Anton Webern: Passacaglia, op. 1

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan

Okay, before anyone gets their panties in a wad, this piece is NOT twelve-tone or atonal or anything. Let’s get that clear.
In introducing the Second Viennese School (2VS), perhaps it is odd that we’re starting with Webern. In our article on Tuesday, most of the focus was on Schoenberg, so why are we here with Webern?
There are a few good reasons, and they’ll become apparent as we discuss the piece.
But also, a caveat… In speaking about Webern, I feel more…. out of my depth, more unqualified to speak on the subject than I do talking about… Beethoven or Chopin or anything. His work is complex and rich, and I must say this is a work that I was fascinated by from the get go, but the more reading I did, the more I realized there was to do. With that in mind, please read this article as the beginnings of a study of the piece, not a thesis upon completion of said study.
And now for a (very) quick refresher on Tuesday’s primer: Schoenberg was a composer at the heart of classical music in the early part of the 20th century. He had one foot (and maybe his heart) in the Romantic era, and the other in an era he was to be at the forefront of. He pushed and stretched the borders and seams of Romantic structures and tonality in all different ways and directions, and the very early stages of that are what we’ll be having a look at these next few weeks, through him and his two most influential (and only?) students: Alban Berg and Anton Webern. We’re beginning with a piece by Webern because it holds the same place in history that some of Schoenberg’s earlier pieces did, some of the last works of these composers before they went in a new direction, and for Webern, we shall see, the only one.
Each of these three men did their own things with the same basic technique, and I think this is probably one of the most fundamental main points of this attempt at introducing their works: the twelve-tone idea is not a style; it is a method. While to an unfamiliar ear, twelve-tone works might all sound the same (“cacophonic” or “awful” or whatever), the styles of each of these composers are distinct, as are the concepts they gravitated toward or the advances or developments they made.
As for Webern, one could consider him in many ways a fundamentalist. Much of his juvenilia were songs, stemming from his familiarity with (German) Romantic form and tradition.
Webern was not keen on publishing his early work, and it apparently wasn’t until the 1960s that they were even discovered. He was, I have read, also very critical of and meticulous about his
work, spending lots of time on something before it was ‘finished.’
In any case, his first published work, also the first to come after his studies with Schoenberg, was this passacaglia, in 1908. While Wikipedia doesn’t even have an article about it and says (in the article on Webern) that the piece bears little relation to his later, more mature work, it does still have some key qualities. It’s also just kind of stunningly beautiful to listen to.
For one, Webern’s affinity for traditional forms is present even here. As sparse and modern and perhaps “abstract” as his music would become (for some), he still gravitated toward very classical forms, like the concerto, the symphony, variations, etc. The passacaglia is another of those forms, dating back to the 17th century. It’s a piece usually in triple time, with a ground bass and different variations played over it.
While there’s no mistaking this piece for a seventeenth century work, it shows Webern’s grounding in and respect for classical tradition, and this has been, at least for me, a very interesting aspect of his works that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.
This piece is also, as the earliest of Webern’s (published) works, one of his largest in scale, obviously so at least relative to his chamber works, but it seems it may even be longer than his two cantatas (ops 29 and 31). It is then, perhaps, the most traditional as well. While it has its moments of deliciously thick, luscious orchestration and texture and drama, in many ways, there still exists the thinned out, extremely detailed, sparse sound that exemplifies much of Webern’s later work more so than his other two counterparts.
This website, after introducing the form of the passacaglia and speaking of its importance and the strategic decision of the op. 1 designation, says of the piece:

More than a signpost of his life-long grief cycle, this music was a bridge from Webern the student to Webern the professional. The score is quite tonal in comparison to what comes later but does provide insights into the mature style that Webern would become known for later, particularly when the music is quietest.

As the piece is his opus one, perhaps it’s important to put it in context (we’ve been doing that a lot, so far) with something the composer himself said to fellow student Alban Berg:

Except for the violin pieces and a few of my orchestra pieces, all of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother.

Okay, so again, passacaglia as a form. It’s similar to a chaconne. That being said, aside from following along in the score once, I didn’t do any actual analysis of the sections or themes or anything here. There’s extremely rich contrast between the parts. It opens almost inaudibly with pizzicato strings, what I assume to be the figured bass, and then a flute enters. Shortly after that, we reach what These program notes from this PDF that are so exquisitely written describe the piece as a unique passacaglia, being that it should be a dance and in triple meter, neither of which it is. The bass is presented, followed by twenty-three variations grouped into three “paragraphs,” as well as a coda.
It’s not a theme-and-variations in a short four or five variations, but twenty three. The one nice organizational thing about it is these paragraphs that are mentioned. They are each in an arch form, coming to a climax of their own and dying back down before the next begins. In this way, the quieter of the three, the middle section, serves as a sort of slow movement. The opening and ending sections certainly have their peaks of intensity, with horns, shrill strings, and rich orchestration.
While I haven’t sat down and dissected the piece (and probably won’t anytime soon), it is a testament to the fact (something I’ve been told recently) that you don’t have to understand the music to enjoy it. These were words from an incredibly talented and knowledgeable musician about a very complicated work, one actually related, in a way, to Webern, but it holds true here.
While it’s interesting to know that Webern may have taken (or did take) inspiration from (or at least use as a jumping-off point, maybe) the passacaglia from the final movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony, or that he describes all of his music as mourning the death of his mother in his youth, or about his penchant and respect for classical forms and how he used them in his own way, even if you know none of that, this is still a piece of music that can be dramatic, haunting, gripping, and fascinating. Part of that, again, is in the texture, the contrast, the highs and lows, and probably, even, the continuity stemming from the repeated bass.
The high points in the first and final sections may sound like something dramatic or tragic out of some Hollywood movie, and it’s these sections that are also perhaps the most memorable for many listeners. Regardless of what images or feelings it conjures up, those swells of sound from quiet to a roaring intensity are quite literally breathtaking, and it’s just fantastic writing.
This is also a very interesting opus one. An opus one (or no. 1 of anything, perhaps) is a calling card, something that, for better or worse, a composer may be remembered by. It is perhaps rare that the same op. 1 also becomes the composer’s most famous (or widely-performed; those aren’t necessarily the same) work, but it happened for Webern.
Do remember, though, that just because the work remains his most regularly-performed does not mean that the piece was the pinnacle of his career. Rather, it was his most widely-acceptable for the general public. The early traces of what Webern would later do and be known for are present even here, and as he developed and matured, it became clear that his op. 1 was perhaps the end of one era as it was the beginning of his career, maybe more. He would quickly move in a direction that would mean his pieces that followed the passacaglia were very different, and we will surely get to them, one of which quite soon.
I was thinking about Mahler and Webern, that we jumped from that to this kind of abruptly, but… there are connections. It’s likely that Webern began his studies with Schoenberg at Mahler’s suggestion.
In contrast with Mahler, however, whose music got continually more advanced in different ways, like his monstrous eighth symphony or Das Lied von der Erde, Webern’s development went, for the most part, in the opposite direction. This passacaglia seems to be the largest of his works. Even his two cantatas, again (it seems), are possibly not as long, but require greater forces with the vocalists. His later work was pared down, sparse, lean, raw, and extremely focused. Just have a listen to his symphony. The passacaglia has its 23 variations in three larger sections, so it seems perhaps in some ways to have a large-scale form, his piece that actually gets the title of ‘symphony’ feels very different from this work. We will, indeed, get there, but not for the moment.
There are, I’m sure, tons more things I could say about this piece, but for now… that’s it. I feel like this is one of those rabbit holes I could go down and explore quotes and similarities and things for ages, and, honestly, I just can’t afford to do that.
Webern’s passacaglia is a fantastic piece of music, especially for an op. 1. It holds a unique place in his oeuvre and makes for a very interesting starting point for a very interesting (and very important) career.
We will be seeing more from Webern later, but next week is another member of the Second Viennese School. See you then.

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