggests "the motive requires variation"5 and Webern applies variation to the melody.

Not every element is changed to allow some features of the basic shape to be retained. Comparing the two sets, we can see the common pitches of 0 through 4. Pitches 5 and 7 of the first set are changed for pitches 6 and 9 in the second. Looking at the vectors we can see the first three are mirror images, moving from 554 to 445, while the last three vectors differ only by the sixth interval class. The shapes of the melodies show a similarity in the movement with the opening bar of both moving down a tone,6 the first half of the second bar the melodic movement of the second melody is inverted from the first and in the final part of the melodic phrase both move in the same direction. Together they also create a meta-set of eleven of the twelve possible pitches, leaving out the A-sharp.

example 1.a

example 1.b


The third melodic phrase appears in the horn (example 1.c) and dovetails with the previous phrase. The fourth melodic phrase appears in the trumpet (example 1.d). As we saw the note durations lengthen from example 1.a to example 1.b, this increasing of the note durations continues into the third and on to the forth melodic phrases. These sets combined have only nine of the twelve pitches, so the piece is condensing as it reaches the mid point, again, slightly changing the basic shape, but not so much to be unrecognizable.

example 1.c

example 1.d


The pitch class of the example 1.c is 7-30 with pitches [0, 1, 2, 4, 6, 8 & 9]. Common pitches with the two previous phrases of 0, 1, 2, & 4 remain. Pitches 6 and 9 are common with example 1.b and we add a new pitch of 8. The fourth phrase departs from the others in terms of pitch class as it only has four pitches, 0, 1, 2 & 4. However, this pitch class 4-2 is Kh related to the first three melodic phrases. While none of the first three phrases are K or Kh related to each other, the last ties them all together. This phrase is also important as it comes mid way through the piece.

When we look at the last two melodic phrases, we see two sets of six pitches each.

example 1.e example 1.f


Example 1.d is also Kh related to both of these last phrases continuing the relationship of this centre set with all the melodies of this movement. The note duration returns to the rapid pace of the first melodic phrase bring back the undulating note repetition as the piece crescendo's to the end. By combining the last two phrases together, eleven of the twelve pitches are played expanding the piece back out. The only note not played is C-sharp, although it is part of the harmony. As the piece comes to a close all twelve pitches are heard; "the piece is over."

5th Movement

The 5th movement takes a similar approach to melodic development, contracting the pitches used in each melodic fragment, but the associations are held together in a very different way. The melody is eventually fragmented. Webern wrote the 5th movement as James Baker puts it, "reflecting the countless associations, memories, and emotions the composer experiences as he relives the events surrounding his mother's death."7 Like the 4th movement, it eventually comes to sound all twelve pitches and closes quietly, thoughtfully.

The first melodic phrase comes in at the beginning of the movement played by the muted trombone in the opening bar (example 2.a). The second melodic phrase is played by the oboe (example 2.b) at rehearsal mark 2. In this movement the number of pitches seems to be increasing, adding a pitch to the set, even though the phrase length is much shorter, with fewer repeated notes.

example 2.a

example 2.b

When we get to the third melodic phrase (example 2.c, 2.d, 2.e and 2.f), it ends up being is a collection of broken phrases, played by the French Horn, Clarinet, English Horn and Flute.

example 2.c example 2.d example 2.e example 2.f



Example 2.d is Kh related to example 2.c, K related to example 2.e. Example 2.d and 2.f are the same set creating an undulating effect even in the broken phrases. The pitches of these four sets ultimately comprise the pitches of example 2.b except for the 8th pitch, and all the broken melodic elements are Kh related to the second melodic phrase (example 2.b). As the piece progresses toward the end, the melody returns to a muted trombone (example 2.g) with a much longer phrase than examples 2.c-f, but similar to them in it uses a small set of pitches. Example 2.g continues this trend of being Kh related to example 2.b, but is also Kh related to example 2.a.

example 2.g


One of the final two melodic phrases starts with the flute (example 2.h) but shifts to the English Horn midway through, similar to the fragments presented in multiple instruments earlier, but this time the pitch class remains the same, both are of the set 4-1(12). Simultaneously, a solo violin plays another pitch class of 4-7(12) (example 2.i). Example 2.h is Kh related to example 2.a, but only K related to 2.b. Example 2.i presents the first pitch 5 melodically of the piece.8

example 2.h

example 2.i


The two sets combined are similar to the set for example 2.a with an added pitch 5, so the piece has returned to the beginning, but with an added element not heard before. Unlike the 4th movement, the final two sets do not create a meta-set of eleven pitches (only seven unique pitches are sounded), but with the long sustains in the harmony the missing five pitches are heard to complement the sets and the piece comes to a close.

Both movements have melodic segments with repetitive pitches. This can be said of all six movements. Some portions of the melodies are lengthy, some are short, but the undulating feeling is characteristic throughout.9 By slowly transforming the phrases while using related pitch classes the piece develops, yet retains a common element. This is classic melodic development in an atonal setting.

1 Schoenberg, Arnold, The Fundamentals of Musical Composition, Faber & Faber Limited (1967), p 3
2 Whittal, Arnold, "Post-Twelve-Note Analysis" J Royal Music Assn 94 (1987), p 4
3 Robert Barclay Brown, "The Early Atonal Music of Anton Webern: Sound. Material and Structure" (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1965). p. 157.
4 Refer to Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music for more information on prime form and vectors.
5 Schoenberg, Arnold, The Fundamentals of Musical Composition, Faber & Faber Limited (1967). P8
6 Although several notes are outside this range, they can be considered passing notes.
7 Baker, James M. "Coherence in Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6", Music Theory Spectrum, Vol 4 (Spring, 1982), p24
8 A table listing all the set relations for the 5th movement is in Appendix A (or part 4 of this series)
9 Marvin, Elizabeth West, "An Analytic Study of Anton Webern's Posthumous Orchestra Pieces (1913)" (Masters Thesis, Eastman School of Music, 1981), p11-12


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