Introduktion: Mäßig, ruhig

Thema: Molto moderato

1. Variation: Moderato

2. Variation: Langsam

3. Variation: Mäßig

4. Variation: Walzertempo

5. Variation: Bewegt

6. Variation: Andante

7. Variation: Langsam

8. Variation: Sehr rasch

9. Variation: L’istesso tempo; aber etwas langsamer

Finale: Mäßig schnell

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DURATION: ca. 20 Min.

Universal Edition
Belmont Music Publishers (USA, Canada, Mexico)

Schönberg was appointed to chair a master class in composition at Berlin’s Preussische Akademie der Künste in October 1925, succeeding Ferruccio Busoni, who had died the previous year.
Leo Kestenberg, a lecturer of the Prussian Ministry of Culture, had called for Schönberg’s appointment, and he found the job quite aggravating; he was an alien disturber whom the conservatives held to be contemptuous of tradition, while the younger generation thought he was an out-of-date dogmatic. Apart from teaching composition, Schönberg’s duties at the academy included sitting on the senate, which was charged to advise the Ministry of Culture on musical issues.
Schönberg, the founder of the Viennese School and mentor of the twelve-tone method, moved to Berlin in late 1925 (for the third time in his pedagogical career), but his health did not permit him to begin his work at the academy until January 1926. In February of that year, he began to consider a composition which would, for the first time, use the “method of composing with twelve tones related only to one another” for large orchestral forces. Initially, he thought of a passacaglia (which remains only a fragment); he interrupted the work to complete the Suite op. 29 and then drafted a similarly styled series of variations for orchestra (dated 2 May 1926).
At first, work on op. 31 proceeded quickly up to the fifth variation, when Schönberg broke off the so-called “first draft” in June to turn to an entirely different project: the Zionist spoken play The Biblical Way, a conceptual precursor of Moses und Aron. Due to long journeys to Vienna and Pörtschach am Wörthersee, Schönberg repeatedly lost the thread of his most recent orchestral work in progress; in particular, he was unable to reconstruct the thought-process of the fifth variation, as he said in his “Interview with Myself” in 1928: “An irregular number of voices entered at irregular times for dissimilarly large drafts which interrupted the main line. I had composed about half of it and could not discover the principle to realize the briefly sketched-out remainder.”
Obliged now to find a new concept for that variation, he happened to find a sketch he had misplaced which contained the constructive basis for the fifth variation, a thought-process practically identical to the one he had in mind.
Schönberg finally completed the Variations upon an enquiry from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. On 30 May 1928, he replied that the “variations on an original theme,” begun two years before, were “three-quarters finished” and that he “would certainly need no more than 14 days to finish them,” cautioning that “I would not release a new work for a performance in Vienna – I am the only composer with any kind of reputation whom the [Vienna] Philharmonic has yet to play – and so let’s keep it that way.”
Schönberg finished the Variations on 21 August 1928, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera; the fair copy of the full score is dated September 20, 1928. He repeated his refusal to have the work played by the Vienna Philharmonic in a letter to Furtwängler dated 21 September: “They first have to make good on their neglect before we can discuss things further.”
Schönberg remarked that op. 31 was “not excessively difficult in terms of ensemble playing,” but he did add that “the individual parts are by and large very difficult – so the quality of the performance will depend on how well the parts are learned.” Nevertheless, Furtwängler scheduled only three rehearsals; the world premiere during the Fourth Berlin Philharmonic Concerts series on December 2, 1928 was a debacle: “Unbelievable! Fully irresponsible!” Anton Webern wrote to Schönberg on 9 December 1928.
Schönberg penned an introductory address for the Variations which was featured at their successful performance in Frankfurt in February 1931, conducted by Hans Rosbaud. Broadcast on 31 March 1931, the radio lecture (a live recording still exists) is replete with about 70 musical examples, some played on the piano; it juxtaposes the actual interpretation of the work with further-reaching historical allusions regarding criteria of comprehensibility, musical logic and references to tradition:
"Variations for orchestra are doubtless proximate to a symphonic manner of design […] the variations are like an album containing views of a place or landscape showing you individual aspects. But a symphony is like a panorama, where one could look at every picture for itself, although in reality the pictures are firmly interlinked and meld into one another. "
The design of the theme itself is founded on the principle of comprehensibility which Schönberg himself proclaimed, i.e. recognition through conciseness and clear, distinct organization: “In a word, the theme must be relatively simple, for several reasons; one is that the variations gradually become more and more complex “ (Frankfurt radio broadcast, 1931). In particular, the variations are vividly differentiated from one another by individual sound spectrums, at times reminiscent of chamber music and at others reaching the extreme complexity of rich scoring for the full orchestra.
The twelve-tone method used in op. 31 is based on a hierarchic equivalence of the pitch material in a basic row related to the conventional idea of a theme, also employing inversion and transpositions derived from that row. The genuinely rigid schemata breaks forth with emphasis by distributing the pitches of the row among various instruments, resulting in the individual voices producing motifs whose pitch progressions need not correspond to those fixed in the row’s structure. In addition, dodecaphony’s methodologically established dependence on the basic row and its permutations in compositional progress allow motivic derivations and pitch “ciphers,” as Schönberg proves with his repeated use of the famous B-A-C-H [B flat, A, C, B natural] tag in op. 31. He deliberately uses this technique distinctly in some of the variations and particularly in the finale as a kind of “hommage à Bach,” as he said to the American music critic Olin Downes in a letter of 9 November 1938: “I believe I have woven in my quote very carefully.”

Therese Muxeneder
© Arnold Schönberg Center