Webern: Six Bagatelles, op. 9

performed by the Juilliard Quartet

Non multa sed multum
(Not much in quantity, but much in content)

A Deruchie

We’re nearing the end of a long stretch of history (of course skipping over a lot) into the modern era, but soon to begin another. For this week’s (lone) SQS feature, we find ourselves at a name that’s closely associated with Schoenberg, but ever so different from last week’s work. It’s obviously some time after that one was published, and a lot had happened since then… We’re onto Webern, perhaps the most angular, aggressively forward-thinking or harshest of the Second Viennese School. I won’t link it here because I need to rewrite the article entirely, but we’ve talked about an earlier work for quartet of his. John Keillor at AllMusic says of the op. 9 in relation to its predecessor:

One difference between Op. 9 and Webern‘s previous quartet, Op. 5, is that the earlier work contains movements built from sections and contrasts — in that sense, much in the spirit of Haydn. However, the movements of its successor are through-composed, not sectional, and there are no contrasts that require resolution.

Perhaps that sounds…. a bit anticlimactic, pointless, boring, especially when considering we’re working with a total of just over four minutes of material, in Juilliard’s reading. Keillor assures us it is plenty interesting, as he continues:

The level of musical tension is, nonetheless, very high; the work achieves this effect because the material in the first two measures provides ample opportunity to highlight and juxtapose individual musical gestures, and the dramatic envelope is controlled by the density of such activity.

It might be beneficial to jump back a few weeks to Schoenberg’s opus 19, the pieces for piano, in discussing how this work is laid out. Schoenberg’s purpose, in short (i.e. oversimplified) was to use the bare minimum of material, strip away all the drama and buildup and intensity of traditional development and present the barest bones of what exists as contrast and content in music. It seems, then, that Webern, in such adoration of his then-teacher, tried to do the same with his petite work here, but with a string quartet.

In the above-linked article (from the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec‘s statement of the Latin quote, which Webern apparently wrote on the score when he gave his fellow composer Alban Berg a copy) also quotes Kathryn Bailey as saying the pieces are “fleeting glimpses, whispered suggestions, breaths …of the air of another planet.” More appropriate, possibly, is Schoenberg’s own comments on his student’s work, which he wrote in a preface to the score:

Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Every glance can be expanded into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, joy in a single breath—such concentration can only be present when there is a corresponding absence of self-indulgence.

And um, what is a bagatelle? This question is answered splendidly by a little document from the US Academic Decathlon. It says:

The definition of bagatelle is not widely known today, but a synonym is “trifle”: it is something of little value or importance, or something that is insignificant. Webern clearly is trying to convey the idea that these are not weighty, monumental works; they are simply short novelties.

Well, that makes me feel a little bit better for not discussing the qualities of the music itself like I normally would. Overall, much of it sounds quite similar. It’s atmospheric, eerie, pained, ghostly, a little haunting, but still somehow delicate and expressive. A casual listener might describe it as creepy, or see it as the perfect thing to play (if it were long enough) for an intense game of hide and seek. But what’s going on here with these little ‘trifles’, brief sketches that the composer shared with the rest of the world?

Well, to be honest, far too much for me to discuss. You can find the score for the work at IMSLP here. There seems not to be a lot of thematic stuff going on, but essentially… this work is ALL detail.

The first bagatelle opens with glassy, shrill sounds that are pretty common throughout this short work. There are a few reasons for this.  A quick look at the score shows us some German. Ready to learn?

You’ll notice that only the German word for ‘cello’ is anything the corresponding word for the instrument in English (or many other languages). All the instruments are marked ‘mit Dämpfer’ or ‘with mute’, but that isn’t the source of our shrill sound.

The first note to sound in this work is from the cello, who’s got a D natural marked with a little circle above it. That signifies a natural harmonic, a little trick string players can do where, seemingly by magic, they can finger the string at a certain point and play this or that note, except like two octave and a fifth higher than usual. Genius violinist Paul Zukofsky has written an excellent and rather detailed explanation of natural and artificial harmonics that you can check out for a full explanation. So that’s one reason. Webern makes use of both natural and artificial harmonics throughout these works, and they have a certain shrill, glassy quality to them.

Looking at the picture of that first bar again, you’ll see something in the viola, on its E flat, an am Steg notation. Do a Google image search for ‘am Steg’ and see what you get. It’ll be pictures of people or things on bridges. Yes, am Steg means to play on the bridge, the equivalent to the Italian’s sul ponticello. That also produces a shrill, piercing but also kind of…. sandy (?) and still glassy sound, and that happens quite a bit in these little works too. In addition to that, we have the pretty standard pizzicato/arco notations for plucked strings as well as tremolos and trills and stuff.

So listening to the first bagatelle in full, it sounds… disjointed, even arbitrary, but with such expressive, vivid color even in these 44 seconds, it’s like flipping through an old photo album and being bombarded with memories and emotions but having not decided upon which one to focus, the whole thing gets set aside. There’s clearly a quick moment of tension, of seeming build, but then nothing, it ends.

It makes me think a bit of this CERN image (Lucas Taylor), depicting incredibly complex things that seem to just be lines shooting off in all directions, never to return to their origins.

For a really intensely professional analysis of no. 1 that does justice to Webern’s work, check out Will Ogdon’s piece here. He addresses whatever concept of tonality (or lack thereof) Webern might be using or suggesting in no.s 1 and 4, and he’s got charts and visuals and all the rest. It’s there, so it’s not here.

No. 2 begins with yet another German word on second violin: am Griffbrett. That’s the opposite of ‘am Steg.’ What’s the opposite of the bridge? The fingerboard, in the other direction. Playing on the bridge increases the high overtones, while playing on the fretboard does the opposite, giving it an ‘ethereal’ quality.

No. 2 is one of the livelier in the bunch. It’s punchy, the mutes are off, and there’s pizzicato and maybe something more like what you might expect of music you usually listen to. This one does feel like it’s pointing to something, but yet again we end with what appears to be a big question mark, a decisive big pizzicato from everyone but first violin. Justin Morell addresses this one in an article I can’t read lest I’d spend hours trying to find all the pitch content and set classes (probably to no avail, but he’s done it, again with plenty of marked up examples).

No. 3, too, might not seem to have a destination in mind once it’s all over, but it is, as the others, like a single brush stroke, perfectly executed, with purpose and exactness. The more one listens to these works, or even just from no. 1 to no. 6… one does more and more get the feeling that there’s tons here to analyze, if you were inclined to do so. “Why was this decision made? Why these notes here and those there? Intervals, timing, harmonies, all of it. When you start thinking of ALL the compositional decisions made in just one itsy-bitsy piece like this… it should make your head spin.

The fourth has some more immediately-appreciatable complexity, with contasting rhythms like this building up in bars 5 and 6 only to die out in 7 and end with eerie harmonics in first violin:

Perhaps because I can only think in terms of surface sort of… non analytical “let me listen and express what it sounds like,” reasons, no. 5 seems almost funereal. There aren’t any rhythmic heartbeats, no bursts of sound or energy, pretty subdued, but still tense and a little harsh, spacious, empty.

And just like that, we’re at the end. No. 6 is marked Fließend, or flowing, and that it indeed is, if you can believe it. It has a certain forward momentum, a kind of harsh, shrill bubbliness of its own, with our tremolos and harmonics and all the rest… and that’s it.

Take a listen back to something like one of the Mozart quartets we discussed back in May when we started this Austro-German thread, and look at how far we’ve come… Granted, this isn’t really a string quartet in the structural sense, although it is played by a quartet. But also, Webern’s op. 5 wasn’t a traditional quartet either. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the surprise (you should be able to guess by now), but the work of his we’ll be discussing this coming week is also a unique one. Stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “Webern: Six Bagatelles, op. 9

  1. Nice. I must confess that I don’t know anything from Webern, but I have a paperback on the 2nd Viennese School on my board here waiting to be read. In the meantime, I’ll stick with Schönberg. I have just started to explore his piano works. There is a recording by Glenn Gould… 😍

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