performed by Isaac Stern and Charles Rosen, or below by Kyung Wha Chung and Kevin Kenner
It is always over before it starts…
Webern’s father, about op. 7
(cover image by Glen Carrie)
He wasn’t wrong.
One of Webern’s early works, the opus no. 7 was completed in 1910. It lasts well under five minutes, with the four ‘pieces’ as follows:
- Sehr langsam
- Sehr langsam
The odd-numbered pieces are both ‘very slow,’ and the even-numbered are fast, 2 and 4 being marked ‘rapid’ and ‘moving,’ respectively. Let’s talk briefly about brevity.
The first piece is a mere nine measures. The second, and longest, is 24. The third is a mere 14, and the final piece is one bar longer than that.
Let’s look momentarily at the year 1910. What else was going on then?
Stravinsky’s Firebird and Mahler’s 8th symphony were premiered, and his ninth was being written. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier greeted the world, as did Scriabin’s Poem of Fire (which we talked about already more than two years ago). So in contrast with these enormous, elaborate pieces, we have…. 60 bars of music playing for less than five minutes… So what’s it about?
Robert Adelson writes about the piece at AllMusic, and quotes violinist Felix Galimir, who, he says, “prepared the Four Pieces under Webern’s supervision.” Galimir says of the experience:
I remember at first our shock, a reaction almost prompting us to ridicule the sparsity of notes in each composition. After we worked with him for a little while, though, the proportions were so perfect that all length or shortness vanished. Of course, the minutest details were of greatest importance. How expressive every little miniature phrase became when he sang it.
I hate to make yet another comparison to Italian food, but here we go.
There’s an elegance in simplicity. We can appreciate (and believe me, I certainly do) the enormity and awesomeness of Mahler’s eighth, a grand, magnificent epic piece, and in all of the hundreds of performers and the vocalists and all the rest, I do indeed genuinely find a sense of pristine clarity in Mahler’s writing, but no matter how crystalline and transparent it is, even the more intimately scored passages have nothing on the almost radical sparseness of Webern’s four pieces here.
And perhaps my article should be commensurately brief.
I think the most important thing I’d like to say about this piece is to listen with a few things in mind, and most of it is summed up in Galimir’s sentiments about the piece. It can be easy to think of music only in terms of melodies, of the sort of instant gratification, the pleasure of pretty music, but a piece like this reminds us that even in a pretty tune, there’s more than just a memorable melody going on.
Webern, as you may know from some of the other pieces we’ve discussed, is able to distill an idea down to these most essential elements, where every single gesture, every note and turn of phrase, is not only important, it’s exactly what the composer wanted to express. Remember that, that this is the exact opposite of haphazard. It is a constructed, engineered, premeditated experience, and that’s really all there is to remember.
As when we discussed Stockhausen’s first few Klavierstücke almost two years ago, we can ask some very basic questions about this music as related to contrast. There’s clear contrast in the slow/fast/slow/fast order of the four pieces, but where else? If you can read music, have a look at the score here. I’ll write a few sentences about each one below.
The first thing that jumps out at me about the first piece (and mind you, you’ll have to look elsewhere for something more academic and official, but) is how of these nine measures, the violin first plays a few long notes, carving out a gentle contour, after which it fluctuates between two notes, finishing on a plucked interval of a semitone, and what then sounds to be the most angelic, delicate utterance from piano. Even in the sixteenth note back-and-forth, there appears to be an immense stillness.
The second is the longest, in both number of measures and length (at least in the performance I’m referencing). Compared with the near fossilized stillness of the first piece, the second erupts with movement before giving way to an unsettling stillness. What strikes me here, as always with Webern’s gestures, is that every movement is imbued with such meaning. Like watching modern dance, or a chef at work in the kitchen, you may not understand every movement or gesture, but you can appreciate how beautiful and precise and elegant it is. Relative to the other pieces in this set, the second, for length and ground covered in those 24 bars, seems positively epic. It’s certainly more lively than the first, with more punctuated, aggressive textures, but even here we have some softness.
The third, like the first, begins with a long held note from violin. I hear an almost Stockhausen-ish pointillism in the piano’s part, playing only very sparsely under the violin’s already quite naked few gestures until one single low utterance.
The violin’s song in the opening of the final movement is perhaps the most like what the average listener might expect to hear from a sonata, or perhaps torn out of a cadenza for a concerto somewhere. It’s instantly expressive and colorful, spreading its wings and flying rather than hanging in the stillness like a lifeless bird. There’s actually a kind of outgoing, extroverted nature about this final piece, at least before it all comes to an end slowly and quietly, much like it began.
So we don’t have much here in my article, and still bearing down on 1,000 words in this article. From an academic perspective, you could analyze and look for intervallic relations, harmonies, pitch content, etc., but for the vast majority of us, and in the vast majority of my listening endeavors, I just don’t do that.
Even at a very surface level, there’s plenty here to munch on, with texture from sul ponticello (that sandy/glassy bowing on the bridge) or pizzicato, harmonic color, rhythms, contrasts, all of that. It’s there to appreciate, and you can do so in less than five minutes! See if you can’t get the same kind of heaviness and impact from these very compact pieces that you would from something ten times as long.
There’s more where that came from, so please do stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.