Monday, 27 February 2017


This blog is a brief summary of the lectures given by Webern in 1933. There were many times while selecting Webern’s main points that I wanted to add views of my own, but that will come in a later blog. It is intended as a starting point for wider discussion.

The full Webern lecture text is available as a PDF on the web in a translation by Leo Black, and includes comments and notes of particular interest.


While these extracts may help formulate opinions regarding the development of Webern’s thinking the full text is indispensable and should be read as a whole.

It is our hope that this introduction to 12 note music will suggest to the reader a number of questions regarding a pivotal point where the advantages of a flexible musical system gave way to a more rigorous style. We certainly hope to encourage such questions in the next blog. Two questions have been placed on the graphic which provides an overview of the following blog.



In the lectures of 1933 Webern sets out to help the layman understand the purpose and functions of 12 note music and he states that it is necessary, indeed imperative that audiences recognise that there are “rules of order”. In these early stages Webern engages in a philosophical discussion about sources of order which he describes as the “craftsman’s method” without which nothing “genuine” can be achieved. He also refers to the idea of certain principles within music as natural and as such have to follow predetermined laws. Later in the lectures he amplifies the idea:

Art is a product of nature in general, in the particular form of human nature. What perspectives this opens! It's a process entirely free from arbitrariness.

His argument is that 12 note music is a result of a lengthy progression starting with chant. He sees that in this progression there are many examples of new music, all that is required for this term to be applied is that it provides an original encounter with sounds “never said before”. He also uses the term “obsolete” which implies that not all music survives to be thought of as art. Webern then turns to what he considers the natural feature of music, the overtone series, and ascribes the qualities arising from the series to the development of Western music, which he believed showed that it had been “assigned a special path”.

Webern expresses the view that wrong evaluations can be made for a number of reasons when appreciating great art. He is preparing his audience to accept that 12 note music has its place in the great scheme of musical history. In order to empathise with the new music particular attention has to be given to the differences between surface and in depth listening. This music and its appreciation has to engage the listener to empathise with the “laws of musical form-building”. Webern emphasises that such responses are not immediate:

Where something special has been expressed, centuries always had to pass until people caught up with it.

The changes inherent in the “something special” i.e. the 12 note system are recognised as being challenging, he comments on the view held by those who prefer the older, less dissonant music:

…we should be clear that what is attacked today is just as much a gift of nature as what was practised earlier.

One of the recurrent themes of the lectures is intelligibility or comprehensibility. Like the artist he considers this needs to be seen/heard as a complete view, where outlines are clear. His argument draws on the idea that such a view has to consist of foreground and background material; it can be taken a single line is insufficient for a musical presentation, it lacks “room” for the types of expression that have developed in the Baroque and Classical periods.

Surely it's remarkable for one person to sing and another to "add something!" So there's a hierarchy: main point and subsidiary point something quite different from true polyphony.

The lectures give us an insight into Webern’s emotional involvement in this argument regarding the development of music:

The first person who had this idea perhaps he passed sleepless nights he knew: it must be so!

Much is made of repetition in these lectures, he understands that it is the basis of formal construction and musical form and cannot be taken away from the development of the 12 note system:

…the basis of our twelve-note composition is that a certain sequence of the twelve notes constantly returns: the principle of repetition!

Naturally repetition leads to the use of variation, relating material to the first statement. He cites Beethoven and his use of motives:

By "motives" we mean, like Schoenberg, the smallest independent particle in a musical idea. But how do we recognise one? Because it's repeated!

Webern next deals with the development of tonality towards the chromatic scale and the weakening of the tonic. He uses the term “ambiguous” for certain chords, this term may indicate his (and Schoenberg’s view) of a weakness in the use of the tonal system in the late 19th century. The linear progression of music is not over stretched by the use of more complex chords, but nevertheless requires renewal, and that renewal must be based on the music of the past.

By repeating the theme in various combinations, by introducing something that is the theme unfolding not only horizontally but also vertically that's to say a reappearance of polyphonic thinking. And here the classical composers often arrived at forms that recall those of the "old Netherlander" in their canon and imitation.

These thoughts lead Webern to Bach and the Art of Fugue, a work held in high esteem and one which he transcribes in part



Another strand of Webern’s argument concerns the tonic or keynote which provides the musical structures with their designs and unity. He demonstrates that over time this became “unnecessary” and the gradual erosion of the potency of the tonic leads us to the stage where the ear became used to its absence, even at the end of a work as the work in itself satisfied the audience. This takes us into the realm of the logic of 12 note construction

we felt the need to prevent one note being over-emphasised, to prevent any note's " taking advantage " of being repeated.

However this internal lack of repetition was balanced by the adhesive quality of the row in the composition as a whole:
…unity is completely ensured by the underlying series. It's always the same; only its manifestations are different.

These manifestations are now well known to us, O,I,R,RI, the 48 variants.

As we have seen Webern argues that the tonic, once the most powerful force, has given way to a music without a key. There is an acknowledgement that the tonal system shaped the structures of pre-12 note music and this leads him to examine how the 12 note system can create comprehensibility without a tonic.

Canonic, contrapuntal forms, thematic development can produce many relationships between things, and that's where we must look for the further element in twelve-note composition, by looking back at its predecessors.

The later lectures work through the history of musical styles leading to the 12 note system. Lecture 6 opens with a bold statement
Before we knew about the law we were obeying it. ….Twelve-note composition is not a "substitute for tonality" but leads much further.

Having made such a statement Webern returns to explain that his connection with the listener hasn’t entirely been forgotten. He understands that the untrained ear may not be able to “always” follow the row, adding that
Something will stick in even the naivest soul.

He also shares with his audience his approaches towards formal construction:
one aims at as many different intervals as possible, or certain correspondences within the row symmetry, analogy, groupings (thrice four or four times three notes, for instance).

...Schoenberg's, Berg's and my rows mostly came into existence when an idea occurred to us, linked with an intuitive vision of the work as a whole; the idea was then subjected to careful thought, just as one can follow the gradual emergence of themes in Beethoven's sketchbooks. Inspiration, if you like.

Inspiration will become a key concept in the following blogs where flexibility and rigour are examined in the light of the composer's comments in these lectures.