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Webern and Luigi Nono: The Genesis of a New Compositional Morphology and


Gundaris Pon

Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring - Summer, 1972), pp. 111-119.

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Mon Apr 30 18:41:40 2007

The Genesis of a New Compositional

Morphology and Syntax

IN THE two series of lectures which Webern delivered in Vienna

in 1932 and 1933-published in 1960 under the title Der Weg zur
neuen Musik-the composer repeatedly returns t o a discussion of
music as related t o speech. The observation of certain procedural
analogies between music and speech has been made perennially by
musical writers of varying powers of perception and sophistication.
Still, it continues to remain an important area of reflection, partic-
ularly at historical junctures when compositional morphology and
syntax undergo critical changes. In the above-mentioned lectures,
Webern sides with the view that music and speech share certain
general principles of procedural logic. Their natures differ, however,
in specifics-especially in the matter of a semantic base which
speech possesses but music lacks. While individual words in speech
are endowe$ with concrete meaning, usually clear and univalent
without the need for contextual clarification, their musical counter-
parts acquire a "meaning" only in context. Ligeti has observed
that musical moments have a meaning only in reference to other
musical moments; not the meanings themselves but only their con-
textual function and change of appearance can be grasped.l It is
specifically in this larger syntactic context that Webern advo-
cates an analogous logic of procedure as relevant between speech
and musical composition. The analogy is contained in Webern's
frequently used key-concepts of Beziehung, Fasslichkeit, and
To Webern, a man highly conscious of the past, historical devel-
opments in both art and nature follow a parallel course of continu-
ous and inevitable metamorphosis. One of his principal referential
authorities regarding this view is Goethe, especially the latter's trea-
tise, Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklaren, which
' ~ y i j r g yLigeti, "Form in der neuen Musik," Darrnsth'dter Beitriige, X (1966), 26.

propagates the single-source theory of evolution of all forms-a

theory profoundly influencing Webern's syntactic procedures. A
striking and in many ways visionary observation suggesting the ul-
timate fusion of the dialectics of art and nature occurs in the last of
the 1932 lectures: "The farther we proceed, the more everything
becomes identical and finally we have the impression of not being
confronted by a work of man but by nature."2
The cornerstone of Webern's compositional syntax is the motive,
which the composer defines as "the smallest part of a musical
thought that functions independently." Although short motives
are typical stylistic elements in Webern's works of all periods, the
characteristic microstructures consisting of four notes or less be-
come particularly dominant with Symphony, Opus 21. It is impor-
tant t o observe that, whereas Webern's motives prior to Opus 21,
despite all brevity, still retain the expressive characteristics of con-
centrated thematic gestures (evident as late as String Trio, Opus 20),
in subsequent works the functional focus of a motive changes from
a subjective poetic role to one of objective structural potential. The
ultimate synthesis of the dialectics of poetics and structure, a mat-
ter of great importance t o Webern as well as to composers who
followed in his footsteps, is achieved in the three cantatas, Opera
26, 29, and 31.
It is by now well established that Webern's interval resources are
of a highly selective and exclusive character, so exclusive as t o ap-
pear almost meager. An interval analysis of Webern's tone rows
will readily reveal a preponderance of minor seconds and major and
minor thirds. Although his tone rows do contain other intervals,
Webern unmistakably tends to suppress them either through seg-
mentation occurring at those points in the row where such intervals
are placed (Concerto, Opus 24), or else by absorbing them in the
collective sound of a vertical aggregate (Cantata, Opus 31). In a
motivic context, Webern's preferred intervals are thirds, sixths,
major sevenths, and minor ninths. What are the reasons for such
restrictive selectivity?
There are two main reasons. First, Webern obviously liked both
the individual as well as the combined sound of his preferred inter-
vals. Second, his concentration on selected intervals must be viewed
in relation t o the historical development of serial composition.
*~nton Webern, Der Weg zur neuen Musik, ed. Willi Reich (Vienna: Universal Edition,
1960), p. 60. All quotations are in the author's translation.

Schoenberg originally regarded the tone row as a thematic manne-

quin, having been primarily attracted to its potential as an Urquelle
of melodic genesis. That Webern discovered and concentrated on
the constructive functions of the row becomes obvious upon ob-
serving the preponderance of rows exhibiting more or less elaborate
isomorphic traits. Among these, for example, one finds retrograde-
like rows (Opus 21), retrograde-inversion-like rows (Opera 28, 29,
and 30), and-to use a term of Luigi Nono-quattro in uno rows,
i. e., rows composed of four 3-note microforms, each being a mirror
form of the other three (Opera 24 and 32). Such attention t o the
inner construction of a row limits intervallic inclusiveness, although
it should be remembered that there are also all-interval rows con-
taining complex inner symmetries.3 Webern, however, made no use
of these latter rows, remaining quite content in the "little corner"
of his preferred intervals. It is possible that he knew about the
existence of the all-interval series from Berg who used such a row
in the Lyric Suite.
Restrictive and selective measures are also apparent in Webern's
morphology of time. The cornerstone of Webern's rhythmic re-
sources remains the binary division of a basic time value, expressed
by the exponential ratio pattern 1:2:4:8 . . . . . ., in other words
the so-called "time-octave" and its multiples. The next rhythmic
formant-the "time-fifth," 2:3-tends t o perform a subordinate
and primarily ornamental function. This tendency becomes more
pronounced in the late works where, for example, there are no
triplets in Opera 28, 29, and 30. The one notable exception is the
appearance of the "time-fifth" as a structurally integrated function
of musical time in the first movement of Concerto, Opus 24.
It is relevant to note that, while utterly avoiding the pitch-octave
as a harmonic and melodic interval, Webern felt no such compunc-
tion about the time-octave. This observation allows the inference
in Webern's compositional dialectic that pitch and time are regarded
as parameters belonging to distinctly separate categories, the pri-
mary functions of which are non-interchangeable. Musical theory
and practice departed sharply from this view in the 1 9 5 0 ' ~partic-
ularly as evidenced by the theoretical premises of Stockhausen's
article, ". . . wie die Zeit vergeht. . . ."4
3 ~ o ra systematic classification and discussion of these rows see Herbert Eimert,
Grundagen der musikalischen Reihentechnik (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1964), pp. 36-71.
4~arlheinzStockhausen, ". . ..
.wie die Zeit vergeht .,"Die Reihe, 111 (1957).

Webern's compositional syntax reflects his attraction to the con-

cept of monogenesis as a fundamental universal law underlying
various manifestations in nature. This concept, one of the key
tenets of German Romanticism, came t o Webern primarily from
two sources: the natural philosophy of Goethe and the aesthetic
views of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, especially the latter's
Grundgestalt theory.5 To derive everything from a single idea, t o
retain the essence of the idea and t o change only its forms of ap-
pearance, t o create a context by deploying these forms of appear-
ance in time and space-these are the procedural problems with
which Webern's compositional syntax is concerned.
The methods which Webern employs to generate new forms of
appearance of his basic idea, the motivic cell, are well known in
traditional composition: inversion, retrogression, augmentation,
diminution, subtraction, addition, and various combinations there-
of. However, the contextual disposition of motives varied by these
methods reveals a wholly new orientation. Boulez was among the
first to have observed that structural interchangeability of hori-
zontal and vertical pitch functions appears as an integral stylistic
trait in Webern's later works. In Concerto, Opus 24, for example,
the very structure of the series (the quattro in uno type) implies a
mobile potential, as has been pointed out by Pousseur, Stock-
hausen, and others. Still, the above dialectic continues t o suggest a
confinement to a two-dimensional matrix. To clarify Webern's new
syntactic orientation the following observation is requisite: where-
as there is a general consensus that pitch levels represent the ver-
tical and durations the horizontal coordinate, it is seldom realized
that dynamics, articulation, and timbre are important factors in
suggesting the depth of field.
In bringing this new dimension t o the fore, Webern took two
- -

important steps. First, he de-emphasized the linear force of the

two primary parameters, pitch and duration, by isolating the mo-
tive from a linear context. This explains the illusion of the "spa-
cial" functioning of Webern's motives and their seemingly elliptical
relationship within larger syntactic units. Second, Webern accentu-
ated the new dimension of depth by assigning structural functions
5 ~ h e r eis little doubt that under Schoenberg's influence, Webern shared his teacher's
enthusiasm for the mystic ideas of the Swedish scientist and philosopher, Emanuel
Swedenborg (1 688-1 772). Swedenborg believed in a universal analogy between the natural
and spiritual worlds and held that specific manifestations of reciprocity exist between the
two spheres.

t o the spacial parameters which formerly had been relegated entire-

ly t o the role of emphasizing thematic gestures. Thus, Webern
became the first composer in whose works timbral and dynamic
symmetries, mirrors, and canons appear as consciously applied
structural determinants.
I n light of the foregoing discussion, a persistent misinterpreta-
tion of the function of the so-called Klangfarbenmelodie technique
should be corrected. Contrary t o firmly entrenched beliefs, Klang-
farbenmelodie is not a kaleidoscopic embroidery of linear func-
tions, that is, melody; rather it is an important compositional meth-
od of revealing a sonorous depth of field. There is no better proof
of this than an aural comparison between a conventional version of
Bach's Ricercare and Webern's orchestration of it.

Did Webern anticipate the future potential of his work? He was

far too modest t o claim the role of a prophet and far too honest t o
pretend t o be certain about the future. Still, without concrete pre-
dictions, his intuition probes the future. In the text of the last
lecture of 1932, Webern confronts the future thus: "At this point
I can only stutter. Everything is still in a state of flux . . . It will be
up to a later time to discover the more specific laws of relation-
ship . . ." (". . . die engeren gesetzlichen Zusammenhkge . . .").6
The discovery of those "laws" began within five years of Webern's
The observation that Webern reduced his musical typology t o
the single tone and silence as basic structural units may be a tempt-
ing one, but it cannot be accepted without certain reservations and
qualifications. The concept of the single tone as the positive and
silence as the negative basic structural components and exclusive
normative factors arises much later and is developed by the post-
Webern generation of composers. Although Webern's works exhibit
an unmistakable tendency of reduction toward the single tone and
beyond it, the interval continues t o remain the basic structural
element. Webern's technique of motivic fragmentation produces
many instances of isolated single tones, but this also happens fre-
quently in the developments and retransitions of other composers,
notably Beethoven, and for the same reason.
After a period of apprenticeship and orientation with Maderna
and Scherchen, Luigi Nono, like his colleagues Stockhausen and
%ebern, Der Weg, p. 60.

Boulez, took the final quick step, the direction of which is implicit
in Webern's late works but which the master himself was hesitant
t o take, namely: the step of returning to the single tone in its four
primary dimensions of pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre as the
basic material and starting point for the genesis of a new musical
language. An examination of the scores of Incontri, I1 Canto Sos-
peso, Varianti, La Terra e la Compagna, Cori d i Didone, and Com-
posizione per Orchestra No. 2, "Diario Polacco" (all written be-
tween 1955-1959),reveals an almost constant isolation of the single
tone from any apparent linear context. Whereas earlier works such
as Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica(1951) display clear evidence of a
motivic structure based on the recurrence and transformation of
rhythmic and intervallic cells 2 la Webern, the above-mentioned
works show no external resemblance to inherited musical typology.
Nono's compositional language appears totally emancipated from
any linguistic models and semantic pretenses, perhaps most dra-
matically demonstrated by the phonetic filtration of the text in
certain sections of I1 Canto Sospeso (notably No. 2 and No. 9) as
well as in other choral works.
The visual impression of these compositions is one of extreme
pointillism, yet in performance the effect is that of strikingly linear
integration. The answer t o this dichotomous relationship between
the visual and the auditory lies in Nono's methods of compositional
pre-formation which, despite all appearances of the final score,
often involve only a small number of so-called rhythmic streams
whose basic duration values stand in different proportional relation-
ships t o each other. Thus, in No. 2 of I1 Canto Sospeso, there are
3 5
only four such streams with P,8, P, b and as basic duration val-
ues. Their proportional relationship, therefore, can be expressed as
112: 113: 114: 115. When the constituent elements of these streams
are removed from their linear matrix and distributed in a structural
field, each receiving its own registral, dynamic, and timbral defini-
tion, their original schematic context, indeed, is no longer apparent.
But then, as will soon be seen, the discrete perception of the indi-
vidual component, the single tone, is usually a completely irrelevant
matter t o Nono; what matters is its role as a statistical factor in
the articulation of various dimensions of complex structures.
Nono constantly develops new techniques of pre-forming basic
material to suit his compositional intentions. His methods of pre-

formation never conform t o a mechanical deus ex machina, as any

analysis which limits itself only t o a short fragment of a major work
may unwittingly suggest, even to an earnest reader. The rhythmic
streams discussed above in reality represent only a transposed con-
cept of the former polyphonic "line" or "voice," and they can be
shaped t o serve many compositional requirements. The degree of
rhythmic complexity can be determined according t o the ratios
among the basic duration values selected for each stream. Thus,
the selection of basic values related as 2:3 will generate a more
simple rhythmic context than 3:4:5, which in turn is less complex
than 3:4:5:7. In the orchestral introduction of I1 Canto Sospeso
individual structural fields are rhythmically articulated according
to this principle.
In the same work Nono occasionally resorts to the so-called
Fibonacci numbers (1,2, 3,5, 8,13, etc.) as a series of factors with
which the basic duration values are multiplied t o obtain actual du-
rations. Mathematical fetishism lies far from Nono's compositional
thought, and the hidden mysteries of a number series selected for
this purpose are quite irrelevant. What matters is that the multi-
plication of basic values by higher numbers results in longer dura-
tions, while multiplication by smaller numbers yields shorter du-
rations. This allows Nono statistical control over actual durations
and the degree of horizontal density as a concomitant.
In the process of pre-forming basic streams, silence can be intro-
duced as an equal, but negative, component along with sound as a
positive factor. Nono uses this technique in his Varianti as well as
in other works. The openings of silence obtained in this way appear
like "windows" in a sonorous fasade, and their strategic disposition
can serve among other purposes as an effective means toward per-
meability of complex structures. These articulations-by-silence
allow the temporary penetration of selected details into the fore-
ground by suppressing their larger context into the shadows.
Furthermore, the basic stream can assume an aspect of two-
dimensionality by becoming the carrier of variable horizontal den-
sities. In such a case, the basic stream performs the function of a
"super-determinant" over its own subordinate streams or layers
which are subject t o processes of composition and de-composition
and provide inner articulation for complex masses of sound. The
basic stream even aspires to three-dimensionality by becoming a
directionally fixed source of sound with contextual reference t o

other fixed sound sources. This is precisely what happens in Nono's

Composizione per Orchestra No. 2, "Diario Polacco." By adjusting
to Nono's expanded concept of the polyphonic "line," the ex-
tremely complex score reverts both visually and aurally t o only
four basic strands, each represented by one of the four orchestras
Already in Incontri (1955) Nono used a mirror device for which
Berg's Allegro Misterioso from the Lyric Suite and Schoenberg's
No. 18 from Pierrot Lunaire are well-known previous models:
namely, at mid-point everything is mirrored backward. In Com-
posizione per Orchestra No. 2, new and far more interesting prin-
ciples of structural symmetry are introduced. A vertical intersection
of the four strands at any point reveals their statistical equivalence
as t o density, timbre, dynamics, and register. This would appear to
suggest a "canon" involving the above-mentioned parameters: a
canon in "unison" at time-interval zero. Considering that the loca-
tions of the four orchestras are spacially symmetrical and that the
sound structures emanating from them are at all times similar to
each other, as well as symmetrically equidistant from a central axis,
the reduction of the four basic strands goes further and returns to
a single idea. Here one confronts what Webern referred to as "al-
ways the same only under different forms of appearance." Nono
achieves different forms of appearance by mirroring his basic idea
in multidimensional space.
Whereas Webern's tone rows serve the purpose of motivic genesis,
Nono, by electing the single tone as his basic compositional ele-
ment, renounces all motivic gestures per se. The tone row becomes
a mere regulator t o assure a desired statistical pattern of pitch dis-
tribution. With increasing vertical density, interval function is sus-
pended and the order in which pitches appear becomes relatively
unimportant. As Ligeti has observed, pitch, which was the first
parameter t o assume a serially fixed function, is now the first to
retreat into the twilight of non-identity.7 Nono's works exemplify
the gradual degeneration of the original purpose of the tone row.
His earlier compositions are still based on rows consisting of hete-
rogeneous interval sequences, such as the Variazioni Canoniche
(1950) in which the tone row of Schoenberg's Opus 41 is used.
However, beginning with I1 Canto Sospeso (1956), row physiog-

yigeti, "Wandlungen der musikalischen Form," Die Reihe, VII (1960), 5ff.
7 ~ y 3 r gL

nomy develops more and more homogeneous traits. Both I1 Canto

Sospeso and Varianti are based on a row which, although tech-
nically an all-interval series, consists in reality only of two inter-
polated and diverging halves of the chromatic scale. It remains only
to return t o the chromatic scale itself, a step which occurs in
Nono's Cori di Didone and the above-discussed Composizione per
Orchestra No. 2.8
Syntax is a system which imposes certain conventionally ac-
cepted patterns of order upon constituent elements thereby trans-
lating semantic meaning into contextual meaning. Insofar as musi-
cal typology can assume a pseudo-semantic role, perhaps best ex-
emplified by the so-called "affect formulas" in the eighteenth cen-
tury, it is possible t o discern a certain degree of analogy between
the syntactic procedures of speech and music.9 However, the reduc-
tion of musical typology to the non-referential level of the single
tone and its absorption into a statistically conceived mass of sound
eliminates that possibility. There is no longer any logically defen-
sible reason for the contextually fixed position of a constituent.
What remains is the coexistence-by-accident of particulars: musical
moments, structural fields, groups, or whatever they be designated.
The suspension of the organic relationship between the universal
and the particular appears an inevitable step in the historical pro-
cess of the gradual dismantling of inherited hierarchical systems.
One might return t o the prophetic words of Webern quoted at
the beginning of this discussion: "The farther we proceed, the
more everything becomes identical and finally we have the impres-
sion of not being confronted by a work of man but by nature."
Was it Webern's dream to penetrate the mysteries of nature? If so,
there are moments in the work of Luigi Nono when this dream
becomes a reality.

'AS a matter of speculation, it may be noted that Webern's sketches for Opus 32
indicate a row which also consists entirely of symmetrically arranged fragments of the
chromatic scale. See James Beale, "Webern's musikalischer Nachlass," Melos (October
1964), p. 297.
g~undarisPone, "Jaunis Mfizikas Forma un Doma," Jauni Gaita, No. 6 2 (1967),
p. 10.