About this Recording
8.557530 - WEBERN, A.: Symphony / 6 Pieces, Op. 6 / Concerto (Craft) (Webern, Vol. 1)
English  German 

Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Symphony • Six Pieces for Large Orchestra

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna on 3rd December, 1883, and died at Mittersill on 15th September, 1945. He was Arnold Schoenberg’s most devoted pupil from 1904, and the closest friend of his fellow pupil, Alban Berg. After Schoenberg’s emigration to America in 1933, and Berg’s tragically premature death in 1935, Webern lost his two most valued colleagues.

Much of the ‘life’ and personality of Webern remains largely enigmatic. The sudden death of his mother, the traumatic event of his early maturity, eventually compelled him to seek psychiatric help from Dr Alfred Adler, Freud’s ex-colleague. In general Webern seems to have given more of his time to teaching and to arranging the works of others than to the creation of his own. His career as a composer, in any case, invoked a chronicle of ridicule by audiences and invective by the press. He was temperamentally too different from Mahler to follow his dictum: “I run with my head against the wall, but it is the wall which will crack”. It seems that Webern became increasingly reclusive, and, as a tinkerer, progressively more compulsive. His sketchbooks teem with corrections, redrafted beginnings, revised revisions.

Webern was a devout Catholic, but also a nature mystic (‘nature is supernatural’). However subtle and sophisticated his music, Webern himself was more a rustic—two of his early works employ cowbells, as well as mandolin and guitar—than a cosmopolitan. He spoke a Tyrolese dialect and, except for Church Latin, no word of any foreign language. Revered by all who knew him as humble, kind, gentle, he was intransigent in musical matters. He was also known as the most meticulous and exacting of conductors. The young Webern held posts as repetiteur and assistant conductor in the opera houses of Danzig and Dresden, but resigned, unable to bear the schlock repertory he was required to direct. For brief periods in the 1920s and 1930s, he held two significant conducting positions in Vienna, as director of a choral society and conductor of the Arbeiter Konzerte (Workers’ Symphony Concerts). After a short term with the former, he resigned because the organization refused to accept a Jewish vocal soloist. He wrote to Schoenberg, in Boston, about feeling a sense of the most vehement aversion against my own race because of the anti-Semitism of so many of its members.

Webern’s cultural world was purely German, and he seems to have had no prescience of the impending horrors of the National Socialist Party, even though it had classified his own music as ‘degenerate’ and forbidden its performance and publication. His career with the Workers’ Concerts had been successful and his performances were enthusiastically received, but when one of the players publicly criticized his rehearsal procedures, Webern abruptly departed. Long before the Anschluss (1938), he was dismissed from his teaching position at the Vienna Israelite Institution for the Blind. The main source of his income thereafter was from private teaching, a few random conducting engagements—in London (the BBC), Zurich, Berlin, Barcelona—and from such publisher’s jobs as arranging, proof-reading, and evaluating (mostly rejecting) new music submitted for approval.

On 31st March, 1945, a few days before the Red Army entered Vienna, the 61-year-old Webern purchased a train ticket from Neulengbach to Mittersill, a village in the Pinzgau Mountains in western Austria, where he hoped to find refuge for himself and his family in the home of one of his sons-in-law. On arrival there, exhausted and suffering from dysentery and malnutrition, Webern had to share a small house with sixteen other people.

When the U.S. Army occupied the region, during the summer of 1945, a detachment was assigned to curtail black-marketing activities in Mittersill between the people and its own forces. On 15th September, 1945, after Webern had dined at the home of his daughter, Christine Mattel, he stepped outside to smoke what could only have been a contraband cigar provided by her husband, Bruno Mattel, whom the Americans arrested on charges of illicit trafficking in food. Apparently not understanding a “hands-up” order by an American soldier posted outside the building, Webern lighted a match, whereupon the guard shot him three times in the chest and abdomen. But several contradictory versions of this unwitnessed brutality have been published. A Gregorian Requiem Mass was held in Mittersill’s small church, and five persons followed the coffin to the cemetery. I paid my respects there in May 1954.

The Symphony has become the best known of Webern’s twelve-tone pieces (unfortunately in poor performances), partly because of its spaciousness and sense of continuity. The first of the two movements, in ternary sonata form, marked Adagio: Ruhig schreitend, is a double canon displaying simultaneously both horizontal and vertical symmetries, mirrors and palindromes. To the listener’s satisfaction, both halves of the movement are repeated. The beginning of the second half is a fourvoiced mirror canon. The theme of the second movement, marked Sehr ruhig, with the title Variations, is stated in the winds. It is followed by eight discrete variations and a Coda, each division being established by changes of instrumentation and other contrasting features. A slowertempo Debussy-like figure, motivically, harmonically (tonally), and in sonority (winds and harp), separates the third and the fourth variations. The Coda frames a solo violin phrase in both primary and retrograde forms. The performance of this movement at Webern’s metronomic tempi may be the first to realise the music as it was intended to be heard.

The first performance of Five Canons on Latin Texts, Op. 16, took place in New York on 8th May, 1951. The odd-numbered canons are three-voiced, the evennumbered two-voiced. Christus factus est, for soprano, clarinet, and bass clarinet and the last-composed of the five, was completed on 12th November, 1924. The text is the Gradual from the Solemn Evening Mass for Maundy Thursday. Dormi Jesu was composed in July 1923. The text, a lullaby, is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The antiphon Crux fidelis, a prayer to the Cross, completed on 8th August, 1923, was the second of the cycle in order of composition. The music is a straight three-part canon for voice, clarinet, and bass clarinet, on a text taken from the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday. Asperges me, the third piece in the cycle in the order of composition, was composed on 21st August, 1923. This two-part canon for voice and bass clarinet has a text used to accompany the sprinklng of Holy Water at the beginning of the Mass. The antiphon Crucem tuam adoramus, for voice, clarinet, and bass clarinet, was completed on 29th October, 1924. Again the text is taken from the Liturgy for Good Friday.

The music for Drei Volkstexte apparently baffled Webern’s own publisher, Universal Edition, Vienna. Theorists have shown special interest in it because the second and third songs represent Webern’s first attempt to incorporate principles of Schoenberg’s so-called twelvetone technique, most obviously in repeating notes before moving to other ones. The twelve notes of the chromatic scale are exposed in the first instrumental and vocal phrase. Webern’s manuscript clearly specifies that the order of the second and third songs should be reversed, the one with viola would naturally come between the two songs with violin, an instruction followed in the present recording, but not in the posthumously published score.

The first of the Three Songs for soprano, piccolo clarinet and guitar, Op. 18, is one of Webern’s most lighthearted creations, as indicated by the vocal ‘en pointe’ dancing. The music of the second song is intensely dramatic, with the climax on the soprano’s high D for the word Vater, followed by a shift of mood for the Father’s final declaration. In the Latin third song the vocal intervals are extremely wide, many of them greater than an octave, and some more than two octaves. Moreover, most of them are legato. This is Webern delirando, the Romantic nature poet at an emotional peak.

The Trio, Op. 20, marks the largest step in Webern’s evolution and is now acclaimed as one of his greatest creations. It is all ongoing movement, development and exploration in accordance with purely musical ideas. The work is as close as Webern ever came to his goal of ‘large form’, but, like all of his pieces, it remains a miniature.

As with the Choruses, Op. 19, the Trio, and the Symphony, Webern struggled over the question of whether to give his Quartet, Op. 22, a third movement, two-movement pieces being a cornerstone of his aesthetic philosophy at the time. On 9th September, 1930, he wrote to Alban Berg: “I almost find the work complete by reason of the perfect opposition provided by the great contrast inherent in two already finished movements”. Now, more than seventy years later, the Quartet is widely recognized as the “coolest” music Webern ever wrote.

The Variations for Piano, Op. 27, were begun on 14th October, 1935, and completed on 14th August, 1936, though the MS is dated 5th September, 1936. This last of Webern’s works to be published in his lifetime once again reverses the order of the movements: the third, the variations, composed first, became the second, and the second the prelude. He compared the first, in classic ABA form, to a Brahms Intermezzo, but admitted that the second movement had been inspired by the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109 and the Arietta from the Sonata Op. 111. The third movement comprises five variations and a Coda, in which the last note is distinguished as, simply, the lowest note in the piece. The fourth variation is, in one sense, the most rhythmically remarkable that Webern ever wrote, the music being in syncopated single notes. The listener should beat single quarters to him- or herself throughout the syncopated suspensions.

The Six Pieces, Op. 6, an early work for a large orchestra that never plays together in its entirety, has become Webern’s most popular work. In the fourth and longest movement, titled Marcia funebre in the original version, the string section does not play at all, but only wind instruments and percussion, and in the deafening crescendo with which the piece ends, the percussion plays alone, perhaps for the first time in European music. Part of the allure of the orchestration lies in the use of solo instruments in unusual registers: the flute at the beginning of the first piece; the piccolo, the high muted horn, the low muted trumpet in the fourth; and in the last the handful of muted tuba notes floating up like bubbles from the bottom of a tank. The dynamic level is almost always soft, and the brass and strings, solo and tutti, are generally muted.

Webern began his Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, in June 1910, but did not complete the definitive version until 1914. The music has been described as consisting of “wide intervallic leaps, frequent tempo shifts, changes of dynamic levels.… The slow, subdued first and third pieces alternate with the dramatic, dynamically explosive second and fourth.”

Composed two weeks before the beginning of World War I, the Three Pieces for Violoncello and Piano, Op. 11, specimens of contrasting sound effects in Webern’s “aphoristic” style, had to wait ten years for its first public performance, in Mainz, 2nd December, 1924. The conciseness and concentration of expression are unprecedented.

The Concerto for 9 Instruments has become Webern’s most popular chamber-music opus. He encountered a “writer’s block” after completing the first movement and the composition of the whole work took two years. The music is more stripped, simpler, more purely essential than anything composed before this date. Most famously is the newest element in the third movement, the silent first beat continuing over several bars at the end but always maintaining the sensation of the “off-beat.” The instrumentation is schematic and notational but with an effect of the purification never before achieved.

Schubert composed his set of six German Dances in the Esterházy castle in Zseliz, Hungary, in October 1824 for his piano pupil, the eighteen-year-old Countess Caroline Esterházy. His four-hand Fantasy in F minor is dedicated to her as well as several other works composed between 1815 and 1828. The Dances manuscript was found in the legacy of a niece of Caroline’s mother, Countess Almasy, whose two daughters entrusted it to their music teacher c. 1866. After its rediscovery in 1930, Webern, with incomparable sensitivity, arranged it for small orchestra. A dozen or so years earlier he had arranged the piano accompaniments of five Schubert songs and three Schubert piano sonatas for small orchestra.

R. C.


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