Sunday, 24 February 2013

Webern I: Viewpoints, a Passacaglia and a Symphony

We seem to be observing a paradigm shift in how Anton Webern is seen. I have in my collection two BBC Music Magazine Composer of the Month articles on Webern. The first from some 20 years ago presented the 'old' view of Webern as a cerebral, dry, detached, anti-Romantic composer determined to break with tradition. This was the Webern of the post-war avant-garde, appealing to the brain of the listener. The more recent BBC Music Magazine article, however, projected a very different Webern - a 'new' view which sees Webern as a lyrical, poetic composer intent on bringing expressive warmth to Schoenberg's new system (twelve-tone serialism) - a composer who looked inward but aimed for the heart. 

This 'new' view make strike some of you as the less convincing one, given what you've heard of the composer's music; however, I've long loved Webern's music and I feel a good deal of sympathy for this take. Many of the pieces in the first half of Webern's 31-work opus list are clearly expressive given their expressionist tendencies. According to the composer himself, quite a few of them were written in grief for the death of his mother and - in sympathetic performances - you can hear the depth of feeling in them, despite their modernistic language. What though of the twelve-tone works from the second half of his opus list, with all their ingenious counterpoints, their spare gestures, their restraint? Well, these can be heard as marking the full return of lyricism to the composer's music, after his earlier excursions into pointillism and expressionism. These can be experienced as the overheard private thoughts and feelings of the composer. It's possible to hear their counterpoint, which always owed something to Bach and the Renaissance masters, as being essentially as personal and lyrical as Schumann's late flowering of canonic and fugal writing - a part-mystical/part-sensual love of beauty underlying it all. It is, it hardly needs saying, a very different-sounding kind of lyricism to Schumann's, but it is lyricism all the same.

How does this square with the 'old' view, the view I grew up with while listening eagerly to my Boulez boxed set of the complete works with opus numbers? Well, it doesn't square up at all. Still, the fact that I was getting to know Webern through the eyes of Boulez may well be the key to this question. The post-war avant-garde, of which Boulez was the leading figure, presented a view of Webern as an uncompromising, logical, revolutionary composer who eschewed old-fashioned expression in favour of geometry - the Mr. Spock of modern music! As Webern was pretty much unknown until their adoption of him as their patron saint, the avant-gardists had free reign to create and project Webern in their own image. Boulez's performances of Webern seem designed to bring out the Austrian's kinship with the Frenchman. This may well be a convenient imposition of the Frenchman's (then) cool, some might say chilly aesthetic on the by-then-dead Austrian. The Boulez view and the Webern performance style that resulted from it proved very influential. They won Webern the devotion of many significant composers (including Stravinsky), who felt themselves to be building on his discoveries. It also won him the eternal devotion of a relatively small number of listeners, including yours truly. However, though some of us have long been enthusiastic about Webern, most other listeners have never really warmed to the composer's music; indeed, many listeners are put off by it. What then if it's the wrong approach? What if it's a malign influence, obscuring the 'true' Webern from full view, resulting in us hearing him through a glass, darkly?  Might such a romantic take on Webern bring audiences flocking to hear him?

Well, I wouldn't want to overstate it. I fell in love with a lot of Webern pieces thanks to Pierre Boulez and his musical friends, but a glimpse of what could be missing from 'old' view performances of Webern can perhaps be had from hearing two different recordings of one of the works of Webern that I never really warmed too - until very recently. This is the Passacaglia, Op.1

All the Boulez's coolness in the world can't disguise this piece's debts to Brahms and Mahler, but it can subtract from its romanticism and, above all, its impressionism. Webern learned a lot from Debussy (though he didn't seem to mention it very often!). His debts to Debussy and his love for Mahler can be heard very clearly in the Passacaglia, if the conductor chooses to play it in such a way as to bring these qualities out - rather than play it as if it's an early piece by Boulez. 

It was Herbert von Karajan's masterly and poetic performance of the Passacaglia that made me fall in love with it. The work no longer sounds like a dry expressionist take on the finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. It sounds like something that speaks to the heart - deeply expressive, angst-ridden but beautiful:

Now, contrast that with Pierre Boulez's quicker and rather more sharp-toned take on the same piece:

Both are fine performances, but they reflect different sensibilities - one romantic, the other anti-romantic. Which do you prefer? You can tell which one I prefer! We need a large number of recordings of Webern's output from conductors who come from contrasting perspectives on the composer. I get the feeling that, decades on, we're still only discovering Webern. 

The piece itself stalks in quietly with a bare presentation of its 8-bar ground bass. As befits a passacaglia, this ground repeats over and over as variations proceed on top of it. If you find yourself losing the ground bass as the piece goes along, then that's because it eventually begins rising up from the bass into the higher parts of the score and then, in the extended coda, gives way as the music frees itself to go new places - or revisit old places - without it (for the most part). The work is in D minor, though it strays well beyond it - as you might expect. 

Let's leap forward to serial Webern and my favourite piece by the composer, in the LSO recording by Boulez that I've always loved:

The Symphony, Op.21 can be described as severe and anti-romantic, being a short two-movement piece scored for small forces; however, it's always struck me as being the twelve-tone piece of Webern that pro-romantic music lovers could take to like wine lovers to a fine shiraz if they allowed themselves to let their hair down a bit. The spell-binding first of its two movements has always struck me as being flooded by a feeling for beauty. Boulez himself would surely acknowledge the beauty of balance and symmetry found in the movement; but, as his magical recording reveals, there's also the beauty of sound, melody, counterpoint and harmony. The quality that has always struck me about it, though, is its lyricism. It sings. (Even if he wouldn't acknowledge it in words, Boulez's performance reveals that he is well aware of that.) If you don't know the movement, please listen to it a few times in a row (no pun intended). You will surely fall under its spell. It might help you to know that it is in binary form, with each half immediately repeated. So that's an AABB structure. After this gorgeous and, by the standards of late Webern, extensive first movement, the short and quick-moving second movement stands as a striking contrast. It's so short, quick-moving and capricious, that it too needs a few listens. It is, however, a delight. It takes the form of a set of variations on a theme. The variations come thick and fast, but - my goodness! - are inspired. For such a short piece, Webern's Symphony never seems to lose its ability to intrigue. I've heard it Lord knows how many times (I dread to think quite how many!) yet I still keep discovering new things in it.

The beauty and mastery of Webern's Symphony was such that even Paul Hindemith, who was generally out of sympathy with Schoenberg's serial innovations, clearly felt the allure of this piece nonetheless. You can hear him conducting the work here:

Hope you share my and Hindemith's enthusiasm for the Symphony!

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