Composed: 1910; rev. 1928
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, low bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), harp, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 10, 1962, William Steinberg conducting
In his Op. 6, Webern created music of unprecedented spareness of texture, while being downright garrulous compared to the micro-music shortly to come from his pen, e.g., the string quartet Bagatelles, Op. 9, the Orchestral Pieces, Op. 10, the Cello Pieces, Op. 11, and the much later (1934) Concerto for Nine Instruments: all of them hauntedly, hauntingly expressive despite their slight proportions.
Webern’s kind of minimalism (long before the term was coined) has little to do with the aggressively simplified music to which the tag has been attached in recent decades. Webern’s tiny pieces, which avoid repetition, are flickering nightmares, with vagrant touches of breathtaking beauty perceptible to listeners willing to give their undivided attention: let your ears stray for a millisecond – Webern would have loved the term, and written music to suit – and it’s gone without a trace.
In Op. 6, the influence of Schoenberg, then barely beyond his own “Romantic” stage, remains evident: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern were still seeking ways into meaningful atonality. Webern’s description of his own Six Pieces might as well be a description of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 piano pieces: “No motif is developed; at most, a brief progression is immediately repeated. Once stated, the theme expresses all it has to say; it must be followed by something fresh.”
Withal, Op. 6 is “Webernian” in that its phrases are curt, short. The dynamic range is wide in the first piece, with its ghostly tremolos and darkling clarinet and horn solos; No. 2, the only fast movement of the six, has flute, brass, and plucked strings to the fore, with screeching winds and haunted-house muted brass, and a pair of striking chords on the celesta. No. 3, the shortest of them, a warped lullaby, brings the temperature down to not much above normal. No. 4, beginning with seven measures of percussion that might seem part of the concert hall’s sonic ambience (the ventilating system?) rather than composed music, with its quietly menacing ostinatos, is a desiccated funeral march – the ultimate reduction of the sort of thing that Mahler did so well, and so loudly – four minutes in length (Brucknerian by Webern’s lights) and achieves a hellish final climax. A funeral march for a ghost? No. 5 introduces another unearthly sound, that of the low strings playing tremolos near the bridge, moving finally to high harmonics as a jarring contrast. No. 6 is a black wisp, with its dark, deep bells, celesta, and low harp fading into the ether.
The first performance of Op. 6 was presented in Vienna in March of 1913. The conductor was Arnold Schoenberg, to whom it is dedicated.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.