Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra

Notes by TŌN violinist Stuart McDonald

A World of Their Own
In the world of post-Romantic music, one is often met by a large amount of works that go to extremes in terms of orchestration and length. From Mahler’s symphonies to Strauss’ symphonic poems, we consistently see pieces calling for extremely large orchestras, and sometimes it can feel difficult to find a piece that doesn’t last for more than an hour. Mahler once said that he wanted each of his symphonies to be “a universe in itself.” Webern also wanted to create this sense of his works being a world of their own, but on a more microscopic level and through fewer compositions; so few that you could probably fit his entire catalog (31 opuses) onto three CDs. Although his compositions were few, he consistently created a feeling of completeness in his works, and his 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 is no exception.

A Riotous Premiere
Written in 1909 and dedicated to his father, this work was first premiered in 1913, conducted by his friend and fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg, in a concert that would feature works by Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, and Schoenberg himself. Unfortunately, the piece did not go down how the composers had hoped, and the concert was aborted after a the audience began to riot, similarly to what would later occur at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The Music
This piece is predominantly atonal, and shows an early use of Klangfarbenmelodie (timbre-color melody), where melodies are often split between several instruments. Webern concentrates on using two very basic components. The first is silence, sometimes partial with only a very small number of musicians playing, and sometimes complete, with no sound coming from the orchestra whatsoever. The second is the way he manipulates sound by his use of extended techniques. If you look closely, you can often see the strings playing sul ponticello and using artificial harmonics, and the winds being required to flutter tongue at certain points during the work. Webern’s use of dynamics also play with the listeners’ emotions. Rapid crescendos suddenly alternate with forte pianos just seconds after the piece begins and you suddenly find yourself transitioning between very sparse sections of music to expressive sections similar to the development of a sonata.

Open Your Ears
So open your ears and be alert to every little sound the orchestra makes, understanding it quickly before it moves to the next one. Pieces such as this one have so many dimensions, and all of them are essential if you want to be immersed in the world of sound Webern has created.

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019. 

Morton Feldman’s “Orchestra”

Notes by TŌN violinist Jacques Gadway

On the surface, Morton Feldman’s Orchestra looks like it may be a traditional symphonic work. However, after hearing the first few measures, one can be sure it is anything but traditional. While the orchestration calls for a relatively standard instrumental setting, Feldman effectively expresses his disconnection to conventional western harmony and structure. Orchestra is a journey through the sounds of the orchestra. It is easy to feel his attraction to visual art when listening to the piece. In 1950, Feldman met John Cage at a concert in Carnegie Hall. The two were both leaving early from the concert as neither of them were interested in the second piece on the program. They both went to hear Webern’s 12-tone symphony and bonded over their mutual appreciation for the piece. They became quick friends, and Feldman became one of the many artists in John Cage’s circle. Out of all of them, Feldman loved the visual artists: the painters. He even went on to develop graphic notation in an inspired effort to eliminate some of the machine-like components of music making. While Orchestra does not utilize graphic notation and is written in traditional western notation, it is clear that he does not abandon the concepts he developed in his notation innovations. It is almost like a painting, however instead of writing the music graphically, he treats the orchestra like the canvas. With the symphony, he paints a world the listener can get lost within.

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019. 

Morton Feldman’s “Orchestra”

Notes by TŌN violinist Linda Duan

A Chance Meeting
In 1950, Morton Feldman attended a performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 at Carnegie Hall. Upon witnessing the audience’s dispassionate response to the music, he left before the next work, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a work that Feldman considered regressive and undesirable in its indulgence of Romantic expressiveness. In the lobby he ran into John Cage, and introduced himself with the remark, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” Thus began a friendship that would greatly influence and shape Feldman’s work, perspective, and philosophy of composition. In his own words, Feldman said that “the main influence from Cage was a green light, it was permission, the freedom to do what I wanted.” They, along with several other composers, formed the New York School, a group of composers who rejected traditional forms and ideas of music composition, emphasizing instinctual individuality and free expression.

Inspiration from Painters
Feldman collected many works by American abstract expressionist painters, and was deeply ensconced in their aesthetic. The immediacy of their works as well as the freedom of assimilation in their materials further inspired Feldman to craft his own unique soundworld, utilizing the medium of sound as paint. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Feldman experimented with creating washes of sound through graphic notation and other various techniques. He also wrote several works centered on the works and lives of his artist friends, including Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Frank O’Hara (1973).

Between Categories
The music of Morton Feldman is characterized by a few distinct features: a dynamic range that rarely goes above piano, an emphasis on each sound as its own entity, a disconnect between musical patterns and events, and a slowly evolving pacing interspersed with recurring asymmetric patterns. In his later works, Feldman also experimented with musical length, composing String Quartet II in 1983, which spans over 6 hours! Feldman considered his compositions as “time canvasses,” which he primed with a hue of music, that existed between categories: “between time and space, between painting and music, between the music’s construction and its surface.” In this space between, Feldman sought to invoke an abstract experience on a sensory rather than philosophical level.

The Music
When Feldman composed Orchestra (1976), he was writing several works all focused on the orchestra as an ensemble, while also featuring certain instruments. This work, in particular, takes the listener on a walk through the musical landscape of the orchestra. The changing timbres, shifting patterns, dissonances resolving to surprising consonances, and tensions between sound and silence are all part of the composer’s style. However, instances of extremely loud dynamics provide a contrast to the usual quietness of Feldman’s music. As the music progresses, the two pianos trade chords back and forth as clusters occur in the strings and winds, resulting in a slow fade-away into silence.

Feldman, in his usual gifted way with words, had this to say about the music:

“One of the compositional quirks I’m most lucky about is the almost total state of amnesia immediately after completing a composition. There is not one of which I could sit down and recall a note of . . . Like Don Juan, whose involvement with women was only because he was on the run from them, my involvement with compositions comes about the same way: avenue of escape FROM it. As a friend used to say at a dull part, “Where’s the escape hatch?” Art is no different. It’s a boring party. The thing is to know when to leave and write something like . . . Orchestra.”

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019.