Webern String Quartet, op. 28

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

(cover image by Dhruv Weaver)

Webern’s string quartet, the only work to be so labeled by him (even though he composed other things for four strings), is also his last chamber work, and the last of his compositions to be published in his lifetime, by Boosey & Hawkes, and then eventually by Universal Edition, in 1955.

The piece was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, renowned supporter and promoter of modern works, and was premiered in Pittsfield, MA (where she had founded the Berkshire Music Festival in 1918) on September 22, 1938.

The work is in three movements, and has a duration of only eight-ish minutes, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with any of Webern’s other works. His two-movement symphony is only slightly longer. The three movements of the string quartet are as follows:

  1. Mässig
  2. Gemächlich
  3. Sehr fließend

The first movement is in variation form, the second in ternary (featuring a four-part canon), and the third movement, suitable to the ‘very flowing’ marking, is more freely structured, but Webern himself said that the middle part of this movement is a fugue.

As if there weren’t enough traditional elements in this work (variations, fugues, canon, the three-movement form, all in the very venerable string quartet genre), the tone row itself even references the B-A-C-H motif. As per Wikipedia:

The tone row on which the piece is based (B, A, C, B, D, E, C, D, G, F, A, G) is intricately constructed and based on the BACH motif (B, A, C, B):

The first four notes of the row are the BACH motif itself, followed by its inversion, followed by same motif transposed up a minor sixth. A special property of this row is that its inversion (G, A, F, G, D, C, E, D, B, C, A, B) is equivalent to its retrograde.

If you’ve read any of my articles about Webern or Schoenberg or any of them, you’ll know a few things. For one, I never (or at least feel like I never) write about them very convincingly, and secondly, the intricacies can quickly get, well, intricate. Webern’s music is sparse, even to the most untrained ear, so it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that with all this detailed description, the few notes that are there are painstakingly planned out.

This brings us to a few other points.

  1. The tone row (or series or whatever you decide to call it) is so much more than just a string of notes. Even looking at the above image, do you see how there are three groups of four notes? The inner and outer ones, although transposed, have the same up-down-up-down contour, and the center group is inverted. This gives the set itself specific characteristics that the composer can employ in different ways.
  2. You can listen to a piece like this (or really any piece) in a number of ways. The inclination is to focus only on the analytical nature of this music, identify the pitch content or use of the tone row in different ways, and there’s plenty of that detail to discover, especially with such an adept composer as Webern. However, how many people listening to Mozart feel that they must understand the way the composer handles his key areas and modulations and all the rest? Likely very few, but there’s a lot of that there. “But Mozart’s music is beautiful,” you say, and I hear you. But so is this, in a different way.

So let’s listen. How would you describe these three movements?

Sparse, yes. The first movement is textured, pointillistic, and has some really exceptional passages of momentum and anxiousness, contrasted with what I hear as a real tenderness. One of the challenges you might have is that you’re only hearing, um… individual, sort of disjointed sounds, rather than a thought, which is easier with something as mellifluous as Beethoven or Schubert. But try to do that here.

You may not think of the mood of the second movement as ‘leisurely,’ like what you’d listen to on the beach or after a long day, sipping at whatever you sip on either of those occasions, but from the standpoint of tempo, it is a more leisurely pace. The final gesture of the movement seems to be a sped-up, scurrying, hurried final gesture of the motif we’d been hearing interwoven with itself the entire movement.

The finale has a…. finality to it. It feels more ‘complete,’ or full, in the sense that in its brief two and a half minutes, there’s actually quite a lot packed in here. Try to give some descriptors to the moods the music expresses, or feelings it elicits as you listen from turn to turn.

And just like that, with an unceremonious squeak… the canon of Webern’s chamber music, and his entire non-posthumous output, ends. Sure, it’s certainly not for everyone, but I bet it’s for more people than those people realize. Do with that what you will. It fascinates me.

Well, only two more petite piano pieces before we move onto what is actually, well, another month of piano music, but this time without the qualifiers of duration or instrumentation. We’ll be seeing some concertos (after a quick detour) as well, so do stay tuned for all of that and thank you so much for reading.

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