Measure By Measure is on Thanksgiving break and will be back next week.
A little more than a decade ago, my wife and I flew to California to hear Zubin Mehta guest conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Our son was due to be born in a few months, and we’d been thinking of taking a final mini-vacation before the big day. Though I’d wanted to see Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall since its opening in 2003, it was the music on one particular program that intrigued me even more. The first half of the concert would be devoted to Anton Webern, with Richard Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica following the intermission. Webern was (and is) an obsession of mine, and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Settling into our seats that Saturday night, however, we noticed a change in the program. I can only imagine that ticket sales had been abysmal, because the Webern had been replaced with the ever-popular Dvořák Cello Concerto. The economics of the concert hall can be powerful indeed. The auditorium, if I remember correctly, was close to full that night.
Given how infrequent live Webern performances are, the past several days in Washington have been a boon, with two opportunities to hear his music. On Saturday night, I saw the National Symphony Orchestra, under its new music director, Gianandrea Noseda, give an intense and thoughtful account of the Passacaglia op. 1. On Tuesday evening, I heard the magnificent soprano Barbara Hannigan sing the Five Songs After Richard Dehmel. That these two works, with their similar influences and thematic material, should be performed just a few days apart was a lucky accident. They were written at roughly the same time—the Dehmel lieder between 1906 and 1908, the Passacaglia in the spring of 1908—when Webern was living in Vienna, studying with that towering, autocratic genius, Arnold Schoenberg. This period in Webern’s development was crucial: with these two works, he was in the midst of bidding farewell to the world of tonal harmony.
That Webern should have chosen to set texts by Dehmel is hardly surprising. The poet was a favorite of Schoenberg’s (whose landmark string sextet Verklärte Nacht was inspired by the Dehmel poem of the same name), and whatever Schoenberg liked, Webern imbibed. Moreover, these poems—preoccupied as they are with moonlight and nocturnal mysteries, with the idea of the anxious soul finding consolation in a natural world transfigured by the dead of night—would have appealed to the 20-something composer who had moved beyond the sentimental verse of such poets as Ferdinand Avenarius:
You had a radiance on your brow
and there was a high evening clarity,
and you always looked away from me,
into the light, into the light—
and away in the distance, the echo of my outcry died away.
—Dehmel, “Ideal Landscape”
Webern’s musical settings of these five poems—“Ideal Landscape,” “On the Shore,” “Heavenly Journey,” “Nocturnal Awe,” and “Bright Night”—are hushed yet intense, the vocal lines transparent, even a touch severe, with a piano accompaniment that is mostly spare. Webern would refine all of these qualities over time, distilling his musical lines into their essential components of phrase, gesture, sonority. The songs’ harmonies are adventurous, and the tonality never seems quite certain. Only when the piano plays the final notes of a particular lied is there a sense of reaching a tonal center, of the fugitive coming tentatively home.
These songs, like so much that Webern wrote during the first third of his composing life, seem colored by the memories, all too fresh, of his mother’s death. In the Passacaglia—one of the last pieces written under Schoenberg’s tutelage, before Webern set off (physically, if not emotionally) on his own—the funereal quality is even more pronounced. It was also the first of his works deemed worthy of an opus number. As a musical form, the passacaglia dates back to Western music’s earliest days, to Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach. Typically, it is composed in triple meter and structured upon a repeated phrase in the bass line, known as an ostinato. In Webern’s Passacaglia (written in duple, not triple, meter and ostensibly in the key of D minor, the key of choice for Schoenberg at that time), the ostinato line consists of a quiet eight-bar phrase that evolves via a sequence of variations. Thus did the work pay homage to the past while looking boldly and without hesitation to the future. Once Webern wrote its final notes, the Romantic opulence of his previous music faded quickly into memory.
Everything that he had learned from Schoenberg—the mastery of counterpoint, the ability to manipulate melodies and express himself in a dense, chromatic language—can be heard in the Passacaglia. As with the Dehmel lieder, triadic harmony is pushed, strained, pulled, distorted. The mood is gloomy, yet lit up by occasional luminous bursts. Though the orchestral forces Webern calls upon are relatively large, there’s a wonderful diaphanous quality in the scoring: every solo instrument can be clearly heard, as the lines surge toward the piece’s turbulent, emotionally charged center. As the Passacaglia’s individual variations become no longer distinct, one hears the expressionistic language of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, with everything leading to a crashing climax, an explosion that blows up all that has come before. The serene, otherworldly coda that follows seems to anticipate the music that Webern would soon write. The short melodic fragments in the trumpets and the clarinets, the quivering phrases in the muted strings, the small whispered motifs and gestures all sound to me like falling shards of brilliant glass, taking on more radiant colors, catching new angles of light in their descent, more beautiful in their fragmented state than the whole they had once made up. Shards of an unusual texture and luster—these would be the materials of Webern’s later masterpieces.
Now, the caveat. As much as I love these pieces, the Webern that I heard this past week is decidedly safe music. It’s Webern before Webern turned into Webern. Is it true of any other composer that when his or her music is performed in concert, it is invariably work the composer wrote as a student? Under Noseda, the National Symphony’s reading of the Passacaglia was lean and febrile. It was an interpretation very much aware of where Webern was heading: this was no luxuriant Straussian essay, but a performance signifying the end of one era and the heralding of another. And yet … What I would really like to hear is the orchestra and its new conductor play something from Webern’s atonal or 12-tone periods—the Six Pieces for Orchestra op. 6, or the Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 10, or the Symphony op. 21, or the Variations op. 30. On Tuesday, accompanied by the pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, Hannigan gave one of the most memorable performances I’ve heard in some time, singing lieder by Schoenberg, Berg, Zemlinksy, Wolf, and Alma Mahler, in addition to the five Dehmel songs by Webern. Her Webern was exquisite, at once languorous and austere, with a wide range of vocal tone color and a sensitivity to the nuances of the texts. Yet what kind of magic might this exemplary interpreter of 20th-century and contemporary music bring to the rich vocal work that Webern composed as a mature composer—for example, the Five Songs After Stefan George op. 4, or the Four Songs op. 12, or the Three Songs After Hildegard Jone op. 25?
If they scheduled it, however, would anyone come? It’s not as if the antipathy toward Webern’s more complicated music is anything new. All but one of the critics who attended the premiere of the Passacaglia, in the Great Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein, were dismissive at best. Things only got worse from there. During the Nazi period, when Webern was branded a degenerate composer, nearly all of his music was banned—only the early tonal works such as the Passacaglia or his arrangements of Schubert and Johann Strauss could be performed. In the bleakest of times, Webern was convinced that his day would come, imagining a time when even the postman would whistle his melodies. These days, that prediction seems sadly off, but if Webern’s more challenging scores are never heard, let alone heard often enough to become recognizable, he will remain, 72 years after his death and counting, a musician’s musician—admired, respected, loved by a lucky few, despised or ignored by all the rest.