More than two years ago I wrote about the much-wished-we-heard-more-of-his-stuff Josef Matthias Hauer, a uniquely charming figure in the Second Viennese School, and his zwölftonspiele, or "twelve-tone games". After tinkering with various methods of writing dodecaphonically without sacrificing natural musical logic, Hauer found his favorite form, the zwölftonspiel, wherein an ordered twelve-tone row is ruminated upon in all its various permutations without worrying about themes, dramatic structure or most other constraints of normal composition. These pieces were usually no more than a few minutes long and as such Hauer wrote about a thousand of them for various instrumental combinations including solo piano, bringing us to Christmas. My favorite of these zwölftonspiel is the Zwölftonspiel (Weihnachten 1946), one of the most touching of all serialist pieces and so precious as to melt on your earlobe when it lands.
The form couldn't be simpler, or rather more nonexistent: the row is introduced and Hauer riffs on it in five variations. The variations have no arc within themselves but rather allow the arc present within an otherwise static sequence of notes emerge, a feat in itself. What's so remarkable is how memorable each of the variations is and how each of them equally compliments the row in such different ways, as well as evoke such a great sequence of moods (dread, wonderment, focus, frustration, release) - the mark of an expert tone jeweller. It's also notable for being exactly as long as it needs to be, and you don't need any writer to tell you how much of a problem that can become. It's the one piece of Hauer's I'lll remember until I die and should be included in every pianists' Christmas rep, if only to add a strange interlude to any concert in need of one - which could be every Christmas concert, come to think of it. And like much of the most assured of experimental pieces it isn't afraid to end on a smile.