Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1913 premiere of Anton von Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, Op. 6, on a program with pieces by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, caused a riot in the concert hall.

Summary of Event

Perhaps they should have known better. Certainly, Arnold Schoenberg should have; he had witnessed milder versions of the riot that broke out at the March 31, 1913, concert in Vienna’s major music hall. The noise of hisses, boos, laughter, and whistles mingled with the applause for the “new” music of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern featured at the concert. Eventually, complete chaos broke out, and the hall was filled with fistfights, shouting, and challenges to duels. Even the police could not restore order; it took half an hour to clear the hall. Later, several of the combatants were fined in the court case that ensued. Music;orchestral Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (Webern) [kw]Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres (Mar. 31, 1913)[Weberns Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres (Mar. 31, 1913)] [kw]Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres, Webern’s (Mar. 31, 1913) [kw]Orchestra Premieres, Webern’s Six Pieces for Large (Mar. 31, 1913) Music;orchestral Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (Webern) [g]Austria;Mar. 31, 1913: Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres[03390] [c]Music;Mar. 31, 1913: Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres[03390] Webern, Anton von Schoenberg, Arnold Berg, Alban Mahler, Gustav

Schoenberg, the leader and teacher of a new school of composers who were turning their backs on the overripe harmonies of late Romantic music such as that of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, organized and conducted the concert as a showcase for Berg and Webern, his best pupils. Having studied with him since 1904, they were eager to have the public hear what were really their first orchestral compositions in the new atonal idiom, with which Schoenberg had been experimenting for several years. Eschewing the conventional major/minor key system that had dominated Western music for several hundred years, Schoenberg experimented with ambiguous harmonies and dissonance, with music that had no tonal center and hence was called “atonal.”

Since 1906, Schoenberg had written and had performed—often to derisive hisses and laughter—a series of compositions, for orchestras smaller than the conventional symphony orchestra, that used the voice in angular and expressive ways, valuing words and meaning over sweetness and flowing melody. Between 1906 and 1913, he had set forth onto new paths in music, overturning accepted conceptions of harmony and composition. With his followers—particularly Berg and Webern—he aggressively pursued his goals and fought for respect and recognition. It would never be easy.

Most important, perhaps, for Webern’s own development was Schoenberg’s 1909 work Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, which first clearly demonstrated the concept of tone-color melody. In the third piece of this set, “Colors” (later titled “Morning by a Lake”), Schoenberg experimented with tone colors between instruments as a means of creating melody. Schoenberg soon articulated this idea in a 1911 book on harmony; Webern, with his interest in medieval and Renaissance polyphony and contrapuntal practice, was intrigued. After all, in finishing his doctorate in musicology at the University of Vienna in 1906, he had edited and studied the complex vocal music of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac. Webern wanted to try to combine Schoenberg’s own interest in reviving the art of canon and counterpoint (neglected in nineteenth century classical music, with its emphasis on the sonata form and increasingly rich triadic harmonies) with tone-color melody, so that linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) aspects of composition could be viewed as a single dimension.

This young group of experimental musicians became known as the Second Viennese School, Second Viennese School in contradistinction to the line of great Viennese masters of the nineteenth century. The new composers, however, had strong links to the past and tradition and did not really think of themselves as revolutionaries. Rather, they viewed themselves as extending tradition or reviving older modes. In this effort, they had the support of some of their older contemporaries—most notably Gustav Mahler. Mahler went to their concerts and encouraged their experiments until his sudden death in 1911. Indeed, his later compositions heralded the methods of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in many respects.

In spite of his employment of large orchestral forces, Mahler often broke these forces down into chamber groups and experimented with unusual timbral effects. In the song cycle Kindertotenlieder (1901-1904; songs on the deaths of children) and in the large symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (1909; The Song of the Earth), Mahler used chamber groupings and solo instrumental timbres as well as vocal lines of intense expressiveness, which greatly impressed the members of the Second Viennese School. The three inner movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony (1905) became models for tone-color experiments. These movements featured “coloristic” sounds from such instruments as guitar, mandolin, and cowbells within the compass of a large orchestra. Impressionistic and finally expressionistic, these experiments excited the young composers. Mahler became a hero to them, a forward-looking figure in the staid and conservative musical life of Vienna. Indeed, Kindertotenlieder was planned as the final piece for the March 31, 1913, concert, but because of the riot that broke out after the orchestral songs by Berg, it never was played.

The concert opened with Webern’s new orchestral work, Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, Op. 6. Although he employed a large orchestra, Webern used his forces sparingly. Each piece was short, and the whole composition took about ten minutes. Textures were spare; short phrases and motifs shifted from instrument to instrument, and the sound level rarely went above some sort of pianissimo. After the second piece—which lasted slightly longer than a minute—laughter erupted in the hall, countered by partisan applause. Such conciseness of form and coloristic use of instruments—as well as a lack of clear tonality—disturbed many in the audience. Some songs by a more conservative contemporary, Alexander von Zemlinsky, calmed things down. The playing of Schoenberg’s own Chamber Symphony, however, occasioned hissing and fistfights, even though this work from 1906 was less radical than Webern’s work. After an intermission, two of Berg’s new orchestral songs were performed to growing restiveness. In fact, their performance set off the complete chaos that terminated the concert.

Berg had set to music poems by Viennese poet Peter Altenberg, who specialized in aphoristic, Symbolist verse that confused many. The combination of Altenberg’s verse, Berg’s pared-down, chamberlike orchestral forces, and an angular, atonal, and expressionistic vocal line was too much for established tastes. The first song elicited laughter. Schoenberg had to stop midway through the second song to demand silence. Webern chimed in, yelling that the disrupters should be ejected, and the disorder began in earnest. Fistfights, applause, whistling, and the suggestion that admirers of the music should be committed to the local insane asylum brought the concert to an end.


Both Berg and Webern were devastated by the concert and fled Vienna. The event was in many ways a turning point. Obviously, many of the concert disrupters came prepared to deride the new music. For Schoenberg, it was a common kind of response to his experiments, but for his younger pupils it was a shock. For the rest of their lives, they were to receive varieties of such abuse and misunderstanding.

Webern, in particular, withdrew into himself and became for the rest of his life a semirecluse who earned his living from the 1920’s on by conducting orchestras and choruses. Because in many ways his music was the most radical compared with that of his contemporaries and offered the most stunning break with convention, it was the least accepted. Even today, Webern is thought to be the most “difficult” of the three major figures of the Second Viennese School for concertgoers.

Webern, however, had no intention of changing his unconventional approach to composition; he had, in fact, already extended his experiments in composition beyond the manner of the Op. 6 pieces by the time they had their premiere. His Five Movements for String Quartet, Five Movements for String Quartet (Webern) Op. 5, of 1909 lasted about twelve minutes and was even more concentrated and elliptical than the orchestra pieces. Marked by rapidly shifting tempos and dynamics, an avoidance of repetition except in brief ostinati (musical figures repeated at the same pitch throughout a composition), and tremendous technical difficulty, this work presaged Webern’s later work. Other compositions of the period from 1909 to 1914 showed Webern’s interest in small motives that were constantly varied and passed from instrument to instrument in the manner of tone-color melody.

The Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (Webern) Op. 9 (1911-1913), and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Five Pieces for Orchestra (Webern) Op. 10 (1911-1913), represented the summation of this first truly original phase of Webern’s career. In both compositions, he stressed transparency of texture: The instrumental forces designed for specifically chamber music compositions and for “orchestral” pieces became closer in size, as Webern as well as Schoenberg and Berg continued to turn away from the huge orchestras of late nineteenth century music making. Webern also started to use rests and silences as part of the fabric of his music; activity and its suspension became normative. Instruments of the woodwind family were given new prominence, and all instruments had solo roles, one instrument to a part. The frequent use of the celesta, harp, mandolin, guitar, and various percussion instruments for tone-color melody effects began to dominate Webern’s compositional practice. His use of the glockenspiel, xylophone, and harmonium recalled some aspects of Mahler’s instrumentation, and he began to strive more and more for clarity and openness of texture, so that every line could be heard.

After World War I, Schoenberg devised what he called the twelve-tone method Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] of composition. Using all twelve of the notes in the regular chromatic scale in a predetermined sequence gave the composer his model, or tone row, for a whole piece. A composition would thus be ordered not by major or minor key progressions and harmonies but by the tone row and various technical transpositions and reversals of it. Berg and Webern adopted this new method from Schoenberg, although they had both been working along similar lines even before 1920.

Webern’s later works extended the methods he had developed before World War I, but within the more controlled twelve-tone format. Pieces such as the String Trio, Op. 20 (1926-1927), the Symphony, Op. 21 (1927-1928), the String Quartet, Op. 28 (1937-1938), and the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 (1940), extended his methods so that he scarcely seemed to be concerned with melodic ideas that had any definable rhythmic characteristics. Medieval canonic procedures still were a feature at times in these later compositions, but they showed an even greater concern for creating a sort of mosaic of sounds or tone colors through experiments with instrumental combinations from piece to piece. Timbral matters dominated, and the transformation of instrumental colors, a true tone-color melody approach, became central. Isolated units of rhythm were contrasted carefully for textural and timbral reasons. Extreme condensation and abbreviation of motives allied with silences, and a sense of an acoustic space between notes and across the score brought an atomistic feel to these compositions. Webern’s soundscape came to have a sense almost of stasis, a frozen and abstract quality.

After his death in 1945, Webern became the preferred model among the three major figures of the Second Viennese School for the young composers emerging in the early 1950’s. Webern to them was the most radical and future-oriented. He most decisively rejected Romanticism in music, with its sweet and aching melodies, heavy orchestrations, and rich triadic harmonies. His spareness of texture and interest in extremes of instrumental tone color and playing practice (noted so carefully in his scores) meant, for the young “serialists” who took the twelve-tone method and applied it rigorously, that they had a mentor who had applied a keen logic to his music making. His use of a minimum of notes and unusual groupings of instruments and sounds appealed to them, because they wanted to redirect Western music even farther away from its past. Whether their estimate of Webern was entirely accurate remains open to question. In one sense, he was the futurist in music; in another, he was a renovator of tradition. In either case, he was a seminal figure in twentieth century music. Music;orchestral Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (Webern)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. “Atonality, Serialism, and Recent Developments in Twentieth-Century Europe.” In A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Although found within a textbook for college music majors, this chapter is accessible to the general reader. Covers the full range of Schoenberg’s innovations and provides a balanced overview of his work. Includes examples, illustrations, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolneder, Walter. Anton Webern: An Introduction to His Works. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Discusses all of Webern’s works, including some technical matters, and provides musicological illustrations. Understandable for the generally informed reader. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moldenhauer, Hans, and Demar Irvine, eds. Anton von Webern: Perspectives. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966. Papers from a conference offer interesting personal and musical insights into lesser-known aspects of Webern’s life and work. Comments by Igor Stravinsky, Ernst Krenek, and Egon Wllesz are useful, as is the exploration of Webern’s early late Romantic compositions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moldenhauer, Hans, and Rosaleen Moldenhauer. Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. A massive book that is richly rewarding in its coverage of the contexts for Webern’s work. All works are covered, but not a close musical or technical study. Good use of manuscript and unpublished music. Illustrated. Includes bibliography, index, and detailed list of works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neighbour, Oliver W., Paul Griffiths, and George Perle. The New Grove Second Viennese School. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Taken from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and revised, these short essays are excellent introductions to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, with detailed lists of works, illustrations, musical examples, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Charles. Arnold Schoenberg. 1975. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Relatively brief monograph helps the reader understand the significance of the composer’s work. Includes photographs, illustrations, musical examples, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simms, Bryan R., ed. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern: A Companion to the Second Viennese School. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Examines the works of these composers in the context of earlier Viennese musical developments and compares the modernism in their music with that in the nonmusical arts in Vienna during the same period. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music Since 1900. 4th ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. Covers all key events in (mostly) classical music and offers descriptive comments on the pieces and often witty appraisals of the concert scene. Included are documents and letters focusing on the new directions (including the Second Viennese School) of music in the twentieth century. A detailed “Dictionary of Terms” is also helpful. Index.

Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality

Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System

Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin

Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich

Categories: History