About this Recording
8.557516 - WEBERN, A.: Vocal and Chamber Works (Arnold, C. Booth, Greenberg, Craft) (Webern, Vol. 3)

Anton Webern (1883–1945)
Vocal and Chamber Works


In my early days as a music critic, I reviewed (for Counterpoint, the San Francisco magazine) an all-Webern concert by the New York International Society of Contemporary Music. Stravinsky attended this Town Hall event with me, and the experience became a pivotal one of his life. Following is an excerpt from my December 1952 review:

The Webern concert by the ISCM was a great success. The Quartet, Op. 28 and the Canons, Op. 16 had to be encored, and, judging by the applause, all of the other music could have been repeated as well. The performances were devoted and letter perfect, especially those by the New Music String Quartet and the soprano Bethany Beardslee. I have never heard such delicate playing, such carefulness and such certainty. The choice and juxtaposition of Webern’s fragile masterpieces made for a balanced and attractive program. For the present, perhaps, an all-Webern concert is the only way to approach this master; sandwiched between other music any piece of his is as lost as a lute solo would be between two Mahler symphonies.

It was interesting to hear music of Webern’s last period after his atonal period. He was the real 12-tone composer; there is no tonal backsliding on his part, and no yearning for tonal forms. Perpetual variation becomes his only formal principle. He develops entirely by variation; sequential music disappears. But ‘development’ is the wrong word; we associate it with ‘expansion’ and expansion is unheard of in Webern. Rather let us say that he contracts everything into an interiorly perfect structure in which every note is structural.

The Quartet, Op. 28 achieves true polyphony and yet conforms to the strict laws of 12-tone harmony. Moreover, it achieves amazing formal stature and greater duration largely within strict canon. Webern further limits himself by choosing a confining row and then by cutting the possibilities of this row in half: the last six notes of the row are the retrograde inversion of the first six; the whole row is therefore the same in its retrograde as in its inverted form. Yet all these restrictions do not hinder the result, which is a musical masterpiece. Indeed, they insure an architecture which will weather the most severe of storms, the storm of time which one day will try the durability of other products of our age, ostinati, fugati, and such-like devices of composition.

I fear I have conveyed the impression that because Webern’s music is highly organized his methods are mechanical. If so the fault is not with me but in the confusion that exists in the popular mind about how music is written. But perhaps I should have spoken, for example, of the high B flat soprano entrance on the word “Charis” in Webern’s Cantata, Op. 29 as one of the most “thrilling” and “dramatic” moments in all music. Would I have done my subject a greater service?

Webern’s mind was the least mechanical, the most vitally musical. If I were asked to describe his achievement I would have to quote Pierre Boulez and say that he “rehabilitated the power of sound”. Purity of sound and the perfection of craftsmanship: who has served his art with greater integrity? Ernest Ansermet once told me of a visit he made to Webern during the war: Webern touched a few notes on the piano with such love and as though he were touching them for the first time, that Ansermet went away with the impression that they were indeed different notes than he had ever heard before. Webern’s music holds the same experience for all of us. But the point I want to make is that Webern was an artisan in vital contact with the materials of music. He was an artist who, in Henri Focillon’s sense (see the last chapter of The Life of Forms in Art) felt and created through his hands as well as with his head.

Robert Craft

The shapes of the Alpine flowers that Webern studied influenced his perfect miniature musical forms. Anton Webern was a nature lover and a family man (like Stravinsky, he married his first cousin, with whom he had four children). He was also a well-trained practical musician who played cello and piano, and conducted in later life. Often thought of as an impractical dreamer, he came from a family of declining aristocrats, which accounts for his abiding belief in the Germanic system through two wars (he served in World War I). The dominant figure in Webern’s life was his teacher, guide and friend Arnold Schoenberg, whom he followed through periods of tonal, atonal and serial composition; and Webern wrote brilliantly in all of these musical languages. So much has been argued over and written about the subject of composition with twelve tones. At one time Schoenberg claimed that Webern, along with Alban Berg, asked their teacher for the “rules” of composing with twelve tones (rules which Schoenberg himself rarely followed). The ideas that led Schoenberg to his organization of the chromatic scale began in the early seventeenth century when the keyboard composer John Bull and others began writing in all twelve keys. Bach eventually wrote his masterful treatise The Well-Tempered Clavier, and we can hear the progression continuing in the works of Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, and to the early twentieth century, which was marked by explorations of the six- and eight-tone scales, polytonality, atonality, and twelve-tone composition. If we keep going, we can follow the path past Schoenberg to Babbitt, Messiaen, Boulez, Wuorinen and others; this rich period eventually gave way to a return to simpler harmonic forms and the rise of some microtonal composers. Music never stands still…

On this recording, Robert Craft takes the listener on Webern’s astounding journey from the early hyperexpressive songs to the daring new expression of Opp. 23 and 25; from the groundbreaking Bagatelles for string quartet to the classicism of the String Quartet, Op. 28; and finally to the magnificent Cantata, Op. 29.

The early enthusiasm of Robert Craft, along with his original set of Webern recordings, helped to establish the composer’s reputation as the model of modernism in the 1950s. Craft’s discerning view of the Webern oeuvre suggests that we should listen to the works with opus numbers. Works without opus numbers were written throughout Webern’s life but, like Brahms and Beethoven, Webern did not issue all of his compositions during his lifetime. This distillation of the catalogue indicates Webern’s own fondness for Opp. 1–31, which can be divided into two parts: Opp. 1–19 are more freely organized than the twelve works comprising Opp. 20–31, in which he revels in composing with serial forms of his own invention. To end the program, Craft has chosen Webern’s transcription of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. This transcription was written in 1923 to be played along with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, thus the instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Although the Bagatelles were published in 1924, they were written in 1913, shortly after Pierrot. In Schoenberg’s note for the publication of the Bagatelles, he pays Webern a high compliment: “These pieces will only be understood by those who share the faith that music can say things which can only be expressed by music.”

This release completes Robert Craft’s second Webern cycle.

Fred Sherry

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