Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 6 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 12, 1970, Zubin Mehta conducting
Im Sommerwind, written prior to his studies with Arnold Schoenberg, is far removed from the lean compositions of Anton Webern’s maturity: some of the most influential music of the 20th century, which continues to resonate with composers of our own time and challenges today’s audiences with its compression and seeming expressive sparseness.
Subtitled “Idyll for Large Orchestra,” Im Sommerwind – whose inspiration and structural divisions derive from a hymn-to-nature poem of the same name by the German poet, philosopher, and socialist thinker Bruno Wille (1860-1928) – dates from 1904, when the composer was 20 years old.
Only weeks after completing this work, Webern met the 30-year-old Schoenberg and became his pupil. In his critique of Im Sommerwind Schoenberg expressed the opinion that the young composer had here reached a stylistic dead-end, a realization that had already dawned on Webern. He never tried to have it performed or published, but kept it as a memento of his youth.
In 1945, as the Russian army was advancing on Vienna, the composer took his wife to the seeming safety of the mountain village of Mittersill, near Salzburg. There, in a tragic accident, Webern was shot and killed by a soldier of the American occupying forces.
But before leaving Vienna the composer had buried some of his belongings in the garden of his house. What was left of these mementos and manuscripts came into the hands of Hermine von Webern, his daughter-in-law. The German-American musicologist and Webern biographer Hans Moldenhauer, hearing that Frau Webern had in her possession a bust of the composer, came onto the scene in 1961 and among the holdings found not only the bust but manuscripts, including that of Im Sommerwind. Moldenhauer arranged to have the score published and performed, the premiere taking place in May of 1962 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, in conjunction with the Seattle World’s Fair and the simultaneous First International Webern Festival. The Festival was – not coincidentally – directed by Moldenhauer, who was then teaching at the University of Washington.
There are scholars who find suggestions in the early Im Sommerwind of the particular form of minimalism (long before the term was coined) Webern would employ in his most characteristic works. A recent biographer, Malcolm Hayes, hears in it a “restlessness” that is distinctly Webernian. He finds, too, melodic fragments hinting at the mature composer, who fragmented his fragments (my words, not Hayes’). Indicative of the composer’s later self is the device of employing solo instruments (winds in this instance) to play but a note or two within the context of an ensemble phrase. And even this early work is full of isolated sounds and silences hinting at Webern’s evolving personal style.
But hovering over it all are the chromatic excesses of Tristan und Isolde, of the Richard Strauss tone poems, and the Mahler symphonies. The opening pages also suggest to this listener the dreamily atmospheric nature music of Frederick Delius, with which Webern was most likely not familiar, at least not in 1904.
Im Sommerwind runs to some 15 minutes’ playing time, very long by the later Webern’s standards.
— In a career that has spanned nearly six decades, Herbert Glass has been associated with the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Opera, the Los Angeles Times and, from 1996 to 2013, the Salzburg Festival.