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I have been reading Allen Forte’s grand opus on the atonal music of Webern. Volumes like this savour of an earlier age in academic music studies: the leisurely pace and minute examination of detail remind the reader that the substance of the music, its weaving and unweaving, are the most important things about it. And how interesting to learn that Webern was a planter of musical cyphers as diligent as Schumann and Berg. webernbook

Yet as I read Forte’s book I began to have reservations. He is set on proving that the foundation of this music is the octatonic scale, or ‘collection’ in Fortean language. As any composer or theorist knows, this is the collection that alternates semitones with tones, and like its Fortean complement, the diminished seventh chord, it has only three non-duplicating versions. And this is my problem. Any one of these versions provides eight of the available pitches of the chromatic. With artful beaming, slurring and grouping, you can derive almost anything from it. And this is what Forte often appears to do. When a series of pitches does not support his reading, he switches track to another of the three collections. By the end you feel that someone has painstakingly demonstrated that all Shakespeare derives from the alphabet.

In the first of the Five Pieces for Quartet op. 5, the first thing I notice is Webern’s metronome markings. Forte by the way broadly accepts my own reading of this piece as a very concentrated sonata form. The first subject is at crotchet equals 100, and the second at crotchet 88. These two tempi remain consistently associated with these two themes for the entire piece. An exception is the grand climax at around bar 50 which is at crotchet 60. To draw up a map of the tempo markings alone is to get a strong picture of the overall shape. Yet in one of the longest discussions of any piece in the book, Forte nowhere mentions them. I have noticed that pitch-class analysts suffer from this form of short-sightness, or short-hearingness.

In fact, Forte admits in his introduction that the octatonic formations in Webern’s music are difficult if not impossible to hear. This seems an extraordinary thing to say when the octatonic lies at the base of his whole argument.

Yet Forte’s argument is not so different from George Perle’s thesis about the Rite of Spring. In his book The Listening Composer (is the very title a rebuff to Forte and his acolytes?) Perle says that the tension of the work arises from the mixing of symmetrical with free elements. I would say that Perle the composer makes a better job of showing this tension than Forte the analyst. In particular, his explanation of the use of the three possible diminished sevenths in the introduction provides a beautiful explanation for one of the puzzles of the work, namely, why the bassoon tune comes back on C flat at its last hearing.

Composing always involves a tension between the strict and the free. The composer must calculate, and he must dare. The calculating part is craft, and good craftsmanship always tells, however minute or arcane it might appear to be. The daring part is inspiration. If we are in danger these days of underestimating the craft element, that does not mean we don’t need inspiration. At the higher levels of art, craft and inspiration become one.

 

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