Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Opus 9, is a set of pieces for two violins, viola, and cello. Composed in 1913 in Vienna, each bagatelle is brief, spanning a single page, varying from seven to thirteen measures.
The composition reflects Webern’s yearning to mirror some of the ideas of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg. One of the most prominent concepts throughout the six movements is the lack of any contrasts that call for resolution in the music. This portrays the new style of writing brought to light by Schoenberg in the development of atonal music. In addition, the movements are all through-composed. In other words, there are no clearly defined sections that mark a beginning or an end to a specific musical idea or motive.
No. 6 is titled Fließend, which translates from German to “flowing.” This last bagatelle is a vivid example of continuity in Webern’s music. The title, itself, reflects its structure. There are only two places in the nine measures that have a moment of complete silence, when none of the instruments are playing: the eighth note rest at the downbeat of measure 1 and the eighth note rest on the downbeat of measure 3. It may seem that each of the four instruments is sounding out random pitches, either separately or simultaneously, yet each of them also has an independent line which interweaves constantly with the other instruments. For example, in measure 7, even though the three lower parts have a rest on the downbeat, the first violin is still holding the tied F-sharp from the previous measure.
As many composers of his day, Webern very often constructed his compositions with the golden ratio in mind. “The golden ratio, also known...
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...le of His Life and Work (New York; knopf, 1978). Looking into Webern’s life between 1908 and 1913, he writes that “[Webern’s] compositions of that period reveal a growing tendency to compress the highest intensity of expression within the greatest formal brevity.”
This is true of all six of the bagatelles in Opus 9 and clearly expressed in No. 6. The score is packed with constantly interchanging indications (plucked, bowed, muffled, on the bridge, at the fingerboard) for the stringed instruments, thus creating different sound effects, as well as causing emphasis on specific pitches or phrase fragments. Almost every single note has multiple instructions accompanying it, and yet, the whole piece is only nine measures long. Such detail reflects the scrupulous attention that Webern gave to every note: he wanted to express the most in the minimal amount of music.
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