Abstracts of issue 15 (2002)

George Zervos

The Form of Variations in Webern’s Work and its Relation to the Sense of Metamorphoses in Goethe: The Reduction of the Structural Elements of the Compositional Procedure to One Sole Principle

Webern’s many references to Goethe’s Metamorphose der Pflanze can be understood in connection with the composer’s conception of row and theme: a row is not any more a theme in the sense of a melodic-rhythmic unit, but a matrix of thematic units. In Webern’s works the original theme lies beyond the actual work and is expressed by the row – often by a part thereof – whose continuous metamorphoses produce the whole work. This means that what is initially presented as a theme already represents a metamorphosis of another entity, lying beyond the actual work: it is a metamorphosis in itself, and that is why it never regains its initial form. Thus, the various units of a piece represent different metamorphoses of the initial row, exactly in the way that various parts of a plant represent – according to Goethe – different metamorphoses of the original plant.
The reduction of all units to one basic shape (Grundgestalt), represented only by a part of the basic row (the Grundreihe), is the rule, not only in the last of Webern’s works; moreover, the initial row itself is being reduced to a minimum number of intervals, which represent the basic shape (Grundgestalt). However, the reduction of the initial row to a minimum number of intervals bears important consequences on all other structural elements in Webern’s works, as e.g. the organization of rhythmic values and the way a melody is distributed at different instruments. Thus, the overall organization of all units ultimately depends upon the construction of the initial row.

© Musicology