|About this Recording
8.557531 - WEBERN, A.: Vocal and Orchestral Works - 5 Pieces / 5 Sacred Songs / Variations / Bach-Musical Offering: Ricercar (Craft) (Webern, Vol. 2)
Anton Webern (1883–1945)
A prominent critic has recently asserted that “Nobody knew or cared about [Webern’s] music, but Robert Craft loved it and would make it known.” I first realized the truth of this in an incident that occurred in March 1959, in, of all places, Wake Island, a coral reef remote from everywhere. The Stravinskys and I had flown there from Honolulu, en route to Japan—our first fueling stop, since this was in the pre-jet era. After nine hours of empty ocean, we scuffed through pink coral dust to an air-conditioned canteen, where a moment later we were startled by the roar of another plane landing eastbound. The island, or atoll, is so small that the two vehicles parked side-by-side almost filled the runway area. As the Swiss Air passengers disembarked down a mobile stairway and we climbed back aboard our Pan American, a young man shouted at me from the other gangway: “Aren’t you Robert Craft?”—he had recognized Stravinsky, of course—“I want to thank you for your Webern records.” I was flabbergasted at this lifetime coincidence of meeting someone even having heard of the composer let alone knowing my recording.
I was first attracted to Webern’s music by its utter originality, its architecture, its generally ppp. diminuendo voice, its refined emotion, its requirements of extreme virtuosity, both instrumental and vocal. Though the stylistic features of Webern’s music change with each piece, every creation of his is different and distinctive. His music could not be mistaken at any point for anyone else’s. What are these features? Extreme compression and brevity, constant shiftings of tempo, dynamics, instrumental combinations, articulation (the col legno battuto and the slow-speed glissandos in the String Trio), the raising of the appoggiatura from ornament to element (the Saxophone Quartet), the incorporation of triplet rhythms on a par with other rhythmic figuration. The exploitation of the stratospheric range of the human voice, and the equalization of two-octave vocal intervals with thirds, fifths, sevenths, and ninths. Yet in every case he also employs the opposites. Thus the first moment of the Symphony (Naxos 8.557530) changes neither meter nor tempo, and the Variations, Op. 30, avoid triplets throughout. Webern’s music is also the most thinly textured ever written (the second movement of the Concerto, Op. 24) and also some of the densest (the third song in Opus 18), the latter remaining transparent and crystalline.
Only a very few early works—the Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5, and the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (Naxos 8.557530)—have overcome barriers and entered the standard repertory. This will change with repeated listening, even though the obstacles remain considerable. First is in the programming of very short difficult pieces of extreme compactness of ideas. One solution already in the offing is the juxtaposition of “old music” of the highest quality that is often also intricate. We envisage the first half or third of a concert devoted to Webern balanced by the other half, or two-thirds, filled with music from Josquin to Bach. Second, a variorum edition is a necessity. Much of the music is strewn with errors, many of them traceable to the composer’s addiction to rewriting. For example, the printed score of the first song of Opus 18 disagrees with the MS in eight places, while the metronomes are also at odds and the discrepancies in dynamics and phrasing numerous. In the most recent edition of the Sacred Songs, Op. 15, the non-existent low B in the flute has still not been corrected. Third, the heretofore recordings of Webern’s music are uncommendable, as in the Berlin Philharmonic brushed-through performance of the composer’s supreme orchestral work, the metronomes being largely ignored (the 160 is closer to 116), no attempt made to realize the expression markings, and even breaks and fermatas overlooked.
Now, 65 years after the composer’s death, a few listeners have discerned a programmatic dimension in his music. Thus the words Himmel and Gott are nearly always assigned to very high notes; in Opus 17 the agony of the crucifixion is evoked in the relentless grinding of the viola; and as Webern progresses in his song cycles the wider and most jagged intervals increasingly suggest alpine peaks. Credit Ernst Krenek, who knew Webern and his landscape as intimately as anyone, and was the first to bring this to our attention.
Gross errors in the Webern biography must be corrected before they become myths. A recent Stravinsky biography tells the reader the composer visited Webern’s grave at Mittersill with me in 1955. He had wanted to do this but was committed to conduct in Lugano with the Swiss Italian Radio Orchestra. The same book calls it a question whether I or Stravinsky wrote a much-quoted “blurb” about Webern for the review Die Reihe on the tenth anniversary of his death. The facts are that Webern’s publisher, Universal Edition, pleaded with Stravinsky to write it and, though he complied with much genuine emotion, Universal had been sending Webern’s music to him in manuscript facsimile form, as well as a photocopy of Webern’s transcription of Heinrich Isaac’s Choralis Constantiinus (together with the facsimile of the orchestra score of Berg’s Lulu used at the 1937 Zurich première). Stravinsky gave the latter to me and I gave it to my late-lamented friend George Perle. I knew nothing about the three-line testimonial, which the same Stravinsky biography describes as a “panegyric” (defined by Webster as a “lofty oration”), until I saw it in print.
Webern’s orchestral transcription of the Ricercata from J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering dates from 1934–1935.
A letter of 1 January 1938 Webern to Hermann Scherchen, on his forthcoming performance of “my (I think I may call it that) Bach fugue on the BBC,” is one of the most valuable documents of the kind in the history of music, as well as a glimpse at the depth of Webern’s musical processes. The conductor had written to the composer asking exactly what he meant to indicate by the word “Rubato” in the fugue subject at the beginning of the piece. Webern replied, in part:
Two Songs for Mixed Choir, Op. 19
The texts of the Two Songs for Mixed Choir, Op. 19, accompanied by celesta, guitar, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet, are from Goethe’s Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres-und Tageszeiten (Chinese-German Diary). Webern composed the two pieces at Mödling (Vienna) in December 1925 and January 1926. His biographers report that nothing is known of any first public performance, but the present writer can verify that the first private performance took place in Igor Stravinsky’s Hollywood home, in 1957, the day before its recorded première by Columbia Records. The chorus pitches are doubled by the instruments throughout and both pieces begin with five-bar instrumental introductions, which is curious in that the entire opus lasts only slightly more than two minutes.
Five Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5
The original version of the Five Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5, for string quartet, gave the composer international recognition when performed in 1910. The string orchestra transcription of it that he completed in the summer of 1929 entirely alters it, and, as he informs Schoenberg in a letter of 19 February 1929 the new arrangement was radically revised: “I have taken it back and am now making a new and entirely different reworking, using the original solely as a sketch for the full score. I expose here the motivic structure and in so doing often come to fourteen staves.” On 4 March 1929 Webern wrote to a friend: “What I have made makes me very proud.” The first performance of the transcription took place on 26 March 1930 in the ballroom of the Belleview-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, conducted by Koussevitzky’s nephew, Fabian Sevitzky. Webern conducted it himself a year later in a BBC concert, but omitted the first movement because of insufficient rehearsal time. He wrote to a friend that “It has really turned into something entirely new!…the constant subdivisions from tutti to half, to solo, stand out in a clearly audible way.”
Two Songs for Voice and Eight Instruments, Op. 8
Webern’s first songs with instruments were inspired by his secret love affair with his future wife, Wilhelmina, and by reading Rilke’s notebook Malta Laurids Brigge. This needs to be said, since the music conveys little or no sense of romance. The settings of Du, der ichs nicht sage and Du machst mich allein, were completed on 10 August and 30 August 1910 respectively. As an instance of Webern’s perfectionism, it should be said that he prepared a third revision of the pieces in 1921 and the fourth revision in 1925. The facts of the first performance are vague, but it is thought to have taken place in Brussels.
Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10
Webern composed many more short aphoristic pieces than the five grouped together here as a cycle that he eventually chose for publication as Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10. The completion dates for each piece in this brief collection are: I. 28 June 1911; II. 13 September 1913; III. 8 September 1913; IV. 19 July 1911; and V. 6 October 1913. In 1965 a trove of Webern manuscripts surfaced in Perchtoldsdorf and was found to include scores of five more brief “orchestra” pieces. In a letter of 6 November 1912, to Schoenberg, Webern mentions that he had composed eight orchestral miniatures and intended to extend the cycle to nine, but on 22 December he wrote again that eleven more works of the same genre had been completed since the autumn. It is thought that one of these, dated 2 December 1913 on the eve of Webern’s thirtieth birthday, may have been the last of these creations.
The designation “for Orchestra” is misleading in that the instrumental ensemble consists entirely of solo players and, though small in numbers, do not fit the concept of a chamber orchestra. Each piece is formed with different combinations of solo instruments, some of them unknown as components of any kind of orchestra. Thus Opus 10 employs a harmonium, a guitar, and a mandolin, together with seven wind instruments (no bassoon) and a string section limited to four solo instruments, violin, viola, cello, bass, in addition to a duo of celesta and harp, and eight percussion instruments, including cowbells. Bell-like sonorities from string and harp harmonics and the high notes of the celesta produce a mountain village atmosphere. Clearly Webern wished to add new colours to his palette and to avoid the classical orchestral ensemble, strings and pairs of wind instruments. The most radical aspect of Opus 10, however, is in the extreme brevity and succinctness of its five pieces, which altogether last only four and a half minutes. The shortest of them, number four, is only nineteen seconds long.
The first performance, in Zurich, 22 June 1926, conducted by Webern himself, kindled a sensation that was repeated wherever the work was played. Moreover it brought attention to the composer’s name. Conductors with no interest in avant-garde and experimental music, such as Koussevitzky in Boston, were quick to include the work on their programmes.
Webern left few clues as to his programmatic intentions, though his letter to Schoenberg of 10 September 1912 stating that he was composing a series of movements “belonging to each other”, is illuminating, as is his avowal that he did not wish “to give any programmatic explanation of the music”, but merely to indicate “the feelings that ruled him when composing”. He had devised titles for the Five Pieces, but then concealed them. The listener will follow Webern’s multifarious moods, kaleidoscopic colour changes, and feel the rural atmosphere of the whole, the pastoral qualities, and, above all, Webern’s love of bell-and bell-like sounds.
Four Songs for Voice and Orchestra, Op. 13
The instrumental accompaniment of Four Songs for Voice and Orchestra, Op. 13, resembles that of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, in that the string complement requires a solo quartet and the bassoon is excluded from the wind section. The principal difference is that the only percussion instrument required is a glockenspiel. The music is comparatively simple. The vocal part lies largely in the low register and is generally confined to small intervals. So, too, the rhythmic language is unconstricted by convolutions—the reason, no doubt, that the work remains the most popular of Webern’s song-cycles with instruments. Attention should be drawn to some of the work’s most striking instrumental effects. In the second song, for one, the accompaniment to the phrase “Ich habe meine Lampe ausgelöscht” (“I have extinguished my lamp”), four soft notes in the voice, is confined to an ethereal piccolo, creating a haunting empty space between the two. No less magical is the accompaniment in the third song to the words “I raised my head.” The violin in a very high register plays twelve very fast even-speed notes, legato, over an ostinato figure in celesta and harp, softly and in a slower tempo, a silken caress. The last song concludes with trumpet, trombone, and cello playing in hocket style, in colours and rhythms both magical and ancient. The dynamics range from “p” to “pp” to “ppp,” with only three notes rising to a mezzoforte climax, which is marked “diminuendo.”
The first performance on 16 February 1928 in Winterthur, was conducted by Hermann Scherchen.
Six Songs for Voice, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Violin and Cello, Op. 14
Webern was ahead of his time in perceiving the genius of the poet Georg Trakl, who died at the age of 27 in 1914. The music of the Trakl settings marks a great leap ahead in its musical language from the Opus 13 songs. The instrumental and vocal parts are far more difficult and demanding than any Webern had written so far and in one place the contrapuntal density is nearly impenetrable. Curiously, four instruments are required but used together only in the final song. Further, the pieces are sectional. The first song, The Sun, for example, divides into three contrasting movements indicated by double bars, and the second song is in two contrasting parts, again shown by a double bar. The other songs are accompanied by trios of varying instrumentation. Another characteristic of the pieces is that the playing and singing are continual. In the third of the songs, entitled Occident, No. 2, the bass clarinet and the cello are given only a handful of very brief rests. In the same piece, bars 11 to 13 employ an ostinato, rare in Webern, and it evokes a storm in three measures in which the bass clarinet and the cello parts are dangerously near rhythmic and pitch collisions.
After Webern conducted the première at Donaueschingen on 20 July 1924 he rejected other offers to present the work, recognizing that “My Trakl Lieder are pretty well the most difficult there are in this field. They would need countless rehearsals”. Indeed, the greatest increase in complexity in all of Webern’s music may be the one from the Songs Op. 13 to the Songs Op. 14.
Five Sacred Songs for Voice, Flute, Clarinet and Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Harp, Violin and Viola, Op. 15
Webern adds to the title of the last but first-composed of the Five Sacred Songs for Voice, Flute, Clarinet and Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Harp, Violin and Viola, Op. 15, that the music is a double canon in contrary motion, i.e., a first canon between the trumpet and clarinet, and another canon between the voice and the violin. Webern was especially proud of this fifth piece and made copies of it as gifts for his friends. The density of polyphonic structure and rhythmic complexity continues in the style of the Trakl Songs, Op. 14, and in places even surpasses it. Webern conducted the première in Vienna on 9 October 1922.
The double canon was composed on 20 July 1917. On 19 August 1917 Webern wrote to Alban Berg, “Now I am mourning the end of summer, i.e., the time I can work. I have gone along the right paths, as Schoenberg has confirmed. Now I am writing quite differently. I have composed four homogeneous sounds, in long themes, altogether something entirely different than before the war.” He wrote to Schoenberg on 12 September: “This year I have in truth tried to follow your Pierrot directly.”
Das Augenlicht, ‘Through Our Open Eyes Light Flows into the Heart’, Op. 26
The text of the cantata Das Augenlicht, ‘Through Our Open Eyes Light Flows into the Heart’, Op. 26, for mixed chorus and orchestra is from Hildegard Jone’s Viae Inviae. Webern began the composition on 19 February 1935 after finishing his orchestration of the Bach Ricercata from the Musical Offering. The tone-row required three weeks of deliberation to establish, with another day to change a note, and was completed on 14 March. Webern devoted the entire summer of 1935 to the composition, completing it on 29 September. He thought the piece “so good that if people ever get to know it they will declare me ready for a concentration camp or an insane asylum!” Here is his description of it to Hermann Scherchen, 12 April 1938: “Everything is obbligato in a purely polyphonic presentation.” Listing the instrumentation, Webern says there are no string basses (like the Cantata, Op. 31) but does not mention the inclusion of a saxophone. In another letter he claims to have composed the piece under the influence of Brahms’s Schiksalslied, and refers to the “alternation” of homophonic and polyphonic styles in the choral sections, some of them a cappella, and observes that “each vocal line presents the 12 tone rows.” After Webern played it to his friend Polnauer he remarked that it seemed full of cadences, whereupon Webern embraced him. Augenlicht refers to the sparkle in the eyes of his daughter Amalie, to whom the piece is dedicated. The composer’s biographer remarks: “None of Webern’s children ever showed the slightest interest in, or understanding of, his music.” After a long teatime with Amalie at the Sacher Bar, Vienna, in November 1956, she concurred with the present writer’s conclusion: the Webern family did not believe that Webern’s music could ever appeal to even the most attuned and elite audience. Under Hermann Scherchen, however, the first performance in London was an immense success and one that changed Webern’s career. Its lyricism and new orchestral sound made a great impression on the young Schoenbergianminded Luigi Dallapiccola, for one, who had heard the London performance and visited Webern in Vienna in 1943. He reported that Webern was most interested in his impressions of the “sound,” which is understandable since he had not composed an orchestral piece of his own in nearly three decades.
Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30
In mid-January 1940, Webern wrote to his librettist Hildegard Jone that he had finished his first Cantata to her text and had already begun a new work that would be purely instrumental. In February, he was in Winterthur and Basel to attend performances of his works, a journey that raised his hopes for future concerts in Switzerland, since none would be forthcoming in any other continental European country because of the Nazi ban on his music. Returning to Austria, he began to draft the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, on 15 April. An entry in his hand on that date records: “Theme; periodically structured from material elements. Repetition in a new form.” He composed a tone row but on the next day changed its second half, turning the last six notes into the retrograde of the first six. The intervallic patterns, thus divided, restructure the series into three groups of four notes, each one both harmonic and motivic, i.e., vertical as well as horizontal. The composer noted the four new forms in a different colour, black, red, blue, and green (pencils). He also used a green pencil to identify a new beginning on page five of the draft and to change the tempo marking from “very animated” to “lively”, the latter eventually becoming the definitive tempo of the piece.
Among the domestic and political events recorded in his sketchbook are the birth of a granddaughter and the triumphant German invasion of France, but Webern continued to compose. A condensed draft-score was completed on 25 November, but he quickly began work on a “thorough revision” and did not begin the full score until mid-December, completing it in mid-February 1941, when he wrote again to Frau Jone that the orchestration was very difficult but “the result, I believe, is of something extremely simple”. He wrote to another friend asking him to persuade Paul Sacher, conductor of the Basle Chamber Symphony, to commission the new piece, but no answer was forthcoming. Webern appealed again, through the same intermediary, giving compositional information about the work, which remains the most absorbing of all Webern’s revelations of his creative thought. The piece, he claims:
Webern’s Vienna publishers, Universal Edition, made a photostat of the manuscript, which the publisher took to Switzerland together with a rhetorical and analytical outline of the piece so that he could effectively refute any objections Sacher might be inclined to make:
The first performance of the Variations was sponsored by Werner Reinhart of Winterthur, and conducted by his friend (and Webern’s) Hermann Scherchen, 5 March 1943 in Zurich. Webern reported that the performance turned out “quite well” and that the reception was “gratifying beyond all expectations…I would say: against all expectations. I believe that they cannot easily ignore my cause anymore. I can say truly that from the first to last moment it was a completely new sound constellation (almost compared to my own earlier works)!”
Now, 65 years later, we can blame the failure to understand this piece on the ignoring of Webern’s admonition to follow his metronomic markings. The present recording is the first attempt to play the work at metronomic speed. Thus, the DGG trudges along at about 116 for the fast pulsation, as against the required 160, and continues at nearly the same 116 for the slow beat. Important stylistic features not mentioned by the composer are the beginnings of most phrases or motives on the second beat, after the silent or inert first beats, and the four-pitch accompaniment chords repeated without changes in pitch, as nowhere else in Webern. (The seven chords in the brass at the beginning of the first variation, followed by the first seven chords in the woodwinds, by the first five chords in the strings, and in the first six chords in the celesta/harp.) Further, no other work of Webern changes metres so frequently, some 120 times in a work of only 180 bars. The dynamics, of course, change in every bar, as do the modes of articulation, and volumes alternate with great frequency, as do the instrumental combinations.
Second Cantata for soprano solo, bass solo, mixed chorus and orchestra, Op. 31
Webern’s last two creations compound the sense of loss with his tragic death less than two years after his eviction from his home near Vienna with his wife and daughter to escape the occupation of the city by the advancing Red Army. The Cantata, Op. 31, was his greatest achievement, showing him to be at the peak of his powers. He opens new and unexplored possibilities, particularly in the harmonic and rhythmic domains, especially in the a cappella four-part mixed chorus music of the penultimate and final movements. The instrumental parts are soloistic and less dense than ever before, and the last movement, a polyphonic masterpiece, adds an entirely new dimension in multimetered rhythmic notation that reflects Webern’s roots in early Renaissance style. Also new in this final movement is the instrumental doubling of the vocal parts, with clarity of intonation as a chief objective. Yet this last movement, not simply a demonstration of inventive and technical powers, is a dramatic structure, rising quickly to a climax, then returning with corresponding speed through a diminuendo to a single final note, a symmetry with the single note with which the movement begins. The solo-instrumental contrasts are among Webern’s most remarkable conceptions, in, for example, the combination of solo violin (without mute), celesta, and harp, a new colour. What must also be remarked is the solo bass voice part, which is very largely unaccompanied in the first movement and only lightly accompanied in the second. The extreme rhythmic simplicity of the bass solo with successions of quarter-notes (crotchets), half-notes (minims), then whole notes (semibreves) and longer, are novelties without precedent in Webern, a reflection of Renaissance purity and simplicity. In contrast, the rhythmic structure and the linearity in the last movement is the most complex that Webern had ever written. One of the Cantata’s most beautiful chords comprises all twelve pitches sounded by eleven different instruments. The last movement is both metrically and linearly polyphonic, every note of which is audible in the blend of colour. This is music stripped of all ornament.
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