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Im Sommerwind

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Webern
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Dawn Upshaw, soprano, sings Golijov & Mahler Apr. 7 - 9, 2011
© Thomas May
"Iburn with desire to learn more of his works." So confided the young Anton Webern (1883–1945) to his journal early in 1902, upon making his first discovery of Mahler's music (the Second Symphony, via a piano transcription). He moved to Vienna to attend university later that year, where opportunities to witness Mahler as conductor intensified his fascination. Within two years, Webern also made a life-altering decision to study with Schoenberg.

This period of rapid artistic development yielded the tone poem Im Sommerwind ("In the Summer Wind"), whose score Webern completed in 1904, just a month before he answered Schoenberg's advertisement seeking pupils. Both its sound world and its (relative) length—not to mention its programmatic inspiration—are a far cry from the famously aphoristic, abstractWebern who emerged with the 1908 Passacaglia for Orchestra. He wrote the latter as a kind of "graduation exercise" after four years of study with Schoenberg and designated it his Opus 1, disowning his earlier compositions. Webern himself never even heard Im Sommerwind performed; the piece was not premiered until the 1960s, when it was posthumously rediscovered.

Im Sommerwind therefore offers a fascinating glimpse of Webern before he developed the unique style that would significantly influence the course of 20th-century modernism (particularly after the composer's death, in the postwar years). The effect might be compared to gazing at one of Piet Mondrian's early naturalistic landscapes, in which traces of the severe abstraction to come can be discerned. Webern composed Im Sommerwind during an idyllic summer spent at his family's Carinthian summer home, where nature inspired him directly and, via the poem that supplied his title for the piece, indirectly. The poem came to Webern's attention when he read a now-obscure novel, Revelations of a Juniper Tree, by contemporary writer and political activist Bruno Wille. This "orchestral idyll" reflects a fairly typical fin-de-siècle romantic sensibility—above all that of Richard Strauss, but also aspects of the hyper-romantic Transfigured Night (a work itself inspired by a poem) by Schoenberg, soon to become Webern's musical guru.

Not surprisingly, then, Webern resorts to opulent orchestration to reflect the atmospheric spell cast by the poem. Im Sommerwind unfolds in a kind of free association, alternating between contemplative and agitated moods. The piece begins dreamily in shimmering D major. Wide-spanning melodies à la Strauss—the obvious principal influence— emerge and blend with an uneasy, Mahlerian lyricism. The tone poem is replete with ear-catchingly original touches of orchestration. Even in this early, derivative experiment, Webern's ear for texture and the resonant detail already hints at the composer about to emerge from his late-romantic chrysalis.