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The Defining Moment:

The Thema as Relational Nexus

in Webern's Op. 27
Tiina Koivisto

While most analysts currently agree that the actual set of variations
in Anton Webern's Varia tions for Piano, Op. 27 is to be found in the
third movement, Webern 's own co=ents
suggest that the initial
eleven measures of that movement serve as a thema not only for the
subsequent five variations, but also for the composition as a who le. In
a letter to Eduard Steuermann, in which he included a copy of the
piece, Webern wrote:
[The Variations] are div:ided into three indepe nden t movements . I do not
display th e thema explicitly (at the top, like before). It is almost my wish
that it could stay as such unrecognized . (But if people ask me abou ~ it, I
wou ld not hide it from them.) Neverthe less it is bette r that it stay ba ck
the re. (It is- to you I tell it right away-the first eleven measures of th e
third movement.)' (Webern 1983, 32 -33; author's trans lation)

' "lch schickc Dir mit gleicher Post meine 'Variationen' u . bin se hr glucklich , de
Dich meine Widmung an Dich freut. Wie ich Dir , glaube ich, schon angedeutet habe,
sind sie in fur sich abgeschlosse ne Satze (drei l aufgetcilt . !ch st eUe auch das 'Tbema'
gar nich t ausdru ck:lich hina us [etwa in fruherem Sinne an die Spitze]. Fas t ist es mein
Wunsc h, es moge al s so lch es unerkannt bleiben. (Aber wer mich danach fragt , dem
werde ich es nicb t verheimlichen) . Dach moge es lieber gleichsam dahinter stehen. [Es
sind -D ir vecrate ich es natiirlich gleich-die ersten 11 Takte des 3 . Satzes]."


In Theory Only

This article seeks to explicat e Webern's remarks and suggests that

the thema emerges as the kerne l of the relationships em ployed in the
ent ire piece. By examining the relationshi ps inhe rent in the thema, it
is possible to develop meaningful ways to approach and describe the
unde rlying structural features not only in the set of variations, but
also in the preceding two movements.' Furthermore, this approach
reveals the manner in which the thema lies at the midpoint of a series
of nested symmetrical structures, against which one hears the
te mporal accretion of the music.

Example 1 shows the thema of Op. 27 with Webern's remarks about
the performance of the piece, as they appear in the Stadlen edition
(Webern 1979).3The thema contains three phrases (A, B, and A'), each
of which comprises a single member of the work's row class. There are
a multitude of ways to hear this musical surface. The specific
articulation of the thema phrases invites us to hear several prominen t
groupings. For example, one may hear strands of long and short notes,
in which the long notes can be described as a melodic part and the
short notes as an accompanying part. 5 Furthe rmore , one may hear
strands of slurred and nonslurred dyads.' Both these groupings
partition the phrases into chromatic hexachords. In addition, the
single tritone of the thema's intervallic vocabulary, marking the
midpoints of the phr as es , parses the phrases yet another way into
pairs of chromatic hexach ords: in this instance into the actual
hexachords of the rows.

Anton Webern's Op. 27 has been discussed from various points of view; see
Babbitt (11960 ) 1962, 1987), Bailey(J99 1), Hasty (1981), Leibowitz (11949) 1970),
Lewin (1962, 1987, 1993), Mead (1992, 1993), Nolan (19891, Schoebel (1984), Stadlen
(1958), Travis (1966), Wason (1987 ), and Westergaard (1963, 11962) 1972).
"These remarks were made by Webern to Stadlen as instructions for the world
premiere of the work in 1937 . Stadlen~s annotations include both verbal recollections
and comments written on the score.

In cliscussion of structural features , tbe tbema phrases will be referred to as A

and B if there is no need to differentiate between the outer phrases.

Morris was the first to point this out in a seminar at Yale University in
1975 (Mead 1992, 123). Also Wason (1987 ,78) cites Monis as the source of his way of
construing the thema.
6An alternative interpretation of the thema that also uses the clistinction betw een
slurred and nonslurred dyads is deve loped by Lewin {1987, 39) .

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


Bxample 1. Webern, Varia tionen , mvt. ill, mm. 1- 12, them a

Reprinted by permission of Universal Edition.
Thema ph"',e A

-~ ....
.,& .. l,,',cit,1,n,


r....,.._ ..... ...;n~

Ruh!g lliafJend J, ea80


Thema phrase B ('<")

Thus, chromatic hexachords are artic ula ted in the music as

as motivic (tha t is , as melodic and
accompanying) hexacbords, and as slurred/nonslurred
as shown in example 2. In order to explore relationsh ips inherent in
the thema more deeply , one ne eds first to examine some of the most
significant hexachordal properties of the work's row class, which yields
the types of hexachordal collec tions so prominently displayed in the
thema. The row class of the work can be generated from P: 3et210
647598 . The
[0 12345]
all -combinatorial
seve ral compositionally
significant properties. First, as the hexachord 's interv al vector


In Theory Only

<543210> indicates, each interval class (ic) is represented a unique

number of times. Thi s property allows the row class the highest degree
of differentiation among its hexachordal area s. 7 Second, the exclusion
of ic 6 from the hexachords places special significance on tri tones as
intervals that can only occur between hexachords.
Example 2. Segmental , motivic, and slurred/non
hexachordal areas of thema phrases A and B
P: 3et210


6 47598

Hcxachordal areas


me lody 3
accomp . et


{te0123 }

{23 456 7)
{89te 0 !)



{9te012 }


f789te0 )

(m otivic)

I6 P
melody 3
acco m p . 78 56


As example 2 illustrates,

the three criteria for parsing each of the

thema p hrases yield all possible members of the (012345 ) collection
class exactly once. The presence of all hexachordal areas in the thema
exhausts the possibilities for th e various degrees of pitch -class (pc)
intersection available ,vith this type of collection class. As shall be
seen, the di screte degrees of pc intersection int roduced in the thema
become an important facto r in the formal shaping of the mus ic. The
actual pcs of the pc intersection have significant roles as well.
Among the hexachordal areas of the thema one may define more
close and more r emote relationships having as their criteria properties
arising from the orderings or partial orderings of the hexachords . As
will be discussed below, one may define a close relationshi p between
the segmental and motivic hexachordal areas arising from ordering
properties. Based on th is, comparison between the segmental and
motivic hexachordal areas alone throughout the thema reveals the
presence of all the possible degrees of pc intersection (ex. 3). Degree of
pc intersection is indicated with two digits separated by a slash, the
firs t showing the number of pcs shared between hexachords a t like

This property is shared by only on e other hexa chordal collection-class, 1024 579 ),
the diato ni c hexachord .


Koivisto, The Defining Moment

order pos itions, and the second showing the number of pcs unique to
each hexachord. As comparison between, for example, the segmental
hexachords of P and I6P shows , the hexachords at like order positions,
that is, the first hexachords of both rows, have pc intersection 1/5
sharing pc 3; the second hexachords of these rows share pc 9.
Example 3. Pc intersection between segmental and motivic
hexachordal areas of the thema












One may now define further relationships within the thema by

considering the hexachordal areas in terms of partially ordered
hexachords based on the semitone partitioning of the thema. Hence,
the hexachords are interpreted as ordered sets of unordered ic l
dyads. Example 4 shows these ordered sets of dyads of the segmental
and rnotivic hexachords of phrases A and B. The interpretation of the
hexachordal areas as partially ordered has significant compos itional
consequences on various structural levels. Significantly, there will
always be two rows that yield the same ordered sets of dyads. Thus,
each ordered set of dyads shown in example 4 can be generated from
two discrete rows. Example 5 illustrates this by showing the four rows
connected with the set of dyads of the segmental and rnotivic
hexachordal areas of phrases A and B. Example 6 th en groups these
rows into row families. (Since the focus here is on hexachord content,
each row in the example also represents its retrograde .) Hence, the
relationships articulated in the thema generate row families that
closely reflect the thema, most obviously by producing the same
ordered sets of dyads as in the therna.


In Theory Only

Example 4. Ordered sets of dyads of segmental and motivi c

hexachordal areas of thema phrases A and B


{{23l{leH01) {67){45H89))
{{23H67){45) {teH01H89})



{{34}{78H56) {eOH12H9t))
{{34HeOH12) {78H56){9t}}


Example 5. Rows connected with the ordered sets of dyads of

thema phrases A and B







}->{{23){te }{01){67){45}{89)}
RTsP: 23e 1 t O


Rl9 P: 32647


u LY-I
n rr=r,


u 1u1



l u I LJ




l nln







RT7P: 3 4 () ~ 1


u UJ.J



1u u



The relationships
in the thema have further
consequences. One may group the rows of the work's row class into six
equivalent four-row families (eight -row families if one distinguishes the
retrogrades) that represent the relationships between the rows yielding
the ordered sets of segmental and motivic dyads of phrases A and B.

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


Examp le 6 . Two main four -row families



Nmot Nseg





Blseg B/mot

Among these six families, the four-row families containing P and 16P
(ex. 6) will be referred to as the two main four-row fam ilies.
One may consider partial orderings of the hexachords yet another
way, as unordered sets of unordered ic l dyads. This approach yields
two additional rows (and their retrogrades) that produce se ts of dyads
connected with the thema phrases, in this instance the unordered sets
of the dyads within the hex.a.chordal areas. Example 7 illustrates th is
by showing the rows yielding the unordered sets of dyads of the
segmental hexachords of thema phrase A. The six four -row families,
es tablished above among the rows of the work's row class, comprise
rows that yield the ordered and unordered se ts of segmental, mot ivic,
and slurred/no n slurred dyads of phrases A and B. Thus, in addition
to the two main four -row families, which are closely connected to the
thema, one has four additional four -row families that reflect to various
degrees th e thema through the properties arising from its segmental ,
motivic, and s lurred/nonslurred
Most significantly,
howeve r , these additional four-row families produce the same
relationships between them and among their rows as the two main
four-row families . In this manner , the relationships arising from all the
various hexachordal areas of the thema may be expressed to represent
the relatio n ships among the rows of the two main four-row families.


In Theory Only

Example 7. Rows producing the unordered sets of dyads of the

segmental hexachordal areas of thema phrase A


76 598


{{te ){23 ){O1){67){89){ 45)}



Relationships within the row class may be helpfully illustrated

using relational diagrams. Example 8 shows a relational diagram
comprising the rows of the row class. In the diagram, the two
concentric rings of nodes each represent rows related by T. The aligned
nodes represent
inversionally related rows whose individual
map onto themselves. Each axis represents
hexachordal area. Any row .o f the row class may be inserted in any one
of the nodes, and the remainder of the nodes would be filled
automatically. 6
We shall now further exp lore the relationships among the rows of
the work's row class by using this relational diagram and by invoking
two ways to view inversional relations. In this composition, Webern
deals with relationships between pairs of inversionally related rows
both in terms of a preserved index number and in terms of a fixed
degree of hexachordal pc intersection. The relational diagram will be
used to show the two ways of expressing inversional relations, followed
by an illustratio n of relationsh ips within and between the four -row
families, invoking these two ways of construing
In example 9 the various degrees of pc intersection are indicated
with dotted lines. A similar chart may be made for any row in the
diag ram , either by inserting the row in the appropriate node, or by
reorienting the net of dotted lines. Doing so groups the rows of the row
class into twelve discrete sets of inversionally related row pairs that
fulfill two conditions. First , the row pairs have the same degree of pc
intersection between hexachords at like order positions, and second,
they have the same properties when considered as ordered row pairs. 9

8rhe diagram shows the rows related by T and I; operation R would reverse the
num ber of pcs shared and held unique between hexachords of the rows.
9As an exam.p ie, by inserting the main row pair P-1 P into the nodes marked by
asterisks (P at the top} and by inserting rows into the rest of the nodes according to
example 8, the eleven other members fulfilling the two conditions are found by
r eorienting the net of dotted lines until the initial position is reached . These eleven


Koivisto, The Defining Moment

Example 8. Relational diagram of rows in the row class




same hexachordal

i represents the appropriateindex number to map

segmental hexachords onto Uiemselves

other row pairs of the same set are l;P-1,P . . . T,P-l;P. (The row pairs also represent
th eir retrogrades, tbat is RP-RIJ', etc.)


In Theory Only

Ezample 9. Relational diagram showing degree of pc intersection

between hexachords

at like order positions of rows






' ' ;lfr



Additionally, the same two conditions are fulfilled in the twelve discrete
sets of transpositionally re lated row -pairs, thus allowing extension of
pc intersection to transpositionally related rows. 10
In example 10 the index number of inversion between the rows of
the row class is indicated by showing the two patterns that arise from
even and odd indices of inversion. A given index groups the rows into
twelve sets of row pairs that share pc pairs determined by the index
but do not maintain the same degree of pc intersection. 11

For example, the hexachords of P and T,P have pc intersectio n 1/5 in the same

fashio n as the hexachords of P and J.,P.


In example 10, by inserting rows into the nodes like in example 9, the net of

solid lines indicates all twelve members of one set of inversionally related row pail's
sharing the same index of inversion . In example !Oa the rows are related by 16. The
[, related row pairs are P-1,P, T,P-1,P . .. TJ' l,P (and their retrogrades). A
reorientation of the net of solid lines yields a different set of row pail's sharing another

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


Example 10. Relational diagrams of rows related by (a) even and (b)
odd index numbers


Finally, example 11 shows row relationships within and between

the two main four-row families. The roost significant relations
preserving the degree of pc intersection between inversionally related
rows within and between the four -row families are labeled as follows.
(l) The inversion relation specifying the degree of pc intersection
between the hexachords at like order positio ns of P and lJ' and
addi tional such pairs is labeled an ls relation (s ; segmental). Thus,
the inversion relation between the rows of the thema can be expressed
bo th as Is and as 16 , depending on the analytical orientation; both
relations are important in the work. In the diagram one may also see

index of inversion.


In Theory Only

Example 10 (cont.)

how moves between ls and T5 related rows are identical in terms of

degree of pc intersection, a feature that is significant in the work, as
well. (2) The inversion relation specifying pc intersection between
of the rows yielding the segmental and motivic
hexachordal areas of a thema phrase will be labeled as an Ismrelation
(sm = segmental/motivic). The first Ism relation (Ism') denotes pc
intersection 4 /2 and the second Ism relation (Ism2 ) denotes pc
intersection 2 / 4 between hexachords at like order positions of these
rows and additional such pairs. As was discussed above, this type of
inversion relation specifies also the properties of ordered rows.
Example 12 illustrates this by showing the ordered rows of the
four -row family containing P. Most prominently, in the first Ismrelation
the melodic hexachord possesses the same order as one of the


Koivisto, The Defining Moment


segmental hexachords.
linking dyad .

The second Ism relation yields an invariant

Example 11. Relational diagram of pc intersections

main four- row families

among the two



' ' ''I


\\ I
\ I

I l













' ' '-, ___..........


Monis pointed out this property in a senunar at Yale Uruversity in 1975

(Andrew Mead, personal communication).


In Theory Only

Ex ampl e 11 (cont.)


I 1.




two main f our-row families

ordered sets of segmental and motivic dyadS
of A and B, and additional such palrs


pc intersection 2/4 between hexachords

at like order positions of rows yielding the

ordered sets of segmental and motivic dyads
of A and B, and additional such pairs

As will be shown , the relationsh ips inherent in the thema form th e

bas is of the pitc h organization of all three movements. The first and
second movements em ploy the two different ways to exp ress the
relation between th e rows of th e th ema, the I. and 16 relations, and
both movements employ one of the two lsm re lations , as well as
inve rsionally related row chains generated by T, . In the third
movemen t, the variation form is based on the us e of the sets of or dered
and unordered dyads connected with the discrete hexac hor dal areas
of the thema, and the culminating variation emp loys both Ism relatio n s.
As is often noted, one of the most familiar aspects of this piece, as
well as Webern's twelve-tone mus ic in general, is his penchant for
symmetrical structures, both in time and in r egister. Neverth eless, one
hears in this music a strong sense of progression, suggested by the
plasticity of its phrases. This artic le pays s pecial attention to the
manner in which this sense of progr ession arises from the underlying
structures and, furth er, to the manne r in which the symmetrical ,
frozen structural aspects of the pitc h organ .ization int eract with our
sense of musical accret ion over time .
In order to demonstrate the various a spects of the underlying pitch
organizatio n , the notion of compositional design, introduced by Morris
(1987) , will be employed . Furthermore, the form of each movement will
be explained as arising from an interaction between the underlying

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


des ign and its surface realization. Each analysis begins by e=ining
the underlying design, continues by illustrating some of th e specific
properties inh erent in the design, and then moves to a demonstration
through brief examples of the ways in which the design becomes vivid
on the musical surlace .

The First Movement

The first movement is in tripartite fonn, the sections of wh ich consist,
with a few exceptions, of mirror -symmetrical phrases. The un de rlyin g
design may be characterized by focusing on four different aspects: (1)
simultaneous retrograde- related row pairs, (2) consecutive row pairs
forming row -pair couples, (3) hexachordal areas of the row pairs, and
(4) pc intersection between these hexach ordal areas.
The retrograde -re lated ro w pairs form two inversionally related
row-pair chains generated by T, (ex. 13). The retrograde related row pairs are RT8P/T 8P (mm. 1-7 and 11- 15) and RI,P/L,P (mm.
8-10 and 15- 18). As the diagram indicates, T8 P and I2 P (and RT8 P and
RI~) are rela ted by Is. The middle section of the movement consists
solely of interlocked members of the two T 5 chains (Lewin 1987, 182),
whereas the outer sections are extended with T6 -related row pairs.

Example 12. Two types of km relat ions in the fou r -row family
contain ing P


I l

1 1 11,..........

3 .!.!,2 ~ 6 4 7 5 9 8J




1 9te
.._. 5 74623


2 6 7 3 4 5 e 1 to 9 8)




011 e32



In Theory Only

Example 13. Underlying design of mvt. I: retrograde-related



An examination

of the row-pair design in terms of consecutive

row-pair couples reveals that the movement exhibits two discrete
invers ion re latio ns inherent in the the ma (ex. 14). The outer sections
(mm . 1-18 and 37-54) exhibit the Is relation, the relation between the
rows of the thema, whereas the middle section (mm. 19-36) exhibits
the second Ism re latio n, which arises from the segmental and motiVic
hexachordal areas of the thema. The ls-related row-pair couples of the
ou te r sections are T,P -1,P (with their retrogrades) in the first section
and P-4P and tP -T5 P (with their retrogrades) in the last section; the
hm2 -related row -pair couples of the middle section are I,P -T2P, l0P-T1 P,
I,P -P (with their retrogrades). In this manner the underlying design
manifests a tripartite formal layout. However, within this tripartite
shape, the last section combines the relationships of the two preVious
sections by generating the Is-re lated row-pair couples by T5 in the same
fashion as the middle section.

Example 14. Underlying design of mvt. I: row-pair couples









Yet another deep structural level emerges if one interprets the row
pairs as hexachordal areas (ex. 15). In this interpretation two identical
chains of hexachordal areas permeate the movement. In both chains,
adjacent hexachordal areas have the same degree of pc intersection,
that is, intersection 1/5, between hexachords at like order positions.


Koivisto, The Defin ing Moment

Examp le 15. Underlying design of mvt . !: pc intersection
between hexachordal areas

End Epilogue


-- ..- --

Hexachordal areas have several consequences for the formal shape

of the movement . First, the identical haachordal areas at the ends of
the chains punctuate two structurall y prominent moments: the first
chain concludes with the row pair that forms the climax (mm. 32-34),
and the second chain concludes with the penultimate row pair (mm.
47 -51 ). As such it leaves the last row pair, whose hexachordal areas
are a repetition of the third -to-last row pair, as a separate unit. Th us,
the role of the las t row pair as an epilogue (mm. 51-54), a role
confirmed by Webern's remarks in the Stadlen edition , arises from a
deeper level of the pitch organization.
Aspects of pc intersection between he:xachords also reveal how the
row pairs manifest all the possible degrees of pc intersection with
regard to the initial one. In the two chains, the maximum degree of
from the initi al hexachords,
pc intersection
3 / 3,
demarcates strncturally significant moments. In the first chain the
midpoint of t h e middle section occurs after these hexachords are
stated. At this moment the surlace interpretation of the rows changes
as well: new configurations are introduced, and deviations from the
symmetrical arrangements are made to help shape the climax and a
transition to the las t section . In the second chain, the last row pair is
singled out, since it repeats pc intersection 3/3, thus emphasizing the
special role of the epilogue.
Lastly, the segmental hexachords of the thema have an important
role as points of departure and arrival. Most importantly, the middle
section is framed by the segmental hexachordal areas of phrase A,
arising from the row pairs I7P/RI 7P and P/RP. In addition, the


In Theory Only

beginning of the last section is demarcated by entrances of the exact

rows of the thema.
In light of the above, the form of the movement can be viewed as
arising from an interaction among the various aspects of the
underlying design. First, the design articulates a tripartite formal
layout, within which there is a special emphasis pla ced on the last
section. Second, the aspects arising from the hexachordal areas
manifest a continuum
throughou t the movement,
significantly, however, leaving the last row pair, which forms the
epilogue, as a separate unit. Finally, the climax as well as the
conclusion before the epilogue are demarcated as the last members of
the two chains.
The propert ies inherent in the underlying desig n have manifold
compositional consequences offering ways to shape the specifics within
the overall flow of the music determined by the hexachordal areas. For
instance, example 16 shows the manner in which th ree disc rete
segme nt al ic 1 dyads of the work's row class are related by T, .
Cons equ ently, invariant dyads arising from the T5 chains permeate the
movement. Through the partitioning schemes and their surface
realizations, these invariant dyads become a prominent feature in the
shaping of the mirror-symmetrical
phrases acting, for example, as
their framing and middle dyads. Furthermore, the dyads are typ ically
connected with an additional pc to form collections belonging to the
collection class (016], a characteristic sonority of this movement.
These aspects may be illustrated with the movement's climactic
phrase (mm. 32-34; ex. 16). The dyads E-Eb and A-G~, which arise
from the T5 chains and form prominent elements in the previous
phrases - most often emphasized by the same registers-become
framing and middle ic 1 dyads of the climaxing phrase. As another
illustration of ways in which the underlying design offers opportunities
to shape the climax, the example shows how the tritone B F, having
its first entrance here as an axis tritone (m. 33), together with the
pitch E 3 evokes the movement's opening sonority. The opening
row pair, T8 P/RT 8 P, and the row pair of the
climaxing phrase, I5 P/Rl 5 P, exchange the first and middle trichords
belonging to the set class (0161, that is {892) and {45e} (at order
numbers {te0 and {456}of 15P). Moreover, the pcs of the work's opening
me lodic dyad, E-C~, become the framing pcs of the climax's ascending
line (mm. 32-33). (It is worth mentioning that the corresponding

Example 16. Surface promine nce ofT 5 -related ic 1 invarian t dyads


















. .~











1 e20
, U

'--- --



J10 I 1:e---54'B
2 6 7 3:45 erf'1
u l..'.t"- --- 0 9u8



In Theory Only

gesture in the middJe section's opening phrase is framed by the tritone

B-F. ) Th e goal of the ascent, Db 6, features the first two sect ions ' hig h
registral extre me .
The richness with which the design becomes vivid on the musical
surfac e may furthe r be illust r ated using one parti cularly telling
p ass age , the epilogue, in which several traj ectories of relati onshi ps
coincide. The special qualities of the ep ilogue arise from various
structural levels, ranging from the u n derlying des ign, as demonstrated
abov e , to its registral iso lation in the context of the last sec tio n. This
register connects it to the climax of the moveme n t. Additionally, as the
last member of a T5 chain, the epilogue merges invariances within the
chains that have permeated the movement. One of the mos t intricate
ways in which the epilogue brings ba ck the even ts of the movement is
the way in which it invokes the opening. The Stadlen edi tion
reproduces Webe rn 's instructions to emphasize the melodic pitches of
the openi ng phrase (ex. 17). These nonadjacen t pitches of the rows
form a hexachordal collection that belongs to the same cla ss as one
arising betwee n segments of simultaneous row pairs, as Robert Wason
has noted (1987 , 95 -9 6, 99). Most significantly , however , the pcs of the
opening melody are precisely those tha t form the last trichord s of the
epil ogue (ex. 17). That these last trichords form a hexachord tha t is a
member of this same hexachordal collection-cl ass arises inevitably
from Webern 's use of trichordal partiti oning and retrograde-re lated row
pairs in thi s movement; that the trichords are formed of the exac t
same pcs as the opening me lody reveals Webern 's sens itivity to the
possibilities inherent in his com pos iti onal design for its surface

The Second


The second moveme nt has been discussed in great detail by several

analysts (Babbitt (1960) 1962, Bailey 1991, Lewin 1962 and 1993,
Mead 199 3, Nolan 1989, Wason 1987, and Weste rgaard 1963). As
Babbitt has noted ([l 960J 1962, 117), the second movement is based
on simul taneous row pairs generated by the same index numb er of
inversion as employed for the rows of th e th ema, and thus the row
pairs yie ld the same simultaneous dyads . As is well known, the
bipartite second movement is bas ed on a two- voice canon and the
pitche s are , for the most part , registrally fixed and arranged around
the axis of symmetry, A4

Example 17. Connections between the opening and conclud ing measu res of mvt. I
















firs! R rel.
row pair


last R rel.

e 7 a:i)s@


: ~21
: t It




In Theory Only

Like the fir s t movement, the formal layout of this movement can
also be considered as an interaction among various aspects of its
underlying design (ex. 18). The 16 -related row pairs of the second
movement are RP-RlJ' and RTJ'-RlJ' in the first part, while the second
part employs RT2P-Rl,P and RT5P-Rl,P. As example 18a indicates, the
16-related row pairs form Ism1-related row -pair couples, whic h articulate
the bipartite shape of the movement. The T, chains (eit. 18b), wh ich
run in opposite direction s, form a continuum over the entire
composition connecting the last and first row pairs as adjacent
members of the chains.
In this movement, the degree of pc intersection proves importan t
both between ad jacent and simultaneous hexacho rdal areas, as it
reveals the overall rhythm of change of the mus ic . In hexachords of
adjace nt rows the degree of pc intersection decreases until the last row
pair returns to the hexachordal areas of the very beginning (ex. 18c).

Example 18. Underlying d esign of mvt. II: (a) row pair couples, (b) row
pairs" and (c) pc intersection between hexachordal areas




Koivisto, The Defining Moment


Exam ple 18 (cont.)

18c .

. .





11/5 15
/3 15/1



A/ mot





The degr ee of pc in tersection between simultaneous rows indicates

how rapidly the dyads change within the hexachords , as noted by
Mead (1993 , 184) and intimated by Wason (1987 , 84-85). The opening
and con clusion manifest th e same rhythm of change , the most rap id,
whereas the third row pair manifests a contrasting rhythm of change ,
the s lowest.
Finally, the second movement displays all the hexacho r dal areas
of the thema. A-segme n tal and B-segmen tal hexachordal areas frame
the movement acting as poin ts of departure and arrival, while the
m iddle row pairs yield the or der ed sets of motivic and slurred/
nonslurred dyads of thema phrases A and B. Thus, in the row pairs of
the second movement, the intersecting pcs are precisely those between
th e three pairs of discrete hexac ho rdal areas of the th ema phrases,
and the pcs A and El>, ari sing from pc inte rsection 1/5, becom e the
axes of symmetry .
The rh ythms of the phrases aris e from the rhythm of change
inherent in the hexachords of the rows . With in th is overall rhythm of
ch ange the particularities are determined by the properti e s inherent
in the Ts chains and in the lsm1 row-pair cou ples. The following
analytical vignettes , the first showing th e opening phrase and the
s econd comparing the opening an d concluding phrases,
demonstrate the mo r e general principle of the manner in which the


In Theory Only

underlying design becomes, wit h its different rhythms of change, the

source of the su rf ace composition.
Th e opening phrase (ex. 19) introduces the basic elements of the
phrases . (Lewin ( 1993] calls the first three dyads of the opening phrase
TUNE.) Th e parts of the phrase have thei r roles as opening , middle,
and concluding
elements , associated
with the specific dy ads,
dynam ics, articul atio n, and contour. The remaind er of the phrases are
based on these same elements, and on their varied and extended forms
(Westergaard 1963). In these varied forms the pcs may remain the
same while some other characteristic,
such as articulatio n ,or
dynamics, changes; or in some cases the other featu res remain the
same while the pc content is altered.
Example 19 further compares the opening and concluding phrases,
which manifest the same r hyth m of change. The T 5 relation between
the rows resul t s in the segmental dyads forming the opening phrase
occurring at every other order number of the conctuding row pair, that
is , at order numbers {2468t}. Thus, these dyads maintain the same
order while the intervening dyads are employed to vary or extend th e
phrasal elements.
Finally, a closer look at these passages shows that the very end of
the last phrase, before the stinger (m. 22) , brings back the events of
the opening of the movement in a way that echoes by analogy the
epilogue of the first movement. Example 20 indicates how the three
last dyads of the concluding phrase (mm. 20- 21) are RT6 of the three
initial dyads of the movement. Furthermore, th is transposition level
differentiates the three initial dyads as those dyads that have only one
fixed regis ter all through the movement , from the three final dyads as
those that may change their register according to their functions
within the phrases (Mead 1993, 186).

Example 20. Opening and concluding dyads (mm. 1-2 and 20 -21) of
mvt. II

{81} {99} {15}


{7e} {33} {24}



Koivisto, The Defining Moment

Example 19. Elements of the opening and concluding phrases
(mm. 1-3 and 18-22) of mvt . U

opening elements

conduding phrase









1 Oe32

The Third Movement

With the entrance of the the ma at the beginning of the third
movement, the relationships of the two previous movements receive a
condensed interpretation, which elu cidates the relationships of these
movements in a crystallizing moment . This then serves as a basis for
the subsequent five variations. The variation form arises from disc rete


In Theory Only

areas of the thema phrases, which comprise those rows that can
produce the ordered or unordered dyads of the segmental and mot ivic
hexachordal areas of the thema. Since the third movement is based for
the most part on the partitioning scheme of the thema, the use of the
discrete A and B areas makes possible an unfolding of the same dyads
and te trachords within one area.
ln this manne r the surface composit ion of the variatio n s may
employ the various possibilit ies inherent in the dyadic sets of the
segmental and mo tivic hexachordal areas of the thema to form an
intricate motivic interplay based on the thema phrases. The first two
variations are based on discrete A and B areas , whereas th e fourth,
the culminating variation, intermingles various relationships of the
thema in the same fashion as th e first and second movements ; the two
variations surrounding it, the third and the fifth, initiate and conclude
these chains of re lationships.
The first and second variations' underlying des igns are based on
discrete A and B areas . In the first variation (ex. 21), the rows of th e
B area belong to the main four -row family, whereas the rows of t he A
area are based on P and the two invers ionally related rows that extend
its hexachordal areas (Mead 1992, 127-28).

Examp le 21 . Underlying design of mvt. Ill, var . 1: A and B areas



unord.. sets

ot dyacss


B/mol Blseg


Rl 1P

Rl 7P

. unord. unocd.
A/seg A/seg A/seg AJseg

~1 0P


The underlying design of the second variation (ex. 22) employs row
pairs from the two main fou r -row families, in this ins tance those
generated by R. from P and 16P and their I.m1-related row pairs. Hence,
the relationships, which in the thema are interpreted with one row, are
in t he second variation interpreted with two consecutive rows that
produce the sets of dyads heard in the corresponding phrase in the
thema. Example 23 sketches some of the ways in which the
possibili ties inherent in the underlying des ign become vivid on the
musical surface. The example shows the variation's three ph r ases by
aligni ng their corresponding elements . It further shows the main
partitioning scheme as it is applied to the first two rows. This scheme
follows closely the partitioning of the thema , thus producing the same
set of dyads (with one exception). A quick compariso n with the t hema
and the first variation reveals how th e mo tivic material introduced in

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


the thema and further developed in the first variatio n forms the bas is
of the surface inte rpretation of this parti tioning. In additio n to the
obvious motivic connections based on the various articulations of the
ic 1 dyads , one could mention, for example , the accented four-not e
fort e gesture (mm. 25-26). This gesture echoes, through its contour
and pc content, m. 10 of the thema and its various elaborations in the
first variation (mm. 13-14 and 18-22) . The Ism1 r elation between the
rows offers opportunities to shape the phrases as well. For instance,
the Ism 1-related row pairs produce an invarian t tetrachord at order
numbers (2345) and these invariances are employed to connect the
soft ritardando figures within the phrases.

Example 22. Underlying design of mvt. III, var. 2: A and B area s


of dyads



on! .
AJmot A/5'Jg



R1 P







The fourth and culminating variation is permeated by row chains

tha t are initiated in the third variation. These row chains employ rows
of two four-row faroiUes, th e first containing P and the second
containing the rows yielding the unordered dyads of the motivic
hexach ordal areas of the middle thema phrase . These families are
connected by the same index number of in version. In the music, the
rows of these families are grouped to form row pairs exhibiting the
second Ism relation (P-Rl 5P, T3 P-RI,.P, T6 P-Rl,P , and T9 P-RI, P} in the
same fashion as the row- pair coup les of the first movement's middle
sectio n . Example 24 shows the manner in which these row pairs form
two interlocked row -pair chains (Lewin 1987 , 182). The seven last
hexachords of these chains form the culmination of the third
movement as well as the climax of the entire work. One of the ways in
which the special qualiti es of this passage are achieved is the
particular manner in which it invokes the thema by unfolding its
various dyadic areas (ex. 25).


In Theory Only

Example 23. Mvt. Ill, var . 2, mm. 23 -33

rit, __ __

,if . - - --

_ ___

.. _ ,.

- - - --


rH, __ ___ ___ . kno.p::,







Ot 1 e


j1l9 6





The beginning of the culminating passage is demarcated first by the

ordered accompanying tetrachord of thema phrase A and second by
the ordered melodic dyads of the opening phrase of the thema. These
ordered melodic dyads arise from the sole row of the row class tha t
yields the ordered melodic hexachord of P as an ordered segmental
hexachord (Mead 1992 , 130 -31) . The culminating passage then
continues with dyads that combine accompanying dyads of A and B.

Koivisto, The Defining Moment


With th ese dyads th e climax reaches the extreme high register of the
entire work (A6,mm . 53- 54), a strncturally significant pc all through
the piece. The pass age concludes with the dyadic sets of the B area,
first with its melodic tetrachord and second with its accompanying and
melodic hexachords.
Example 24, Underlying design ofmvt. III, var. 4: interlocked row -pair

lin9 passa~e

The fifth and concluding variation becomes a truly prominent

moment in which the symmetrical aspects interact with the
accumulation of the relationships that contribute t o its sense of
anival . This accumulation takes place on various structural levels. For
example, as Lewin has poin ted out (1987, 183), there is a return to the
five-beat phrasal units , which characterize both the thema and the
first movement. The very end of this variation, the passage that follows
these five-beat phrasal units, forms a coda based on the rows of th e
thema, which concludes not only the third movement but also the
entire work by representing
in a condensed fonn the basic
characte ristics of the piece. That is, the passage manifests the way
in which the phrasal shap ing and sense of progression interact with
the symmetrical, frozen aspects of the pitch organization. This passage
of the second
combines the register-symmetrical
movement with the mirror-symmetrical aspects of the first movemen t:
the pcs that in the second movement are arranged symmetrically in
register around the pitch A4 are in this concluding passage arranged

calls the

entire fifth variation a coda !l 987, 183). The final passage of the

fifth variation may well be described as "a coda. within a coda."

Example 25 . Dyadic areas of hexac hords a nd tetracho rds in the culminatin g passage of


mvt. UI (mm. 51-55)



~ '
















sets of dyads


Rl0 P

T9 P










{ 12)(34)

{56){91}{76) {12){34){eOJ


Koivisto, The Defining Moment


symmetrically in time around the second axis of symm etry, the pc Eb

(ex. 26) . As the examp le further illustrates, registral differe n tiation in
the coda extracts precisely th ose pitches that change registe r s in the
second movement . Interacting with this symmetrical arrangement is
a phras al shaping that divides the passage into three subphrases . In
the conte xt of the fifth varia tion, the sense of conclus ion achieved with
these subphra ses arises
from various
such as a
mirror-symmetrical construction with regard to the very beginning of
the variation and a T. transposition of the conclusion of the main body
of the varia tion . On a deep er structural leve l, the sense of conclusion
ach ieved with the last cho r ds arises from the manner in which they
complete the symmetrical arrang eme nt, which is a manifestation of the
thema through the first and second mo vemen ts. Thus, as sketched in
example 27a, just as the epilogue in the fir st movement and the
conc luding phrase in the second moveme n t bring back the openings
of these movements,
the coda at the very end becomes a
of the relationships of the thema and the first and
second movements.
aspects in the coda (mm. 62 -66)

Examp l e 2 6 . Symmetrical






phrue/ m..t, II


In Theory Only



J ..






'l> >








Koivisto, The Defining Moment

Example 27. Variations, op. 27 (a) temporal accretion and (b)
symmetrical structures




---- '


































As suggested at the outset, this work shows Webern's deep interest in
symmetrical structures that interac t with through-composed aspects.
This has been illustrated with =mples from the first and the second
movements, as well as with an anal ysis of the manner in which the
coda encapsulates the qualities of the piece as a who le. However , this
dialectic exists in the formal layout of the entire composition (ex. 28).
The third movement's first two variations reflect the second movement,
and the concatenation of variations three , four , and five echo the
tripartite structure of the first movement. The structural similarities
arise from the use of the same hexa chordal areas but motivic
connections also occur .


In Theory Only

Example 28. Parallels between mvt. Ill and mvt. I-II

Mvt. Ill

The ma

var. 1




Mvt. ti





the Thema









same hexachordal



l 1 1


Mvt. I

The third movement's first hvo variations are bas ed on the

segmental and motivic hexachordal areas of thema phrases A and 8,
which are the hexachordal areas of the second movement's firs t part."
Example 29 illustrates ways in which the underlying structural
similarities are signaled by motivic con nec tions by sketching the
manner in which some of the significant moments in the first two
variations invoke the second movement. First, both variations open
with prominent motivic materials of the second movement: the first
variation picks up as its initial motif the exact pitches of the
concluding element of the second movement's final phrase (ex. 29a),
and the second variation opens with the characteristic repeated
staccato As of the second movement (ex. 29b). Moreover, the melody
that leads to these ticking As in the first variation's concluding phrase
is framed by pitches Ab 3 and B b5 , the exact pitches of the second
movement 's opening phrasal elements. Examp le 29c illustrates the
manner in which the first variation's climactic phrase (mm. 18-21 ) is


has noted the $t!'UCtural sunilarity between the second variation and the
second movement by pointing ou t common inversional-symmetrical aspects of the row
organization in these two sections ( 1987, 70, 86) .

Koivisto , The Defining Moment


framed by gestures that evoke the mid dle phra sal elemen ts of the
second movement through their pitch contents and melodic contours.
Lastly, when trichords belonging to the collection class [016! enter for
the first tim e in the third movement's second variation, they are
exactly those cho rds hear d before in the second movemen t's opening
part (ex. 29d ).
The opening of the third variation signals its similarity to the first
movement by being the only variation to employ mirror-synunetrical
phrases. ' 5 On a deepe r strnctural level, the connections betw een
variat ions t hre e, four, and five and th e first movement arise from
aspec ts in th eir unde rlying designs (ex., 28). The symmetrical phrases
of the third variation and the first movement's A section are based on
the same hexachordal areas yielding the slurred/nonslurred
dyads of
thema phrase A and th e motivic dyads of thema phrase B. The fourth
variation and the first movement's middle s ection are based on row
chains formed from kn 2 -rela ted row pairs. 16 Th e fifth variation and t he
first movement's A' section are punctuated by a return of the rows of
the tbema.
Example 30 illustrates the vivid manner in which the associations
betwee n the first moveme n t and the third variatio n 's opening phrases
are emphasized by regj.stral connections. Examp le 31 t h en shows the
manner in which the opening of the culminating , the fourth, variation
prominently invokes the climax of the first movement's middle section :
at these moments the row -pair chains feature t h e same row , and the
associations are emphasized by surface composition. The sense of
return in the fifth variation and in the first movement's A' section as
\\ell as their structu r al similarities have been pointed ou t and
discussed by Lewin (1987, 183).

"'wason presents the idea that the third varia tion grew eventually il'.ltothe firs t
movement/ ' by pointing out similarities in the retrograde symmetrical aspects
between the third variation and the first movement (1987 , 70, 87) .

has discussed

the structural similarities of the row transformations of

the two chains in the first movement's middle section and iD the third movement's
fourth variation (1987, 182).


In Theory Only

Example 29. Motivic connections between mvt. III, var. 1-2

mvt. II: {a) var. 1, mm . 12-13 and mvt. II, end of concluding
(m . 2 1); {b) var . 1, con clu ding phras e (mm. 21-23) and mvt.
opening {m. l ); {c)var. 1, mm. 18 and 21 and mvt. ll middle
element (m. 16); (d) var. 2, tri chords and mvt. II trichords


, o@


ri+.-- - --- __ __ _


kmfO, !aI

. +

phras e


Koivisto, The Defining Moment

Example 29 (cont.)


! "-


f. 1,



mvt. i i:

m. 24










--- ------- ---




In Theory Only

Eltalllple 30. Ass ociat ions betwe en mvt. III, var 3, opening (mm .
33-35) and mvt. !, opening (mm. 1-4)

__..,..,. _______

,__ @ ,










f-/< ' /


' _






Eltalllple 31. Associations between mvt. m, var. 4,

opening (mm. 45 -46) and mvt. I, mm. 32 -33

. tt


Koivisto, The Defining Moment


The structural similarities between variations one and two and the
second movement, and between variations three, four, and five and the
first movement, clarify the manner in which the thema lies a t the focal
point of a large -scale symmetrical structure. This large-scale structure,
as well as the series of nested symmetrical structures within it ,
dupli cat es the tripartit e formal layout of the thema (ex. 27b, p. 63).
Hence, as comparison between examples 27a and 27b reveals, the
entire work's large-scale formal shaping manifests the dial ectic
between the balanced, symmetrical structures and the sense of
progression, a quality that charac terizes the work in various spans of
time, as well as the thema itse lf.
In this music, the strong sense of progression, interacting with the
symmetries, arises from continuous, multilayered accumulation of
relationships and events . In the process of hearing the entire work , the
thema emerges as the defining moment : it enters at the focal point of
a large -scale symmetrical structure,
bu t at the same time it
crys tallizes the relationships of the two previous movements. This
crystallized interpretation then serves as a basis for the varied
elaborations introduced in the subsequent five variations . The coda
concludes the piece by capturing the relationships of the ,thema
through their interpretations in the first and second movements .
The wealth of relationships inherent in Webern's Variations for
Piano, Op. 27, a composition that has fascinated musicians for
decades, cannot fully be enjoyed without taking into account the
interaction between the surface composition and the underlying
just as it cannot fully be appreciated
acknowledging the dialectic between its symmetrical structures and
the sense of temporal accretion. By inspecting these dialectics,
whether between the surface and deeper levels, or between symmetry
and temporal accretion, one may learn more about this music than by
inspecting any element alone. It is only through this interaction that
in such concise idioms of composition as Webern's a piece may become
an intensified moment with depth that penetrates all its structural
layers .


In Theory Only

Refe ren ces

Babbitt, Milton. 11960] 1962 . Twelve-Tone Invarian t s as Compositional
Determinants. Musical Quarterly 46: 246-59. Reprin ted in Problems
of Modem Mu.sic, ed. P. H. Lang. New York : Norton .

. 1987 . Words About Mu.sic. Ed. S. Dembski and J. Straus .

Madison : Un iv. of Wisconsin Press.
1991. The Twelve -Note Music of Anton Webern: Old
Forms in a New language . Cambridge: Cambri dge Univ. Press.

Bailey , Kathryn.

Hasty, Christopher. 1981. Rhythm in Post -Tonal Music: Preliminary

Questions of Duration and Motion. Journal of Music Theory 25/2:
Leibov.itz, Rene . [ 1949 ) 1970. Schoenberg and his School. Trans . D.
Newlin. Reprint, New York: Da Capo .
Lewin , David. 1962 . A Metrical Problem in Webern's Op. 27. Journal of
Mu.sic Theory 6 I 1: 124 32.


. 1987. Generalized Musical Intervals and Transfonnations.

New Hav en, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press .


. 1993. A Metrical Problem in Webern 's Op. 27. Mu.sicAnalysis

12 / 3: 343 -54.
1992. Review of The Twelve -Note Music of Anton
Webern: Old Forms in.a New Language by Kathryn Bailey. Integral
6: 107 - 135 .

Mead, Andrew.


. 1993. Webern, Tradition , and Composing wi th Twelve Tones.

Mu.sic Theory Spectrum 15/2: 173 ~204.
1987. Composition with Pitch-Classes: A Theory of
Compositi.onal Design. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Un iv. Press .



Nolan, Catherine. 1989. Hierarchic Linear Structures

Twelve-Tone Mus ic. Ph.D . diss., Yale Univ.

Dieter .

1984 . Die Variationen

in Webern's

fur Klavier Op.

Musik-Konzepte: Sonderband Anton Webern 2: 163 -217 .


Koivisto, Th e Defining Moment


Stadlen, Peter . 1958 . Seriali sm Recons idered. The Score 22: 12-27 .
Travis, Roy. 1966. Directed Motion in Schoenberg
Perspectives of New Music 4/2 : 85 -89.

and Webern.

Wason, Robert. 1987 . Webern's Variations for Piano, Op . 27: Musical

Struc tu re and the Performan ce Score. Integral 1: 57 -103.
Webern, Anton. 1983. Aus dem Briefwechsel Webem -Steuermann .
Musik -Konzepte: SonderbandAnt on Webern l : 23-51.


. 1979. Variationen
Universal Edition.

fur !Gavier, Op. 27. Ed. P. Stadlen.

Westergaard, Peter. 1963. Webern and "Total Organization" : An

Analysis of the Second Movement of the Piano Variations, Op. 27.
Perspectives of New Music 1/2: 107 -20.

_ . (1962 ) 1972. Som e Problems in Rhythmic Theory and

Analysis. Perspectives of New Music 1/ 1: 180 -91. Reprinted in
Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory, ed. B. Boretz and E.
T. Cone, 226-37. New York : Norton.