This is a picture of my 11 month old grandson, who is learning to stand and walk on his own. Here he has discovered his mother’s full length mirror, and like most toddlers his age is testing to see if it is food by putting it in his mouth. Mirror images and symmetry are fascinating to the human mind at all ages. Babies see themselves in the mirror for the first time and are spellbound. Reflections in still water make some of the most beautiful photographic images. Music also has elements of symmetry, inversion and imitation that create unity in a piece. One of the composers that exploits these relationships to their fullest is Anton Webern.
Webern the person was not a very likeable dude. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, called him an “unashamed Hitler enthusiast”. It is true that Anton supported the ideas of fascism and was an elitist. He wasn’t writing music for the masses, rather he was writing for some special Über-audience refined enough to understand it. His authoritarian tendencies and potential Nazi sympathies suffered an ironic bite in the proverbial buttocks when his music was denounced in Nazi Germany as “degenerate art”. His works were banned from performance in Germany in 1938.
Fortunately we can just deal with Webern the composer and his music. (I don’t think I would want him as a dinner guest.) Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and together with Alban Berg the three of them are referred to as the “Second Viennese School”. Webern’s approach to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition was the most influential to later generations. Composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen all poured over Webern’s works and extended the ideas found in them. Stravinsky even came to admire these techniques late in his life. I don’t think you could go to a music school in the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s without becoming fluent in twelve-tone serialism.
One of the pieces I have spent hours studying is Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 of 1928. This is a brief work of about 10 minutes in two movements. Most of Webern’s music is short in length, but packed full of meaning. If a Brahms symphony is a fine red wine, the music of Webern is 190 proof distilled grain alcohol. There are no extraneous notes, no insignificant gestures. It is so concentrated that no one could really comprehend everything about it without repeated listening. Spend 10 minutes listening to it here, and be brave enough to stick it out.
On first hearing, the Symphony, Op. 21 of Webern seems like nothing you have ever heard before. One is tempted to think my cat could make the same noise by walking across the keyboard. I can assure you that there is nothing random in the works of Webern. Part of the obstacle to absorbing this music is the fact that it is “atonal”, that is to say it does not function in the familiar system of tonality that surrounds us in most music we hear. There are no keys or modulations, no goal oriented harmony. Pitches are organized in an entirely different way. In twelve-tone music, all twelve pitches of the piano keyboard are circulating constantly. You lose a sense of consonance and dissonance, of tension and release familiar in tonal music. I can, however, hear some sort of order. I can sense a deep system of organization here, even if I cannot articulate exactly what it is on the first listen. Go back and listen to it again. Be fearless.
The first movement is organized in something analogous to Sonata form, with an exposition, development and recapitulation. There are actually two cannons happening simultaneously in the exposition, but it is very difficult to hear them because of the pointillistic orchestration. What is meant by pointillism here is that a melodic line is broken up among different instruments. One note is given to a french horn, the next to a harp, the next two notes to a cello. With four different melodic lines going on at the same time, and all of them broken into different instruments the cannons are well hidden.
The second movement is a theme and variations. The pitch structure of each variation is a palindrome, with the pitches of the first half of the variation coming in reverse order in the second half. The theme and each variation are very short, and go by very fast, especially if your ears are still trying to get their bearings. The whole second movement is also retrograde symmetrical around its middle in the fourth variation. The level of organization is astounding. I beg you, dare you, implore you to give the work a third listen. Even if it isn’t starting to grow on you, you surely can tell that this is highly structured stuff.
This is music that is beautiful the way a crystal is beautiful, or the way a mathematical equation is beautiful. It is beautiful the way Bobby Fischer’s Queen’s Gambit in the sixth game of the 1972 World Chess championship was beautiful. It reminds me of the images generated by mathematical fractals. There are symmetries all over the place in the music. Palindromes, mirror cannons, inversional symmetries, retrograde symmetries all come together to make a musical house of mirrors. No matter how much time I spend studying the score, I find new levels of reorganization every time I look.
My wife says this is music that is much more fun to analyze than it is to listen to, and she may have a point. I first came to listen to Anton Webern’s music because I was told it was important. I stuck around for a second listen because I heard some sense of organization that was not random noise and I wanted to figure it out. I keep coming back to it because I feel like that baby looking in the mirror for the first time when I unlock a new secret of this music. Maybe I should follow my grandson’s lead and stick the score in my mouth to see if it is food.