ANTON WEBERN – Early Works for String Quartet

Austrian composer Anton Webern [1883-1945] wrote several string quartets and movements. There is a little confusion regarding the number because he composed two one-movement works and a rondo without opus numbers, which makes them dubious to some scribes. Wiki refers to them as Juvenalia (what a cheek!). I intend to examine these two without opus numbers, as they are wonderful, and shall be discussing the Quartetto Italiano recording of the works.

Slow Movement for String Quartet was composed in 1905, in a late Romantic style. It opens with a lush melodic theme, very open sounding with the writing very fertile. The quality of the playing is also a feature. The violins develop the melody over a rich texture of cello and viola. The music ebbs and flows, but is always attractive. At times the violin soars, only to drop back into the ensemble. A refashioned statement of the melody is created, and the violin completely dominates until the opening variation is reintroduced; these are blissful melodies. A brief pause brings a recapitulation of the opening theme. A lyrical passage ensues and is followed by a splendid section which only hints at the theme. The music becomes lighter until a descending violin phrase leads into an extended variation. Another brief pause and a delicate recapitulation fades to a lone concluding cello note.

I guess you have worked out by now that I like this piece! It was one of the first string quartet CDs I ever owned and I have always been taken by its deeply expressive nature.

String Quartet in One Movement was also composed in 1905 and at roughly 16 minutes, it is the longest piece for string quartet that Webern ever wrote. This work is definitely more vigorous than its predecessor. A solo violin introduces a longing descending melody and several sparse chords are injected into the solo violin part. Now a section of chords is created which builds into a melody, and a melancholia. Suddenly there is dynamic melodic movement. Pizzicato prevails for a time and then the piece becomes very forceful; strangely the melodies are melancholic, but they are loud. This is a very dramatic section which lasts for some time. The dynamics eventually recede and we are left with a violin melody we have heard before, which is slowly joined by the other instruments. The feeling remains very precious for quite a while. A change occurs with a little abstraction in the music; there is a hint of darkness here.

The mood changes again, becoming slightly chaotic, with the violin dominating. This is a long passage, with some tempestuous writing; the tension is stretched tight. A break introduces a sparse, introspective section which invokes a number of different variations of the main theme. Now we have a sparkling start to a new, warmer mood. More variations occur and the feeling is again sparse. A solo violin returns and the ensemble gently introduce the theme in a very subdued manner. A series of very quiet chords close the piece.

Webern was first a student, then associate of Arnold Schoenberg. Together with Alban Berg, they became known as the Second Viennese School and were a tremendous influence on 20th century music.

These works are really Part One of the Anton Webern story. His lessons from Schoenberg led to a rapid development in atonal and later, serial compositions. I intend to discuss some of this revolutionary music at another time.

Webern’s works for string quartet are readily available by several ensembles on one CD from Amazon US and UK. Some of them are enhanced with bonus tracks. For instance, the Artis Quartet include a String Trio, and the Rondo for SQ. Other good candidates include the Leipziger, Emerson and Arditti Quartets. Be aware that some other releases may not contain these two early one-movement works.

There are several CDs on Spotify and the Slow Movement at least, can be found on youtube. Bouquets to the Quartetto Italiano; they really get to the heart of Webern.

Listenability: A great mixture of late Romanticism, beautiful melodies, drama and slight dissonance!

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3 thoughts on “ANTON WEBERN – Early Works for String Quartet”

  1. I’ve always been amazed at the breadth of Webern’s work for string quartet. Of all the Second Viennese School composers, his work changed the most drastically over the course of his career: from lush but haunted Romanticism, through wild, spontaneous atonality, to that really crystalline, Zen-like dodecaphonic material. I’m partial to the Five Movements, op. 5, but it’s all superb.

    I too love Webern’s early quartets. I heard a string orchestra version of the Slow Movement and it was just ravishing.

  2. Hi John, I never knew about this but my feeling is that it wouldn’t be coincidental. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the Concerto for Nine Instruments. I shall give it another go.

    JH

  3. It is also interesting to note that the opening three-note motif that Webern used in that early String Quartet would later (coincidently most likely) be the basis to the tone row for his Concerto for nine instruments, op.24 (the motif starts with the initial note, goes down a half step, then up a major third (or, E flat-D-F#, for example)).

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