The earliest of Webern's compositions to survive were written in 1899, his 16th year, and consist of two pieces for cello and piano and a song with piano accompaniment on a poem by Avenarius. All are between 21 and 24 bars long and bear key signatures, though the shorter of the cello pieces shows already an uncomfortable relationship with its key signature that was to become more pronounced in the pieces written in the next few years. These and subsequent compositions written prior to the time Webern entered university in 1902 (eight other works from these years survive, all songs with piano accompaniment) exhibit the same rich textures and occasionally adventurous but frequently awkward harmonic language. The texts of the songs are for the most part lyrical vignettes on subjects from nature (clouds, stars, the moon, blossoms, the song of the blackbird, etc.); like both cello pieces, most are in a slow tempo.
Commencing formal studies in harmony and counterpoint in 1902, Webern began to broaden his horizon. Besides a number of arrangements of music by Schubert and Wolf, surviving sketches from 1903 and 1904 are of 13 more songs for voice and piano, one for voice and orchestra, 24 pieces for solo piano, nine movements for string quartet, a theme and variations for piano quintet and seven works for orchestra. Key signatures disappear for the first time in some of the songs from 1903; though this does not indicate the absence of tonality, the more adventurous pieces do not begin and end in the same key. There is little harmonic progression in the traditional sense in the early pieces, and the level of dissonance is in most cases rather high, but the basic harmonic language remains emphatically triadic. Phrases and movements inevitably end on pure triads, though harmonic motion between these cadence points is unpredictable. Textures are thick and a wide range is covered, with extended measured arpeggios, low bass tremolos and movement in octaves, both open and filled in with 3rds or triads.
From 1905, Webern's first year with Schoenberg, sketches for only five works are extant, all instrumental movements; Webern continued to write almost exclusively for string quartet and orchestra in the next two years. Two of the movements for string quartet, both written between June and August 1905, deserve attention. In these pieces we see a composer of considerably greater refinement and sophistication than the youth of even one year earlier. Perhaps the most striking difference between these and earlier pieces is in their coherence, and in the logic, both structural and harmonic, that governs them. Whereas in the earlier pieces the frequent unexpected harmonic shifts often seem aimless and without purpose, the situation is different in the quartet movements, where motion is directed: here surprises serve to interrupt, rather than to deflect or dissipate. The first of these movements, published posthumously as Langsamer Satz, is the shorter and more lighthearted. It is Brahmsian in style and texture with sumptuous harmonies and is simple but structurally secure. The longer piece (in fact the longest instrumental movement in all of Webern's music), known simply as String Quartet, represents the convergence of several influences. During the 1903–4 concert season Webern had heard Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. He was later to write to Schoenberg: ‘The impression it made on me was one of the greatest I had ever experienced’. The 1905 String Quartet is Webern's Verklärte Nacht: his familiarity with Schoenberg's work expresses itself in many ways. But the work does not refer to Schoenberg alone. Webern noted on his sketches for the quartet that it was inspired by the artist Giovanni Segantini's triptych Werden–Sein–Vergehen (‘Becoming–Being–Passing Away’), and in addition the opening bars and various transitions within the work are obviously modelled on the ‘Muss es sein?’ motif of Beethoven's String Quartet op.135. Some months earlier, on 6 November 1904, Webern had compared Segantini's art with that of Beethoven. After hearing a performance of the Eroica Symphony, he wrote: ‘The genius of Beethoven reveals itself more and more clearly to me … I long for an artist in music such as Segantini was in painting … That man would then be the Beethoven of our day.’ Clearly the conjunction of references associated with this work was not a coincidence. Finally, and perhaps quite by chance (but who can say?), the motif used as a unifying device throughout this movement – Webern's ‘Muss es sein?’ – is the three-note cell that was to be the all-important germ motif in his Concerto op.24 over a quarter of a century later.
In the next two years Webern produced a large number of chorale settings as exercises for Schoenberg and made sketches for an equally large number of instrumental movements, but few of these reached completion and none has the assurance of the 1905 String Quartet. The last two works written under Schoenberg's tutelage were the first Webern felt to be worthy of opus numbers. The Passacaglia for orchestra, staunchly in D minor, is formally his most rigorous work so far, though its inevitable repetitions are well masked by a superstructure of larger sections and by frequent variations in tempo and texture. The influence of Brahms seems obvious. Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen, on a text by Stefan George and much less well known, is perhaps of more importance, as a forecast of what was to come many years later, for it was in his op.2 that Webern for the first time used canon on a large scale.
3. Early aphoristic style, 1908–14.
On leaving Schoenberg's class Webern returned immediately to composing songs with piano accompaniment. He had set two poems by Richard Dehmel in 1906 and 1907; in 1908 he composed three more. He also turned his attention once more to the poetry of Stefan George. In 1908–9 he set 14 George poems, ten of which he would later publish as opp.3 and 4. Though his music had been increasingly atonal for some time prior to this, and key signatures had in several instances already been either absent or meaningless, in the George songs he finally abandoned them, and forever. These songs represent a new direction: they are quite different in many ways from the previous music (indeed, from even the roughly contemporary Dehmel songs) and are the first of a group of very short atonal works in what is usually referred to as Webern's ‘aphoristic style’. Although his earliest attempts at composition had produced relatively short pieces, 20 or 30 bars long, a few of the songs from his university years had been two or three times that length, and several of the instrumental pieces written during his study with Schoenberg were quite extended. The songs of op.3 range from 10 to 16 bars; those of op.4 are only slightly longer. Two of the four that were left over are 22 and 30 bars long, which was perhaps one reason for their being excluded from the published sets. All ten are studies in near-silence. Half of them use a dynamic range from ppp to p, with p used very sparingly; in all ten ppp is the level that predominates. They show a new compression and a new world of dissonant non-triadic chords: both were to be essential features of Webern's music from this time onwards. Registrally they cover a wide span in a brief time: the piano accompaniment in all but one of the ten published songs makes use of over five octaves, and in two of them the range extends to just short of or just over six. Textures are dense, with complex cross-rhythms and chords of up to eight different pitches, as well as the movement in octaves and octaves filled in with 3rds that had pervaded the earlier songs, but the remarkable reduction in dynamics and the non-triadic atonal nature of the vertical collections result in shimmering and quickly changing colours rather than the turgidity their appearance on the page might suggest. The same is true of the instrumental works to follow in the next few years, opp.5–11.
This was a prolific time for Webern. Besides the completion of the George songs, 1909 saw the composition of the brief and other-worldly op.5 movements for string quartet and the slightly larger-scale orchestral pieces of op.6, which he wrote as a memorial to his mother, whose death in 1906 affected him greatly; the op.7 pieces for violin and piano and the op.8 Rilke songs followed in 1910. In 1911 he wrote four of the Sechs Bagatellen for string quartet op.9 and two of the orchestral pieces of op.10. These 23 pieces, comprising his published work of 1909–11, continue on the course set by the two groups of George songs. They are increasingly minimalist in nearly every respect; they are fleeting glimpses, whispered suggestions, breaths – with George and Schoenberg – of ‘the air of another planet’. Igor Stravinsky would later write of Webern's ‘dazzling diamonds’, Schoenberg of ‘a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath’.
Schoenberg's brief description is in fact more perspicacious than it might at first appear. While comparison with a novel implies a compression of content, the image of ‘a joy’ supposes nothing of the kind. Each of these sets of tiny pieces strikes a balance between movements of two sorts: those in which the most extreme registral and dynamic differences have been condensed into a few frenzied gestures in as many bars, and those in which time and activity seem to be suspended for a few seconds. Pieces of the first sort are generally longer than those of the second and written in a quick tempo, with thick textures and impassioned activity, and extremes of register and dynamics (ppp to fff) in close proximity. Pieces of the second type are usually between eight and 14 bars long (several are over in eight or nine bars, one in only six), contain a minimum of notes (the fourth piece of op.10 consists of 28 notes, two of these expressed as a trill), and may also cover a wide registral canvas, but are confined in dynamic activity to ppp and pp (in the case of op.7 no.3 never rising above ppp). Multifarious instrumental effects – harmonics, pizzicato, spiccato, non-vibrato, col legno, am Griffbrett and am Stegin the string parts, fluttertongue in the flutes, the liberal use of mutes in all parts – abound in the pieces of both types, resulting in an eerie sound world in which timbre frequently predominates over pitch, and silence assumes a place on a par with both. A single example of the second type of piece (a joy, rather than a novel) will illustrate many of the features just discussed; the example is the fourth of the Bagatellen op.9 (ex.1).
The small number of notes in some of these pieces is probably their most striking feature when compared with the music of other composers of the time, and can be seen as a direct expression of the crisis that the Viennese triumvirate created for themselves in abandoning tonality. Webern said later of his experience when composing the bagatelles: ‘I had the feeling that when all 12 notes had gone by the piece was finished … In my sketchbook I wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off the individual notes.’ While none of the atonal aphorisms attempt serial composition, the constant circulation of the 12 notes is a significant feature of all of them. Other characteristic traits are the preponderance of semitones and their permutations (7ths, 9ths and so on), a lack of rhythmic pulse and metric definition, single chords and short melodic figures isolated by silence on either side, continual changes of timbre, and the juxtaposition of extremes, timbrally and registrally. While long repeated-note figures and measured tremolos in which two notes alternate are surprisingly frequent, repetition of longer figures is abjured. This refusal covers imitation, sequence, variation and even motivic development. Short melodic figures may look like motifs, but they are not treated as such.
The appearance of the final work of this type was delayed by three years, during which Webern struggled with several projects, among them a stage play, Tot, and a cello sonata, in which he attempted to extend the new atonal idiom to longer forms. In summer 1914 he finally admitted defeat in this experiment and produced instead the Drei kleine Stücke op.11 for cello and piano, once again in the spare style of 1911. In the third of these pieces, entirely ppp and pp, the cello plays eight notes and the piano a three-note melody and three chords, all in or below the bass clef (fig.4). At a total of 32 bars, this opus represents the extreme of Webern's aphoristic style.