Anton Webern (1883–1945)
Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op 24
For Webern in the 1920s, serialism offered, above all, new possibilities of symmetry – possibilities which are immediately evident in the opening of the Concerto for Nine Instruments. Every serial piece grew from a pre-established (and piece-specific) ordering of twelve notes, designed to ensure both variety and interrelatedness. In the Concerto, Webern further subdivides his series into four similarly interrelated three-note groups, so that what the listener hears in the first movement is a constant play of shapes passed from instrument to instrument. Calculation produces an effect of both fastidiousness and twinkling humour. What is not subject to calculation at all is the speed of the music’s flow; instead, Webern asks for an expressive slowing at the end of almost every phrase – as if a crystal were being turned in the light, and at each new angle were being held up for inspection.
The metaphor is apt, evoking as it does the purity of the Alpine landscapes where each summer, freed from the demands of conducting and administration, Webern retired to compose. It was here, in proximity to the site of his mother’s grave in the village of Schwabegg and of his father’s at Annabichl, that his thoughts of spiritual rebirth figured in the transforming capacity of nature came most alive, and the sketches for the Concerto confirm that associations between place, memory and musical expression were in his mind constantly as he composed. After the first movement’s variations of speed, the second is steadier – not only slower and more constant in tempo but also moving in even rhythm throughout. Since it stops and starts less, similar patterns of notes in different instruments are heard as gentle cadential echoes, most notably a ‘cuckoo’-like falling major third: nature again transformed into lyrical expression. The finale is a sort of dislocated march, alternately playful and determined.
© 2010 John Fallas