About this work
Anton Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 require less than five minutes to perform. The movements are not thematically connected, nor do they include traditional formal plans or tonal relationships. What they do contain is probably the most convincing utilization of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody) ever and apply an aphoristic approach to composition for orchestra for the first time.
These pieces are the last orchestral works Webern published before his adoption of the 12-tone method. His Op. 1 Passacaglia for Orchestra was post-Brahmsian and his Op. 5 orchestral works were atonal, sectional, and hint at the initial implications of the new musical language. Op. 10 expresses only the raw components of musical sound: notes, intervals, scraps of ostinato, rhythms, attack, volume, and tone color. While the Op. 5 was written in brief enough sections and durations to be considered miniatures, Op. 10 does away with the conventions of a traditional orchestral narrative. The result is an aphoristic approach that condenses the sound into one, hyper-expressive text. The result is a spilling over of artistic idea that is undeniable, immediate, and difficult to articulate.
What can be discerned is a flow of tone-color that is continually associative. For example, a plucked violin relates to the harp heard earlier. A horn can function as color conduit between a flute and a trumpet. This is in addition to tempos changing and recurring and many other basic, identifiable materials, such as register. With so much going on in a very brief period, the spirit of the movements harness a precariousness that might be the closest to the Expressionist oeuvre among Webern's instrumental works. The function of each musical signpost is always fluctuating, further abstracting the surface and underlying structure. A painstaking order is obviously at work in these movements. This music pushes the traditional limits of perception and yet exhibits strikingly lucid, even candid intentions. Webern's mastery of this language is palpable, but this is hardly a comfort. Webern was primarily concerned with the contours of natural phenomena, which follow a logic separate from the world humanity has created for itself.
The premiere of Op. 10 was on June 22, 1924, over 10 years after its completion. Webern conducted the five movements himself, in Zurich, during the fourth festival of the International Society for Contemporary Composers. Critics had time to absorb Webern's approach to music by then, and wrote favorably, even glowingly, of the work. Music reporters from Berlin, who had lambasted him in the past, described the composer as "a true musical poet," and provided many similar accolades as well. The concert catapulted the composer to international fame. In terms of winning respect from the music world, this concert may have been the most successful evening of Anton Webern's career.