Arnold Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, completed in 1928, is among a clutch of works composed from 1925-1928 in his neo-Classical style. These pieces include his Wind Quintet, Op. 26, Suite, Op. 29, String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30, and parts of his Suite for Piano, Op. 25. Neo-Classicism was not a step backwards in time when handled by Schoenberg, but rather an attempt to offer listeners structural points of reference with which they could identify. His treatment of the 12-tone system is always natural and approachable. The Op. 31 shares an easygoing spirit similar to his third string quartet. Neither work is especially intense, whereas the Op. 25, Op. 26, and Op. 29 share the composer's focused, fighting spirit. Both the Op. 30 and Op. 31 were written in Berlin during Schoenberg's professorship at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, where he replaced the recently deceased Busoni. The professorship in composition came with more perks and privileges than Schoenberg had previously known. The better living conditions were enough to relax some of his scrappier musical instincts. In a secure enough position to write comfortably, the ferocity of his genius gave way to elegance. Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra include an introduction, 12 variations, and a finale. The character of each variation is distinct and occasionally the hammer of his intense spirit does assert itself, but so do episodes of playful ease. Variation 4, marked Walzertempo, is as gentle as a Viennese waltz, while the following variation bears the mark of a stern musical champion. These diverse affects cohere seamlessly, building a holistic world of sound from a tone row constructed of two hexachords of identical intervalic properties. The famous BACH cipher (B flat, A, C, B natural) is prominent as well.
The premiere of the Op. 31 featured the illustrious Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on December 2, 1928. Never before had such an important conductor taken on a concert work by Schoenberg or any other member of the Second Viennese School. The reviews were unfavorable but they did not interfere with Schoenberg's creativity as he launched into one of the most productive periods of his career.