Webern: Fünf Sätze für Streichquartett, op. 5

performed by the Juilliard String Quartet

find all the movements in this playlist on YouTube


This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

We’re skipping over 2-4 for now and moving on to something else. Ops 2-4 are vocal, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I have something else in mind: a string quartet, at least in medium if not in form.

Webern’s opus 5 was written in 1909, quickly after his passacaglia of a few weeks ago, and the same year as Schoenberg’s op. 11 of last week. 

In listening to this piece, you’ll want to keep in mind the quote I included in the article from two weeks ago in which Webern states to Berg that all of his (own) music is basically mourning the death of his mother. This can perhaps be felt more clearly (or rawly) in this work than the passacaglia. It could have possibly been easy to focus on the form of op. 1, its themes and ideas and formalities less than its impact or expression or what it is trying to say aside from form. 

As very different as these pieces are in many ways (performing forces, length of the work, structure), they have some striking similarities. 

Webern’s op. 5 is already lightyears farther ahead in this piece in terms of what would become his compositional style, his ‘voice,’ than he was in the passacaglia. It’s sparse, raw, brief, but very intense. It is cast in five quite small movements, almost in contrasting arcs. The pieces get more intense, but also shorter, towards the middle and fade away again. The climax of both the work’s emotion and brevity lies in its shortest central movement. We will talk about these in more detail shortly.

Something to notice here is how unique (for new listeners to more modern quartets) the timbres and effects are that Webern produces. They are tense, shrill, nervous, but incredibly strong. This is easily as intense a work as the passacaglia, but it’s indicative of the kind of intensity Webern would eventually be known for. The best way I can describe it is concentrated, introspective, but sensitive and moving. 

The first movement shows us how, while much of the music we hear is very different from op. 1, it still contains many of the same elements: the contrasts of emotion and shocking, almost jarring themes are evident from the first bar. It’s an intense movement, but also has its quieter moments, some of the only in the piece that aren’t disturbing-quiet, but they don’t last. There are moments of such rich raw music that it’s almost surprising that there are only four people playing, as in just before the end of the first movement. 

The second is quieter, mellow (relatively speaking, and almost solemn, and just barely longer than the first (probably depending on performance). It’s soft, almost lethargic. It’s like… the music version of the fetal position, if that makes any sense. While it’s about as long as the first movement, it has less … content? There’s not as much thematic material, but that’s not at all to say that this movement is boring or carries no emotional import. It’s very emotional, but not as hefty. 

The third is anxiety and terror in musical form. It’s like something you would hear in a Hitchcock film if he were Austrian. It’s intense and focused, but also over very quickly. The longer movements on either side of this centerpiece build up to and scale down from this focal point. It feels to me like the heart of the piece. 

The fourth, in our arch-like or even mirror-like structure, more resembles the second in its quietude, while the fifth is the longest and most substantial of the five. The fourth feels almost like it’s still contemplating on what happened in the previous movement; it’s delicate and sorrowful and expressive and simple, and kind of bleeds into the fifth and final movement, the first third of which is very quiet, solemn. There begins an incredibly unsettling, warbling kind of buzzing (tremolo sul ponticello?) that breaks up the long lines of the beginning. There is a moment where the sound swells up to a climax, but the piece eventually ends in quiet thought. 

What I find most interesting about this work, then, is strongly emphasized in the context of our recent discussion of his passacaglia. As different as these works are in many ways, they do still have many similarities and accomplish a similar effect, but in drastically different ways.

Fünf Satze is small in both scope and structure while remaining huge in emotional impact. Its five-movement structure centers around the most emotionally charged and smallest movement of the piece, bookended by two quieter, not more peaceful but less nervous movements, which again are bookended by more substantial outer movements. 
No matter how substantial, though, one thing that a new listener might have issue with in this piece (or many of the others of Webern) is that for most people, there isn’t a lot to ‘grab onto,’ as it were. One of the strongest qualities of classical music that people (especially people who don’t really know classical music) gravitate to is lyricism, strong, beautiful, clean melodies, and that’s perhaps because most are most familiar with Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. and are used to a hook, a grab-you-and-don’t-let-go melody that sweeps the listeners off their feet and tells them how to feel and where to go. If you’re looking for that splendid melody handed to you on a silver platter, to be told where to look and what to focus on, you may not see it here at first. I wouldn’t describe the music as abstract, but it would be erroneous to say that this music has no melody, or that it’s somehow lacking something. If you find nothing in this piece, then it is more likely an issue with your expectations or what you’re looking for than an issue with the piece itself.

It’s also why we’re talking about modern music in this series. There IS a paradigm shift that kind of has to take place, for a few reasons. Or maybe just one, with two parts. The innovations and striking newness of much of what people like Beethoven or Liszt or Bruckner did has had more than a century (or two) to settle in and become really classic, spectacular stuff. Schoenberg and Webern (and others in other places, like Debussy, Scriabin, etc. but not for purposes of this discussion) really rocked the boat about a century ago, and there apparently hasn’t been enough time for it to settle yet. Most listeners aren’t nearly as used to it, but honestly, if you look at it through the lens of what’s the same about it and not what’s different, it isn’t too terribly difficult to catch on. Webern’s Fünf Sätze is (are?) a fantastic example of this kind of new language in a very easily-approachable package, at least in my opinion. 
In any case, it’s short, so give it a few honest, neutral, somewhat distant listens and let it grow on you. 


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