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Anton Webern: “Orchestration of the six-part ricercar from the Musical Offering of J. S. Bach” (1935)

From the album Webern Complete Works Opp. 1-31

When I was young and first discovered the sonic wonders of the cheap electronic keyboard, one of my favorite tricks was to repeatedly play a single note while rapidly changing the sound.  My ears were inexplicably entranced by the parade of shifting sonorities— piano, flute, violin, xylophone— each, plastic and insubstantial by itself, lending its meager tone to something greater.  It was as if, by traversing all the available sounds, I could create a sonorous blur and thereby approximate an inaudible universal sound that contained all others within it.

In his Theory of Harmony, written in 1911, the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg introduced the notion of Klangfarbenmelodie or “tone-color melody,” which he described as “progressions of tone-color whose relations with one another work with a kind of logic entirely equivalent to that logic which satisfies us in the melody of pitches.”  What exactly Schoenberg meant by this is debatable, but the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie— with all its suggestive ambiguities— has exerted a powerful influence on later composers keen on timbral experimentation.

Anton WebernOne such composer was Schoenberg’s pupil, Anton Webern.  In 1935 Webern took a break from his pioneering 12-tone compositions and decided to orchestrate the six-voice ricercar (a rigorous contrapuntal form that was a predecessor to the fugue) from J.S. Bach's remarkable late work The Musical Offering of 1747.  Because Bach had not specified the instrumentation of the piece, it made the perfect medium for Webern’s unprecedented experiment in orchestration.  The melodic lines are broken into fragments and passed continuously from instrument to instrument, creating a shimmering, prismatic garb for Bach’s polyphonic web of voices.

Played 2,311 time(s).

May 05, 2009, 12:51am

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