Next in my Lent series is an early work from the twentieth century, Anton Webern‘s Five Canons for high soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet. Rather like Mahler, Webern’s busy schedule restricted his compositional activities to the summer holidays; three of the canons were written in the summer of 1923, and the final two the following year. The word ‘canon’ has a double meaning here; as one might expect, the five pieces are composed as strict canons, but in addition the texts are themselves ‘canonical’, taken from the Catholic liturgy. Each of the five pieces lasts between 30 seconds and one minute, so Webern eschews both textual repetition and melismas, arriving at music of a manner not dissimilar to that of Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, austere and matter-of-fact, not exactly cold but nonetheless rather utilitarian and impersonal. Not just for this reason, they’re especially appropriate during Passiontide as three of the texts—’Christus factus est’, ‘Crux fidelis’ and ‘Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine’—are directly related to Christ’s crucifixion; the remaining two are concerned with Christ’s infancy (‘Dormi Jesu, mater ridet’) and an act of purification (‘Asperges me, Domine’).
Throughout, the music is sharply angular, which greatly heightens the drama of these already ardent texts. So the otherwise simple narrative of ‘Christus factus est’ becomes wildly declamatory, and ‘Asperges me’ is transformed from an expression of supplication to desperate, almost aggressive confidence: “you will sprinkle me, Lord”, the implication being “you must—or else…”. Both ‘Crux fidelis’ and ‘Crucem tuam adoramus’ are extremely contrapuntal, although Webern bestows high lyricism on them both — actually, that’s putting it mildly, as the tone of worship in the latter of those pieces sounds almost unhinged given such jagged melodic treatment; the former is more measured, accentuating the sweetness spoken of in the text. Only ‘Dormi Jesu’ (better known to many as ‘The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn’) is truly calm, Webern retaining the sense of lullaby with which the text is associated, and the drawn out final word—”somnule”—is particularly lovely. Although the markedly softer attitude in this canon distinguishes it from the other four, there’s a tantalising glimpse of something similar at the conclusion of ‘Asperges me’; having brusquely asked for pity, it’s as though the soprano’s guard slips, and beneath the bluster—to the words “secundum magnam misericordiam tuam” (“according to your great mercy”)—one spies a touchingly real vulnerability.
It takes an extremely gifted soprano to negotiate such tortuous melodic writing as this; Valdine Anderson is just such a soprano and in this superb performance (which took place in the same concert as Kurtág’s Scenes From a Novel, recently-discussed) she’s joined by two members of BCMG.