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String Quartet (Webern)

The String Quartet by Anton Webern is written for the standard string quartet group of two violins, viola and cello. It was the last piece of chamber music that Webern wrote (the only other works he completed before his death were the two cantatas and the Variations for Orchestra).

The piece was written in 1937-38 on a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and was premiered at the Coolidge Festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on September 22, 1938. It is in three movements:

  1. Mässig (Moderately) - a movement in variation form.
  2. Gemächlich (Leisurely) - in ternary form (ABA), the outer parts being a four part canon with all the notes the same length (fluctuations in tempo aside).
  3. Sehr fleissend (Very flowing) - a freer movement with numerous changes in texture and mood. In a letter to Erwin Stein, Webern described the middle part of this movement as a fugue.

The String Quartet is atonal, and like all of Webern's mature works, is composed using the twelve-tone technique. The tone row on which the piece is based is intricately constructed and based on the BACH motif (B flat, A, C, B natural):

The first four notes of the row (marked O for original) are the BACH motif itself, the next four are in retrograde inversion (that is, they are upsidedown and backwards), and the last four is the BACH motif again transposed up a minor sixth. Additionally, the last six notes of the row are a retrograde inversion of the first six.

When Webern sent the score of the piece to Coolidge, he accompanied it with a letter saying that the piece was "purely lyrical" and comparing it to the two and three movement piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The piece was first published in 1939 by Hawkes, and was the last of Webern's works to be published in his lifetime. In 1955 another edition appeared from Universal Edition.

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