Spring Symphonies: 8/30 Webern: Chamber Symphony Op 21

This is a mighty piece though its dimensions are small and you’d better be prepared, if you are unfamiliar with Webern’s music, for your ears to be opened. Nothing can quite prepare one for the scarcity of notes in Webern’s music or indeed their almost complete lack of relationships to each other.  This is in many ways an exercise in stripping down the essentials of music to the nearest minimum. a weird assortment of instruments in about 9 minutes perform about a dozen and a half pages of music in “full” score.

Its is often described as crystalline this music distils the very essence of some of the things we take for granted - there are few tunes per se, there’s a rhythmical framework, but its not obvious, there’s a wide and obligatory use of atonality.  This is not built of the same bricks as a Tchaikovsky symphony.  The scoring is scant: some strings - used all together or singularly, but no double basses - a harp, a clarinet, a bass clarinet and a horn.

The first movement is a tightly constructed, meticulously scored and is something of a brain teaser.  There are repeating patterns here which on paper look very clever and have hints of an attempt to pull out the links we hear in patterns and symmetries.  Two sections are repeated.  Its hard to imagine what you will think to this if you haven’t heard any music like this before.  Harder still to think what audiences in 1923 made of it.

The tiny fragments sound their part and then are left hanging, there’s an eerie sense of space and purity to it and yet none of those aspects that let music flow.  There are certainly none of the triggers that help us grasp a tune and even after a good deal more than 8 auditions (Beecham’s recommended minimum) I find myself struggling to “hear” the start of this symphony in my head.  The repetition and reflection is not obvious to the listener and not many will pursue this idea down to the score.  That said it is remarkable that this piece - and much else Webern wrote - is played, recorded and revered.  It has a shattering abstract nature and that was fitting for his time and place - Vienna between the World Wars.

Webern’s life ended abruptly.  He was shot during a curfew by an American soldier on 15 September 1945. He would I think increasingly have found post war European music difficult to cope with and yet his clear headed , single minded pursuit of atonal ideals, architectural purity and a kind of reverence for just the right realised note in just the right voice has influenced many, cultivated the reputation of the Second Viennese School and held listeners in his thrall, though sometimes that thrall comes with a good deal of bewilderment.  This is an extreme and welcome example of what a symphony can be - it’s two parts together cover so much ground in so little space-time.

The second movement is even slightly in terms of duration, though I’d wager its got more notes that the first.  It is a theme and variations and each variation is relatively easy to delineate although if you get distracted the whole thing may pass you by.  The richer environment provides for more colour and more of Webern’s typical orchestral drive and power (all delivered with astonishing economy).  If you know the Six Pieces or the Five Pieces then this is more coherent given the unifying theme and just as electric.

I’m surprised I have more to say at the end of these 600 words - the little explosions in Weberns music have many effects, links and associations in my mind.  One can only wonder what, had he lived, Webern’s first opera might have contained.  As it is his one symphony is worth attention - if only because for the new listener I bet you didn’t imagine music could sound like this - let alone 90 year old music.

Here’s Pierre Boulez with the London Symphony Orchestra - helpful with a score to guide you.


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