Webern, Fünf Sätze for String Quartet, Op. 5

February 19, 2018

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Fünf Sätze (Five Movements) for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909)

Anton Webern 100 years after Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet, as the hallowed history of the string quartet reached its 150 year anniversary, the few years of 1908-1909 witnessed the beginnings of a tectonic shift in the genre and, indeed, classical music in general. Arnold Schoenberg, the founding father of the radical Second Viennese School, completed his infamous second string quartet in 1908 and self-published it the following year. The first bold innovation was adding a human soprano to sing song texts in the third and fourth movements. The second more radical departure was Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality in the finale, the first important instance of atonal music for string quartet. Significantly, the text from a poem by Stefan George begins “I feel the air of a new planet.” The premiere caused a scandal.

1909 also witnessed Anton Webern, having finished his formal studies with Schoenberg, composing his first string quartet with an official opus number, Fünf Sätze (Five Movements), Op. 5. Comprising five very short movements, also completely atonal and bristling with strange sounds from extended playing techniques, Webern's string quartet is arguably even more radical though arising from a shared sensibility. Schoenberg had a number of students but Anton Webern and Alban Berg would become his most important. Overtime, the three composers (with their intimately interrelated lives) would move from "free" atonality into a new systematic method of using all 12 tones eventually known as dodecaphony or "12 Tone Technique", ultimately generalized by later composers into what is commonly called "serialism." In the post-WWII avant-garde, atonal serialism would widely become the new musical lingua franca featuring Schoenberg as the inventor and the music of Webern as its most perfect realization. In a tragic irony, Webern was accidentally and fatally shot by an Allied soldier after the war had already ended. He didn't live long enough to appreciate the immeasurable impact he would leave during the second half of the 20th Century.

Though the total duration of Webern's complete music for string quartet lasts under one hour, it contains a musical evolution no less profound than the quartet cycles of Bartók or Beethoven. Webern's earliest piece is the Langsamer Satz (slow movement) of 1905, an exquisite paean to the late Romantic style. His final String Quartet, Op. 28 of 1938 is mature example of 12-tone technique widely regarded as an exemplar. Between these extremes lay the famous examples of Webern's concisely "aphoristic” style with the Five Movements of 1909 and the Six Bagatelles of 1913. Webern's complete string quartet oeuvre comprising a single CD's worth of music is among the most dense and storied throughout the literature.

While a live listening experience of the Five Movements is undoubtedly vivid and provocatively expressive, it is immensely difficult to summarize or describe the music in words. It is potentially helpful, nonetheless, to have some observations. Together, the five movements last approximately eleven minutes with the movements themselves ranging between four minutes and forty-five seconds. Webern makes effective contrast across the movements with a general tempo scheme of: fast-slow-fast-slow-moderate. The first movement is, per Webern's directive, "violently animated" and it is the most dynamic and colorful. Here is a showcase of rapid change, contrast and musical density, all traits of Webern's music in general. The music employs an extreme range of dynamics (from very soft to very loud) and a wide array of techniques for a dazzling maximum diversity of timbre including tremolo, pizzicato, con legno (using the wood of the bow), harmonics, and bowing near the bridge (sur ponticello) for a glassy or gruff sound. The second movement stands in great contrast to the first: with mutes on the strings, the music is slow and atmospheric using a relative minimum of techniques for a much more smooth, homogenous sound. The central third movement is the shortest and liveliest, tending towards a scherzo feel. Sharp and crisp it ends with a definitive gesture from the strings in unison and pointed punctuation. The fourth dons the mutes and the slow tempo again for more ineffable atmosphere especially featuring the bowing-near-the-bridge luminosity. Central to this "slow movement" are the soft dynamics and the expressive use of silence for music that is at times a delicate whisper. The final movement is the longest with Webern's directive "tender animation." First the cello then later the violin stand out as lonely soloists supported by harmonic clouds from the remaining players. Perhaps suggesting a languid vocal duet, the music is nonetheless sparse, isolated and otherworldly.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.