Webern, Berg, Bruckner and the Art of Arrangement
Two cultures of music – fugue and sonata, unity and conflict – dominated the thinking of the music theorist August Halm, whose writings were widely read during the early 20th century. Bach represented one school, Beethoven the other, and in this world view it was left to a third “B” to unite the two: Anton Bruckner, in whose works Halm saw “the definitive beginning though not the final conclusion of musical art”. In this environment, which would soon become the “world of yesterday”, the tradition-conscious composers of Viennese Modernism sought beginnings – and possibilities for recalling the old. Anton Bruckner impressed the audience with a sonorous performance of Bach on the organ before the premiere of his Second Symphony. And Anton Webern produced a Bach arrangement in 1935 that is unparalleled in musical history.
Heard with Webern’s ears: Bach’s Ricercare from the Musical Offering
Few composers have managed to develop such a distinctive individual style. Whether late Romantic tone poem, atonal bagatelle or twelve-tone cantata, Webern always sounds like Webern – crystalline, clear, concise. The most remarkable manifestation of this musical thumbprint is found in his orchestration of the Ricercare for six voices from the Musical Offering BWV 1079, however: suddenly Bach also sounds like Webern. With a small orchestra that nowhere alludes to historical instrumentation, Webern reduces Bach’s composition to motifs which appear sporadically in the individual parts. He wrote to the conductor Hermann Scherchen: “My orchestration is intended ... to reveal the motivic coherence. This was not always easy. Beyond that, of course, it is supposed to set the character of the piece as I feel it.”
Musical gown: Berg’s Seven Early Songs
In 1935, the year Webern’s Bach arrangement was published, Alban Berg was struck down with blood poisoning. The last completed work by the 50-year-old composer was the Violin Concerto, the finale of which quotes a Bach chorale. That is typical of a composer whose work rests on the foundation of vocal music, even if it is instrumentally paraphrased. The combination of voice and orchestra, in particular, would occupy Berg all his life. Although Berg’s music – like that of his close friend Webern – evolved from late Romantic beginnings to expressionist atonality to the twelve-tone system, it is characterized by great continuity. One explanation for this is the slow pace of Berg’s work, which led him to expand his oeuvre with arrangements of his own works, particularly in later years.
In his youth, Berg, who was equally gifted in music and literature, discovered his own expressive outlet in songs for voice and piano. He composed dozens of them, which his brother Charley secretly showed to a musician who had offered his services as a composition teacher in a newspaper advertisement. The teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, later recalled: “Two things emerged clearly even from Berg’s earliest compositions, however awkward they may have been: first, that music was to him a language, and that he really expressed himself in that language; and secondly: overflowing warmth of feeling.”
The composition of songs also played a role during his classes, and three of them were performed at a concert of Schoenberg’s students in 1907. At this time Berg met his future wife, Helene Nahowski, to whom he gave ten early songs in fair copy as a present in 1917: one for every year they had been together. A good ten years later – Berg had in the meantime begun to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method – he selected seven of them for publication in a revised piano version and a new orchestral version as Seven Early Songs.
The first and seventh songs are arranged for full orchestra, which is laid over the original piano part like a gown painted on the body by Gustav Klimt. The second, fourth and sixth songs are scored for reduced orchestra and, between them, the third and fifth, each for only one instrumental group. Die Nachtigall (The Nightingale) follows the “wild blood” of the lover with string sounds as intense as those of Mahler’s Adagietto. Im Zimmer (Indoors) an idyllic fire in the fireplace crackles in the winds and harp, while the cymbal and celesta suggest the gentle passing of time. Night, sleep and dreams are the dominant themes of these carefully arranged – also textually – love songs, whose brilliant contrast in the Sommertagen (Summer Days) leads to a surprisingly austere conclusion in C minor.
Between Bach and Beethoven: Bruckner’s Second Symphony
It is not easy to draw the line between composition and arrangement in Anton Bruckner’s oeuvre – his compositions are often his own arrangements of his works, the result of an intense creative process of hasty notes and excruciatingly long revisions. The Second Symphony, which was written in 1871/1872 and is one of Bruckner’s lesser known works, is actually his fourth contribution to this genre. It was preceded by an unnumbered symphony in F minor, the “Linz” version of the First Symphony in C minor and a symphony in D minor, which as a rejected work was given the rather pointless popular title “Nullte” (No. 0).
In Bruckner’s works, the home key of C minor represents the earthly antithesis of his other favourite key of D minor, which is reserved for the mystical realm. Bruckner first presents the main theme over a mysterious tremolo – what the cellos begin as expansive initial ideas may be less trenchant than in later works, but the aura is unmistakable. That also includes the hymn-like second theme in E flat major, which concludes with a synthesis in unison. No less important than the themes are the animated and versatile accompanying figures, which often have thematic substance themselves. At times, however, they only oscillate in a manner that leaves a great deal of room for seeming aimlessness.
The slow second movement – which was the third movement in the first version – varies an A flat major hymn with a religious tone, passing through various keys and ending with pensive arpeggios in the viola and clarinet that Bruckner had originally intended as a – technically risky – horn passage. The Scherzo, which was shortened for the second version, leads back to the home key of C minor and with the polyphonic breakdown of a simple theme makes an allusion to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that will also influence the following movement.
This borrowing – unusual for Bruckner – is forgotten in the finale, at the latest with a choral interpolation. The softly quoted Kyrie from the F minor Mass is an otherworldly period of repose in this otherwise so stormy movement, which ends with theatrical thunder. At such moments the composer, who attracted international attention as an organ virtuoso at the time he was composing the Second Symphony, seems to approach not Beethoven but another great model. In 1925 the Bruckner specialist Ernst Kurth wrote: “Never before, except in Bach, had the musical soul experienced such a powerful relaxation of energy from its foundation to the flickering boundaries.”