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Langsamer Satz, arr. Gerard Schwarz

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Webern
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: David Zinman, conductor/Brahms's Symphony No. 4 Apr. 23 - 25, 2009
© Richard Freed
David Zinman has put this week's very cohesive program together by combining string-orchestra versions of chamber works by Schoenberg and his pupil Webern with the last of the four symphonies of Brahms, who was revered by Schoenberg throughout his life. Both the Webern and the Schoenberg works, as performed in the present concerts, represent a long-standing tradition of expanding string quartets (and related chamber-music formats for strings) into works for full orchestral strings. To be sure, there is a corresponding tradition of reducing orchestral scores to chamber-music proportions, and Schoenberg and Webern traveled both routes (they both, for instance, together with Schoenberg's other pupil Alban Berg, arranged Strauss waltzes for chamber ensemble), but it is the tradition of "expansion" that is pertinent here, for the enrichment it has provided to the orchestral repertory—and to the experience of so many individual listeners.

Mozart's three early divertimenti for string quartet (K.136-138) and the last of his serenades, the one for string quintet which he labeled Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Serenade"), have actually become more familiar to us in their string-orchestra versions than in their original ones. Mahler (whom Schoenberg and his pupils so admired) created string-orchestra versions of quartets by Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven quartets have been performed by orchestral strings under such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Felix Weingartner, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. The solitary String Quartet of Verdi, the six "string sonatas" of the young Rossini, Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence, and the Mendelssohn Octet have all become parts of the string-orchestra repertory, one of whose most beloved components is the Schoenberg piece in the present concerts. What all these examples represent is not so much "orchestration," as typified by George Szell's imaginative treatment of Smetana's E-minor Quartet and Schoenberg's similar one of Brahms's G-minor Piano Quartet, but a procedure that remains entirely faithful to the essential string character and substance of the respective originals.

The Langsamer Satz, whose title is translated simply as "Slow Movement," was one of Webern's very earliest works, actually his first assignment as Schoenberg's pupil, in June 1905. In composing it he was surely influenced by his mentor's string sextet Transfigured Night, which had been introduced only three years earlier, well before Schoenberg had arrived at his "method of composing with twelve tones." Both of these late-Romantic works, in fact, came from specifically programmatic stimuli, the subject in each case being a pair of lovers. While Webern's piece was inspired by an episode of unclouded joy in his own life, in contradistinction to the psychologically freighted poem by Richard Dehmel that moved Schoenberg, the music itself achieves a similarly ecstatic level in its relatively lighter frame and more concise proportions.

In his diary, Webern left a very clear description of the impetus for this work. In May 1905 he went hiking in the Austrian woods with his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl, with whom he was in love: "To walk like this forever among the flowers, with my beloved beside me, to feel myself so utterly at one with the Universe, without a care, as free as a lark in the sky above—Oh, what splendor . . . Our love filled the air. We were two drunken souls . . . " In the following month he composed the Langsamer Satz, built on three lyric themes which are unhurriedly stated, combined in different ways, and subtly yet powerfully taken to a conclusion of considerable intensity. He and Wilhelmine married in February 1911, six weeks before the birth of their first child.

While Schoenberg had provided a kind of model, it was Webern's natural instinct that led him to express this feeling in the string quartet format. Like Schoenberg, he enjoyed playing the cello in quartets, which he regarded as "the most glorious music-making there is," and he composed string quartets throughout his life, but most of them are in a style conspicuously different from the expansive expressiveness of the Langsamer Satz. It was his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, composed in 1909, that certified his full acceptance of his mentor's atonal procedure and initiated the severely miniaturized dimensions that would characterize his compositions from that point on. (Twenty years later he himself arranged that work for string orchestra.) In his Three Pieces for String Quartet (1913), which add up to less than three minutes in performance, the middle piece is a song setting for soprano and strings, following the example set by Schoenberg in his own Second Quartet five years earlier. The specific works mentioned here do not by any means constitute a complete list of Webern's compositions for string quartet, the substantial list of which came to an end with the Quartet Op. 28, composed in the years 1936-38.

The Langsamer Satz itself has no opus number: it was one of the several early works of Webern's that disappeared during his own lifetime and did not come to light until the 1960s. This piece and the contemporaneous orchestral fantasy Im Sommerwind remained unknown and unperformed until both were given their belated premieres in May 1962, not in Vienna or anywhere in Europe, but in Seattle, Washington, during the first of the several international festivals organized by the German-born musicologist Hans Moldenhauer, who made his home in Spokane, founded a conservatory there, and established the ambitious Moldenhauer Archive, a collection of musical documents, manuscripts, and letters which he housed at the conservatory, with a pronounced emphasis on Webern. Both of these works, so unlike Webern's later ones, began to circulate at once and were well received everywhere.

Nearly thirty years ago, when Gerard Schwarz was director of the White Mountains Festival in New Hampshire, he programmed the Langsamer Satz in its original form for string quartet. "After hearing that performance," Mr. Schwarz advises, "I believed the piece would be even more poignant as a work for string orchestra. Basically, I added a bass part, I put in bowings, I have an occasional marking and some other bits of editing, but essentially I left the music exactly as Webern had written. I gave the premiere of my arrangement in May of 1982 with the New York Chamber Symphony."

Since then Mr. Schwarz himself has conducted the piece with several orchestras, both in the United States and abroad. With his own Seattle Symphony he made the first recording of it in 1992 and performed it again at the opening of that orchestra's new home, Benaroya Hall, in 1998. His own most recent performances of the piece were with the New Jersey Symphony just two months ago. Carl Fischer Inc., which published the Schwarz arrangement in 1995, has reprinted it twice since then, with some 400 sets of score and parts sold so far. The present concerts mark David Zinman's second outing with the piece, having been preceded by his performances of it with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo in January of this year.