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Composed: 1908
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 17, 1960, with Georg Solti conducting

The Webern of great influence, particularly after World War II, the composer of some of the most tense, terse – “aphoristic” and “ghostly” have become the operative adjectives – music ever created, was far in the future in 1908 when he wrote this, his official Opus 1. It was hardly his debut, rather, the first work he considered worthy of advertising to the world as his own. It was also his last and most ambitious composition created under the direct tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg.

The Passacaglia is, unlike the composer’s later creations, for the most part lush in tone and texture. Yet Webern’s structural and thematic thinking here and there already shows a tendency to the later compression, while the overall chromatic feeling reveals the influence of Schoenberg’s epochal 1906 Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, with its shifting, extended, and often vague tonalities.

The Passacaglia is tonal, but its nominal D minor is as freely enlarged and stretched as the E major of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony. Webern’s orchestral texture is above all reminiscent of what we often find in Mahler’s later works, with textural clarity maintained, even emphasized, in the loudest, most labor-intensive passages, but just as often reducing the orchestra to chamber, even soloistic proportions. Here we also find foreshadowings of such later-Webern tendencies as hushed dynamics and the employment to disquieting effect of, say, a high, muted violin or a muted trombone playing in its lowest register. But there remains in the Passacaglia a prevalence of the sensual, late-Romantic sound and billowing melodic contours that he would abandon in his quest for a personal, stripped-down style.

Webern’s abiding interest in music of earlier times finds expression here in the choice of the simple formal device of passacaglia, a mainstay of the Baroque, which consists of a short theme in the bass overlaid with a series of variations on that theme. The 20-odd variations of Webern’s Passacaglia are based on the tense pizzicato theme heard at the outset. The net result is close to that of a single movement symphony (Schoenberg’s Op. 9 again) with a central slow episode, scherzo elements, and a highly compressed recapitulation.

Remarkably, Webern was to write in a letter to Alban Berg, the third member of the trinity, with Webern and Schoenberg, of the so-called Second Viennese School: “All of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother,” a confession of the obsessive mother-son relationship that would indeed haunt the composer for the rest of his days. Webern’s wife, Wilhelmine, would write to her husband-to-be, “My love for you will never replace the love of your mother, but it will help you to create a beautiful life. And to assist you in reaching the highest goal as man and artist is the most beautiful part of my own life. I want to preserve your mother’s memory in you.” Calling Dr. Freud!

After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera, followed by a long-term relationship with the Los Angeles Times as a critic/columnist, the author has for the past decade-plus been English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.