Not long for this world

I’m the first to admit that my skill at prognosticating competitions is non-existent, so I wasn’t surprised that none of the composers I considered in the running for the Grawemeyer Award won (see comments here). I was pleasantly surprised that my other prediction failed to pan out—that the honored piece would be an opera or concerto (the winner, Sebastian Currier’s Static, is for five players). That call, in fact, was based on solid evidence: 12 of the previous 20 winners had been either stage works or solo-and-orchestra affairs. The inherent flash and drama of virtuosity or figurative action, after all, is always going to make a bigger impact than a well-wrought but understated meditation for a few players that don’t seem to be working very hard.

I’ve been thinking about such things this week as I’ve been revisiting the Webern op. 27 Variations for solo piano. In Moldenhauer’s biography, he quotes Webern writing a colleague about his progress: “The completed part is a movement of variations; what is evolving will be a kind of ‘suite.’ In the variations I hope I have realized something I have envisioned for years now.” To another correspondent, a couple of weeks later: “During the last few weeks I was uninterruptedly at my work and now see that the variations go on further, even if they turn into movements of most diverse types.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Webern first started working on the Variations in October of 1935, went at it full-steam starting the next June, and finally finished it in September. That’s a long genesis for a not-very-long piece of music, but the quotes reveal that Webern had to live with the notes for a long time before he could see where they were going, generating a type of fully organic form that he had clearly been trying to imagine for the better part of his compositional life. The pianist who premiered op. 27, Peter Stadler, remembered coaching the music with Webern: “For weeks on end he had spent countless hours trying to convey to me every nuance of performance down to the finest detail. As he sang and shouted, waved his arms and stamped his feet in an attempt to bring out what he called the meaning of the music I was amazed to see him treat those few scrappy notes as if they were cascades of sound.” For Webern, they were: highly charged phrases packed with a year’s worth of thought and emotion.

I doubt the Variations would win any major music award today. The Grawemeyer specifies a “large musical genre”; the Pulitzer is for a work “of significant dimension.” Webern’s few pages wouldn’t get much of a look from such juries. Yet op. 27 is a piece of significant dimensions, even if those dimensions are curled into themselves like something out of string theory. Big awards, thankfully, don’t always go to big ensembles, but there’s a long way to go before a couple of perfect minutes of lapidary precision and ineffable depth can hope to compete on equal terms with a Wagnerian stem-winder.

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