Concerning Orchestration in Webern's Konzert, Opus 241



David Evan Jones


In what sense is Webern's Opus 24 a "concerto"? It displays, to be sure, the traditional fast-slow-fast organization of the classical three movements, and other (barely functional) remnants of classical sonata forms. But texturally, few of the classical devices remain. There are no highly ornamented solo lines, no ostentatious technical virtuosity, no cadenzas. Indeed, the drama of rivalry between soloist and orchestra is compressed and obscured to the point of putting in doubt the entire question of who the soloist is. Is the piano the solo instrument? Or does it serve the role of orchestra to the eight-instrument(!) concertino? In this brief article, I will explore some orchestrational and textural issues raised by Opus 24 and, in the process, develop an alternative view of the unique "rivalry" taking place in this piece.


It would seem at first, that the Concerto form is in itself antithetical to Webern's style and technique. A "rivalry" requires the predominance, at various times, of one voice or another, and yet the intensely contrapuntal style of Webern's instrumental music maintains all voices as primary. Ornate and ostentatious technical virtuosity are important elements of the traditional concerto form, but have no place in Webern's concise sonic structures. How then, does Webern express the central characteristics of the concerto form?


To begin with, we must look at Webern's selection of instruments. We observe:


1. The piano is the only percussion instrument (and thus, the only non-sustaining instrument).


2  The piano is the only instrument designed to play aggregates (the strings excepted - and double stops are never used in Opus 24).


3. The instruments other than the piano are strongly weighted towards the high end of the pitch spectrum.


4. The piano range encompasses the range of the other instruments.








Given the above information, we can observe the following:


I.              Due to its distinguishing attack/decay characteristics (in contrast to other instruments), the piano will naturally tend to stand apart unless great care is taken in writing to see that this does not occur. As Webern does not disguise the piano attack (quite the contrary), we can assume he wanted it to stand out. In fact, Webern uses strong accents in the piano to structure the rhythm of the first movement in particular.



II.            The ability of the piano to play aggregates is put sharply in relief by the fact that, while the writing for piano includes aggregates of as many as four pitches, the writing for the other instruments allows more than two instruments to sound simultaneously on only a few structurally important occasions.


III.           Because the ear tends to. gravitate towards the higher sounds in a texture, the higher pitched instruments are traditionally the melodic instruments. By selecting an instrumentation (excluding the piano) weighted towards the high end of the pitch spectrum, Webern is opting for an ensemble which can compete effectively for the ear's attention. In fact, solo instruments or concertinos are traditionally composed (usually) of higher pitched instruments for this very reason.



IV.           On the basis of the differences between the attack/decay characteristics of the piano and the sustaining quality of the other instruments, the ensemble falls into two parts: the piano and the remainder of the ensemble. Because the writing for the ensemble of sustaining instruments is sparse and linear enough to be playable on piano, and because the piano part is at least as active as the total sustaining ensemble part, these two "camps" are heard as the contending instrumental forces in the piece.


The above observations mainly concern timbral quality, range, and the capability of the instruments with regard to aggregates. But in Webern's technique, form evolves from the elements of a piece, and the above observations have immediately observable structural ramifications as well.





Rhythm is articulated mainly by the beginnings of notes, by attacks. The sharper the attack of an instrument, the more definition its rhythms will have. In the first and third movements of the Concerto, the piano 'sometimes uses this sharp definition to alter the perceived meter. The third movement, for example, marches along clearly in two and with the placement of the downbeat never in doubt until the piano  in bar 16 (see Example 1).





Example 1


Example 2


Neither the trumpet syncopation in bar 13, nor the violin syncopation in bars 1516 altered the perceived placement of downbeat for the following reasons. The trumpet B flat on the second quarter of bar 13 ends the phrase, is followed by silence and then by a reaffirmation of the notated downbeat by the winds (bar 14). The violin syncopation (bars 15-16) cannot affect the strong sense of meter established by the winds because of its comparatively small impact or weight as compared with the low wind aggregates. When the piano enters with a low-midrange on the second beat of bar 16, however, the perceived placement of the downbeat moves. The new perceived downbeat is on the second quarter of notated meter beginning with the piano sforzando in bar 16.


This occurs for the following reasons:


1.           The motive the piano plays, in which three aggregates are spaced by half-note durations has always been played unambiguously on the beat up to this point in the movement.


2.          The piano aggregates also gain authority from the weight of the piano played sforzando in the mid-low range.


3.          The new perceived placement of the downbeat is reaffirmed (or at least, not contradicted) by the material which follows up to bar 28 where the piano changes the duple meter briefly but convincingly to a triple meter after which the perceived meter changes become quite complex (see Example 2)


One role the piano often assumes, therefore, is to alter or disrupt the perceived meter. Placement of the audible downbeat - influence over the perceived rhythmic structure - these are areas in which the piano and the sustaining ensemble contend, and one in which the piano usually dominates.



The percussive, rhythmic authority of the piano, and its ability to play aggregates or polyphonies is purchased at the price of control over the sustained dynamics of the tone. As a result, Webern assigns the dominant responsibility for the development of line (the horizontal dimension) to the sustaining ensemble (hereafter called " ensemble"). In this regard, the piano and ensemble are assigned two opposing functions in the development of the pitch structure.


Before deciding that his Opus 24 was to be a concerto, Webern had developed the row he intended to use for this piece. It is a "palindromic" row which is organized in segments of three:

Example 3


The ways in which this row is distributed among the instruments leads me to believe that the piano and the sustaining instruments represent two different concepts of how the row is heard. Consider the following:


1.             A sustaining instrument rarely plays more than a single three-note motive at a time. Often they play only two notes and sometimes a single note. These short segments are generally hocketed together to form longer lines (see Example 4)

2.              Only on the last note of the first movement and in the second section of the third movement do the sustaining instruments appear in aggregates containing more than two notes. Rhythmic unisons between two sustaining instruments generally occur as points of overlap between succeeding segments. The orchestration of the sustaining instruments is thus designed as a linear articulation of row segments which are integrated rhythmically (by the points of overlap) but not timbrally into a larger line. That is, the timbres of the individual instruments (and often the differences in assigned register) give each segment an independent aural identity while the rhythmic concatenation of segments identifies them with a larger whole. Inversely, this larger whole can be described as a single linear strand which is "analyzed" timbrally and registrally.

Example 4




The piano, on the other hand, plays an integrative function:


1. The writing for piano varies from a purely linear concept directly analogous to the writing for the sustaining instruments (see Example 5) 


Example 5

Example 6


The fact that the piano, as opposed to the ensemble is unified...

-     timbrally,

-    spatially (it is in one location rather than several),

-   "cognitively" ( it is played by one player with accuracy which is impossible for several players playing together),

-   causes similar material played first by the ensemble and then by the piano (as in bars 1-5) to sound much more

   integrated on the piano - like a mapping of spatially diverse elements onto a single plane.


2) The piano serves an integrative function in another way as well: it is the piano which is mainly responsible for the harmonic or vertical dimension. This is true not only of solo passages such as bars 9 and 10 quoted above, but more generally, of passages .in which the piano and instruments play simultaneously. The following passage is typical of much more of the texture of the first movement (aee Example 7). Thus the piano " integrates" in the literal sense of telescoping the pitches of a segment together in a single articulative gesture.




Example 7


In passages such as the above it is the ensemble which tends to predominate. The piano, however, asserts itself with occasional sforzandi such as in bar 17 - often to mark a change of the perceived pulse or to alter the sense of downbeat placement. The piano continues to play in counterpoint to the ensemble throughout most of the movement and to provide an integrated counterpart to the hocketed ensemble line.


Webern's choice of an ensemble weighted towards the high end suggests that he did not envision an "accompanying" role for these instruments. The consistent figure-toground relationship between the sustaining instruments and the piano in the second movement, lead me to hear the ensemble as a single multi-timbral solo instrument supported by the piano "orchestra" in this movement, and to some extent in the other movements as well (see Example 8)

Example 8


The "palindromic" nature of the row for this piece was inspired by a Latin palindrome which fascinated Webern;








Figure 1


In order for a palindrome to be fully understood, one must examine each of its dimensions separately. One must read downwards and upwards, forward and backwards in order to arrive at an appreciation of the palindrome as a whole.


The relationships between piano and ensemble correspond roughly to the relationships between the means by which one learns to appreciate a palindrome: The ensemble line tends to analyze itself by its diversity of timbres so that we are aware of the Inversional relationships between the "words" of which the palindrome is composed. The piano line tends to integrate these "words" for us so that we can hear the "palindrome's as a

reflective of a more fundamental complementarity.


Within this closely defined complementarity there is no room for "ornament" - in the sense of something non-essential. Every note played is of structural importance. And because of this primacy of sonic structure, there is no room in Webern's style for the writing of solo parts of ostentatious difficulty.


The " virtuosity" of the nine soloists in this piece is therefore of a very different order than in the traditional concerto. The difficulty of their task lies precisely in the fact that their parts are not ostentatious, but rather clearly and unadornedly exposed. In the sense that the sustaining ensemble is a single multi-timbral "soloist" , their task requires a virtuosity of ensemble playing. This virtuosity is required of the solo pianist as well, in addition to which he must play with an unshakable accuracy and authority capable of fulfilling his role as a counterbalance to the entire ensemble


The root of the word concerto is " concertare" - to fight side by side," "to compete as brothers-in-arms."  This definition takes on new meanings in Webern's "Concerto, Opus 24."


1 The following information is applicable to all musical examples in this paper: Copyright 1948 by Universal Edition, A.G., Vienna. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Corporation, sole U.S. agent for Universal Edition.


2 For discussions of the pitch "magic squares" in the third movement (with nu 'million of orchestration), see,.. Cohen, David, "Anton Webern and the Magic Square", Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 13, pp. 213 215. Gauldlin, Robert, "The Magic Squares of the Third Movement of Webern's Concerto Opus 24", lb Theory Only, Vol. 2, 1977, pp. 32-42.