Monday, June 25, 2007

Webern's Legacy

A friend of mine recently dashed off a quick email asking for my thoughts on Austrian composer Anton Webern. I told him I need to a few days to collect my thoughts and I would get back to him as soon as possible.

It's at least a month later, and I've been mulling over what to say. It's not that I've been trying to come up with something profound to say about the man's work. In fact, my thoughts on Webern are pretty much the same ones I've held since my early teens, but I've always hesitated in expressing my views because I never saw similar assertions in existing commentary. Funny how age makes you care less and less about how fashionable your thoughts and feelings might be, isn't it?

Anyway, here it is: Webern's legacy has little to do with his serial structure, pointillistic textures or his dramatic use of silence. Webern simply invested the whole of his creative life in, if you'll allow me to borrow from the world of literary criticism, the lyric rather than the epic.

Perhaps he felt Mahler could not be outdone in the building of epic structures, and perhaps it is because the constituent parts of such large structures became in themselves almost complete, that Webern felt that they could exist on their own, untethered from a supporting dramatic edifice to hold the up. If the 19th century was concerned with the whole human body, the discovery of the nucleus of a cell was enough to capture imagination for the totality of his compositional output. Yes, there were miniatures by composers of preceding generations, but these rarely let go of the epic thrust which informs much of Western music, in fact, it may be the single most defining characteristic of that genre, and why composers such as Cage, Feldman and Takemitsu were so taken with his work. Interestingly, Webern's rediscovery in Europe after the war was followed by a generation of composers who sought to create works of an epic nature from Webern's example. I suppose traditions die very, very hard. Thank God for amnesia. =)

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