One of my earliest posts on this site, back when I was just beginning to rev up my attention to writing about music, involved a particularly impressive recital by the Artemis Quartet that took place in February of 2007. The center of this program was occupied by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59, Number 2 string quartet, the second of the three Razumovsky quartets. This was followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s first published string quartet and preceded by Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz,” which was not published during the composer’s lifetime.
In that post I suggested that Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” would provide a suitable frame of reference for listening to the “Langsamer Satz.” I conjectured that, since Webern had come to Vienna in 1902, “one of the factors that drew him to [study with] Schoenberg would probably have been Verklärte Nacht, which premiered in 1903.” This morning, partially in the interest of “decompressing” from my experience with Wagner’s Ring cycle last week, I found myself listening to Webern’s early songs, which also were only published after Webern’s death. These also exhibit “auditory symptoms” of Schoenberg’s influence, particularly among those composed after Webern’s arrival in Vienna, which accounts for most of those songs.
It also occurred to me that these songs are less likely to induce audience restlessness the way so much of Webern’s more mature music continues to do. My guess is that the two factors that tend to provoke in Webern’s music are the low dynamic levels and the microscopic brevity. Brevity seems to matter less where songs are concerned; one has only to look at many of the songs by Johannes Brahms for a comparable frame of reference. The dynamics, on the other hand, are those of voice and piano and are not carried to any particular extremes. Thus, normative expectations are not being violated; and the audience does not feel as nervous!