Anton von Webern’s Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano, op. 22

April 1, 2001

The composer

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1883. (The predicate von identified those of aristocratic heritage until a 1918 revolution outlawed its use; the composer’s works were published under the name Anton Webern.) His father’s career in mining engineering caused the von Webern family to move several times during Anton’s youth; in Klagenfurt at the turn of the century he studied piano and music theory under Edwin Komauer. He also learned to play the cello and participated in community orchestras. His earliest compositions, for piano and cello, date from this period. In 1902 he was deeply impressed by performances of several Wagner operas, and entered the University of Vienna to study musicology and composition. Before receiving a doctoral degree in 1906, he began studying privately with Arnold Schoenberg.

Upon leaving Schoenberg’s tutelage, Webern and fellow Schoenberg protégé Alban Berg began experimenting in earnest with their teacher’s method of twelve-tone composition. Webern worked as a conductor in several theaters, but preferred to concentrate on composition. In 1911 he married his first cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl, with whom he had three children.

Webern found parallels between twelve-tone composition and the music of the Renaissance he had studied in Vienna—both endorsed classical strictness of form and complex polyphony. Other influences on Webern’s work included authors such as Johann Goethe and poet Hildegard Jone. (Information in this section is from antonwebern.com, a web site published by Pixelrush.)

The composition

Webern’s Op. 22, Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, was first conceived in September 1928. A detailed account of its creation is found in Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work, by Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer. According to their narrative, Webern wrote to his publisher, “I have turned again to a new work: a concerto for violin, clarinet, horn, piano, and string orchestra—in the spirit of some of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos.” He outlined in his sketchbook a three-movement work with themes inspired by several Austrian locations apparently having personal significance. The following year, a letter to Alban Berg indicated that the work was nearing completion, and had changed its form and instrumentation and length—two movements, rather than three—to that of the work that would eventually be published.

Webern was distracted by other projects and did not complete the quartet until September of 1930. It was performed shortly thereafter in Vienna, to harsh abuse from music critics. Webern’s fellow composers of the Second Viennese School, however, deemed it a masterpiece. Berg wrote, “This Quartet is a miracle. What amazes me above all is its originality. One can assert with confidence that there is nothing in the entire world of music production that attains even approximately such a degree of originality, i.e. a full hundred percent.” Schoenberg called it “fabulous.”

Analysis: Sehr mäßig

The first movement, Sehr mäßig (very moderate), most resembles a sonata form. The five-measure introduction to the first movement uses two simultaneous tone rows, P7 and I5. (The second movement was composed first, so the first tone row presented in that movement is labeled P0 in most published analyses.) These rows are passed between the violin, saxophone, and piano, immediately demonstrating the sparse, pointillistic texture of the piece. The clarinet plays only two notes, consecutive staccato F-sharps (all pitches are expressed here as concert pitches). These F-sharps reveal much about Op. 22. F# is the point of intersection between the two rows of the introduction when organized in a matrix, and also their point of intersection in these opening melodic lines. This device is used almost constantly throughout the first movement; virtually every row form is used in combination with that row which it intersects at F#. Pierre Boulez points out in the liner notes to the London Symphony recording that the F# above middle C is played twice, staccato, in each instance. This F# is also the registral axis of symmetry of the first movement.

Kathryn Bailey’s thorough analysis of Quartet in The Twelve-note music of Anton Webern is invaluable in understanding the piece (pp. 171-178). Bailey explains that the exposition introduces the two main themes of the first movement. The primary theme is played by the saxophone, row I7 followed by I1. In a departure from traditional sonata form, the second theme is introduced almost simultaneously. This second theme is in the form of a mirror cannon with F# as the reflecting point. It is played by the piano, violin, and clarinet, with the second part of the canon following the first by one sixteenth note. The exposition is repeated, for a total of twenty measures.

The development section consists of four units of three bars each. The development uses more dramatic intervals and greater dynamic contrast, and moves more quickly through row forms. The first, second, and fourth units, however, have only two simultaneous voices, compared to three in the exposition. Each of these also uses two tone rows. The third unit, the climax of the movement, uses five simultaneous voices (each hand of the pianist playing a separate voice) and four tone rows. Each of the row forms is used in the climax, at T6 (P6, I6, R6, and RI6). The climax is indicated by the extreme high and low pitches of the movement, a high and a low C, each two octaves and a fifth from the central F# (Bailey 171).

The recapitulation presents the themes again with their original row forms and transpositions, though the leaps are inverted (for example, in the exposition, the first theme begins on C#, moves up to E, then down to F; in the recapitulation, it begins on C#, moves down to E, then up to F). Rhythmic development in the piano creates more frequent two-note “chords” (Bailey 174).

Development and recapitulation are each repeated, with only a very slight variation in the piano in the final bar of the recapitulation. The five-measure coda then presents the introductory rows again, this time in retrograde form.

Analysis: Sehr schwungvoll

Webern wrote several letters and sketchbook entries regarding the form of Sehr schwungvoll (with much momentum), the second movement of Quartet. His comments on the movement, however, are of questionable value in its interpretation, since it seems to have undergone a series of metamorphoses in development. An early sketch indicates a rough ABACABCA form, though Webern also apparently remarked on the movement’s “exact analogy” to a scherzo from Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 14 (A[B]ACADA). Webern’s finished product, though seemingly freely composed, may be loosely interpreted as an ABACABA rondo (Bailey 243-244).

The first theme of the A section, comprising bars 1-19, uses only untransposed row forms: P0, R0, I0 and RI0. The second A theme, bars 20 to 32, explores the T6 rows at a more moderate tempo. In this theme, a rather free sort of canon is developed with a two-voice texture (Bailey 245).

The first B episode introduces two more themes, each using a variety of row forms and transpositions, but both emphasizing the T2, T3, T4, and T9 groups. The first B theme is at the initial tempo of the movement, the second, at bar 51, slightly slower. Both themes are loosely canonic in form. The sixty-third measure reintroduces the A material, still slowing in tempo. A brief transition uses R5 and R11 in bars 88-93 (Bailey 246-247).

Episode C, bars 93-121, presents I8, R1, RI8, P11, and R11 almost as a single line, with some parallel motion between the clarinet and saxophone and occasional dyads in the piano. This theme is in stark contrast to the rest of the movement because of its sparseness and slower rhythm. The harmonics played by the violin add to the dissimilarity. The same rows are then presented again, substituting RI6 for R11 and using a denser texture and an overall louder volume. At bar 121, a brief, accelerating transition with fortissimo supertriplets leads into the unhurried third A refrain (Bailey 247).

The final episode, bars 153-182, adds T7 and T8 rows to the material from the first episode. It also resembles the first episode due to its distinctive though inexact canon and due to the dynamic and performance markings. These elements relate the last episode strongly to the first, emphasizing the rondo form (Bailey 247).

The last refrain uses the opening row material again, this time at extremely loud dynamic levels-except for the final note, played by the saxophone at pianissimo.

The most striking characteristic of the quartet’s second movement is its freedom. Experts regard it as one of Webern’s most unrestrained and unconventional works (Leland Smith, “Composition and Precomposition in the Music of Webern,” p. 100). Its imprecise canonic elements, oddly placed tempo changes, and twisting of classical forms are unusual for Webern-though not entirely unheard of (Bailey 248-249).

Conclusions

Webern’s Quartet, op. 22, represents the composer’s talents at the height of his creative career. His organization is absolute, but, at the same time, his freedom is refreshingly bold. The simplicity-within-complexity of the Quartet rival, and, indeed, acknowledge and praise the works of the great “tonal” composers who preceded him.

Matrix for Quartet, op. 22

0 9 8 11 10 2 3 4 5 7 1 6
0 F# Eb D F E G# A Bb B C# G C
3 A F# F G# G B C C# D E Bb Eb
4 Bb G F# A G# C C# D Eb F B E
1 G E Eb F# F A Bb B C D G# C#
2 G# F E G F# Bb B C C# Eb A D
10 E C# C Eb D F# G G# A B F Bb
9 Eb C B D C# F F# G G# Bb E A
8 D B Bb C# C E F F# G A Eb G#
7 C# Bb A C B Eb E F F# G# D G
5 B G# G Bb A C# D Eb E F# C F
11 F D C# E Eb G G# A Bb C F# B
6 C A G# B Bb D Eb E F G C# F#

First movement, sonata form

Introduction

1-5 P7, I5 rows; staccato F# motive introduced

Exposition

6-15 Primary theme in saxophone; secondary theme mirror canon

[repeat exposition]

Development

16-18 First developmental unit; mirror canon continues throughout development

19-21 Second unit

21-24 Third unit; climax of pitch and density; all T6 row forms are used

24-27 Fourth unit

[grand pause]

Recapitulation

28-37 Return of original row forms from exposition; some alterations in line movement and rhythmic content

[repeat development and recapitulation]

Coda

37-41 Rows from introduction presented in retrograde

Second movement, rondo form

Refrain A

1-19 Primary theme; untransposed (T0) row forms

20-32 Secondary theme; T6 row forms; canon

Episode B1

33-50 Primary theme; episode uses a variety of row forms

51-62 Secondary theme

Refrain A

63-87 Primary A theme returns

88-93 Transition

Episode C

94-121 Textural, rhythmic, and timbral contrasts

121-131 Transition

Refrain A

132-152 Both A themes return

Episode B2

153-182 Expanded row vocabulary; canon

Refrain A

182-192 First A theme returns; dynamic contrast

Bibliography

Kathryn Bailey, The Twelve-note music of Anton Webern: Old forms in a new language (Cambridge, 1991).

Pierre Boulez, liner notes to recording Complete Works: Anton Webern, London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez, Sony Classical: Austria, 1991.

Hans Moldenhauer and Rosaleen Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work (New York, 1979).

Pixelrush, http://www.antonwebern.com (April 4, 2001)

Leland Smith, “Composition and Precomposition in the Music of Webern,” in Anton von Webern: Perspectives, compiled by Hans Moldenhauer (Seattle, 1966), pp. 86-101.

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