Symphonie, Anton Webern

by tacet

Anton Webern’s Symphonie of 1928 is an enigmatic coalescence of tentative melodies softly shaded in delicate harmonies and textures. Eschewing Beethovan’s notion of the triumphalist symphony, Webern’s sole contribution to the symphonic canon is characteristic of the composer in its brevity and poise, displaying a striking economy in both its emotive content and musical construction. This is a piece of immense, even esoteric, restraint, reaching towards a timeless grace and crystalline beauty through an earnest pursuit of perfection in proportion and symmetry.

Born in Austria in 1883, Anton Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. The two composers, along with another of Schoenberg’s students Alban Berg, comprise the Second Viennese School – named after the (first) Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In the early 1920s Schoenberg developed his twelve tone method of composition, known as serialism, which was soon adopted by both Berg and Webern. At the heart of a twelve tone composition is a “tone row”, consisting of all twelve notes of the octave, which dictates the order in which the notes are to be played throughout the piece. As such, each tone is treated equally, removing what Schoenberg perceived to be the archaic hierarchical relationships between the notes of a scale. Schoenberg’s method represents a monumental schism between old and new, completely liberating compositional practice from the long imposed restrictions of traditional tonality.

Whilst the twelve tone method is certainly uncompromising in its formality, the common portrayal of serialist music as unlistenable noise seems rather hyperbolic in light of the elegant lyricism of Webern’s Symphonie. The understated beauty of this music comes from Webern’s highlighting of instrumental timbre, whilst downplaying the roles of melody and harmony: this piece is ornately textured, coloured in subtle, translucent hues. A key technique used throughout the piece is that of klangfarbenmelodie, a method of instrumentation pioneered by Webern and Schoenberg, translating from the German as “sound-colour-melody”. Rather than scoring a melody to be played by just one instrument, Webern breaks his melodies up into fragments and distributes them around the different instrumental groups of the orchestra.

Despite Webern’s rather austere use of Symphonie’s small ensemble, often allowing only one instrumental group to be heard at a time, the prominence of klangfarbenmelodie in the piece bestows it with a broad and sensuous sound palette; this music achieves a fleeting simultaneity of the intimate and the expansive as the musical thread is passed between various orchestral voices in an endless stream of ethereal colours and textures. Listening to this piece is reminiscent of watching shards of light scatter across a rippling surface of water: Webern’s Symphonie is fragile and evanescent, sparkling and mysteriously hypnotic.

Below is a recording of Symphonie followed by a brief listening guide.

Movement I runs from 0:00 to 6:27 and features prominent use of Webern’s klangfarbenmelodie technique; the music has a hesitancy as the melody moves between the instruments, exploring a wide and understated palette of colour and timbre. The first section is fragile and melodic, heard from 0:00 to 2:22, and is followed by a contrasting, slower moving section from 2:22 to 3:24. These passages of music are then repeated and reflected in various ways until the close of the movement.

Movement II begins at 6:27 and consists of a theme (heard from 6:27 to 6:45) followed by a series of seven variations (which begin respectively at 6:45, 6:58, 7:08, 7:33, 8:02, 8:15 and 8:36) and closed off finally by a brief coda at 9:00. Listen for the spotlighting of different instrumental groups throughout the variations, bestowing the movement with a variety of colour and texture.

Being one of Webern’s more popular works, there are a number of recordings of Symphonie currently available; the recording above is conducted by Pierre Boulez and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Another fine performance comes from the Berliner Philharmoniker, also conducted by Boulez, and is available on Deutsche Grammophon’s excellent set of Webern’s complete works.

Along with the Symphonie, Webern’s opus number 10, 5 Pieces for Orchestra, and the expansive late Cantatas No. 1 and 2 are relatively large scale works that would serve well as entry points into his music. In contrast to Webern’s decidedly minimal style, Arnold Schoenberg’s 5 Pieces for Orchestra of 1909 is an example of some of the more expressive music to arise from the Second Viennese School.

Artwork: Color Form No. 26, Michael Loew

by Thomas May