Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting to the Sound of Webern

Reviewing my archives, I discovered, with a bit of dismay, that, while my label for Anton Webern currently is attached to twelve posts, only one of them involves a direct report of a performance of one of his compositions. That post dates all the way back to February 5, 2007 and covered a concert given by the Artemis Quartet, which included the 1905 string quartet (which I seem to have mistakenly identified as the Langsamer Satz, possibly propagating the error from my program book), which may be most interesting as a document of how Webern heard Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and certainly gives no indication of the "voice" that Webern would discover in those works that would be given opus numbers. Those later works still do not seem to sit well with San Francisco audiences. Michael Tilson Thomas keeps bringing back performances of the Opus 6 set of six orchestral pieces; and, for all their brevity and modesty, they never fail to bring out fits of nervous coughing for which Thomas then rebukes his audience. That is quite a reaction for music that is now more than a century old!

Over a month after the Artemis performance, I was still wrestling with the question of how the listener approaches Webern (even the Webern still trying to find his own "voice"). I wrote another post entitled "Going for the Sound," in which I hypothesized that the entire Artemis program of Ludwig van Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Webern had been about "speaking in a revolutionary voice." I then qualified this assertion as follows:

However, with this as background what was important was that the "revolutionary sound" of Beethoven was not the "revolutionary sound" of Webern (which, in this case, was very much influenced by the sonorities of Verklärte Nacht) or even the "revolutionary sound" of the Schoenberg first quartet (whose "domain" marked a radical shift from that of Verklärte Nacht). Finding and delivering the right sound for each of these three, highly distinct, pieces demonstrates precisely what I was trying to get at in trying to make a case for "accountability to the music itself."

This idea of "accountability to the music itself" would resurface in some of my more recent posts about the stare decisis performance strategy. I introduced this concept in writing about Olivier Messiaen in the following context:

In writing about "L'Ascension," I observed that Messiaen's approach to notation was thorough and meticulous enough that, where performance is concerned, he "pretty much made all the decisions that need to be made," which I called a stare decisis approach to performance.

There seems little evidence that links Messiaen's "micromanagement" of notation to Webern; but there is no doubt that Webern was just as "thorough and meticulous" in the use of detailed notation to evoke very specific auditory experiences. Perhaps the earliest example of this approach is the Opus 5 set of five pieces for string quartet, which Webern had published in 1909. Each of the pieces explores a diverse palette of means for the performers to elicit sounds from their instruments; but the experience is not simply one of "sound effects." Webern's challenge was to explore the diversity of sound while unifying it through a rhetoric of highly expressive phrases. Once again, rhetoric provides the key to listening: The logic is distilled down to the bare bones of sound production. Those bones and then joined, so to speak, through a grammar based on the raw material of interval complexes, rather than chords. It is through the rhetoric that such "alien" logic and grammar begin to "make sense" to the ear.

Four San Francisco Conservatory of Music students elected to play the Opus 5 as part of the String and Piano Chamber Music student recital series last night. I have to wonder to what extent they were coached in these matters of logic, grammar, and rhetoric (even if not in that particular terminology), because there was a crystalline clarity to the performance, through which the listener could easily realize that this was just a performance of music like any other (Alban Berg's great wish for how people would react to his Wozzeck opera). In my own ideal universe, there would be more opportunities to hear this composition. In many ways it serves as a "rehearsal" (as in the semantics of this blog title) for the orchestral writing of Opus 6. Perhaps if all those nervous Davies listeners became more familiar with what Webern was trying to do (quite a lot, mind you) in the limited domain of a string quartet, they might listen more attentively the next time the San Francisco Symphony performs the Opus 6. Needless to say, the audience for the Conservatory students was as attentive as one could have desired; but they tend not to get nervous in the presence of "alien" logic and grammar.

No comments: