Anton Webern: Five Songs on Poems by Stefan George, Op. 4

Stefan George (1868-1933), perhaps the most prominent German Symbolist poet, is nonetheless not widely known outside of scholarly circles. A genial young poet, George developed a unique style which relied heavily on his mystical and aristocratic symbolism. As a child he had even developed his own private language, consisting of clear latinate terms with German syntax; his first poems were written in this and later "translated" to be published for a small audience of connoisseurs. In 1888 George traveled to Paris, where he fell under the spell of Mallarmé and the French Symbolists. This influence was to remain significant throughout George's life, although he by no means merely copied the French style. George, in a curious mixture of modernism and tradition, looked backward to the Greeks, but also to a Germanic aesthetic which he saw as leading into the future. His poems exhibit a sensual and carefully constructed imagery, one which relies not only on visual portrayals but on aural landscapes as well. George may be termed a modernist, but he was not concerned with the modern world and its bustling new industries. Indeed, George addressed his poetry to the aristocratic and aesthetic mind, not to the intellectual or philosophical thinker. His poetry is in no way analytic; instead, it communicates the subtleties of experience in the most delicate and ineffable of terms.

Most of George's early poems (in the years before 1904) deal with the process of becoming rather than being. His Jahr der Seele of 1897, for example, describes the changing moods of the seasons in an intensely private manner; almost all poems are addressed to a 'you' and consist of dialogic reflections. The George-Kreis , his elite circle of friends and admirers, was in some ways a cultic group with hermetic mysticism and rituals. The group centered around George and his young protegé Maximin Kronberger, whom George had met in 1903. Maximin's tragic death at 16, in 1904, brought a change in George's poetry, which became increasingly transcendental, prophetic, and obscure.

George's attitude toward music and musical expression of poetry is complex and underwent a significant change with the death of Maximin. Early on, music was a constant interest and companion to George's poetry; he considered poetry to be a form of song (this was reinforced, of course, by Mallarmé's views on the subject). Many of his early works are in fact entitled songs -- these include the Sagen und Sänge der Hängenden Gärten (later set to music by Schönberg) and the Lieder vom Traum und Tod. The George-Kreis, too, was active in the musical arena: several members were published composers, and the group's publication, Blätter für die Kunst, often included musical supplements. Members report that the George-Kreis evenings often included musical performances; at times, poetry would be set to music, or, most commonly, read to the accompaniment of a lyre, much in the tradition of ancient Greece.

After the Maximin-Erlebnis in 1904, George "renounced" music in most forms. He had come to believe, through Maximin's transcendence, that the ultimate ideal of human art was pure poetry, and that music could only distract from this. Music, in some sense, dulled the enjoyment of poetry by intoxicating the senses. George and his circle theorized that music and poetry stem from different layers of the mind, and went so far as to say that poetry is a rational process, while music is "sub-human."

Even after his renunciation of music, George laid out very clear guidelines as to the proper recitation of his poetry. The speaker, he believed, should steer a middle ground between speaking and singing; avoiding both the extreme of a purely philosophical or intellectual pursuit as well as the purely musical or emotional one. Poetry, he claimed, suggested its own particular rules of recitation. Members of the Kreis had considered designing a form of notation for the performance of their poems, but, in the end, George claimed, there was no need for musical notation -- the music was contained within the poem itself.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) came from a different tradition than George, but the two share certain striking similarities. Webern's early childhood pieces were strongly influenced by Wagner, and even his first published works remained within a tonal and fairly traditional style. In 1904, Webern became a student of Arnold Schönberg; this was to provide the young composer with the means to make a decisive change in his compositional style. Already the closing choir of Webern's Op. 2 shows the beginnings of a new atonality -- the work still has a key signature, but the tonal center seems to "float" towards the end of the piece. Significantly, this choir, Webern's step into the uncharted waters of the new school, is a setting of George's "Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen." In fact, both Webern's transition to atonality and, a few years later, to twelve-tone music, are marked by an abundance of text settings, the majority of which are poems by Stefan George.

Webern's Op. 3 and Op. 4 were written during the same time period of 1908-1909, along with four songs published posthumously. All fourteen are settings of Stefan George poems; all are composed in free atonality -- not yet twelve-tone, but no longer possessing a tonal center, and without key signatures. Webern never set a poem by George after this point. Although he never wrote of his reasons for setting George poems, I believe we can draw certain parallels from the statements of Arnold Schönberg, who also composed his Op. 15 -- a setting of 15 songs from George's Lieder der Hängenden Gärten -- in the same year. Schönberg said of this piece:

 With the George songs I have succeeded for the first time in coming nearer to an ideal of expression and form which has been hovering about me for years. Up till then I lacked the power and confidence to realize this ideal. But now that I have finally entered on this path I know that I have broken all the bonds of an outworn aesthetic. [1]

Webern, though, seems to have found the process of breaking away from traditional structures more difficult and taxing than Schönberg. He often spoke of how draining it was, claiming that the loss of tonality meant the loss of the means of building larger or longer pieces. Only when the composers turned to texts as the bases for their compositions did they find that they could rely on the text itself to provide the necessary form and completeness. As Schönberg describes:

 A little later I discovered how to construct larger forms by following a text or poem. The differences in size and shape of its parts and the change in character and mood were mirrored in the shape and size of the composition, in its dynamics and tempo, figuration and accentuation, instrumentation and orchestration. Thus the parts were differentiated as clearly as they had formerly been by the tonal and structural functions of harmony. [2]

Webern's later correspondence with Hildegard Jone, whose texts he began to set in 1926, offer insights into what difficulties he faced during the earlier groundbreaking years, and reveal how important a role the text played in his choice of form and structure. The text enabled him, he wrote, to give form to the material within his mind. "It is not possible to describe what is hovering in front of me. Once the text is there, then I know how to do it." [3]

For both Webern and Schönberg, then, the poem became the spiritual and intellectual motivation for the composition. Moreover, the text took over the form-building function -- it gave back that which the loss of tonality had taken away.

But why, in particular, would Webern feel compelled to set poems by George, whose unusual aesthetic seems by outward appearance to have little in common with the composer's own? In fact, I think, the two were not as disparate as it may seem. George's poems, especially those written before 1906 (which were the only ones Webern and Schönberg set) were by and large a call to leave behind the world of traditional normality and appearances; to break away to a new world of dream and fantasy. This could, indeed, be seen as a parallel to the musical new directions towards which the composers felt driven.

A smaller point, but still important, is the peculiar syntax which is the hallmark of George's poems. To me this dislocated, often misplaced or floating syntax seems to fit perfectly with the suspended tonality and even metric freedom which we see in Webern's style.

In addition, George's poems express clearly their place in history. As many scholars have discussed, the fin de siècle aesthetic movement had a sort of "hidden fervor" that was reflected in all the arts. Webern was no stranger to this fervor: the young composer was clearly struggling between his early training in the late Romantic tradition and the modernist calls of the new musical directions. In the same way, George's uniquely backward-looking modernism caused him no end of pain. Both artists felt torn, but at the same time compelled to move forward, and perhaps it is for that reason that Webern felt George's poems could safely guide him towards a new style, a new future.

The fifth and final song in Webern's Op. 4 is a setting of George's "Ihr tratet zu dem Herde" from Das Jahr der Seele of 1897. This song cycle was Webern's first published work and appeared in 1912 in the famed Blaue Reiter , edited by Kandinsky and Marc. The song is remarkable in several ways, not least because it stands out even from the other four songs of the cycle in its pleasantly melodic texture and interesting rhythmic patterns. One critic has called the music "pulseless, flexible in tempo, irregular in phrase length, metre and rhythmic pattern." Repetition is avoided almost completely, with a few notable exceptions to be discussed below. Accompanying textures are stripped to the bare essentials, a process which helps to convey the feeling of winter cold and sparseness embodied in the text. Dynamics are generally quiet, with pianos throughout the piece; the highest volume of forte only at the highest pitch and climax of the text. As is prevalent in the other four songs as well, both the melody and the accompaniment are suffused with minor seconds, which may also serve to set a melancholy or contemplative mood for the piece. The vocal line, following perhaps George's own guidelines for recitation, is basically declamatory in most parts, and never melismatic; so too, the rhythm and meter of the composition follow the poem's own. Overall, the piece strives to avoid extreme climactic states, and leaves the impression of being somewhat understated, as the poem itself does as well.

There is an appealing balance to the composition that connects it to the original text: like the poem's three stanzas, the song is composed of three main sections. There are twelve lines in the poem, and in essence twelve main phrases in the song, too. A surprising gesture on Webern's part is the suggested A-B-A form of the piece; this symmetry is not exact, but it is nonetheless easily discernible, and perhaps best described thusly:

step to the hearth--at the hearth--move away from hearth
pp - pp - pp--p - mf - f - mf - p--p - pp - pp - ppp
slow--accel. then rit.--slow
highest pitch Bb (Mond)--highest pitch F (haschen)--highest pitch D (Mond)
  starts on D# ends on Eb  

As previously mentioned, the vocal line avoids large movements in pitch, and consists mostly of small steps, mostly minor seconds. The highest points in the first section occur on important nouns -- for the most part, sources of light. The words Glut ("glow"), Licht ("light"), and Mond ("moon"), all light sources, appear without simultaneous piano accompaniment, as if emphasizing their sudden matchlike intensity; so too does Schein ("shine") in the middle section stand alone, and Mond in the penultimate phrase.

Although the composition omits any outright repetition of motivic elements, there are two suggested similarities in the first and third sections, further underlining the A-B-A form of the piece. The progressions of "leichenfarb" and "worden spät" seem to closely resemble one another, as does the melody of "Glut verstarb" and "Mond euch rät." In the middle section, the words "suchen tasten haschen" bring us to the climax of nearly all elements combined: dynamics, rhythm, pitch, and in some ways the text itself (the moment of vain attempt and then resignation).

Finally, the accompaniment to all three sections serves to further delineate the different moods and events in the text, and draws closely on the poem for inspiration. Webern does not resort to 'word-painting," but at times he seems to come close. One can easily imagine, for example, the irregular rhythmic pairs of the piano in the first section imitating the wanderer's feet, walking hesitantly towards the hearth, or the sustained arpeggios of the second section as simulations of the fingers poking into the embers of the hearth. The third section, more irregular and sparse in its overlapping triads and notes, seems to suggest confusion or tiredness on the part of the traveler, or even his resignation as he turns to leave the hearth.

In conclusion, we can clearly see how Webern relied heavily on George's text not only for inspiration in this song, but how the text itself helped to provide a structure and cohesion in the place of tonal focus. The poem's structure as well as its meaning gave Webern a form to work with, and furnished the motivic elements which make the text so appealing to even the casual listener. Upon deeper analysis one can only gain a greater appreciation for this setting, as well as for George's text, for the two truly do work together here, setting a new direction in poetry and in musical composition.


(1)  Schönberg, quoted in Walter Kolneder, Anton Webern: An Introduction to his Works, trans. Humphrey Searle (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), p. 34. [return to text]
(2)  Schönberg, quoted in Elmar Budde, Anton Weberns Lieder Op. 3: Untersuchungen zur frühen Atonalität bei Webern (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1971), p. 5. [return to text]
(3)  Webern, quoted in Budde, p. 9. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Music 928 at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Anton Webern: Five Songs on Poems by Stefan George, Op. 4." Website Article. 15 April 1997. <>.