Webern was even more a child of Vienna than Brahms for he was both born and studied there, whereas Brahms, like Mozart and Beethoven, moved there as a young man. His style moved with incredible speed from the lush late romanticism of the Langsamer Satz of 1905 to the extreme aphoristic concentration of these five short pieces, written only four years later. These five miniatures last less than eleven minutes between them and have already left the conventional sound world of his earlier works far behind. This rapid change can partly be attributed to his intense private study with Arnold Schönberg from 1904 -1908.
Here we have Webern’s mature style: radical contrasts of mood, pace, tone-colour and volume articulated within individual movements that are short to the point of terseness, relating to an extreme concentration of musical substance and manner. His modern equivalent would be György Kurtág and it is no surprise to find the Hungarian composer specifically honouring Webern in one of his quartets. The bleak depressive world of Webern’s work has an extra-musical reference, for Webern’s mother died in 1906 and it took him many years to get over her loss. Like Brahms’ Horn Trio this work mourns his mother.
This music has been described as embodying Baudelaire’s lyrical movements of the soul. By abandoning tonality, Webern can allow himself the freedom of extreme and unusual contrasts such as the barely audible softness of movements 2 and 4 and the excitement of the third with its explosive concluding chord. Without the shackles of tonality expressive power can now be conveyed by pure sound effects. This freedom gives the composer a new world for his imagination to explore.