Cantata No. 1, op. 29

I. Getragen – Lebhaft II. Leicht bewegt III. Ruhig


Cantata No. 1 was completed in November 1939. This three movement work sets three verses by Hildegarde Jone, who provided the texts for all Webern's vocal works from the mid thirties onwards. There is no question that the poetess is hardly to be considered one of the greats: indeed there are entire lexicons devoted to world literature in which we would search in vain for her name. But nor should we underestimate the value of her work. She was the wife of the sculptor Joseph Humplick, and because of her long attraction to the Ionic art of ancient Greece, had assumed the pseudonym “Jone” (she was born Hildegard Huber). She could certainly express certain thoughts with artistic power which for the composer who was increasingly appalled by the world around him, offered some consolation and spiritual retreat. Of the verses chosen for the cantata, particularly in the first, the possibilities of musical illustration also seems to have fascinated Webern. The lightning bolt engendering life that crashes down from on high suggests a powerful effect, and the thunder thus created which dies away, also implies interesting sound possibilities. The first bar of the first movement seemingly symbolises the divine creator: we hear three quiet, almost symmetrical chords with a pause in a 7/2 metre (we can interpret the number 7 symbolically, as the Holy Trinity plus the four fold division of the secular world (i.e  the four seasons). In the following moment, lively (“lebhaft”) musical material contrasts with the suggestive calm of the beginning.


It is as if Webern wishes to make visible spiritual and material existence. During the work, the two gradually become one. The rough percussive effect suited for the lightning strike is heard first immediately following the chorus's entrance. The music portrays the “dying away” of the text by employing the harmonies which were earlier introduced on simple woodwind and strings. At the end of the work, we hear them again in subtly resounding muted sound colours (the final sonority of the movement, for example belongs to the harp and the triangle.) This is married to a highly strict dodecaphonic structure: each individual sound is part of some variation on one of the twelve note rows chosen as a basis for the work (mirror, crab, or mirror-crab inversions and their transpositions.) The central movement, for the sake of variety is an orchestral aria for soprano solo with a dodecaphonic structure, and is similarly strict to what is encountered in the first movement. The third movement “rhymes” with the first, not least in the chorus being given a role again. Webern sadly never heard his work performed. It was only premiered after his death at a public concert in London on July 12th 1946.

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