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ANTON WEBERN (1883-1945)

Langsamer Satz

January 14, 2024: Goldmund Quartet

Webern was in love. In his third year as a student at the University of Vienna, he became romantically involved with his cousin Wilhelmine (Minna), and Webern’s diary, each entry filled with passionate outpourings combined with images of nature, radiates his happiness: “Our love rose to infinite heights and filled the universe! Two souls were enraptured!” The Langsamer Satz (“slow movement”), originally for string quartet, was composed in June 1905 as a direct expression of that love. They kept their affair secret knowing the anguish it would cause both sets of parents, but they married in 1911 after finding out Minna was pregnant. The marriage was officially prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church and solemnized only in 1915, by which time three of the couple’s four children had been born.

In 1904 Webern had begun private composition studies with Arnold Schoenberg, which were to have profound impact on his life. There are some indications in the original set of parts for Langsamer Satz that the work was played, most likely within the Schoenberg “circle,” but Webern never made the work public. He may have suppressed it as a student work or because his compositional style soon underwent a major shift toward Schoenberg’s atonal language. In any case, it was not until 1962, almost twenty years after his death, that the world first heard this moving piece, performed on May 27 in Seattle by the University of Washington String Quartet.

Langsamer Satz shows Webern’s indebtedness to late Romanticism in its rich harmonies and sweeping melodic lines. While this kind of expressiveness soon became telescoped into bare essentials, the movement exhibits the contrapuntal techniques that enabled him to structure even his most concise serial compositions.

The piece consists of four basic sections, the fourth a reprise of the first, plus a coda. Though the key of the movement is E-flat major, the flowing opening melody gives the initial impression of C minor. A short, more restless section in G minor precedes a beautiful new calm theme that, if the opening was not enough, puts to rest questions about Webern’s lyrical abilities. The section peaks with the opening bar of this theme played triple forte, doubled in three octaves. In the reprise of the opening section, the second statement of the main theme is now the property of the cello. A coda based on the lyrical third section climaxes ecstatically and Webern’s wordless expression of love concludes quietly in E-flat major after a brief reminiscence of the C minor opening.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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