This essay examines the fourth piece in Webern’s Opus 10.
Anton von Webern (1883-1945), according to liner notes, was “a composer continually in the process of remaking himself while remaining true to his deepest spiritual promptings.” (MacDonald, p. 4).
A pupil of Schoenberg, he is often associated with that composer because of his work in what is usually called “atonal” music, but he wrote some very melodic pieces as well.
This paper looks at one of his very short compositions, no. IV, “Fleißend, äußerst zart” from “Five Orchestral Pieces,” op. 10.
I found this composition on a CD by the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. The same piece played by different orchestras under different conductors will vary in length, depending on the tempo the conductor prefers. On this recording, it is exactly 30 seconds long. For something that short, it’s an amazingly complex piece of music.
I’ve listened to it repeatedly, and the word I can best use to describe it is “mysterious” or perhaps “otherworldly.” It is ephemeral, like something you see from the corner of your eye. It’s hard to truly understand the piece, because it’s over so quickly, and yet the sense lingers of their being something going on just out of hearing; something we could hear if we could strain just a bit harder or if it were only a second or two longer.
The piece starts with two very faint notes being plucked by a stringed instrument in the first two seconds. Three more notes sound on seconds 3, 4 and 5; they are also plucked, and the note that is played at second three drops over an octave, and is actually two notes played very quickly, though not a chord. The note on second 4 is in the upper register, even higher than the note that began the piece, and the note at second 5 comes down slightly in pitch. Second 6 is silent.
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Just before second 7 (on the upbeat), a horn sounds a single note and holds it for eight seconds (8-16).
It doesn’t change pitch, but the timbre is very clear, and it grows louder, then softer, then louder and softer, louder and softer three times in succession. These crescendos occur at one-second intervals, on 10, 11, and 12.
At the same time, a second horn joins in. It provides dissonance: the two horns do not blend at all, though the effect is not unpleasant. This second horn comes in at second 8, along with the first, and plays three notes in rapid succession, ending at approximately second 10. It’s then silent until second 15, when it comes back in and “resolves” the chord; that is, at that point it provides a logical ending for the sequence it began earlier, rather than leaving us hanging. The effect is one of relaxation and pleasure after the “clash” of the horns and the three strange notes already played on this instrument.
Seconds 17-20 are silent; then there is the most amazing effect in the entire piece: there is a sort of “shimmer” in the low strings. It resonates or “echoes” until second 24 when it dies away. During those four seconds, and extending to second 26, a string is plucked six times, though the rhythm is not even. The first four plucked notes are equally spaced and take less than two seconds to complete, but the last two take slightly longer; perhaps a full second for the two. The difference in speed is extraordinarily subtle, but there is a definite slowing when the last two notes are plucked. Finally, a violin adds three last high notes (bowed, not plucked) during seconds 24-26. The final four seconds are silent.
This is just amazing. The instruments are violin and horn, and possibly a harp or cello for the low glissando that makes me think of haunted houses. The contrast between the brass and strings provides an interest mix of textures, as does the uneven rhythm of the various sections.
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It’s also somewhat unsettling, because the piece doesn’t progress smoothly, and we’re used to a “flow” in musical compositions. Here, the opening is a series of plucked notes on the strings, and we expect more of the same to follow. But after a one-second rest, the brass comes in. It dominates the middle of the piece, and then fades; it doesn’t return. Instead, there are the low, “shimmery” notes from the strings that I think are the most magical things about the piece. I think “magic” can be used here, for this is a piece that has a quality of strangeness about it that calls to mind the exploits of sorcerers and wizards.
The silences are particularly masterful for they heighten the suspense and make us wonder what’s coming next. They are not restful; rather they give us a sort of “calm before the storm” feeling.
This music is ephemeral, like faded snapshots or glimpses of a landscape illuminated by flashes of lightning. Nothing lasts long enough for us to be able to say definitively “yes, that’s meant to be a storm.” Instead, we’re given hints and possibilities. The music is not impressionistic, but completely abstract. That is, it fails to suggest any imagery to the listener; instead, he or she becomes involved in the tonality and structure of the work itself, rather than searching for its meaning.
MacDonald, Calum. Liner Notes. Webern. Cond. Christoph von Dohnányi. The Cleveland Orchestra. London, 289 444-593-2, 1993.
Webern, Anton von. Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 10. Cond. Christoph von Dohnányi. The Cleveland Orchestra. London, 289 444 593-2, 1993.