Posted in Project 3: Serialism, Uncategorized

Exercise 4.1

This exercise is about the theme (bars 34-57) from Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 given in the course material. The brief offers several questions which I will answer below, keeping with the given word-count of 350 words. I have listened to the example provided in the audio resources for the course.

  • How are the individual phrases shaped?

The individual phrases of the theme all derive from the primary twelve-tone row (bars 34-39) in retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion with different transpositions. In terms of the form, it might be noticed that the rhythmic material is the same between the Haupstimme in the cello and violin, and it might be argued that the structure is the ternary aba, if the section starting from bar 46 until 50 could be considered b. I found that Schoenberg (cited in Zovko, 2007: 41) himself named the sections a (bars 34-45) as Vordersatz (antecedent) and section b Nachsatz (consequent).

  • How are motifs developed to create a sense of progression?

Although the motifs are all related, the melodic variation created by the retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion, as well as transpositions, all provide enough variety in pitch, intervals, and direction of the melody, which produces a sense of development. At the same time, the expression markings, tempo and the varying rhythm all contribute to the progression and increase in the interest of specific tones.

  • How do these attributes, among others, create the emotional journey of the theme?

This is something I found very difficult to answer in terms of the Sibelius audio example, which sounded very mechanical and I couldn’t really identify anything ’emotional’. And so, I decided to listen to a recording of the piece in which the theme was being played by live musicians. Indeed, in this setting, the 3/4 time signature and dynamic marks really made the melody dark, suspenseful and undulating, which turned the atonality to be very expressive rather than dry and neutral. I have to mention here that this element somewhat surprised me – I assumed that dodecaphonic music is based on complete objectivity and impersonal sound, and I feel like I have underestimated its use of dissonance and the emotive response this can produce. In this regard, the way the melody rises and falls, pauses and repeats in different contexts of retrograde, inversion and retrograde-inversion and transpositions, sounds very human to me, in a kind of gloomy psychological way. Finally, it is interesting that Schoenberg himself had to argue for the musicians to perform his music in the same expressive way as they would perform Beethoven and other composers. (Huscher, n.d.)

  • When cello plays the Nebenstimme how do the two parts interact, and what is the effect created when the individual notes combine?

As the violin takes up the Haupstimme and the cello plays Nebenstimme, the two parts create a contrapuntal texture in which dissonances and their resolution aren’t the subservient outcomes of the classical harmonic progressions, but are subjected to the logic of dodecaphony, and more specifically, the concrete tone-row of the composition. In this sense, the two parts interact to produce the ’emancipation of dissonances’, an idea introduced by Schoenberg’s generation, which he himself describes as “comprehensibility, which is considered equivalent to the consonance’s comprehensibility”. (1941: 217)

In a short conclusion, I truly discovered quite a few new things about dodecaphony. I assumed that serialism meant treating music in a cold, objective manner, however, the theme that I’ve analyse above actually showed that the music of the twelve-tone method can still be expressive and should be performed that way. The idea of the emancipation of dissonances also intrigued me. It might be good to close this post with Schoenberg’s (1991: 156) quote that “dissonances … need not be spicy addition to dull sounds. They are natural and logical outgrowths of an organism. And this organism lives as vitally in its phrases, rhythms, motifs and melodies as ever before.” And viewed from this angle, indeed, the theme from his Variations for Orchestra is just as alive as any other theme from earlier eras.


Huscher, P. (n.d.) ‘Program notes on Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31’ [Online] At: (Accessed on 8th October 2019)

Schoenberg, A. (1991) ‘My Evolution.’ In: The Musical Quarterly, 75 (4), pp. 144-157.

Zovko, M. B. (2007) ‘Twelve-tone Technique and its Forms: Variation Techniques of Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31’ In: IRASM 38, pp. 39-53.

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