Revisit: Webern’s 5 Sätze für Streichquartett, op. 5

performed by the Quatuor Diotima, or below by the Juilliard Quartet

playlist for the entire work here

Qualifying Statements

This is another revisit article, and one I’ve been meaning to rewrite for a long time. My previous articles on works such as this were shamefully ignorant of what’s really going on in the piece, but after having done much of my own study, listening, reading, and living, and come to appreciate far more what pieces like this mean and communicate, but I’ve also learned that aside from a very cursory introduction to the simplest concepts behind the music, I feel I really don’t have much to offer, but more on that later.

You might want to read my previous articles on Webern’s bagatelles, Webern: Six Bagatelles, op. 9 (from just over a year ago, holy cow!), or Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. They are works with similar approaches to thematic material.

In something like Beethoven’s infinitely famous fifth symphony or Brahms’ genius final symphony, the fourth, or many, many other works, musical material is presented, contrasted with something else, and developed, mulled over, even deconstructed, modified, and finally there is presented a victor.

Of course, we’re talking about sonata form, and most of these smaller works (from Schoenberg and Webern) that I’ve linked are not actually using sonata form, but I’m just talking about the presentation of the content, thematic material. We usually recognize it by a phrase, a figure, like Beethoven’s ‘fate knocking at the door’ triplet figure of the fifth symphony, and how that repeated triplet motif shows up again and again throughout all four movements of the work. That aside, these works also rely, not only on motifs or themes or figures of notes, but have key structures, moving to and from, say C minor to C major, and different keys of varied relation to the ‘home key.’

Okay, but what about Webern? To oversimplify it, we could say that one of the main concepts here is the presentation of musical material as intervallic relationships. Instead of E flat major or C minor or anything else, the intervals become the star of the show. More on that later.

The Piece

Webern’s op. 5 was written in 1909, the same year Schoenberg’s op. 11 greeted the world. Many sources talk about ‘distilling’ or ‘compressing’ or ‘concentrating’ the rich Romantic aesthetic of Wagner and the Late Great Romantic composers down to its most essential forms. In some senses, you could think of it as a stripping away, a removal of excess until only the bare bones are left, but those words rather suggest that everything is still there, just stronger, more pungent, and that’s quite an interesting way to think about it.

This isn’t late Webern, by any stretch; it’s at a time when the Second Viennese School is codifying their ideas and working out the methods and concepts that would reach their greatest glory decades later. This music is also, to me, extremely introspective. People mention him in connection, or contrast, with Wagner, perhaps the most opulent Romantic ever to write music, and his music is extremely extroverted, outward, grandiose. Bruckner, while also enormous and epic, I find to be so inward, so spiritual, almost philosophical.

Webern’s music, then, is often almost uncomfortably personal and intimate. The work is in a kind of arch form, with the central shortest movement as the kind of nervous, uneasy heart of the piece, from which the rest radiates. It’s bookended by two softer movements, like whispers, and then the largest outer movements.

The first is actually in sonata form, and presents contrasting ideas very quickly, an almost violent first subject and an eerie, ethereal second. But despite the clash of these two disparate elements, do you pick up on the fragrance and delicacy that come through every now and then, something like a Viennese waltz, or call me crazy, a serenade? It’s just kind of in there, quietly, behind a veil of what seems really angular and aggressive. I love it.

Chris Morrison writing for AllMusic calls this movement “the most expansive of the five, moving quickly from a bittersweet theme to harsh pizzicati and quiet, ghostly gestures,” but I’d use a far less refined word than ‘expansive’ to describe it, since finale is about 55% longer in performance time (from Diotima). What expansive means here is what I’d refer to as ‘meaty.’ It contains much more musical material than any of the others, with a full sonata form presentation, no matter how brief. It’s complete. Do you hear it?

The second, marked ‘very slow’, and Diotima takes this marking very seriously. In the Juilliard String Quartet’s reading, the second movement is only 7 seconds longer than the first (2:40 and 2:47), but from Diotima, it is an additional 25 seconds longer than their first movement (2:37 and 3:02). In any case, Morrison describes the second, fourth, and fifth movements as “quiet and almost aphoristic in their briefness,” and I’d agree with the aphoristic statement. They’re almost prayerful, meditative, but they’re longer than some of the other movements; it’s simply that not much happens.

After listening to the quiet moans of the second movement, the third is very unsettling. It has an almost playful bounce, but is disturbed, troubled, and this becomes clearer after we’ve made it through the first half of this less-than-a-minute-long central movement. After pizzicatos and a few more lyrical lines, the movement builds to a climactic, sudden burst of energy. Mark Steinberg describes it as “perhaps as pure a musical portrait of dread and anxiety as one is apt to encounter, a moment of existential terror.” It seems such a paradox that a movement that’s so sparse, so brief, can seem instantly so significant and weighty, so it perhaps aptly conveys the immediacy and power of Webern’s music.

Again, in contrast, we have the fourth movement, marked again ‘very slow.’ The music here is somehow both expressive and torpid, enervated. The cello begins the final and longest movement, a more direct sorrowful expression, but the music never really builds to anything except for groans and echoes similar to what came before, with extensive use of pizzicato and sul ponticello technique. It stops and starts, but amid these glass-like textures, brittle, pained sounds, we hear moments of unmistakable beauty, in a line offered by the violin, much like the opening gesture of the movement. We could describe it as a farewell, a goodbye, or in more musical terms.

It’s easy to interpret this music emotionally, to say that it sounds like this or it sounds like that based on our own emotional responses to it, so it’s also worth mentioning (again) that the composer expressed that this piece (and everything else he wrote subsequent to it) was in response to the loss of his mother. Can you hear that?

It’s likely you can, but aside from a cursory discussion of what the music sounds like, which you could formulate on your own by just listening to all 12 minutes of the piece, there’s a lot of analysis that could be done here, and aside from all you folks who know and love this music and are fascinated to see how it’s constructed, the real reason I’d plonk a thesis down on a table in front of someone is to say, “Look, this can’t just be dismissed as ridiculous, crazed, mad-scientist type drivel. It’s really quite genius.”

The Nuts and Bolts

And if you want to read that, which I don’t really have the time or ability to write or explain or relate, check out things like Eric Lai’s Transformational Structures in Webern’s Opus 5, No. 3, which will give you an excellent idea of what’s really going on in such a seemingly simple, short movement.

I’m sure there are other analyses you could find about the other movements, and I probably included some of them in my original article on this piece, but I’m not going to go back and read that.

As for what I said earlier about intervals, they’re important here, and I’m going to be almost offensive in how oversimplified this is, but you could say in some piece that a specific melody, or a figure (Beethoven’s triplet figure in the fifth symphony), is an important theme, a character in the work, and we explore its use throughout the work.

Here, though, we’re looking maybe a little more ‘between the lines’ than that, though. You’ve almost certainly heard of intervals like the minor third, or the perfect fifth. Those labels, like minor, major, perfect, diminished, augmented… they all have specific meanings, but it’s in relation to other things, in the context of a certain key, and it can be kind of confusing. Some people would just rather refer to them neutrally, simply by stating how big the interval is, so we would just have numbers.

A common one you might see is 0-1-4. From 0 to 1 would be up a half step (say from G to G#) and then 1 to 4 is another three half steps, so if 0 were G, we would have G, G# and B natural, but we can also go the other way, G, F# and E flat, etc. That then becomes a theme, a fundamental idea, as found in Schoenberg’s op. 11. You might think it would be impossible to hear or identify that, but you also might be surprised at how well you’d be able to. In any case, that concept, oversimplified, is the foundation of much of the musical material in works like this, from the earliest part of the Second Viennese School, before entire ‘tone rows’ and more complete serial procedures were used, but the idea is essentially the same.

This article is much longer than I’d expected it to be, but you’ll see next week that with the addition of this revisit article to this month’s roster, we will be seeing all three members of the (in)famous Second Viennese School within a few weeks’ time, even though Webern never wrote an opera.

This weekend is also kind of a placeholder, since I wanted to relocate the Bartók chamber work to next weekend, for reasons that will later become apparent.

Thanks so much for reading and please stay tuned for more, much larger, music.

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