Berg and Webern
The dimension in which Schoenberg’s stylistic development is largely proceeding is that of depth rather than breadth. Not that he has ever been lacking in the plenitude of natural substance, as the cliché of him as an abstract theoretician would have us believe. To the contrary: no other living composer has such a plenitude at his command; in no other living composer’s work has musical evolution taken hold of all elements of the material of composition, melody and harmony, counterpoint and formal construction, more completely than in Schoenberg’s. But even as all these elements are being taken hold of and reshaped from the center outwards, they are moving closer together and interpenetrating one another in ever-changing ways in a process of condensation that ruthlessly extrudes whichever compositional possibilities are situated at the fringes of the authentic history of Schoenberg’s style and yet are never fully dissolved into the insistent current of that history’s river. The bed of this river is unyieldingly narrow, as narrow as that of a ravine, one carved out by the superficies of musical production. Every dialectical stage of his development corresponds to a mere handful of works, often to only a single work; when the possibility of an entire new form of music has been established, he contents himself with drawing up an exemplary blueprint of it and executing that blueprint so that he can immediately set about tackling the new technical questions that arise from it. Plans of entire works that are already well on their way to completion vanish when the ideal towards which the piece in question was striving has already been realized; consequently, a piano quintet, and above all, a second great Chamber Symphony, have remained unfinished [Schoenberg eventually finished the Second Chamber Symphony in 1939 (DR)]. This has allowed the works of his students to perform much more important functions than those that ever fell to the share of, for example, the compositions of the epigonal imitators of Wagner, who had nothing new to add to the extensive and repetitious corpus of their master. In Schoenberg’s case, on the other hand, the students’ works are becoming necessary as an arena in which the communication of his work with the breadth of the history of music is being fulfilled. This attests to their watertight association with the work of their master, to whom they owe not some vague stylistic diversity and their technical resources but rather their exactingly high level of knowledgeability about music; on the other hand it fosters the exceedingly high degree of self-sufficiency that they need in order to fulfill in concrete terms what Schoenberg is setting down as a possibility and realizing and which has been capable of subsequently holding its own in the lineation of its blueprint only when a fair amount of substantiality has gone into the preliminary sketches for the blueprint.
It is therefore not astonishing that in being required to adhere to such a two-edged standard—a standard consisting of both the most loyal discipleship and hermetic self-sufficiency—only a few of these students manage to hold their own. Whereas Schoenberg the pedagogue has exerted an influence on musical reproduction whose radius is as yet scarcely possible to estimate and has educated an entire generation of conductors, very few of his students have managed to subsist solely as composers; the others have had the wind taken out of their sails by the example set for them by their master, who is rumored to have said that he “didn’t want to raise any guppies.” The foremost of the very few remain Berg and Webern, both of them only about a decade younger than Schoenberg, both of them closely attached to him throughout their lives, both of them his students and autonomous composers in the strictest sense and at the same time. If one stretches the point by adding Horwitz from their own generation, then from the outer circle Jemnitz; from the younger generation, Eisler, and more recently Zillig and Skalattos, the list of Schoenberg students worthy of serious attention as composers is pretty much exhausted. And they all begin in the most intimate communication with Schoenberg; they acquire their self-sufficiency not by detaching themselves from him stylistically, but rather by applying themselves to the demands that accrue to them from their technical communication with the master.
Berg and Webern represent the extreme poles of the Schoenbergian realm. Both of them attach themselves to individual works of the master and expand these works’ range of problems into their specific compositional landscape: Berg to the Chamber Symphony, Webern to the “disintegrated” style from op. 11 to op. 20; although it must be said that the form of the “short piece” as one finds it in the Schoenberg of the op. 19 piano work and “Herzgewächse” was first fully developed in logically pure terms by Webern rather than by Schoenberg himself; whereas on the other hand even in early works by Webern like the double canon Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen, which still adheres to “circumscribed” tonality, Webern’s pianissimo, his tenderness, his tendency to let the music hang in the air, his monologic gentleness, is already in evidence. If one wishes to gain essential insight into Webern’s and Berg’s style, one would do very well indeed not to take the question of self-sufficiency as one’s starting point. For here the self-sufficiency is situated not in the superficies of the style but rather in the most deeply buried contents of the compositions; the homogeneity of the style that prevails in Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern alike is not so much imposed by the tenets of a school as demanded by a level of knowledge that stipulates the radical working through of every composition down to its last detail and thereby causes the distinguishing features of the “style” to become more similar to one another. Both Berg and Webern offer commentaries on Schoenberg’s development, thanks to which they are guaranteed a place in the historical totality: Berg affiliates him, belatedly as it were, with Mahler on the one hand, and on the other hand with the great music dramas, and legitimates him from that standpoint; Webern pursues Schoenbergian subjectivism, which the master begins to dissolve in a solution of ironic play from Pierrot onwards, to its logical conclusion, constitutes, as a unique individual, a musical expressionism in the strictest sense, and carries it to a point where it turns itself inside out and into a new objectivity. But neither excursus remains tethered to the master’s work; in their execution the original substance of the exigitist comes to light, as in the great commentaries of the philosophical literature, such as those of Plato and Aristotle; in each new commentary the new and distinct consciousness of the commentator shines through in the material of the text.
At first blush, Berg’s op. 1, his piano sonata—which simply consists of a single sonata-form movement that does not attempt to encapsulate the traditional multi-movement sonata schema—comes across as a parergon to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. Melodies and harmonies based on fourths; the constructive function of the whole-tone scale; even a theme (the “transition theme”) points unequivocally in that direction; but even more profound is the connection between the piece’s inner construction and that of the Chamber Symphony; from time to time it sets up “models” and wins its extensiveness even as the smallest variations of the models stack themselves on top of one another in layers; in this manner the sonata form is permeated by the variation form and the principle of development wins complete primacy in the sonata. Despite this the differences are already evident here. They are evident not merely in a certain suppleness in the harmony, which often enough pairs up the whole- tone chords with large ninth chords and in general grants much greater significance to the ninth chord than Schoenberg has ever done; in this it is reminiscent of Debussy, Scriabin, and even Reger. This harmonic suppleness, which openly embraces the erotic note of Tristan from time to time, is not accidental. It is conditioned by an essentially chromatic, dominant-oriented harmony that does not effectuate the self-sufficiency of the secondary scale degrees as resolutely as Schoenberg does but rather assigns new chords to a leading tone-based Wagnerian continuum. In the first three songs of op. 2, which are less rigorously constructed than the sonata, this becomes even more evident. Certainly later on Berg’s harmony fully emancipated itself from the secret coercive force of the tonic and dominant. But in him an essential quality is being heralded: it could be termed Berg’s principle of the infinitesimal, the principle of the smallest transition. Whereas in Schoenberg’s work, in its principle of incessantly changing and contrasted “shapes,” which reigns supreme even in the motivic metamorphoses and the transitions of the Chamber Symphony, a principle of construction is being fashioned from the very beginning, in Berg’s the principle of the transition, of the imperceptible transition, has primacy from the very beginning, and the residues of tonal-cadential harmony that his music has retained to this day are merely tokens of this principle. The unities that his music comprises are, it must be said, infinitely small and amenable to being transformed into one another at will and in infinitely small proportions; their differences must be disregarded: in this respect Berg’s music resembles an entity that unfolds much in the manner of a plant. Its schema is that of the organism, whereas in Schoenberg’s music the organic entity is dialectically paralyzed by the motif of construction from the very beginning. This “organic” entity in Berg’s music is what connects him to the nineteenth century and to Romanticism—his mission has been presenting itself in such a way that it was gradually illuminated, tectonically comprehended without threatening to banish nature, which in his work is originally represented as dark, amorphous, consciously growing, and dreamlike. None of this is alien to Schoenberg; Erwartung had plenty of it, and both converge with elements of psychoanalysis, which was not conceived in Schonberg and Berg’s hometown by chance. But in Berg’s work this is all far more undialectical, more passive, one might almost say; it is more Schubertian than in Schoenberg’s and is therefore less overcome in forceful dynamism than sublimated in ever-progressing knowledge. The first stage of this progress is the String Quartet, op. 3. Less dependent on the leading tone than the sonata, thematically looser and unhampered by sequences thanks to incessant variation, it develops the principle of the smallest transition via the most intricate motivic division: often the themes are reduced to an individual note that ties them to the ensuing motivic unity; the thematic “residue” resulting from such reduction, a residue fitting itself into every transition, is its principal formal medium; again even the formal structure of the whole clings to certain harmonic complexes in a scaled-back technical register instead of incessantly introducing fresh material like Schoenberg. Just as the interval of the semitone, the leading tone, binds everything together as the smallest unity in the earliest works, here the motivic particle is the binding force. Then in the Pieces for Clarinet and Piano the intention of the smallest motivic unit leads to a diminution of the formal space itself: Berg is seemingly drawing closer to the Webernian expressive miniature. But only seemingly: for Webern’s miniatures derived their formal legitimacy from the uniqueness of all their motivic elements, whereas Berg adheres to the principle of motivic transition even in the Clarinet Pieces and thereby institutes a dynamism that requires the larger-scale forms, because in them the motivically unique element never has the character of definitiveness that Webern assigns to it. And so it is not at all surprising that his very next work, the Altenberg Lieder, is already coming to grips with prescribed forms; that Berg’s path, which at one point intersected with Webern’s, is now taking an entirely different course. The Altenberg Lieder already contains a passacaglia that anticipates the formal principles of Wozzeck. At the same time Berg conquers the full orchestra. The composition that originated next, the Three Pieces for Orchestra—which was dedicated to Schoenberg, is one of Berg’s principal works, and has yet to be as well-known as it deserves—already displays his complete mastery of the orchestra. In them Berg’s productive encounter with Mahler is fulfilled. Mahler’s symphonic instrumentation, his concentration of the brass groups, the choric abundance of his woodwind passages, are apperceived; even the rhythmic imprint of the motifs makes reference to him; but all this is transferred to a completely uninhibited, multi-note-chord-centered system of harmony and a polyphonic style whose plenitude is scarcely matched even by Schoenberg. All the while, Berg’s specific procedure, the construction of the piece out of the smallest particles and in the smallest transitions, is strictly safeguarded; the entire Präludium is already designed as a single instance of retrograde motion, like the Chamber Symphony later on. The finale, the March, whose chordal polyphony quests after its own kind, is quite simply overwhelming. The middle piece—the last one composed—a round-dance in the sense that Mahler’s scherzos are round-dances, already evinces a certain dilution of the sonic image, which is subsequently distilled into complete transparency in Wozzeck. In Wozzeck, an original and central conception allows Berg’s formal elements to achieve mutual equilibrium. The hollow, unconscious, and vegetable plenitude is pressed into the service of depicting the hollow and unconscious human essence; likewise in compliance with the dramatic idea, the Mahlerian folk music that was in conflict with free atonality turns into a subterranean folk music that is shown in its true light only thanks to the dissonant character of the harmony, the faded-out forte of the orchestra; the psychological impetus of Berg’s music and the severity of its construction unite in the dramatic form, in which every moment strives to be psychologically inflected, unique, and unrepeatable, while at the same time the totality is through-composed: a suite, a strictly composed symphony with the violent scherzo of the tavern scene, a series of five “inventions,” that occasionally thrusts a specific moment of compositional technique into the foreground—this comprises the musical form of Wozzeck, which at the same time retains leitmotivic interconnections and thanks to its ruthless art of variation enjoys the liberty of following the dramatic movement wherever it pleases. Musical forms such as the fugue, passacaglia, the Lied, and the march, are fully organically integrated into the work. This is not the place in which to analyze its action in its entirety. What establishes Wozzeck’s legitimacy decisively is its tone: the sound of the downtrodden human individual banished into the dark realm of his own dreams, a man who, in perishing without hope, issues a call for the transformation of human existence. After the opera, which is quite simply the greatest dramatic work in the entire corpus of the new music, Berg returns to the domain of purely instrumental music. In the Chamber Concerto the constructive results of Wozzeck are transferred to an idea conceived in a spirit of play: the work begins with a set of variations for piano and winds; there are replied to by the symmetrically retrograde-form adagio with violin; the two movements contrapuntally constitute the rondo-form finale. The violent dimensions are mastered with sovereign power; even the most audacious combinatorics retains its transparency, and the expressive profundity of Wozzeck becomes instrumentally fruitful. It becomes even more fruitful in the Lyric Suite for string quartet, the most intimate and close-grained piece that Berg has written so far. It, too, has its central formal idea: the unfolding of extremes. It introduces three pairs of movements: the first pair, an Allegretto and Andantino, still close to each other in their lyrical tenderness; the next, the fugitively whispered Allegro and the passionate Adagio, contrastingly heightened; the last, the demonic Presto, driven to a catastrophic conclusion, and an inconsolable Largo that expires without actually ending after its final outburst. The expressive construction complements the material construction, which derives its contrasts from twelve-tone technique and free atonality.
Like Berg, Webern is connected with the earlier Schoenberg—not with the Chamber Symphony’s master of variation, but with the harmonist of the older vocal music with its wealth of scale degrees. If Berg transfers Schoenberg’s motivic technique into cadential harmony, Webern inherits from Schoenberg his outright circumscription or avoidance of the cadence. Accordingly, his music contains not a trace of Bergian dynamism; rather, his works resemble windowless monads; it is no accident that they, and in particular the mature works, cleave to pianissimo as their baseline dynamic indication. His op. 1, the Passacaglia, is already a masterpiece; the piece for a cappella choir, op. 2, sublimates the technique of Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erde” in ethereally hovering sound. The George Lieder, op. 3, with an entirely covert tonality in the background, comports itself in much the same way as Schoenberg’s George Lieder; they dissolve the latter’s contours in arabesques, and in their disembodied piano passage they explicitly expose Webern. The next cycle, op. 4, likewise consisting of settings of George, with its magnificent “Welt der gestalten lang lebewohl,” is somewhat more material; here, in return, his harmonic breakthrough takes place and his characteristic profiling of the vocal line comes into its own. Of the Five Pieces for String Quartet, op. 5, the first invites comparison to Berg’s Piano Sonata. It is a sonata-form movement, constructed in strictly thematic terms, as is the opus as a whole. But whereas in Berg the construction is manifest and ties the sections together, here it is hidden; from the very beginning the variation technique is dealt with in such a way that the ear is scarcely capable of immediately perceiving motivic relations; rather, it is confronted by an uninterruptedly fresh thematic production whose thematic organization is enacted in a manner that is almost imperceptible by the listener. Like, for example, Schoenberg’s op. 16 Pieces for Orchestra, they are no strangers to motivic work, but they no longer tolerate an external formal structure in the traditional sense. The next group of works is entirely athematic like Schoenberg’s Erwartung; it remains confined to minuscule dimensions, it disestablishes the material, until only the breath, the sign, is left; the Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 7, still effects this disestablishment with melodic interconnections; it is effected in a completely logical manner, with the overwhelming magnitude of the smallest quantity, in the Bagatelles for the string quartet, op. 9, and the Pieces for Orchestra, op. 10, which still dab the disparate notes on top of one another in dawning tenderness and completely and monologically subsume the music under solitary inwardness, but in virtue of bearing the stamp of this inwardness, they acquire such purity of perception that the isolated music possesses an overarching authority. In the Pieces for Cello, op. 11, the turning point in Webern’s development, the music contracts to a single point, loses its temporal compass. From this point it arises afresh: propped up by the poetic word, which alone is capable of carrying it forward from here. The Piano Lieder, op. 12, display long—and incidentally often quite curiously simple—arcs; their simplicity and expressive power taste like the sweetness that leaks out of the shriveled fruit of the preceding instrumental works. The Chamber Lieder, op. 14, enact the fulfillment of Webern’s encounter with the poet Trakl, with whom he is more closely affined than with any other, even if he surpasses the poet of the forsaken effortless self via the strength of the formative objectification with which he overcomes solitude even as he continues shaping it all the way to the end. The last song concludes with the words “Pity of radiant arms / encircles a breaking heart”—nothing could more faithfully sum up the tone of Webern’s music, which leans into the abyss of mourning to prepare itself for hope’s bottomless plunge. After the lyricism of the Trakl Lieder, probably his most accomplished work, this Kierkegaardian essence of Webern—a Kierkegaardian despite his Catholicity, just as he owes something decisive to Karl Kraus, the unique individual par excellence—begets a group of religious compositions whose inwardness distinguishes them from all official sacred music, as does the radicalism of their style, which despite the Latin texts manages without any trace of an inclination towards archaism, without the fiction of a singing congregation. Five Scared Songs for Voice and Five Solo Instruments, op. 15, are the principal work of the group. In two extraordinarily difficult vocal cycles—Three Lieder for Voice, E flat Clarinet, and Guitar, op. 18, and Two Lieder for Mixed Choir and Chamber Ensemble on texts by Goethe, op. 19—Webern’s constructive will discovers twelve-tone technique. They are difficult in a twofold sense: for the performers, on account of the large intervals that Webern brings to twelve-tone technique; and for the composer, who lights upon the mission of maintaining his disintegrated style—which dispenses with every foothold afforded by the compositional surfaces, which is a complete stranger to every kind of sequence, to every form of rhythmic repetition—in the face the exigencies of twelve-tone technique. He has accomplished this mission: scholarly analysis alone, not the acoustic impression, allows one to distinguish Webern’s twelve-tone works from his earlier ones; he has so to speak belatedly filled in the fissure between free-form atonality and twelve-tone technique that Schoenberg’s dialectic carves out. Then, the moment he attains a free command of twelve-tone technique—free with regard to his personal expression—he returns to instrumental music and now finally, for the first time since his op. 1, he again betakes himself to the larger dimensions that twelve-tone technique makes available to him, and yet he does not thereby diminish the definitive character of the individual motivic event. In many respects, the two-movement String Trio, op. 20, one of the masterpieces of the new music, serves as a companion piece to Berg’s Lyric Suite. Just as Berg achieves a Webernian tenderness of sonority, a Webernian espressivo of the particular, in that work, in his Trio Webern has acquired an ability to wield extended forms that is equivalent to Berg’s. Thus, at the height of their development as composers, as in the beginning, the two masters are converging and demonstrating the objective truth-content of a style that is not exhausted by the results of individual decisions. A slow, intrinsically mobile, tenderly fluid movement constitutes the first part of the work; its finale has a sonata movement-like character and eventually melts the sonata scheme down completely in the expression of subjective freedom without relinquishing even the most minor of the scheme’s characteristic features: it is a prototype of an up-to-date and certified sonata plain and simple. His sovereign command of the material then leads to the astonishing simplification of his entire style in the Symphony, op. 21. It is a symphony only in a very limited sense, in its employment of an orchestral apparatus—a small one—and consistent maintenance of a certain objective attitude that starkly contrasts with Webern’s expressionistic technique without estranging itself from its origins in that technique. The first movement is an exceedingly skillful double canon; the second brings forth variations on a very tender, relaxed theme that concentrates and simplifies itself via a series of bewildering combinations and achieves repetitions of groups even indirectly. By the most complicated means the entire work conveys an impression of compelling, naturally fluid self-evidence. The dimensions remain very spare. A new, spacious work, a quartet for a specially selected combination of instruments, has just rounded off his output to date.
Such is the developmental trajectory of these two coequal masters. In their unstinting fulfillment of their historical mission, Schoenberg’s pupils have become his heirs, who have acquired what they now possess and are using their acquired capital to push their inheritance ever closer to the dark, scarcely dreamt-of and yet certain goal of all music. The fulfilment of the history of music could not be in better hands than theirs.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2020 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 20, pp. 782 ff.