By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the general approach by composers toward orchestral music was to make everything large. Following the spirit of nearly a century's worth of Romanticism, composers typically wrote with a large audience in mind – aiming to reach that audience with music that affirmed national heritage, paralleled an engaging story, or related an issue in the composer's personal life. The orchestra itself had gotten large, often consisting of 100 players or more. Finally, individual pieces of orchestral music had become quite long, with symphonies by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) or Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) requiring over an hour each and single-movement symphonic poems often lasting twenty minutes or longer.
Realizing that the "Romantic expansion" of orchestral music had essentially reached its maximum potential, several composers in the early Twentieth Century began exploring alternatives. Among these composers were Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his pupils Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern. Certainly the most obvious experiments were with alternatives to the system of tonal harmony that had linked the development of Western music for centuries. Schoenberg devised a "twelve-tone" technique wherein all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale had equal importance, rather than the traditional system of selecting one pitch to be the "tonal center." But even before writing according to a genuine twelve-tone principle, Schoenberg and his talented disciples expanded the boundaries of tonal harmony to encompass a bizarre, super-charged sonic palette. In the spirit of the trend of Expressionism that also pervaded visual art of this period, the attitude is that the emotional content of the artist's imagination is so intense as to have distorted the art's realization in the material world.
Such an approach to composition had the effect of distilling the over-large Romanticism in vogue at the turn of the century. While retaining the large orchestra, with its powerful dynamic and expressive ranges, Schoenberg and Webern (in particular) severely pared down the length of their compositions. Whereas a typical Romantic symphony features huge stretches of music that are essentially the same as one another – often exact repetitions, in fact – Expressionist compositions avoid repetition, achieving coherence through more subtle motivic connections. The musical content in a fifteen-minute Schoenberg work is as rich as that in an eighty-minute Mahler symphony – or richer, many would argue – and the emphasis becomes shifted from the large-scale dramatic ebb and flow to the particular expressive value of individual phrases, harmonies, or notes.
These Six Pieces are from early in Webern's career. As his individual style developed further, Webern's music became even more sparse than in these pieces, to the point where the expressive possibilities of different silences rival that of the intervening sounds. Even so, the present work is remarkably concise: the six pieces average less than two minutes each, and the third takes up only eleven measures. Webern wrote these pieces in 1909, following the model of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, opus 16, completed earlier that same year (Schoenberg's other brilliant student, Berg, followed suit with his own Three Pieces for Orchestra in 1915). Although the title suggests six separate compositions, the set stands as a single work, like movements of a miniature symphony.
As Webern wrote these pieces he was in his mid-twenties; his mother had died of diabetes in 1906, when he was only 22. In his letters to Schoenberg and others he wrote frequently of his lasting grief over his mother's death. A few weeks before the first performance of this work, he wrote to Schoenberg, who was to be the conductor:
"The first piece is to express my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive. It was a beautiful day – for a minute I believed quite firmly that nothing had happened. Only during the train ride . . . did I learn the truth. The third piece . . . ."
Thus, not only can the entire set of six pieces be understood as a requiem for his mother, but apparently the individual pieces are an attempt by the composer to capture his various emotional states during the process of dealing with the loss. The quotation skips over an explicit discussion of the second piece, but the context encourages an association with the moment where Webern "learned the truth." Furthermore, Webern entitled the fourth piece Marcia Funebre ("Funeral March"), which is unambiguous.
Another illuminating perspective is to consider connections between the pieces and the so-called "five stages of grief": denial (and isolation), anger, bargaining (appealing to some higher authority), depression (mourning), and acceptance. As Webern explained, the first piece (Langsam means simply "Slow") expresses his feelings before he has learned of his mother's death, so grief is not yet an issue. More complex in its texture than any of the other pieces, the first may be a premonition of what is to come, or it may simply establish an atmosphere. The second piece ("Agitated") is the shock of the news itself. After an innocuous beginning gives way to a mysterious "calm before the storm," uneasiness wells up from pizzicato strings. The piece rapidly makes its way to a gruesome climax, with weak heartbeats in the bass drum and tam-tam interrupted by outbursts from the rest of the orchestra. The third piece ("Moderate") seems clearly to represent denial and isolation. Almost devoid of melody, employing only a fraction of the players on stage, and quiet all the way through, the piece is an eloquent statement of heartbroken loneliness.
The fourth piece ("Very moderate") is the funeral march, even though Webern was to delete the descriptive title from his revised version of the score. Again only some of the orchestra is used – the oboes and the entire string section are ignored – but the terrible sounds at the end of the piece compellingly evoke the anger Webern felt when confronted with his loss. The "bargaining" phase is omitted, perhaps because the composer wrote the piece a few years after the incident, by which time he recognized the futility of trying to negotiate with mortality. But the mourning character of the fifth piece ("Very slow") is perfectly clear, starting with a melancholy trombone solo and ending with sustained chords that, especially in the context of such a brief work, seem to last forever. Acceptance is achieved in the final piece ("Slow"), which is as intimate as the third without suggesting the earlier piece's paralysis, and which tentatively permits some more expressive melodic fragments to emerge. The loss is still painful, but life moves on.