Schoenberg and Webern: Viennese Explorations

This is a collection of two programme notes about Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No.1 and Anton Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra.

These notes were originally written for a concert I had organised and was to conduct in March of 2020. The concert was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic. In a sort of sentimental and melancholic fashion, I now present this duo programme note as a ‘still existing remnant’ of the concert I was so looking forward to present. I had decided to conduct these pieces back to back (starting with the Webern). Other than the dramatic flair and sweet feeling of control of refusing the audience to clap between pieces, I decided to join them in order to celebrate and make evident their simultaneous differences and similarities. The programmatic choice was most certainly a product of my growing passion for early 20th century Viennese music that I had developed in my final year of university. Both pieces are explorations. Put simply and crudely: Webern explores timbres and textures and Schoenberg explores his potential as a composer. They are both dense in their musical meaning and techniques and revel in their hidden and often inaudible intricacies. It is for this reason that they became such strong candidates for the concert’s programme. I realised quickly that these pieces would be best appreciated (at least for me), if I took the role of conductor. This meant that a thorough analysis and understanding of the pieces were necessary. And despite my all-encompassing love for this era’s music, I have never found the listening experience of these pieces anywhere near as exciting and fruitful as conducting or analysing them. And so, although the concert never took place, I nevertheless wish to convey my passion and appreciation for these pieces and composers in these, albeit short, hopefully insightful and interesting programme notes.


These pieces, although short, are rich in musical ideas and thought. True to Webern's style, their density allows for a focused concentration on the potential of varying timbres (including a mandolin!), rhythmic relationships (listen out for movement three) and tone rows in creating an altogether intellectually and acoustically stimulating experience.


As one of his early works, Schoenberg's first chamber symphony has the ability to prematurely shed light on his future musical ventures. True throughout his whole career, motivic development is at the centre of this composition. The importance of the 'motif' and its ability to define larger structures is evident in his decision to present this five-movement symphony, as only one movement. It even permeates the orchestra's seating plan which specifies to seat motivically similar instruments close to each other (pictured). Techniques now associated with his more dogmatic musical theories (quartal harmonies and tone rows, for example) are at work in the piece. But due to its almost 'post-romantic' style, the piece offers a palatable way of understanding them in the context of his historically defining career.

Rita Fernandes, March 2020

(Originally written for the King's Modern Music Society March concert)

Rita has also written:

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East Meets East by Kroke and Nigel Kennedy

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Alban Berg / Lulu (1935)

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Ludwig van Beethoven / Symphony No.6 'Pastoral' (1808)

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