Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 16, 1969, Pierre Boulez conducting.
During the lean years towards the end of his life, Mozart often turned to writing dances for Vienna’s ballrooms to improve his financial situation. Several of his sets of German Dances reveal his genius just as readily as the monumental works he produced during this period. Schubert wrote these Six German Dances in October 1824 for Caroline Esterházy, daughter of a Hungarian Count who hired Schubert to give his children music lessons. Like much of his music, the German Dances were never published during Schubert’s lifetime. What makes them remarkable is that the manuscript didn’t surface during the decades after his death when the efforts of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms were bringing Schubert’s achievements to light. The German Dances remained in private hands until 1930, when, upon their discovery, the Viennese music publisher Universal Edition commissioned an orchestral arrangement of the works from Anton von Webern.
The first three dances are in A-flat, and the others are in B-flat, effectively dividing them into two groups. This division is further underlined by da capo repetitions of the first dance after the third and the fourth dance after the sixth; this gives each group the feeling of a free-standing musical entity. Webern, a follower of Schoenberg and a leading exponent of atonalism and the compositional style of the Second Viennese School during the earlier decades of the 20th century, provided a faithful orchestral rendition of the dances. He restricts himself to an orchestra that Schubert would have recognized and uses it felicitously and with great restraint. Witness, for example, the way Webern creates a miniature dialog among the winds in the second dance, or the delicate juxtaposition of solo and tutti strings in the third dance. To lavish such care on what was essentially a student exercise (albeit one from the pen of a master) seems almost excessive, but in Webern’s orchestration we have an admiring act of homage from one Viennese master to another.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He is currently in Berlin studying the 18th-century German opera audience.