Mad scientist of music
September 14, 2005 9:49 PM   Subscribe

'A novel contained in a single sigh' On Sept. 15, 1945, Anton Webern stepped out to smoke a cigar. An American soldier, seeing the glow of the cigar, panicked and shot Webern three times. Webern, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, is credited with -- or blamed for -- ushering in an era of composition emphasizing strict, mathematical order over all elements of music, a reaction against the suicidal excess of Romanticism. On the anniversary of his death, BBC Radio 3 hosts Webern Day, during which Webern's complete works will be broadcast. The total time to perform his 31 works is about three hours. (Links grabbed mostly from ArtsJournal.)
posted by NemesisVex (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
excellent post! i think it's a bit much to state that they ushered in "an era" -- there are still many composers (both then and now) that don't care much for math.

what this school of composers did was, in schoenberg's words, "liberate the dissonance". all pitches, dynamics, etc.etc. were given equal weight rather than writing "in a key".

you can use math to analyze this music pretty well (they were at times not as strict as is commonly thought), but it's important to remember that analysis techniques are not neccesarily compositional tools.

webern was one of the great ones though... it's a shame that most people don't look past brahms when they want to hear art music...
posted by teletype1 at 9:56 PM on September 14, 2005

Nice post! Though the stickler in me can't help but correct a common misconception. The music of Webern et al. wasn't a reaction against romanticism at all; in fact, it organically grew out of the Romantic era. Schoenberg's early works look remarkably like Brahms filtered through some weird harmonically skewed prism. He also continued to use old forms like the sonata and the gigue. And one listen to Berg's melodramatic opera "Wozzeck" will confirm that he didn't have any problems with excess.

Webern was a little more austere, a little more precise, but I wouldn't say his music was mathematically driven. He was just very, very careful about using sound and silence to evoke a certain mood. He once said something like "once all 12 pitches have sounded in a piece, the piece is over," but this is more of an intuition of his than a general rule.

It was actually the generation of composers after Webern, including Boulez and Babbitt, that codified the vague notions that Schoenberg and the Vienna crew had barely articulated. It was they who began to write analytically-based music, trying to deal with the 12 pitches in a mathematical way, and applying the same sorts of operations to dynamics and rhythm. In doing so, they took music almost totally out of the realm of sound into a world of pure theory, and as a result, audiences fled. (IMHO.) This also gave Schoenberg and his contemporaries a bad reputation for a while, especially because performances of their music tended to be technically precise while emotionally affectless.

Now, people are finally starting to realize that Webern and Schoenberg and Berg wanted their music to be expressive, and performances are beginning to reflect that. Um... go listen to Isaac Stern's performance of the Berg violin concerto with Bernstein conducting. Yeah.

OK, I'll shut up now.
posted by speicus at 10:31 PM on September 14, 2005

Webern used crab cannons, vertical and horizontal symmetry, palindromes. I guess you could analyze these with math, you could just as well cut shapes from paper and flip and overlay them.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:05 PM on September 14, 2005

Bach wrote crab canons, Bartok was obsessed with symmetry, Machaut used palindromes extensively. While their pieces incorporate mathematically analyzable devices, no one would think of saying their music has a strict mathematical order, because there's much more to it than that. Same goes for Webern.
posted by speicus at 11:28 PM on September 14, 2005

I love Webern's music. The other serialists do nothing for me, but Webern's work is like intricate jewelry. If you're looking for a primer, the Boulez recordings are very good, if a bit more technical than interpretive. It's something of a miracle they're recorded at all; the story is Boulez snuck these recordings in on the tail end of other sessions.
posted by Nelson at 11:54 PM on September 14, 2005

Three hours of Webern?

I'd prefer three of those bullets, thanks.
posted by enrevanche at 3:19 AM on September 15, 2005

Big week for the second Viennese school on MetaFilter! Who's going to do the Berg (my favorite of the three) post?

My first time listening to Schoenberg was in college - you had to go back in an archive room and dig out the LP you wanted, then go into a -- musty isn't really adequate to describe it, but it'll do -- listening booth. I selected, more or less at random, Pierrot Lunaire, went in the booth, held my breath, and put the headphones on.

At first I thought someone was pulling my leg - just too weird. But I kept listening and it gradually sank in and the rest of the day I had those first words, Der Wein, den man mit Auuuuuuuuuuuuuugen trinkt stuck in my head. So I went back the next day and listened again, and the next day...

...and then I got out "The Complete Works of Anton Webern" (huh? it's just a couple of LPs!) and went through almost the same process all over again. Of course the first thing I heard was Webern's transcription of the Bach Musical Offering ricercar , and I was truly awed by the orchestration. Then on to the passacaglia, and so on.

Unlike Schoenberg (and later, even more so, Berg), though, Webern never really caught on with me - I never found anything memorable that I wanted to come back and listen again and again. I guess you could say that Webern's the least expressive of the three, and maybe it's that counterweight to the intellectualism that I miss. But I think much more of the element of time - maybe what I love most of all about a great musical work is the large-scale unfolding of form; the directed, forward motion of it. I don't get that from Webern's hypercompressed material and I don't get it from the vast expanses of most "minimalists", either.

So: in short, thanks for the post. I haven't done a Webern binge in a long, long time and I'll be listening all day.

And, really... who's got the Berg links?
posted by Wolfdog at 4:08 AM on September 15, 2005

Spooky. I know nothing of the people you talk about here. I like classical music but discovered it late and never studied any form of music, so I don't know Jack about Schmidt.

But I was listening to ABCFM (the government-owned national classical music station) this morning and the said shooting incident was part of a trivia question.

Name three composers killed in war as civilians.

I wouldn't have remembered the name, but the incident described is almost identical so it has to be him. Although the station offered an alternative version where the soldier was drunk, and there was an argument over black marketeering, IIRC.

But now I notice that it's the 60th anniversary of his death so maybe the coincidence ain't that spooky.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:54 AM on September 15, 2005

Without a fragment of a doubt, Webern is my favorite of the three mentioned. His music presages that of both Morton Feldman and Bill Dixon, a little, if that is at all possible.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:24 AM on September 15, 2005

The circumstances of Webern's murder are outlined in The Death of Anton Webern, a Drama in Documents by Hans Moldenhauer. In broad strokes, his son-in-law attempted to buy sugar and US$ from a US Army cook named Nathan Bell. Bell ratted to the Military Police, and a sting was arranged at the son-in-laws home on a night when Mr & Mrs Anton were visiting their new infant grandson. Webern had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette while Bell, an MP, and the son in law went into the kitchen to do business. Bell, having little combat or law enforcement training, freaked out. The MP told him to go home, and he fled the house, coliding with Webern on the porch. In his panic he mistook the collision for an attack from german black market enforcers, shot Webern and fled. His widow told Muldenhauer that he lived out his life in alcoholic misery, chanting "I wish I hadn't shot that old man" to himself, and died young.
posted by Eothele at 11:02 AM on September 15, 2005

Now you see, when I heard the story in Music History class, I always figured the whole cigarette thing was a ruse to save us from serialism.

I'd rather listen to Hindemith.
posted by ilsa at 11:44 AM on September 15, 2005

Hindemith rules - at least, when he's at his best. If you like Hindemith make sure Walter Piston is on your list of stuff to check out, too.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:04 PM on September 15, 2005

awesome! good post! but seriously dude, the decemberists are way better than webern
posted by Satapher at 12:24 PM on September 15, 2005

posted by Satapher at 12:26 PM on September 15, 2005

your favorite composer sucks
posted by speicus at 2:03 PM on September 15, 2005

another technically interesting composer is Conlon Nancarrow. Almost all of his pieces were written for the player piano. He did really wacky things like pieces written with the time signature of 2^(1/2)/2. Too bad he didn't have access to computer music, the player piano doesn't have enough dynamic range.
posted by sineater at 2:41 PM on September 15, 2005

Nancarrow is very worthwhile.

Not sure if it was mentioned, but there's reference to the shooting of Webern in Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:18 PM on September 15, 2005

Good call wolfdog.

I only knew Piston's textbooks, but I've just downloaded a couple of the symphonies (2 & 6) to try. I feel like I've been missing out. What else of his should I be looking out for?
posted by monkey closet at 5:17 AM on September 16, 2005

Oh, isn't the Piston 2nd symphony wonderful? He takes one of the most beautiful openings imaginable, spins it out until it's practically heartbreaking and then the big percussion CLAP and that crazy little dance tune. It never fails to make me laugh. I have no idea why it isn't programmed more often.

So. Other Piston -

The 4th Symphony is my favorite beside the 2nd, and you can find it on CD coupled with the Three New England Sketches, which is a seriously underappreciated descriptive piece - great, "feels like you're there" writing, with maybe a little bit of an impressionist feeling, but not excessively so.

Piston was a good idiomatic writer for flute, and both the Concerto and the Sonata for flute are worth a listen. There's a fairly recent album of American flute music with Jeffrey Khaner performing that includes the Sonata. Another absolute gem is the flute quintet - it's a real chamber tour de force and the scherzo has a rare amount of pure, unironic humor for a 20th century chamber piece.

The viola concerto is another winner, and the five string quartets are a notch below Bartok's six, but still very well-crafted, deep enough to keep your interest over multiple listens and covering a pretty wide range in terms of tonality or the lack thereof. They are the works most reminiscent of Hindemith to me.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:31 AM on September 16, 2005

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