An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music

By Peter S. Hansen | Go to book overview

right hand now plays what the left hand played before. All of this is followed by a middle section that is a "variation" of the first section, and eventually figures similar to those of the opening return.

The second of the three movements is a strict canon in contrary motion. It is most difficult to play and it is difficult to hear since the two melodies, consisting of leaps, are continually crossing. As in the Symphony, op. 21, the ear tends to follow the line as a unit instead of as two melodies.

Familiarity with the piece will reveal that instead of a spatter- ing of random tones over the keyboard there is, rather, a most intri- cate structural pattern. At four points--Measures 1, 9, 13, and 19--the two voices arrive at the note a. While all the other notes go up and down by the same intervals, these measures form focal points on either side of which the elaborate structures are formed.

The third movement is the most extended, and at the same time the easiest to follow. It consists of a theme followed by five variations. The theme has three parts, the second of which reverses the relationship of the two hands. The third part is a retrograde of the first, so that it ends on the same tone with which it began. The variations are similar in structure, but differ greatly in expression.

After repeated hearing of the Piano Variations some of the patterns become apparent to the listener. One hears the wonderful symmetry, the highs being answered by lows, and the foldings and unfoldings of tension and repose. Obviously Webern is not an expres- sionist depicting the chaos of the modern world, because his quiet patterns play themselves out with the inevitability of the movement of the stars in a galaxy. He is more like a mathematician or a theoreti- cal physicist, plotting structures that are so complex that the relation- ship of the parts eludes most people. There is great beauty in such formulas for those who can read and hear them.


SUGGESTED READINGS

Berg: Alban Berg, the Man and his Music by H. F. Redlich ( New York, 1957) is the only full-length study of the composer in English. An analysis of individual works will be found in Leibowitz (op. cit.).

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