Serial Analysis: Webern’s “Wie Bin Ich Froh”

Webern’s Drei Lieder fell into his “total serialism” period, though its individual pieces would not themselves be considered works of total serialism. In fact, in this particular piece (“Wie Bin Ich Froh”) it cannot be entirely observed how the serialism functions at the onset of the piece; the order of the 12 pitch classes cannot be determined, as four of them are stated as a chord. The vocal line, therefore, carries heavy weight in this piece. The G natural in measure 2, the last of the initial 12 pitch classes in the piano and the first of the voice part’s first 12-tone row (P0). With this as a basis, a full matrix can be produced (see image).

This matrix gives 48 combinations based on the initial 12-tone row. The prime rows, successive half-step transpositions of P0, will always follow the same intervallic pattern: minor third down, minor second down, minor third up, perfect fourth down, diminished fourth up, minor third down, minor third down, minor second down, minor second up, minor third down and minor second down. Retrograde rows are essentially the reverse (minor second up, minor third up, etc.), while inversion rows are the inverted intervals and retrograde inversion rows combine the two variations.

Examining the matrix, it can be determined that the opening passage in the piano is a RI11 row. This is followed by the already discussed P0 row in the vocal line, which is echoed in the piano (mm.2-3). The next row stated in the piano is RI11. At the outset of this row, a fragment of P0 is restated in the vocal line. The row is essentially resumed in the piano where the rest of the tones are stated (with several as a chord and a few repeats).

The pickup to measure 6 begins an I0 row in the piano part, echoed in the vocal line beginning in the same octave, mm.6-8 (beginning with a repeated G natural, reminiscent of a more traditional melody). Measures 7-8 also contain an occurrence of an R0 row in the piano part while I0 continues in the vocal line. This R0 row repeats in the piano line, mm.8-10. Immediately after this row begins, an occurrence of P0 begins in the vocal line (mm.9-11, after a repeated F#, again to mimic a traditional vocal line) such that the two continue simultaneously. Before P0 ends in the vocal line, RI11 appears in the piano (mm.10-11), and immediately at its conclusion, it is followed by a fragment of I0 in the vocal line (measure 11) echoed by a full statement of I0 in the piano part (mm.11-12).

Just as this piece clearly does not conform to traditional harmonic construction, it cannot be defined by traditional formal analysis either. However, this is not to say that Webern did not employ structural elements in his composition of “Wie Bin Ich Froh” besides the application of the 12-tone method. The vocal line, at the forefront of the piece, employs only two of the 48 possible rows: P0 and I0. Through repetition of these lines, the vocal line becomes slightly more melodic-sounding, more similar to a traditional melody and less jarring to the average ear not accustomed to serialism. In many instances, the piano can be seen mimicking the row executed in the vocal line. This helps to unify the composition, solidifying the melody being heard in the vocal line by repetition in the piano line. There is even an instance in which the vocal line merges with the piano to form a complete row (mm.4-5), blurring the focus of the piece for a moment. It is not the entire piece which adheres to this structure; the opening occurrence of RI11, the appearance of RI11 in mm.3-4 and the final occurrence of RI11 in mm.10-11 serve to unify the overall piece from beginning to end, joining the rows which are not part of the back-and-forth relationship between voice and piano. Having these three statements of this particular row helps to give a greater sense of form to this very non-traditional piece.

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