Thursday, September 27, 2007

Trees falling in vacant forests

If I'm not mistaken, there was a period of time -- in my university years -- in which the works of Webern fell off the face of the planet.

While Webern's pieces had never been played in concert with great frequency, in the post-war era there was an aura of excitement and importance about their performances, and this aura all but faded away in the late seventies. This was the late vinyl era (a time marked by the physical decline of the vinyl disk which often warped or separated into layers and quality control over pressings was absent) and the two recorded complete sets of the Webern Opera were allowed to go out of print, with return in cd format saved for a generation later. Moreover, the explosion of composerly and musicological interest in Webern had ended (save, of course, for some curious activity east of the Iron Curtain -- I'd give an eye tooth for a copy of the one volume Soviet (read: "pirated") edition of Webern's scores, and the Cholopowa/Cholopow 1984 study of Webern's life and works remains a superb book, even the small dose of obligatory marxist-leninist commentary has aquired its own aura of irrelevance: as soon as Webern became unfashionable in the west, it was safe to play -- or at least write about -- his music in the east).

But the era of radio silence around Webern passed soon enough. I think that it might have been the publication of Peter Staedlen's edition of the piano Variationen, Op. 27, in which Webern's penciled-in articulations, dynamics, and tempos appeared to superimpose a radical expressive rubato in all parameters, that caused the renewed interest. Or it could have been the recording of Webern's own Frankfurt performance of Schubert dance arrangements -- again in Wiener espressivo style - that encouraged a second glance. In any case, Webern was back, but a different Webern to the dry, pointillist Webern of the landmark Robert Craft recordings in the 1950's, a style -- however "authentic" it might have been -- which had inspired a generation of composers to go on to do interesting work of their own. The more current Webern style has already registered an impact on younger composers (and some rethinking by older composers) of its own.

Composers reputations inevitably ebb and peak, and -- especially in the case of notated scores which must be interpreted to be made into sounds -- ebbing is not always a loss but an opportunity for rediscovery. Without a doubt it can be personally difficult when a reputation fades during an artists lifetime, but I am certain that learning to move with the tides of fashion -- like Philip Johnson in architecture, to name a name outside of the music biz -- is ultimately a worse strategy than the consequent pursuit of ones own ideas, wherever they may lead.


Ben.H said...

I haven't listened to many 'historical' recordings of works by older composers, but I've certainly noticed the changes in the way many pieces by the avant-garde of the 50s and 60s are often played now, compared to when they were new, particularly with indeterminate pieces. Then: dry, pointillist (as you say), often harsh and abrasive. Now: hushed, mellow, flowing, vaguely spiritual.

I can understand contemporary tastes affecting the present-day performances, but wondered if the 50s and 60s style was in part due to a lack of familiarity with the new musical language. It's interesting to learn they played Webern much the same way - seems like that's what 'modern music' was supposed to sound like then.

Personally, I want to see this style come back. I'm getting fed up with all the New York School getting played like they're Arvo Part

Daniel Wolf said...

Ben --

I know exactly what you mean. Recently a friend turned up with a copy of the Craft Webern recordings and while often something of a mess, they just as often sounded fresh, gritty, interesting. New music again.