[AN OVERALL SOUND PROCESS] Becoming Neoclassical: Instrumentation in the Sketches for Webern's Concerto, Op. 24

David H. Miller

Abstract


In September 1928 Anton Webern wrote to publisher Emil Hertzka to report on the composition of a work “in the spirit of some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.” In June 1934 that work stood completed as the Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24. While Op. 24 has been celebrated as a paradigmatic example of Webern’s forward-looking serial techniques, it simultaneously exhibits a strong neoclassical influence, as Kathryn Bailey (1991) has demonstrated in her study of sonata and ritornello principles in the Concerto’s first movement. Neoclassical models may have also played a role in dramatically shifting conceptions of instrumentation and genre evident in sketches from the work’s extended period of composition, during which time it transformed from a piece for large symphonic orchestra, to a concerto for solo piano with orchestral accompaniment, to a concerto grosso with a continuo-like piano part. The dramatic shifts found in the sketches are best understood in relation to Webern’s compositional activities in the decade preceding Op. 24. During this period, Webern revised several of his pre-World War I orchestral compositions, reducing the size and diversity of the ensembles with an eye towards Fasslichkeit (“comprehensibility”); a similar goal motivated the arrangements he produced for Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. When considered alongside an instrumentation-centric view of the sketches for Op. 24, these activities suggest an intriguing view of the Concerto. If its twelve-tone row marks Op. 24 as an apex of Webern’s serial technique, its instrumentation makes it an apex of his neoclassicism.In September 1928 Anton Webern wrote to publisher Emil Hertzka to report on the composition of a work “in the spirit of some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.” In June 1934 that work stood completed as the Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24. While Op. 24 has been celebrated as a paradigmatic example of Webern’s forward-looking serial techniques, it simultaneously exhibits a strong neoclassical influence, as Kathryn Bailey (1991)[1] has demonstrated in her study of sonata and ritornello principles in the Concerto’s first movement. Neoclassical models may have also played a role in dramatically shifting conceptions of instrumentation and genre evident in sketches from the work’s extended period of composition, during which time it transformed from a piece for large symphonic orchestra, to a concerto for solo piano with orchestral accompaniment, to a concerto grosso with a continuo-like piano part. The dramatic shifts found in the sketches are best understood in relation to Webern’s compositional activities in the decade preceding Op. 24. During this period, Webern revised several of his pre-World War I orchestral compositions, reducing the size and diversity of the ensembles with an eye towards Fasslichkeit (“comprehensibility”); a similar goal motivated the arrangements he produced for Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. When considered alongside an instrumentation-centric view of the sketches for Op. 24, these activities suggest an intriguing view of the Concerto. If its twelve-tone row marks Op. 24 as an apex of Webern’s serial technique, its instrumentation makes it an apex of his neoclassicism.

[1] Kathryn Bailey, The twelve-note music of Anton Webern: Old forms in a new language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

 

 


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