WEBERN: Symphony, Op. 21 / Six Pieces, Op. 6 / Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 (Naxos: 8.557530)
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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. Hewas 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, andBerg's tragically premature death in 1935, Webern losthis two most valued colleagues.
Much of the 'life' and personality of Webern remainslargely enigmatic. The sudden death of his mother, thetraumatic event of his early maturity, eventuallycompelled him to seek psychiatric help from Dr AlfredAdler, Freud's ex-colleague. In general Webern seems tohave given more of his time to teaching and to arrangingthe works of others than to the creation of his own. Hiscareer as a composer, in any case, invoked a chronicle ofridicule by audiences and invective by the press. He wastemperamentally too different from Mahler to follow hisdictum: \I run with my head against the wall, but it is thewall which will crack". It seems that Webern becameincreasingly reclusive, and, as a tinkerer, progressivelymore compulsive. His sketchbooks teem with corrections,redrafted beginnings, revised revisions.
Webern was a devout Catholic, but also a naturemystic ('nature is supernatural'). However subtle andsophisticated his music, Webern himself was more arustic--two of his early works employ cowbells, as wellas mandolin and guitar--than a cosmopolitan. He spoke aTyrolese dialect and, except for Church Latin, no word ofany foreign language. Revered by all who knew him ashumble, kind, gentle, he was intransigent in musicalmatters. He was also known as the most meticulous andexacting of conductors. The young Webern held posts asrepetiteur and assistant conductor in the opera houses ofDanzig and Dresden, but resigned, unable to bear theschlock repertory he was required to direct. For briefperiods in the 1920s and 1930s, he held two significantconducting positions in Vienna, as director of a choralsociety and conductor of the Arbeiter Konzerte (Workers'Symphony Concerts). After a short term with the former,he resigned because the organization refused to accept aJewish vocal soloist. He wrote to Schoenberg, in Boston,about feeling a sense of the most vehement aversionagainst my own race because of the anti-Semitism of somany of its members.
Webern's cultural world was purely German, and heseems to have had no prescience of the impending horrorsof the National Socialist Party, even though it hadclassified his own music as 'degenerate' and forbidden itsperformance and publication. His career with theWorkers' Concerts had been successful and hisperformances were enthusiastically received, but whenone of the players publicly criticized his rehearsalprocedures, Webern abruptly departed. Long before theAnschluss (1938), he was dismissed from his teachingposition at the Vienna Israelite Institution for the Blind.
The main source of his income thereafter was fromprivate teaching, a few random conductingengagements--in London (the BBC), Zurich, Berlin,Barcelona--and from such publisher's jobs as arranging,proof-reading, and evaluating (mostly rejecting) newmusic submitted for approval.
On 31st March, 1945, a few days before the RedArmy entered Vienna, the 61-year-old Webern purchaseda train ticket from Neulengbach to Mittersill, a village inthe Pinzgau Mountains in western Austria, where hehoped to find refuge for himself and his family in thehome 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 otherpeople.
When the U.S. Army occupied the region, during thesummer of 1945, a detachment was assigned to curtailblack-marketing activities in Mittersill between thepeople and its own forces. On 15th September, 1945, afterWebern had dined at the home of his daughter, ChristineMattel, he stepped outside to smoke what could only havebeen a contraband cigar provided by her husband, BrunoMattel, whom the Americans arrested on charges of illicittrafficking in food. Apparently not understanding a"hands-up" order by an American soldier posted outsidethe building, Webern lighted a match, whereupon theguard shot him three times in the chest and abdomen. Butseveral contradictory versions of this unwitnessedbrutality have been published. A Gregorian RequiemMass was held in Mittersill's small church, and fivepersons followed the coffin to the cemetery. I paid myrespects there in May 1954.
The Symphony has become the best known ofWebern's twelve-tone pieces (unfortunately in poorperformances), partly because of its spaciousness andsense of continuity. The first of the two movements, internary sonata form, marked Adagio: Ruhig schreitend, isa double canon displaying simultaneously both horizontaland vertical symmetries, mirrors and palindromes. To thelistener's satisfaction, both halves of the movement arerepeated. The beginning of the second half is a fourvoicedmirror canon. The theme of the second movement,marked Sehr ruhig, with the title Variations, is stated inthe winds. It is followed by eight discrete variations and aCoda, each division being established by changes ofinstrumentation and other contrasting features. A slowertempoDebussy-like figure, motivically, harmonically(tonally), and in sonority (winds and harp), separates thethird and the fourth variations. The Coda frames a soloviolin phrase in both primary and retrograde forms. Theperformance of this movement at Webern's metronomictempi may be the first to realise the music as it wasintended to be heard.
The first performance of Five Canons on Latin Texts,Op. 16, took place in New York on 8th May, 1951. Theodd-numbered canons are three-voiced, the evennumberedtwo-voiced. Christus factus est, for soprano,clarinet, and bass clarinet and the last-composed of thefive, was completed on 12th November, 1924. The text isthe Gradual from the Solemn Evening Mass for MaundyThursday. Dormi Jesu was composed in July 1923. Thetext, a lullaby, is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Theantiphon Crux fidelis, a prayer to the Cross, completed on8th August, 1923, was the second of the cycle in order ofcomposition. The music is a straight three-part canon forvoice, clarinet, and bass clarinet, on a text taken from theSolemn Liturgy for Good Friday. Asperges me, the thirdpiece in the cycle in the order of composition, wascomposed on 21st August, 1923. This two-part canon forvoice and bass clarinet has a text used to accompany thesprinklng 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 baffledWebern's own publisher, Universal Edition, Vienna.
Theorists have shown special interest in it because thesecond and third songs represent Webern's first attempt toincorporate principles of Schoenberg's so-called twelvetonetechnique, most obviously in repeating notes beforemoving to other ones. The twelve notes of the chromaticscale are exposed in the first instrumental and vocalphrase. Webern's manuscript clearly specifies that theorder of the second and third songs should be reversed,the one with viola would naturally come between the twosongs with violin, an instruction followed in the presentrecording, but not in the posthumously published score.
The first of the Three Songs for soprano, piccoloclarinet and guitar, Op. 18, is one of Webern's mostlighthearted creations, as indicated by the vocal 'enpointe' dancing. The music of the second song isintensely dramatic, with the climax on the soprano's highD for the word Vater, followed by a shift of mood for theFathe