Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1911-1913
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: flute, oboe, E-flat clarinet (= clarinet), clarinet (= bass clarinet), horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, mandolin, guitar, celesta, harmonium, harp, violin, viola, cello, and bass
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1968, Zubin Mehta conducting

In one of a series of lectures given to his students and other interested parties at a private home in Vienna in 1932 and 1933, Anton Webern gave a detailed account of the intellectual, compositional, and aesthetic concerns that were of a near existential nature to him during the years 1911-1913. “I can tell you something from my own experience: about 1911 I wrote the Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9, all very short pieces, lasting two minutes; perhaps the shortest there have been in music up to now. Here I had the feeling that when the twelve notes have all been played the piece is over. Much later I realized that all this was a part of necessary development. In my sketchbook I wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes. Why? Because I had convinced myself that the note was already there. It sounds grotesque, incomprehensible, and it was incredibly difficult. The inner ear decided absolutely rightly that the person who had written out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes was no fool. In short, a law came into being. Until all twelve notes have appeared none of them must appear again... We were not then conscious of the principle but had been sensing it for a long time.”

The key phrase here is “the inner ear decided absolutely rightly,” that is, intuitively, the necessity of listening to and respecting the musical weight of each of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale to sound its own fullness as each one dissolved into the next without immediate repetition. Webern’s words also reveal his steadfast reliance upon his inner compass to navigate the stormy seas of so-called “atonality” out of the calm of functional harmony. What we have here, then, is a “heard,” intuitive and not a constructive kind of 12-tone writing. Or as Webern’s colleague Alban Berg implored his students: “listen profoundly.”

Beginning in the year 1911, Webern began a series of three works that would bring him to the brink of silence: the Six Bagatelles, mentioned above; Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10; and Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11. The rigorous working of the materials of these pieces reflect expressive sound worlds of great tension not only melodically and harmonically due to a lack of repetition, but also in Webern’s emphasis on new timbres created through instrumental juxtaposition and spacing, both vertical and horizontal. That is, klangfarbenmelodie. The term, first suggested by Arnold Schoenberg in his textbook on music theory, Harmonielehre (1911), refers to the possibility of composing with timbre as a structural element equal in importance to pitch, duration, and rhythm. This effect will be readily heard throughout the Five Pieces for Orchestra, beginning with the first melodic gesture.

The Five Pieces are instrumental miniatures, the formal concentration of which makes them tiny gems of expressive distillation. Perhaps the most precise description of these pieces is still that which Schoenberg gave in his preface to the score of Webern’s Six Bagatelles: “One has to realize what restraint it needs to express oneself with such brevity. Every glance can be expanded into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, joy in a single breath; such concentration can only be found where self-pity is lacking in equal measure.” The lack of melodic repetition, few motives, and brief ostinatos give a listener very little to hold onto as each mini event evaporates into the next.

To describe each movement would take longer than the fleeting duration needed for each one’s realization; their extreme briefness simply requires one to “listen profoundly.”

Composer Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.