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Compositional Process in Arnold Schoenbergs Variations for Orchestra Op.

Michael Crawford

Dr. Laura Emmery
19 April 2015

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Arnold Schoenbergs Variations for Orchestra, completed in 1928, is a large-scale work
comprised of eleven distinct sections: an introduction, theme, nine variations, and a finale. While
the introduction and finale are free developments of motivic material, the variations adhere to the
melodic tone row introduced in the theme.1 Much of the contrast between the variations emerge
from a colorful use of the orchestra, which, over the course of the piece, displays myriad textures
and timbres, ranging from a lyrical line with unobtrusive sustained chords to heavily accented
strikes from the percussion section. The piece demonstrates Schoenbergs ability to develop a
single theme into countless variants while maintaining connections between highly imaginative
My interest in studying this work emerges from its significance among Schoenbergs
compositions as well as serial music as a whole. While the completed piece has been analyzed by
numerous scholars,2 Schoenbergs preliminary work has not received such attention. It is the
compositional process, as revealed by these sketches, that I aim to understand in my studies.
After providing background information on Schoenberg and his work, I will describe his
preliminary sketches by referencing the documents held at the Arnold Schnberg Center. These
sketches consist of a careful planning of the tone row in all of its variants and the tools that
Schoenberg constructed for himself to aid in composing. I will then focus on the sketches for the
theme and first variation while providing more holistic observations.

1 Nelson, Robert U. Schoenbergs Variation Seminar. The Musical Quarterly. April 1964. Vol.
50, No. 2., pp. 154-155.

2 Ibid.

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Schoenberg was born in 1874 to non-musical parents.3 His musical education began with
violin lessons at the age of eight, and he began composing shortly after.4 Though he received no
formal instruction, Schoenberg continued to learn through his friendships with David Josef Bach
and Oskar Adler, who acted as his musical mentors.5 Compositions during his teenage years are
tonal and fairly conventional, showing Brahmsian influence and reflecting his lack of musical
background.6 Schoenberg took a major leap forward when he began receiving instruction from
Alexander von Zemlinsky, who had studied composition at Vienna Conservatory.7 Assisted by
Zemlinskys critiques, Schoenberg composed his String Quartet in D Major, which received a
premiere at the Wiener Tonknstlerverein.8 While this work, set in Classical four-movement
form, reflects Brahmss writing, Schoenberg succeeded in developing a characteristic style.9
Verklrte Nacht, an 1899 string sextet based on the poetry of Richard Dehmel, developed
Schoenbergs abilities by encouraging him to express a text that had affected him strongly.10
The 1904 String Quartet in D minor furthered Schoenbergs efforts to find his own
voice.11 The work begins in D minor but drifts into vagrant harmonies, where tonality becomes
ambiguous.12 Definition of formal structure in tonal terms was thus not as significant as it had
been in his earlier works.13 Schoenberg instead relied on his skill for developing material in a
way that reinforced the structure of the piece in order to give it a sense of direction.14 This ability
would prove to be a crucial tool when Schoenberg later abandoned tonality.15 Written two years
later, Kammersymphonie No. 1 was another step in this direction.16 Schoenberg used perfect
fourths and the whole tone scale as the foundations for both melodic and harmonic structure.17
3 Neighbour, O. W. "Schonerg [Schnberg], Arnold (Franz Walter)." Grove Music
Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 26 April 2015.

44-32 Ibid.

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This lack of distinction between melodic and harmonic elements corresponds to the move toward
Following these developments, Schoenbergs efforts displayed a similar direction as he
weakened the tendency for dissonances to resolve, eventually arriving at the emancipation of
dissonance in The Book of Hanging Gardens.19 This piece marked the beginning of his free
atonal period.20 Die Jakobsleiter, an oratorio started in 1916, demonstrates Schoenbergs
transition from free atonality to serialism.21 Exhibiting great amounts of dissonance in six or
more largely independent parts, the piece relies on permutations of hexachords to unite thematic
material and contains symmetrically built chords.22
By 1923, Schoenberg had composed the fully serial works, Serenade Op. 24 and the Suite
for Piano Op. 25.23 These marked the beginning of a new and highly prolific period in
Schoenbergs career.24 Between 1920 and 1936, the composers works displayed a great deal of
individuality.25 Each piece contained an expansive scope and was entirely unique.26 Schoenberg
also brought back Classical forms, as seen in his four-movement Wind Quintet that contains
sonata and rondo forms.27
It is in this period that the Variations for Orchestra emerged. With this composition,
Schoenberg established a style for his serial music that would remain throughout the rest of his
life.28 He deliberately used transformations of row forms that could not be followed aurally,
treated rows as motifs, and composed themes using rows set to rhythmic patterns that he would
skillfully vary as the piece progressed.29 Rather than using highly contrapuntal textures,
Schoenberg wrote only one or two dominant lines and overlaid his music with a number of other
motifs.30 This produced multiple layers of meaning beneath those most apparent.31

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Inversional hexachordal combinatoriality plays a major role in the structure of the piece.
Throughout the theme, Schoenberg juxtaposes complementary hexachords in his arrangement of
the melodic lines.32 The first phrase, featuring P10, is succeeded by RI7. Since P10 is combinatorial
with I7, the last hexachords of each row are complementary. By following P10 with RI7,
Schoenberg succeeds in placing the last hexachords of the combinatorial rows next to each other
to form an aggregate. The accompanimental harmonies also exhibit combinatoriality. At the
beginning of the theme, he sets the melodic P10 with harmonies derived from the contents of I7.33
As the theme weaves onwards, this structure continues to hold true.34
Having provided contextual information on the Variations for Orchestra, I will begin the
sketch analysis.5Schoenbergs preliminary planning displays an impressive comprehensiveness.
Before beginning to compose, he extensively sketched out the forms of the tone row featured in
the theme and variations. The collection contains eleven such pages, filled with all transpositions
and inversions of the prime form written neatly with special attention to alignment. Schoenberg
drew vertical lines separating each member of the row, ensuring that pitches in the same position
across the row forms were easily distinguishable.
The most intriguing part of this series is sketch 1594, a cardboard panel on which
Schoenberg attached strips of paper that display various forms of the row. These strips are
removable and would have allowed Schoenberg to rearrange them, lining them up in various
ways to observe row relationships. This would have served as a useful compositional tool.
Schoenberg began with the prime form, labeled T, and proceeded to write out all of its
532 Griffiths, Paul. Serialism. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 26 April
2015.33 Ibid.

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transpositions, each of which he set on its own row below the prime. He placed the inverted
forms to the right of the transpositions. Rather than using integer notation to show the
transposition level, Schoenberg used traditional intervals with an integer indicating the basic
interval and a sign signifying its quality. T-2 indicates a minor second, T+2 a major second, T5 a
perfect fifth, and so on. These notations reflect the differences between modern analysis of serial
music and the methods of its early practitioners.
Schoenberg did not always maintain the direction of the tritones in his transpositions and
inversions. T through T-6 begin with a tritone down, while T+6 and T-7 begin with a tritone up,
resulting from the transposition of the first pitch down an octave. In the inversions, this reversal
occurs in the tritone between the eighth and ninth row positions. This decision may have
stemmed from a desire to keep the row within the staff as it was transposed higher. A reasonable
way to accomplish this was to place octave displacements where tritones occurred, since it would
maintain the original interval rather than inverting it. It appears that he avoided transposing the
entire row down an octave in most cases, because it would result in leger lines below the staff.
Schoenbergs motivation to keep the rows within the staff most likely resulted from practical
rather than musical reasons, since he wrote the rows on a series of relatively thin strips of paper
that barely allow for notes above or below the staff. Reversing a few interval directions were
inconsequential compromises, because such inversions would inevitably occur in the process of
composing. This can be seen in the two prime forms beginning in measures 34 and 52 of the
finished score. While the interval classes are maintained, the direction of motion varies between
the two rows.
Another eye-catching component from these preliminary writings was a graphic sketch
comprised of square holes cut into a sheet of blank manuscript paper (sketch 1592). Twelve out

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of thirteen of these staves had holes cut in them with no staff having more than one hole.
Adjacent squares were connected by a line to clarify their relationships. This is a graphic
representation of a tone row. Interpreting the lowest staff as pitch class C and the highest as B,
the row that the squares on the first page signify is [1758629T430E], which is an inversion of the
row discussed previously. This sketch can prove useful in visualizing the contour of the row,
because it represents the intervals between the members of the row more accurately than the
same idea in musical notation. While a note that is two lines higher than another on a staff could
indicate several different intervals depending on the accompanying accidentals, the visual
representation eliminates that ambiguity by establishing a one-to-one correspondence between
the physical placement of the note and its distance from those around it. The lack of pitch
indications and the use of holes instead of markings on the page allow for this single sketch to
represent all forms of the row. An inversion could be achieved by flipping the page vertically, a
retrograde by flipping horizontally, and a retrograde inversion by rotating 180 degrees. This
would have acted as yet another tool to aid Schoenberg in composing.
Following these outlines of row forms, the rough versions of the theme begin to appear. Though
these sketches are not arranged chronologically, there is a progression from simpler planning to
more complete drafts. Dated May 2, 1926, the sketches begin with a two-staff reduction of the
theme and harmonies with no indications of instrumentation (sketch 1613). In a later sketch
(1597), these evolve to more closely resemble the final version. Here, Schoenberg composes on a
reduced score of three staves with the cello melody on its own line, three wind voices on the
second line, and the double bass and bassoon on the lowest line. From the beginning of the
theme until m. 9, the cello melody corresponds exactly to the final version, and the
accompanimental rhythms, harmony, and instrumentation are largely set. Beginning in m. 10 and

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continuing for five measures, these sketches include material that did not make it into the final
score. Following this section, a few correspondences can be found, but the material is much more
of a rough sketch. This is reinforced by the fact that Schoenberg has crossed out nearly the entire
On the opposite side of the same sketch, a much more finalized version of the theme
appears. At this stage, the melodic lines and the phrase structure for the entire theme are
completed, and the voicing and rhythms of the harmonies are nearly set. Other notable additions
include the use of the English horn instead of a second clarinet, the insertion of the
countermelody at m. 52, which remains unchanged in the final score, and more detailed dynamic
markings. The harp part in the final score, which merely echoes the chords sounded by the
orchestra, was a later addition, as it does not appear here.
Schoenbergs early efforts at writing the first variation appear on the bottom half of the
same page. While this sketch has a fair amount of material, including detailed notation of a new
rhythmic motif and indications of the instrumentation, it bears little resemblance to the
completed version and was crossed out by Schoenberg. It is worth noting, however, that
Schoenberg initially intended to include the melody from the theme in a form that was largely
unaltered from its first presentation. He creates a sense of variation through the accompanimental
figures instead.
A later sketch of the first variation (1556) takes a very different form that closely
resembles the finished score. At a glance, this sketch appears to have little in common with the
first sketch; however, the basic concept behind the variation remains unchanged. Like the initial
sketch, the melody from the theme appears in a highly recognizable form. The first two measures
feature a diminution of the melody that maintains the pitch classes and contour. Throughout the

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remainder of the variation, the contour is retained but rhythmic values are altered. As in the
earlier sketch, fragmented motifs surround the melodic line. There is nearly continuous rhythmic
motion in both sketches, resulting not from a single line but from the intricate interlocking of
several parts. It was thus the implementation of the concept that differed between the two
sketches rather than the concept itself.
The sketches suggest a non-linear compositional process where the sections are not
composed in the order that they appear in the finished score. Fragments from various sections
sometimes appear alongside the sketches of another section. For example, on the bottom right
corner of sketch 1597, which mainly contains thematic material, Schoenberg writes out the
characteristic motif from the introduction that begins at m. 8 in the final score. This fragment is
obviously preliminary, since the metrical divisions and pitches do not match the final version. Its
placement on the page suggests that it was written after much of the theme was already sketched
out. Similar writings appear on the first line of sketch 1614, which is the reverse side of what is
likely to be an earlier sketch of the theme. Furthermore, the opening figures of the introduction in
clarinet and bassoon appear briefly at the top of sketch 1599 amidst sketches for the second and
third variations.
The appearance of these fragments explains the drastic change in measure numbering that
occurs in the more complete version of the theme found in sketch 1598. Schoenberg initially
marked measure numbers, beginning at one, with the same writing utensil that he used for
notating the music. In a later effort, he marked over all of these numbers in a darker color,
beginning with m. 33 instead of m. 1. Considering that an earlier version of the introduction
concludes on m. 32, it becomes apparent that Schoenberg had not finished writing the

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introduction at the time that he composed the theme. This view becomes even more plausible
after taking into account that the introduction is a development of the thematic material.
Schoenbergs measure numbers reveal another addition to an earlier sectionmore subtle
than the last but one that probably caused him some frustration and resulted in a fair amount of
tedious work. Comparing sketch 1598 to the finished score reveals that the measure numbers of
the finished theme begin on thirty-four instead of thirty-three as in the sketch. This inconsistency
brought my attention to a later sketch of the theme (1555) where Schoenberg had overwritten
measure numbers, increasing each of them by one. Looking back to the beginning of the
introduction in sketch 1554 revealed the reason for these edits. Rather than transitioning from the
moving figure in m. 4 of the finished score directly into a similar line at m. 6, Schoenberg elected
to add a measure of repose with a sustained chord in the horns. This addition probably occurred
after he had finished composing the third variation, since the changes to measure numbers
extends to the end of this section.
The Variations for Orchestra is a monumental piece in the realm of serial composition
and marks a point where Schoenberg was able to firmly establish a style of his own. In doing so,
he made significant contributions to musical construction and range of expression. A detailed
look at the composers sketches has brought a different perspective on the work than what
analyses of the finished composition have had to offer, shedding light on the careful planning
that Schoenberg underwent as part of a compositional process involving many drafts and
revisions. This was far from an all-encompassing sketch study, and there remains much work to
be done involving the introduction, finale, and the second through ninth variations. An analysis
of these sketches approached with a firm theoretical understanding of the completed work will
yield a wealth of knowledge.

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Works Cited
Griffiths, Paul. Serialism. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University
Press. Web. 26 April 2015.
Neighbour, O. W. "Schonerg [Schnberg], Arnold (Franz Walter)." Grove Music Online. Oxford
Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 26 April 2015.
Nelson, Robert U. Schoenbergs Variation Seminar. The Musical Quarterly. April 1964. Vol.
50, No. 2., pp. 154-155.