Five Movements, op. 5

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            Unlike his fellow Schoenbergian acolyte, Alban Berg, Anton Webern was the more cerebral, quiet, and detached.   While Berg is commonly thought of as more lyrical, comfortable in the larger forms of concerto and opera, Webern pursued a style of abstraction, brevity, and an almost mathematical precision of structure.   He is known for his lightly orchestrated, almost pointillist textures.  Like pinpoints of sound, that “ping” from disparate points, his works are aphoristic and brief almost to an extreme.  And what is almost indiscernible to most listeners is the frequent infusion in his mature style of counterpoint in all its glory:  invertible, canonic, retrograde, every technique from the golden age of counterpoint, the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  And why not? For despite his avant-garde compositions, he was a trained musicologist, whose doctoral dissertation was on one of the great collections of early sixteenth-century polyphonic sacred vocal music.  He simply took his interests and training way into the future.  In his maturity he was a relentless exponent of the rigorous application of 12-tone—or serial—techniques, but early on, like his mentor Schoenberg and his fellow student, Berg, he quickly left tonality behind and produced works that are conveniently called atonal.   This period in the artistic lives of the three didn’t last long, chiefly centering very roughly around the years 1908-1923.  A cardinal virtue of tonality, especially in the late romantic period, is its inherent capacity to sustain long music structures—that’s why, for example, symphonies of the time grew longer and longer, as in Mahler.  In the sense of remembering from whence you came harmonically speaking, no matter how distant you may go in tonal regions, the way home is logical, directed and forceful in tonality.  Lacking this musical compass, atonal works are necessarily shorter, even brief, to avoid the concomitant sensation of wandering on and on until the music just stops, undirected.

            Webern composed his Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 5 in 1909, at the height of his atonal period, and dedicated it to the memory of his revered mother. He later revised the work in 1929, recasting it for string orchestra.   It is a complete example of Webern’s approach to composition.  The five movements average no more than about two minutes in length and display the composer’s gift for instrumental tone color, using for example, the wood of the bow, harmonics, playing near the instrument’s bridge, and pizzicato.  These sounds are now familiar from Bartók, and, of course, went on to become common coin.  Webern, true to his roots in the “first Viennese School,” employed traditional musical forms—although remarkably compressed and almost unperceivable.   Extremes of register, disjunct melodic intervals, and frequent changes of mood complete the picture.  The five movements are in a typical classical order of tempo and character:  outer movements with motion, slow interior ones, and a kind of scherzo in the middle.   Forget the dissonance, the aphoristic brevity, and the abstractions.  Atonality is not the point amidst the many charms of these little gems.  They are perfect examples of what Stravinsky characterized as Webern’s “dazzling diamonds.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan