Anton Webern (1883-1945) - String Trio Op.20

Anton Webern (1883-1945)
String Trio op.20
I. Sehr langsam
II. Sehr getragen und ausdrucksvoll

The String Trio was composed between 1926 and 1927. Webern had originally planned to write a three movement piece but, as he noted in his diary in June 1927, 'after much deliberation I have arrived at the difficult decision to give up the planned third movement'. Having decided that the work should consist of only two movements he then exchanged the order of the movements so that the original second movement (a slow Rondo) became the first and the sonata form first movement the second.

Webern's three earlier twelve note works (op.17,18 and 19) had all been songs; in returning to instrumental music Webern was able, as he said in a letter to Berg, 'once more to write long stretches of music' since, as he later said in the lectures published in The Path to New Music, 'only with the formulation of a law did it again become possible to write long pieces'.

Unlike the more sparsely textured works that followed it, and in spite of its supposed references to traditional forms such as Rondo and sonata form, the sheer density of the writing in the String Trio makes it a difficult work to get to grips with for both the listener and the performers. It is, as Roger Smalley observed, 'of all Webern's works... the most difficult to grasp aurally. The degree of variation applied to the Rondo on its several returns and to the recapitulation of the Sonata, is so great that it's almost impossible to perceive them as such.' Perhaps, as Erwin Stein suggested in his introduction to the 1955 edition of the score, the work is best approached as a mosaic, as a kaleidoscope 'which continually produces new images through manifold groupings of its colours and forms' .

Early audiences certainly found the work difficult. Although Webern noted that the première by the Wiener Streichquartett (later the Kolisch Quartet) in Vienna in January 1928 'went very well' a subsequent performance by the Amar Quartet (with Hindemith playing viola) in May brought forth a stream of hostile criticism from the press, while a performance at the ISCM Festival in Sienna in September led to fisticuffs and a demand by an Italian critic that Mussolini order the Festival to be stopped so as to ensure that such music wasn't played in Italy again.

About the composer: Anton Webern
Although the number of works that he published during his lifetime was relatively few and almost all short in duration – so short that when the first ‘complete’ Webern was recorded (a number of previously unknown works and movements were discovered in the early 1960s) the whole of his output could be fitted on four vinyl discs – Webern’s music had a strong effect on the music of the generation that followed him. In particular, Webern’s move away from the thematic development which had characterised German music (including that of Schoenberg and Berg, his fellow members of the so-called Second Viennese School) to a music which concentrated on the single interval (or even single note) and his partial serialization of elements other than pitch made him, perhaps, the composer who most influenced the new music of the 1950s and 60s.

© Douglas Jarman

Psappha’s YouTube Channel

You can also visit Psappha’s YouTube Channel, where you can watch:

  • Films of works by emerging composers
  • Films of Psappha’s Hong Kong Residency (2013)
  • All of the films on Psappha’s website