Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Getting Webern's Back

In Flann O'Brien's novel The Dalkey Archive, James Joyce appears as a character, a timid and pious shadow of a man, bewildered and distressed at his public image (avant-garde, obscene, anti-clerical). While O'Brien's Joyce is pure fiction, an impossible parody, the image of the naive artist fundamentally misunderstood by his audience has stuck with me. In fact, the image recently returned to me when I was confronted with a remark about the composer Anton Webern. Webern, as well as I can imagine him, was a modest, if not timid, and somewhat naive man, who, had he survived his tragic shooting, would likely have been distressed by his post-war image as a radical, an intellectual, and a figure central to subsequent developments.


We know Webern through all of the lenses of hindsight, and they often function like the trick walls of glass and mirrors in a funhouse, as we can't tell whether his contradictions were his or are a part of his reception history: Webern is at once a mystic and a cerebrial calculator. An ultra-modernist with a slick international style but also a devoted exponent of the tradition of Viennese Espressivo. He was a born aristocrat who became sort of a leftist and then a sort of nationalist. His scores were minimal and discrete, yet his performance style was to heighten contrasts in tempi, dynamics, and articulations and thus force the discrete events in his scores into continuous dynamic curves.

Webern was an unlikely figure to place at the center of the repertoire for a number of reasons. Like Varese and Ruggles, he was a composer with a modest catalog, so modest, in fact, that the complete set of works with opus numbers fit on three lps. And his modesty of scale must be constantly reassessed as to whether it is a result of either compositional failure or aesthetic preference, or even both. Failure on Webern's part can be recognized both in the fact that several of the pieces published as "complete" by Webern now are shown, through the sketches, to have been intended to carry additional movements, and in the fact that, within a movement, Webern had not found a way to extend his methods and materials beyond the smallest instances. Although Webern also appears, at several moments, to have grossly over-estimated the duration of his pieces, there is a strong aesthetic argument to be made for his brief, but intensive and detailed, scores as exemplars of a minor music, a classification that is not meant negatively, and is akin perhaps to the case that Deleuze makes for Kafka's as a minor literature.

But still, in the aftermath of the second world war Webern's music somehow became a rallying figure for the newest avant-garde. Whether Babbitt or the New York School around Cage, or in the moment that was the Darmstadt School, everyone was finding the Webern that they needed. Scores were difficult to find, and until Robert Craft's boxed set, recordings, as well. It was a ritual of passage for many young composers to copy a Webern score out by hand (I even did this myself in the '70s with the Symphonie and the posthumous Kinderstück, as photocopies were expensive on a paper route), and to carefully analyze the scores, which usually meant accounting for every single note in terms of rows and row forms. His preferences for symmetry and economy were celebrated. But the naive mysticism of the Hildegard Jone texts and the extreme expression of the playing style as conveyed by musicians familiar with Webern (e.g. Otto Klemperer, Peter Stadlen) was largely ignored, and for many, emphasis was placed upon those abstract pitch structures and symmetries, and more upon the instrumental than the vocal works. It's almost shocking now to learn now, with a better command of the sketch evidence, that Webern wrote out his rows in a manner that was stumbling and tentative rather than confidently systematic, and that he really worked with his rows as melodies, taking his texts and their settings seriously, and viewed himself as principally a vocal composer rather than as a specialist in absolute music.

Some composers did, in fact, focus upon Webern's sound rather than his structures: Goeyvaerts, Feldman, Wolff, Young and Reich all zeroed in on a static background harmony in his pieces, in which pitches tended to return in the same register. Nowadays, however, that sonic impression of Webern seems to be locked into the now-passé performing style of the Craft recordings. (we are now confronted with the phenomena that in order to understand much of the music written in the wake of Webern, we must try to recreate a performance practice for Webern that is now long out of fashion).


A friend of mine who is preparing a radio broadcast on Webern, recently found the following quote online, and emailed it to me, thinking (correctly) that I'd be as ticked off by it as he was:
Webern was a musicologist who became a composer. Bartok was a composer who became a musicologist to get material for his music. I'm a composer who became a musicologist to get a job.
It's a witty bit, but unfortunately, it might totally mislead someone about Anton Webern. Webern's ambitions were always those of a composer and -- to an extent limited by serious stage freight -- as a conductor. Musicology was not his career. The study of musicology was, however, a suitable way for Webern, as a member of the minor aristocracy, to enter the music profession. Academic study -- as opposed to a practical, artistic training like that of a composer -- was always acceptable for young men from "good families", and musicology was what one studied in university, not composition. Webern completed his career as a musicologist at the age of 23 with his dissertation, and never returned to serious historical research. Webern's initial attempts at composition came before his University enrollment, and his musicological studies were apparently never so intensive as to restrict his concurrent private composition study with Schönberg, study which would continue for two years beyond the publication of his dissertation.

The blogger-who-shall-not-be-named-here compared Webern with Bartok, unfavorably it seems, identifying Webern's musicology as a career and Bartok's tune collecting as work in service of his compositions. This may have initially been the case, but Bartok's engagement with his ethnomusicological work became a central concern in itself, and he increasingly chose to put a substatial part of his compositional work to the side in favor of his transcriptions, the bulk of which have nothing to do with his compositions.

The other disagreeable aspect of this is an assumption that doing musicology (or ethnomusicology) is an activity of lesser intrinsic value than composing, and is carried out either by people who would otherwise be composing or by people who are plain unable to compose. That's both wrong and mean-spirited. A musical life means going where your muse sends you, and sometimes the muse sends a soul into scholarship. Musicologists have shared some remarkable discoveries with us and that's worth treasuring, even if they have often been, as a community, notoriously conservative, and slow to take interest in many vital areas.

While I do have my own small stack of musicology horror stories, they shouldn't be used to condemn the whole enterprise upfront. I recognize that I lack the temperament to do what musicologists do, and am glad that there are people around with the patience and skill set required to help us re-imagine worlds of music we have lost or forgotten. That leaves the more interesting work -- of imagining worlds of music that have never existed, whatever their roots in the past or in other places -- to us composers, and that's precisely the kind of work that Webern did.

All together now: Webern was a musicologist who became a composer.


Steve Hicken said...
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Steve Hicken said...
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