Webern: Piano variations, Op 27, 2nd movement, Sehr schnell  [0’40”]

Maurizio Pollini, piano

31 Anton Webern

“THE threshold” to postwar musical abstraction — he always looked this pained

Write a computer program to create the compositional polar opposite of Villa-Lobos and if you do it right it will come up with something indistinguishable from Anton Webern (1883–1945).  The gulf separating the two is evident not least in their productivity, the suspiciously facile Brazilian being responsible for over 2000 works, the hermetic Austrian for just 31 opus numbers.  More than this, Webern’s works are of such brevity that his entire official canon fits on three CDs, a good weekend’s work for Villa-Lobos; it’s as though the one found it impossible to stop writing music, the other scarcely possible to compose at all.  Unsurprisingly, these extremes are echoed in the nature of the resulting music.  Webern was never likely to conceive a work depicting the charmingly inconsequential adventures of children from different continents.

This middle movement of Webern’s six-minute Variations (1936) is typical of his abstract style, though in fact one of his more accessible things.  These are variations not as we know them, as acknowledged by the composer’s description of the work as, at the same time, a kind of suite.  Just as there are innumerable ways in which this extraordinary music might be characterized – mercurial, angular, forbidding, elusive, etc. – there are many ways to hear it.  The whole movement can be construed as one long single melody, provided we put aside conventional notions of how melody should behave.  At the other extreme it makes perfect sense to imagine it a fantasy on the kind of two-note snap that starts and ends the movement.

When Villa-Lobos died, probably peacefully in bed, his funeral was a state occasion in Brazil.  Webern, having gone outside to smoke a cigar in the dismal aftermath of World War II, was shot dead in the dark by a panicked US Army cook during a sting operation by the Americans to arrest his ex-SS son-in-law for black market activities (whence, perhaps, the cigar).  But as we shall see his day would come through the generation of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, who seized on his example as ‘THE threshold’ (Boulez) to the musical future.

(Here endeth the sequence-within-a-sequence of little piano jewels.)

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