Arnold Schoenberg

Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31

    Description by John Keillor

    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.


    1. Introduktion. Mäßig, ruhig
    2. Thema. Molto moderato
    3. Variation 1. Moderato
    4. Variation 2. Langsam
    5. Variation 3. Mäßig
    6. Variation 4. Walzertempo
    7. Variation 5. Bewegt
    8. Variation 6. Andante
    9. Variation 7. Langsam
    10. Variation 8. Sehr rasch
    11. Variation 9. L'istesso tempo; aber etwas langsamer
    12. Finale. Mäßig schnell

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Berlin Classics 0300911BC
    2015 Harmonia Mundi HMA 1951884
    2015 Helicon Classics HEL 029665
    2015 Warner Classics 552758
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon 4793445
    2013 Decca 4785437
    2013 KMI KMI 02100
    2011 Decca
    2011 Decca
    2011 Decca B001560702
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2009 Naxos 505223
    2008 Albany Music Distribution 992
    2008 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920678
    2007 Apex 4699845
    2006 Harmonia Mundi 901884
    2006 Naxos 557522
    2005 Weitblick 48
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 55212
    2004 NM Classics 97018
    2000 Stradivarius 13592
    1999 Wergo 6018550
    1999 Koch International Classics 7463
    1999 Deutsche Grammophon 457760
    1998 Tahra 245/6
    1998 Orfeo D'Or 488981
    1998 Erato 24241
    1996 London 448 279-2DF2
    1996 Berlin Classics 0091662
    1995 Erato 98496
    1993 Erato 45827
    1993 Sony Classical 48464
    1993 Deutsche Grammophon 415326
    1991 Astree 7805
    1990 Wergo 60185
    1989 Deutsche Grammophon 4274242
    Arkadia 20