Listening to Webern

12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.

It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.

This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.

In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.

RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):

The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)

Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.



  1. Mark Samples says:

    Right on. I found this a persuasive and moving argument.

  2. Josh McNeill says:

    I’ve always thought of atonal composers as being, possibly inadvertently, very concerned with timbre, almost out of necesity. For instance, I loved Webern’s op. 1 from the first time I heard it because of how the dynamics and texture played with my emotions in the same way tonal composers might via unexpected modulations and such. It’s as if they needed to make good use of the timbral side of their music because it was the only thing that was still recognizable to listeners.

    I’ve always thought of minimalism as working in a similar way, ironically.

  3. I’ve just recently gotten into Webern, specifically his Five Pieces for Orchestra and Passacaglia for Orchestra. My first true formal exposure to atonal music was in a Composing for Non-Majors course in 1997, however, it’s taken me this many years to really be able to listen to it with open ears. I think the reason for me personally is based on my specific evolution as an aspiring composer myself. My tonal materials are often derived from jazz minor, octatonic, and diatonic modes. My procedure for each new piece has been to explore a new ‘exotic scale’ of some sort. This results in a certain type of tonality that is modern-y and somewhat chromatic, but I’m starting to see how this can ultimately be limiting in terms of the harmonic and dramatic palette available to me.

    I don’t know who said this, but someone once wrote that the problem with serial music isn’t that it’s unemotional but that it’s too emotional. I don’t think we can dismiss the effect the cinema has on mainstream receptiveness to many twentieth century, otherwise avant-garde affectations such as serialism, texturalism, and electronic music. I think that exploration has helped many understand the dramatic/programmatic potential of these types of composition.

    I think the best PR for atonal music is to stop emphasizing its association with academia. The way serialism, in particular, was framed for me in that first composition class was like it was some science experiment whipped together in a university lab that was more concerned with mathematical precision than aural aesthetics. I remember my instructor comparing serialism to a slug, which on a visceral level is disgusting but on a purely biological level is a work of art of the highest transcendental order.

    When I listen to Schoenberg and Webern now, I don’t get this impression anymore. I think of serialism as more of a style than a process now. The visual impression of the twelve-tone matrix itself communicates so much stuffiness and precompositional determinism that I think it has largely contributed to an unfair bias towards serialism as being hyperintellectualization, when the fact is that the aural/psychological effect is just as significant as in tonal music and more often than not, only a few rows from the matrix are generally utilized in a given piece. It’s more about the conception of the initial pitch sequence that ultimately builds the character of the resulting piece.

    Of course, there are bad serial composers and hardcore integral serialists, but I am less familiar with their work. I can say for sure that when I listen to Webern and Schoenberg, I hear more of a concern for beauty and sensation than a of pure experimentalism.

  4. ABQChris says:

    A superb essay. What truly matters with music is whether or not the sounds coming out of the instruments (or speakers) excite or move you in some way. Does it feel good to listen to? Then it’s automatically good; anything beyond your response to the music is mere sociological imposition. Music is for the ears. Extramusical concerns such as symmetrical scores can be fun for some, but you don’t listen to them.

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