year Deutsche Grammophon released the complete works of Anton Webern.
By reputation he was one of the 20th century's most difficult composers.
But I love his music. He was passionate, very nearly overwrought, and
yet his work was not only emotional, but also pure, precise, and sometimes
structured like a puzzle, full of the musical equivalents of anagrams
and palindromes. His feelings, I'm convinced, were so excessive that they
needed boundaries; his need for structure was so profound that the most
basic act of musical composition, placing one note beside another, could
be a painful struggle.
it sad that he's considered difficult. It's true that he wrote atonal,
and, worse, "12-tone" music, using a system of musical composition all
too commonly described as if it offered nothing more than rules for putting
notes in patterns that are arbitrary, even pointless. But it should be
clear that the tumultuous Webern would thrive on such restrictions. So
how he coped with the constrictions of the 12-tone method ought to be
interesting to anyone who loves the contradictions of 20th-century art.
that Webern's works are very short, most of them (a symphony, chamber
works, cantatas) lasting just six or seven minutes, with separate movements
in them sometimes only 40 seconds long. But what can Webern say in 40
seconds? Does he offer fleeting thoughts, or does he weave compressed
complexities, fiercely, into tiny boxes? By listening to these CDs, we
all can form our own opinion -- and we can follow Webern's complete artistic
path in just a single long and concentrated evening.
The DG set
is led by Pierre Boulez, whose own purity makes him -- in some ways --
an ideal interpreter, but right away I had a problem with how the CDs
are sequenced. Webern published 31 works, "official" pieces, so to speak,
which he put his name behind, but many more (mostly from his younger years)
were found after his death. (He was born in 1883 and died in 1945, accidentally
shot just after World War II, by an American solider policing his Austrian
town.) All these extra works are in the DG box, which is arranged not
chronologically, but by type of composition -- all Webern's orchestral
pieces in one place, all his chamber music together in another section,
all his songs for voice and piano in theirs.
If you listen
to the disks in order, you don't hear how Webern evolved as a composer.
Worse, you linger over things that should mainly interest musicologists.
I felt I had to reprogram the music on the six CDs, so I could start with
the 31 official works, and come back later for addenda.
What I heard was a fascinating saga. Webern's opus 1, an orchestral
passacaglia which he wrote when he was 25, is already a mature work,
which demonstrates how high his standards were, and why DG should have
honored them. A passacaglia is constructed over repetitions of a single
bass line, and while Webern's sounds romantic (it's fully tonal, and
as lush as Mahler), the bass line disciplines it, making it unfold with
the same precision we can hear toward the end of Webern's life, in opus
30, also an orchestral work. Both pieces group their music into clear-cut
sections, which are always derived from the same material.
begins with just the bass line, bare and all alone, and then continues
with a quiet flute elaboration draped on top of it. Opus 30 starts with
double basses, thrusting upward, followed by a quicker imitation of
them in a darting high violin, though now -- here come the anagrams
-- the melody is upside down.
is something only Webern would have called a separate composition --
it's a choral wisp, not three minutes long, lovely and retiring. With
opus 3 and opus 4, Webern moved toward atonality, but the music doesn't
fit atonal stereotypes of noise and dissonance. Both works are groups
of very quiet songs, which stretch in new directions only (or so it
seems) because they stretch emotion further, too.
comes a burst of more conventional dissonance, in atonal instrumental
works that sound nervous, even shuddering. Webern wrote these in 1909
and 1910, when modernity, with all its shocks, was uprooting traditional
stability; deprived of normal anchors, his music sounds unsettled. Ideas
are scattered heedlessly, crowding into one another. Sound itself gets
restless; instrumental colors, sometimes strange and strained, emerge
and quickly disappear. No rules apply to endings; each work has to find
its own way to sound conclusive, sometimes by falling into what can
sound like exhausted repetition. (Hear this! MP3
for fast connections. RealAudio
for 56k modems. It's the ending of the first of the Five Pieces for
String Quartet, op. 9, and also demonstrates the wonderful playing of
the Emerson Quartet.)
After that, from 1911 to the end of World War I in 1917, came crisis.
During these years, Webern painfully gave birth to works that almost
aren't there, tiny exhalations that don't quite end; they simply cease
to be. Webern said that he felt stuck; once he'd written all 12 notes
of the chromatic scale, he almost helplessly became convinced that there
was nowhere else to go.
he get past that? First by using words for structure, allowing poetry
to shape his music. From 1917 till 1927, all his works were songs, accompanied
by unexpected instrumental groups (just two clarinets in one set of
songs, for instance, or, in another, just high E-flat clarinet and guitar).
Each line of verse, sometimes just a single word, might suggest a new
musical direction; the music can be paradoxical, lost in baffling complexity,
while it swoons over texts that are sometimes very simple, sometimes
nothing more than folk poetry.
are intensely private, and radically difficult to perform, requiring
hours of rehearsal to fill perhaps three minutes of a concert program.
They thrive best on CD, where we can take all the time we need to savor
how a single chord will dance inside a verbal nuance, then disappear
when words and music move to something else. Endings can't settle into
repetition, because now Webern's music is too concentrated; nothing
can repeat. Instead, he'll end a song with a surprisingly obvious rhythmic
is the ending of the first song in the Op. 14 song cycle. Boulez, I
think, could strengthen both the rhythm and the accents of the
ending far more than he does.)
interests me more, he'll let an ending simply fall into place, without
emphasis and yet with utter certainty, as if some unseen process had
worked its way to a conclusion. Sometimes there really is a process
working, a single melody unfolding many times against itself (in musical
terminology, a canon). The songs where that happens are, to me, the
most powerful of all, as if Webern, by joyfully accepting restrictions,
could transcend himself, finding music that his ear alone would never
bring him. (MP3.
is the ending of the last song in Webern's Op. 15 song cycle, written,
like Op. 14, for soprano and instruments. Wait for the very last note --
so unexpected, and yet so right. The entire song is a complex canon,
meaning that the last pitch, along with everything else, is determined
in advance, once Webern decides how to fit the parts together. Of
course, he has to decide exactly where to place it, meaning in exactly
what rhythm, and in which instrument. But there's a sense in which he's
simply arranging the cards he's dealt by an abstract process, and he
seemed to like that.)
how Webern finally found freedom, with the restrictions of the 12-tone
system, whose patterns showed him what to do, once he'd used up all
12 notes: He could use them once again, in permutations of whatever
order he'd used them in originally. This helped him break loose in 1927
with an instrumental work, his opus 20 string trio, in which he pantomimes
older musical forms, and then in his 10-minute Symphony, opus 21, in
which the discipline is even stronger, and the musical notes seem fixed
in place, like stars in the firmament. Webern's rhythms now were simpler,
his sounds more clear, his forms transparent. Increasingly, his works
complete themselves with no external fuss, until his last work, a cantata,
ends with a chorus in three stanzas, which run their course (all of
them identical) and, when finished, simply stop. No composer ever finished
with such economy, or such restraint.
A word on all those extra, "unofficial" works: When I finally heard
them, they really were addenda, footnotes to the Webern canon, demonstrations,
because Webern rejected them, of his uncompromising standards. As for
Boulez, his standards, too, are high, but something's missing. When
he earlier recorded all of Webern, in 1969 and 1970, some critics --
deceived by both his and Webern's reputation -- thought he'd done a
perfect job. But those performances are coarse compared to the new ones;
musicians, it's clear, have learned to play this music much more lovingly.
best Webern on the new set comes not from Boulez, but from the Emerson
Quartet, whose members play the string quartet pieces on the edge of
their seats and at the further reach of their hearts and their imaginations,
and from pianist Krystian Zimerman, who makes the palindromes of the
Piano Variations, opus 27, as lush as Chopin (something Webern would
have loved; he sang and danced when he coached a pianist in that work).
isn't as convincing. He catches Webern's purity, but not his innocent
emotion -- as, amazingly, it's possible not just to assert, but to document,
by comparing a Boulez performance to Webern's own. Webern, who sometimes
worked as an impossible-to-please conductor, orchestrated Schubert dances
and led them in a reading that, by some miracle, was recorded. This
performance graces the first Boulez set (still available from Sony Classical);
in the more recent box, Boulez conducts the music. He sounds blank;
Webern truly danced, taking the music both faster and slower, treating
it more freely and sounding much more joyful. (MP3.
His own works -- or so
he might be telling us -- should sound that way as well.
( Note that the phrase Boulez and Webern
conduct is repeated, so each does it twice. Boulez is first. The contrast, I think,
is even greater than I made it sound in my review -- and Webern's
performance, wildly free and sensitive, is just astonishing. I defy
anyone to tell me he didn't want his own music played this way. (Don't
hesitate to use the MP3 even if you have a 56k modem, if you want
better sound. But the file will take a couple of minutes to download.).
Wall Street Journal, February