Magazine article The Spectator

Gems of Compression

Magazine article The Spectator

Gems of Compression

Article excerpt

The first number in Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook, praising little things - the costly pearl, the wholesome olive, the fragrant rose - sweetly converts `small is beautiful' from a pious platitude to a tender truth. It opens a collection of 46 such gems of bejewelled compression. Their emotional range, however, is unlimited, extending from wry, satiric, droll, to idealised erotic passion so intense that one fears it'll burst asunder the fragile medium of singer and piano. Most are just two pages long, several shorter still, one - the narrative of a wily pair of lecherous monks, a credulous father, his sick daughter - runs to three.

Wolf was a precious product of the saturated Viennese culture that within scarcely more than a decade of the Italian Songbook's completion in 1896 had pushed the language of tonal music to a crisis and over the edge. This too involved compression, achieving a concentration so tight that it could hardly go further. The sheer density of instrumental invention in the 21 numbers comprising Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, combining with the oppressive finde-siecle imagery of its half-sung, half-spoken texts - capricious, wheedling, amorous, violent, blasphemous, fantastical, nostalgic - tends to expand, even to explode, these miniatures to nightmarish proportions in the mind. In fact only two are longer than 50 bars, most are far shorter, and one - the ejaculatory execution takes all of 15 seconds to perform.

Webern's contemporary miniatures, though born of the same impulse to condense, really do in comparison look and sound essentialised. Schoenberg's way is to intensify by inclusion; Webern intensifies by leaving out. The notes are few (indeed he said of his work in this period that once he'd used all the 12 notes he felt that there was nothing else to say): the spaces around them vast.

The nearest model for actual scale is another product of Vienna in the mid1890s: Brahms's late harvest of 20 brief character-pieces for piano, wherein spontaneous songfulness, veiled introspection, with occasional outbursts of energetic heartiness, encapsulate and distil a lifetime's technical mastery and expressive self-contemplation. And behind Brahms lies his master and champion Schumann, whose small scale, as in most of the Dichterliebe songs and many others, is not so much a matter of compressing as of capturing the fugitive and fragile, making a fragment bear the weight of a whole. Crucial to this endeavour is its apparent looseness, even casualness, whereby as much is suggested as divulged. In this Schumann is unlike his friend and contemporary Chopin, music's most celebrated miniaturist. …

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