Lately, I’ve been reading Frederic Morton’s brilliant study of Vienna during the years 1913–1914—Thunder at Twilight, the follow-up to A Nervous Splendor—with a particular interest in one question: How did Austrian artists and intellectuals respond to the dawning of the First World War? The short answer is, with incredible zeal. As Europe readied itself for mass conflict, the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, and Sigmund Freud could barely contain their excitement. “For the first time in thirty years,” Freud declared, “I feel myself to be an Austrian. … All my libido goes to Austria-Hungary.” Rainer Maria Rilke was no less enthusiastic, writing his Five Songs in a patriotic white heat. Only Franz Kafka seemed to sense the cataclysmic possibilities, as he began work on his nightmarish, claustrophobic novel The Trial, almost immediately after Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia, in late July 1914.
For the most part, however, a strange atmosphere settled upon Vienna, with residents in a festive mood. (The working classes and the poor, it’s worth pointing out, largely did not share this optimism.) At first, Anton Webern also quivered with nationalistic pride. In late August 1914, the 31-year-old composer wrote to his former teacher and dear friend Schoenberg: “I can hardly wait any longer to be called up. Day and night the wish haunts me: to be able to fight for this great, sublime cause. Do you not agree that this war really has no political motivations? It is the struggle of the angels with the devils.”
Webern was a political naïf, a family man beset by a variety of nervous ailments, his life devoted to the pleasures of nature and art, and it would take a spell in the military to disabuse him of any romantic fantasies he might have had—even if he never saw a minute of combat. Despite initially failing an eye exam, Webern took courses on human anatomy and how to dress wounds, then was admitted to the Austro-Hungarian army in February 1915. He rose to the rank of cadet aspirant (similar to that of sergeant) and eventually joined a battalion of the Carinthian Mountain Troops. Although he was rather proud of this achievement, barracks life—the crowded, dirty conditions, the straw mattresses on which he slept, the daily rigors—was not for him. His status did allow him the luxury of private billeting, which he happily took advantage of as he was transferred from one garrison to another. Through it all, he suffered a “ravenous appetite for music.” He played chamber works with men in his battalion (Beethoven provided particular solace), but as for composition, this period of military service was almost entirely a waste.
While Schoenberg, who had enlisted in the Deutschmeister Regiment in Vienna, composed marches celebrating Austria’s might, Webern worked—frustratingly and unsuccessfully—on a single song for soprano and chamber orchestra: “Wiese im Park” (or “Lawn in the Park”), set to a poem by Karl Kraus. He didn’t finish the lied until June 1917, several months after his military spell came to an end, when he and his family were ensconced in his father’s house in Klagenfurt, close to the meadows and Alpine peaks that he loved so dearly. Indeed, the drafts of “Wiese im Park” composed between February 1915 and December 1916 bear little resemblance to the finished piece. That Webern struggled so greatly is telling, I think. The labor suggests just how disillusioned he must have become with war, both in theory and in practice. After all, this was no celebratory text he was trying to set, but a work about memory, about longing, about the dreary stasis of the present and the shimmering wonders of the past.
“Time has stood still for me,” the poem begins. “Gazing back / I pause and stand fast in the grassy expanse / like the swan in the green mirror here. / And this was my country.” Musically, these lines are rendered languidly, the mood sparking briefly to life with the invocation of the swan. An almost magical passage for celesta, glockenspiel, and harp follows the first verse: Webern was especially fond of this instrumental combination, the timbres resembling a brilliant, pointillist, celestial twinkling. The singer then remembers a field of bluebells and the sight of a butterfly resting, as if for an eternity, upon a rock. “It must be a Sunday / and everything resounds in blue”—this bit of synesthesia is given the typical Webern treatment: the music always conveys uncertainty, the word blue taking on many different, contrasting shades.
For me, “Wiese im Park”—which eventually became part of his Four Songs, op. 13—is one of Webern’s most beautiful lieder, the orchestral writing representative of his highly distilled idiom of that time, both intense and atonal, the language constructed of fragments. In this mode, the composer could produce a complete thought, a whole world of feeling, in a single phrase or gesture. Sonority here is paramount, one of the piece’s organizing principles. The vocal line, however, lyrical, expansive even, harkens back to an earlier style—a particularly apt choice, for this contrast with the orchestral accompaniment only underscores the poem’s tension between present and past. What’s absent here for the most part are the wide intervallic leaps that Webern used to such great effect in music of this period. The singer in “Wiese im Park” more or less inhabits the same range, with one magical exception in the final verse, which begins: “I’ll go no farther: halt, idle feet! / Before this wonder, stay your course.” The soprano leaps up on the word wonder (Wunder, in the original German)—a shocking and delightful effect. The melancholy returns in the concluding couplet (“A dead day opens its eyes, / and everything stays the age it is”), the long, drawn-out melodic line suggesting the lifeless present moment, the deadening of the human spirit. The sense of loss is unmistakable. Most people, by the time “Wiese im Park” was finished, had lost their savor for war—indeed, the febrile exhilaration felt during that summer of 1914 was but a memory by autumn, when both Russia and Serbia inflicted heavy defeats on Austria-Hungary. Yet nobody could express the feeling the way Webern did: in music of such concentrated brevity, at once fleeting and everlasting.
Listen to Françoise Pollet sing “Wiese im Park,” with Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble Intercontemporain: