Webern's 12-note vocal works stand as a monument to his friendship with the poet Hildegard Jone. Jone's poetry is strange and mystical, an introverted latter-day version of the lyrical nature poetry that so enchanted Webern as a youth. It is filled with sounds, with lightness and darkness, spring and images from nature, all translated into human emotions and visions of God. Webern felt a great spiritual kinship with Jone, and from the time of their meeting in 1926 he set texts by no-one else.
His first Jone settings were the two groups of songs, opp.23 and 25, whose composition was so closely entwined with that of the Concerto op.24. Not only stylistically, but structurally as well, these songs are similar to the songs of opp.12–13, and thus rather different from the instrumental works surrounding them. This almost certainly represents a response to the texts, which provide occasions for word-painting but suggest nebulous rather than rigorous forms. Canon and symmetry are not concerns in opp.23 and 25, and, although the orchestral and much of the choral music of Das Augenlicht op.26 is canonic, imitation is freer there than in the purely instrumental music. In the voice parts of this work canons alternate with sections in chorale style.
The two cantatas may be seen as the synthesis Webern no doubt intended them to be: they combine the rigorous use of canonic techniques and symmetry that is fundamental to his 12-note instrumental works with the word-painting that characterizes his song-writing. Of the nine movements they comprise, only one, the first movement of op.31, is not canonic; however, in both works canon is frequently disguised in such sophisticated ways as to be imperceptible. Thus, for example, in ‘Leichteste Bürden der Bäume’, the fourth movement of op.31, as in the middle section of the following movement, ‘Freundselig ist das Wort’, groups of notes in the imitating voices are gathered together into chords which, without transgressing the series of durations dictated by the dux, do not replicate it. The resulting music in both cases is an aria with sporadic chordal accompaniment which, without Webern's insistence on its canonic roots, no-one would recognize as having anything to do with imitation. The second movement of op.31 has more the appearance of canon, but it is rather thinner-textured than one would expect a good deal of the time, as a result of Webern's practice of omitting pitches dictated by the row from one voice if they are being sung in another. The ‘Ausfall’, or absent note, was an idea which was fully developed only in the Quartet op.28 and works following it. All the notes are present in the earliest sketches for opp.28–31; in subsequent sketches those Webern felt to be redundant have been encircled and then omitted. In ‘Kleiner Flügel, Ahornsamen’, the second movement of op.29, Webern sketched all the parts as a canon in four voices, then introduced a large number of slight rhythmic variations in only one or two voices at a time, the result being a fluid imitation in which voices constantly group and re-group in different combinations. ‘Gelockert aus dem Schosse’, the sixth movement of the second cantata, is obviously a canon: here imitation, though making use of both inversion and retrograde, is strict, and an archaic notation is used to emphasize the fact.
The texts of about half the movements of the second cantata are overtly religious. In a letter to Jone written shortly after completing it, Webern outlined ways in which he perceived his work to fulfil the requirements of a missa brevis. This perception doubtless influenced his decision concerning the final order of movements. There is no reason to suppose that this interpretation had occurred to him during the composition itself.
Webern's style changed three times: in 1908, when he abandoned tonality altogether and began to write the very brief, pointillistically disposed pieces of opp.3–11; in 1914, when he took up songwriting again and began to connect the scattered parts of his ensembles to form continuities; and in 1926, when he became secure in the 12-note technique and for the first time began to compose successfully in extended instrumental forms. His style emphatically did not change with his adoption of 12-note technique, though it did change as the result of the stability the technique offered him. Certain features of his style, however, were very little affected by any of these changes. The semitone always figures significantly in his music, usually taking the form of 7ths and 9ths and more expanded forms, and his lines tend to be angular and disjunct. Extremes of register are used in close proximity. Silence and near-silence prevail, in the form of rests and very low dynamic levels; louder passages, when they occur, are usually sudden and of very short duration. The juxtaposition of extremes remains a characteristic of Webern's music. Rhythm and metre are never prominent, the one tending to be complex and the other often almost completely obscured.
Ironically Webern, the composer who was seen by many as the originator of the hyperintellectualized serialism of the decades immediately following his death and whose own music most people found thoroughly bewildering upon first hearing, was by nature an ardent romantic who always held feeling and passion – and comprehensibility – to be important above all else in art. Nature, and the Alps in particular, were almost an obsession with him, and his love of the peace and solitude to be found in the mountains, as well as his fascination with the flowers of the alpine meadows, were an influence on his work in many ways, some of which will probably never be understood. Work on many of his seemingly most abstract works was preceded by sketches or outlines in which the various movements, sections and themes were likened to specific alpine places and flowers, to climatic situations (‘coolness of early spring’ etc.) and to members of his immediate family. A more tangible manifestation of this fascination with alpine flowers is his interest in Goethe's theories of colour and of the Urpflanze, the latter being of course another expression of the idea of unity, which to him – as to Schoenberg – was paramount.
A student of Schoenberg early in life and a devoted disciple lifelong, Webern wrote music that is nevertheless quite different from that of his master. Ideas that Schoenberg guarded jealously as his own assumed a greater intensity with Webern: the 12-note row was used both more ingeniously and more rigorously by Webern; Klangfarbenmelodie took the form of a shotgun-like dispersal of orchestral elements, embracing both timbre and register; continuous variation proceeded from the smallest units and encompassed all musical parameters. The idea of a musical unity that was to be achieved through the synthesis of the horizontal and the vertical, an idea so often given voice by Schoenberg, was carried out relentlessly by his one-time pupil, whose distillation of material to its very essence resulted in minute masterpieces of such concentration and brevity that they were generally perceived as entirely enigmatic. Theodor Adorno, in contrasting the two composers, wrote of ‘the assault that Schoenberg's constructivism launched against the walled doors of musical objectivism’ as being, in Webern, ‘just a vibration which comes to us from extreme distances’. And, elsewhere: ‘In Webern the musical subject grows silent and abdicates’.