Der junge Webern: Texte und Kontexte ed. by Thomas Ahrend and Matthias Schmidt (review)
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Der junge Webern: Texte und Kontexte. Ed. by Thomas Ahrend and Matthias Schmidt, pp. 336. (Lafite, Vienna, 2015. £49. ISBN 978-3-85151-083-6.)

The music of Anton Webern is perhaps one of the last major oeuvres from the Austro-German tradition that still awaits a philological-critical edition. While Webern himself had begun to consider which works could be included as part of a potential Gesamtausgabe presumably during the turmoil and terror of the Second World War—and the editorial issues of such a project were even discussed at the Webern-KongreB held in Vienna in 1972—it was in fact only in 2006 that the Anton Webern Gesamtausgabe was initiated at the University of Basle, in conjunction with the Paul Sacher Foundation. One of the many new insights that the Gesamtausgabe promises to provide concerns Webern's pre-opus repertory. In his important biography of the composer, following the acquisition of a substantial amount of manuscripts in the 1960s, Hans Moldenhauer identified more than 130 works, fragments, sketches, and arrangements dating back to the period between 1899 and 1908, the years between the composer's creative beginnings and the completion of the Passacaglia for large orchestra—Webern's 'apprenticeship piece' composed under Arnold Schoenberg's tutelage, which he would later designate his 'opus 1 ' upon signing with Universal Edition in the 1920s. Yet to this day very little of this pre-opus repertory has been published, and only in uncritical editions (Matthew Shaftel's edition of the early songs, The Anton Webern Collection: Early Vocal Music 1899–1909 (New York, 2004), excepted), which has considerably impeded any scholarly engagement with the music. Building on a wealth of new materials and insights that have directly resulted from the work of the as yet unpublished Gesamtausgabe, the essays of this volume, initially presented at a conference held at the University of Basle in 2012, provide a very welcome attempt to submit Webern's early work to critical reappraisal. [End Page 313]

In the opening essay, with reference to the scholarly literature that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, Giselher Schubert discusses some of the rich epistemological potentials inherent in Webern's early work. As he points out, this repertory makes it possible 'to discern (1) proximity and distance to Webern's late work; (2) the impact of Schoenberg's influence upon Webern; (3) gains and losses in Webern's compositional development; (4) transformations in Webern's [aesthetic] physiognomy; (5) philological questions; and (6) issues in performance practice' (p. 14). Yet despite these diverse epistemological dimensions, it is nevertheless apparent that for decades Webern's early repertory has been barely understood in its own right. Instead, it has become something of a commonplace that Webern developed into the composer with whom we are familiar—the figurehead of atonality and a precursor to post-war serialism—only through Schoenberg's critical influence. Indeed, as Simone Hohmaier in the next essay demonstrates from unpublished letters, in the years right after the completion of his studies Webern had already begun to project an image of himself that was defined critically in relation to Schoenberg: 'In Webern's self-conception, Schoenberg marks the sun, around which all the other planets, with different distances, orbit; and Webern himself seems to take the position of Mercury, the planet that is the closest to the sun' (p. 29). Hohmaier's cosmic metaphor has critical value. Whether for reasons of historiographical or stylistic convenience, certain strands of Webern scholarship have shown an uncritical distance from the composer's self-historiographical narrative. Stepping back from these accounts, we should instead feel encouraged to explore Webern's early works on their own terms: no longer merely in gravitational relation to Schoenberg, to stay with Hohmaier's metaphor, but as 'thoughts sui generis' (p. 69), as Matthias Schmidt has felicitously suggested.

In large part, this volume attempts precisely this. Perhaps the most insightful and rigorously argued contribution in this context is that of Thomas Ahrend. In contradistinction to the common reception that has tended to read Webern's works produced under Schoenberg's tutelage merely as stylized, even 'backward-looking', exercises that pointedly evidence the young composer...


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