Webern: 5 Movements For String Quartet

Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Five movements Op 5 (1909)
Heftig bewegt, Tempo I
Sehr langsam
Sehr lebhaft
Sehr langsam
In zarter bewegung

Anton Webern has the dubious distinction of being one of the last casualties of WWII. On September 15th 1945, months after hostilities had ceased, he stepped outside for a cigar and was shot by an American soldier. Webern had been visiting his daughter and the soldier thought he was part of the black market ring run by his son-in-law.

Along with Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg, Webern had the distinction of being one of the pillars of the Second Viennese School, the purpose of which was to move as far away as possible from the bloated Romanticsm of Strauss, Rachmaninoff et al.

Atonality, and later serialism, represented a complete rejection of the traditional rules of harmony that had governed classical music for nearly 300 years. The Austrians preferred to concentrate on sound rather than melody and championed the intellectual over the emotional.

Webern’s earlier works, like the orchestra piece Im Sommerwind, owe a large debt to Mahler, Brahms and Strauss. Op 5 is his first atonal piece and although it is stylistically a great many steps away from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Webern pays homage in his own way.

Such was his admiration for Mahler that he stormed out of his first composition lesson with Hans Piftzner because the elder man didn’t share Webern’s enthusiasm. In hindsight, this disagreement turned out to be quite fortuitous because it led directly to his enrollment in a composition class taught by one A. Schönberg.

If harmonic breakdown was the first salvo, compositional brevity was the second shot at the old establishment. With many late Romantic pieces lasting an hour or more, Webern’s 10 minute masterpieces were positively revolutionary. Stravinsky said “doomed to total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference, [Webern] inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, of whose mines he had a perfect knowledge.”

It is easy to think of tone rows as a random construction; that composers just pick notes out of hat and voila! the piece writes itself. The truth is that atonality and serialism are all about control. Webern was very precise and didn’t write a note that wasn’t exactly where he wanted it.

The common whinge about modern music not having a tune doesn’t apply to Webern either. The problem for the first-time listener is that the melody is quite fragmented and therefore difficult to hear. The line is moved quickly between instruments and displaced throughout registers, a technique called Klangfarbenmelodie or literally tone colour melody.

A characteristic of twentieth century music was its expanded use of new tone colours and extended techniques. In the first movement alone, Webern uses standard pizzicato, Bartók pizzicato, col legno and sul ponticello. For those without an Italian dictionary to hand the translation is: plucking the strings, slapping the string against the fingerboard, playing with the wood of the bow and bowing near to the bridge.

The slightly maniac restlessness of the first movement gives way to a slow movement made sexy and mysterious by mutes. It is almost as if one is listening through a veil, never quite sure what is going to happen next. A rambunctious unison passage finishes of the blink-and-you’ll-miss it third movement before the quartet is again plunged into eerie introspection. The final movement trades eerie for ethereal and gradually fades away to nothingness.

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