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.