Anton Webern's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, was written in 1940-41. Consisting of a theme and six variations, this single movement work is just over seven minutes long, making it the composer's second longest single movement work. His Passacaglia, Op. 1, from 1907 is almost three minutes longer and is also a set of variations. In the thirty-three years that separate these pieces, the quality of Webern's composing remained at a consistently high level, while embracing quite divergent idioms. For instance, Op. 1 embodies post-Brahmsian tonality while Op. 30 is constructed from his unique twelve-tone technique, an operation that had a decisive influence on several generations of composers.
Written between January 1940 and February 1941, the Op. 30 is one of Webern's most elegant works, and has a discernable dramatic flair found in the recurrences of melodic shapes. Certain musical figures recur as if in dialogue with one another. There are also dramatic soundscapes that suggest an operatic setting. This work stands between his two cantatas, which are as close as Webern ever came to writing an opera, an endeavor that fell short twice earlier in his career. The bulk of Webern's output are songs and while his melodic abilities have never been questioned, his strengths as a dramatic composer reveal themselves in episodes of the cantatas--especially in the final vocal movement of the first cantata, Op. 29--and these Variations. Listeners find themselves in a state of anticipation, waiting for an absent curtain to rise, but the process of absorbing this would-be overture reveals much more substance than could be found in most operatic scores, or even in the composer's own Symphony, Op 21.
Webern's Op. 30 tone row is more sophisticated than that of his Op. 21, and his manipulations of the row are subtler. In Op. 30 this is evident in the chords which convincingly accompany the melodic lines. The Op. 21 relied more on canons to maintain a cohesive direction while the Op. 30 contains independent contrapuntal lines. The ability to write twelve-tone counterpoint without repetition is indicative of Webern's command of this musical language, a command that has rarely, if ever been matched. The chords heard in these variations are another indication of hitherto unknown levels of tone row mastery. Webern's Variations and sections of his Concerto, Op. 24 contain chords that clarify and heighten the direction of the melody in a way that is often associated with tonal writing. Webern's genius for creating great tone-rows is found in their deep and multiple levels of symmetricality, yielding many points of self-reference that strengthen the integrity of the melodic direction, formal contour, and harmonic rhythm and color.
The Variations were first performed in Winterthur, Switzerland on March 3, 1943, with Hermann Scherchen conducting. Webern was allowed out of Austria to attend the performance. It was against the law to perform his music in his own country, by order of the Nazis. It was his last trip out of Austria, and the last premiere of his work that he would hear.