Reflections on learning Webern Op. 4 Songs for Allen Forte’s Memorial

Photograph of Kate Maroney By Kate Maroney

[Editor’s note: Click here to watch a live performance of Webern’s 5 Lieder as Der siebente Ring, op. 3, by Kate Maroney (mezzo-soprano) and Christina Yue (piano), recorded live in a recital during the summer of 2014.]

A few weeks ago I received an email on a Saturday morning asking if I could learn and perform Webern’s 5 Lieder nach Gedichten von Stefan George, op. 4, as a last-minute replacement for another singer by the following Saturday. This would be for a memorial service at Yale University. Without knowing all of the details, I thought about it for a few minutes, listened to the songs once, and considered the logistics of the week. (I was also scheduled to rehearse and sing the solos in Bach’s Mass in B-Minor that Wednesday.) In a burst of adrenaline-fueled confidence, I accepted the challenge. It was only after I had committed to the “gig” that I learned that the memorial was for Allen Forte, the renowned Webern scholar and the father of pitch-set theory. He had passed away last fall, and this performance would be before an invited audience of friends and scholars. The event would consist of speeches by fellow theorists alternating with performances of Webern’s Langsamer Satz; Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 7; the op. 4 songs; a piano piece by a student of Allen Forte; and several Cole Porter songs, reflecting his love of the Great American Songbook.

This daunting task felt comparable to reading Shakespeare in a ceremony commemorating the work of Harold Bloom. Not only did I have to render these songs accurately but I would be singing them for perhaps the largest quorum of critical ears ever assembled into a room. (How many times are two hundred people who know Webern’s complete oeuvre assembled?) This performance would have to be not only be acceptable but would have to honor the legacy of a man who paved roads in the field of American music theory, specifically in the analysis of Webern and Berg. I was assured that the pianist Daniel Schlosberg was amazing and up to the task (which was an understatement). Other than my Bach performance, I cleared my calendar for the week, and Dan and I reserved spots in our schedules to rehearse potentially all day Thursday and Friday before the memorial. But first, I had to learn the notes. The pressure was on.

My first experience performing Webern happened in 2009 during my DMA studies at Eastman. I had been approached by a marvelous pianist, Christina Yue, who wanted to perform Webern’s op. 3 (like op. 4, also five songs of Stefan George texts from Der siebente Ring) as a lecture recital piece. At the time, I was taking Elizabeth Marvin’s post-tonal theory course, which was my first entry into pitch-class sets and post-tonal analysis, so I thought, “this could be a fun challenge and it also ties in with some of what I’m learning this semester.” I had not performed much atonal or serial music at all, though I really loved learning about the Second Viennese School composers and their relationship to late-nineteenth-century Romanticism and chromaticism. It’s a fun period to learn about philosophically even if takes a little while to aurally identify the things we were learning to analyze in theory class. I learned to identify the pitch-class sets (by Forte number), to recognize their iterations vertically and horizontally and in transposition as both harmonic and melodic material so brilliantly and compactly constructed by Webern but I certainly couldn’t hear those “leitmotifs” upon first listening.

I should also offer a qualification that as a singer, my prior vocal and operatic training before Eastman was frightfully lacking in music theory. Beyond very basic analysis, keyboard skills, rudimentary ear-training and sight-singing, the prevailing mentality in the opera training I received was that singers have so much to learn—diction and languages, style, stagecraft, vocal technique, audition technique, etc.—that theory and musicology is and should be less of a priority to instill early on. The vibe tends to be “sure, theory is good to learn in music school, but it cannot be put to use as practically as the other things we have to teach young voice students.” I agree that singers some singers, perhaps because their training may begin later than their instrumentalist counterparts, have a lot to learn. But I absolutely think that both theory teachers and voice teachers should be working together to actively show singers how ALL theory—sight-singing, analysis, ear-training—is of utmost practical value. The more a young undergraduate student invests to hear intervals for example or to practice fluent, flawless sight-singing, the greater the payoff later in his or her career.

So, when I first set out to learn Webern in 2009, even though I was learning how to analyze the music in theory class, I didn’t know the best method to practice to perform the music. In order to ingrain the phrases into my ear and voice, and without having perfect pitch, I used the tried-and-true (if not fast-and-efficient) method of rote repetition so that both my ears and vocal mechanism would internalize the pitches, hoping that after enough time, the melodies, while not tonal, would start to make sense. This worked more or less (“Dies ist ein Lied für dich allein…,” once learned, is quite an earworm), but I distinctly remember these eight minutes of music taking hours of rehearsal and coaching time that semester. Once our notes and rhythms were learned individually, Christina and I tried to implement everything about the style, the musical language and gesture, the imitation and duetting between the voice and piano, to observe the rubato over meter changes, and detailed extreme dynamic markings in the score. We learned that every single note (and rest!) had intention and meaning and that we both had to understand and hear the other’s part as well as our own for the songs to convey Stefan George’s texts in the way that Webern intended. Each measure is like an entire song. Of course, the same can be said for all piano-vocal music, but these songs are so detailed, so dense, and so atonal. At the end of myriad hours of practice, we performed them a few times that semester and we were relatively happy with the fruits of our labors. It had also been a great learning experience for us both.

Last summer, I had the chance revisit Webern’s op. 3 with Christina Yue in a recital we shared at the University of Oregon. [A video of Kate and Christina’s performance at this link.] Amazingly, everything we had worked on five years earlier was still there after the first hour of rehearsal! And even more satisfying was the realization that the singing and practicing I’ve been doing professionally since my student years (a lot of Bach, a lot of work with contemporary composers, seventy-five performances worldwide of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, a lot of chamber choral work that challenges my listening while singing) helped the pieces settle, helped my ears and voice—this experience of revisiting songs that had been so challenging in school and finding that they were comfortable and made sense is definitely one of the few quantitative measures of improvement that I’ve had as a singer and musician. We all know what it feels like to finally “get” something—this newfound understanding and perceiving Webern’s harmonic world enhanced the performance of these songs in every dimension.

If I had not just recently revisited Op. 3 last summer, I’m not sure I would have taken on op. 4 to learn in a week. But these two cycles are similar in feel and they both set texts of Stefan George. With an acute sense of the clock ticking, when I sat down at the piano on Monday morning, I thought, “I need to somehow condense what I did in a semester into three to four days.” So, unlike in 2009 when I relied solely on rote repetition, I first scanned the pieces for themes (yes, pitch-class sets!) that recurred throughout songs, [014] and [016] abounded, and I spent a few hours practicing these little motives as vocalizes in all transpositions. (Something I didn’t really think to do years ago, though I’m not sure why I didn’t make the connection between analysis and practice back then—it saves hours.) When possible, I tried to identify the pitches that I would sing in a horizontal line in a piano chord that preceded my entry so that I could hear my starting pitch and the harmonic bed I would be singing over. Then, I would slowly go through the songs and force myself to NOT give myself any pitches until I fully heard the intervals and eventually the shape of each melodic gesture. (This is something my jazz-trained composer husband-to-be has often said is the key to practice—it would be an oversight to omit his advice and positive influence on my practice of difficult or atonal music.)

Many singers may feel that this ear-training seems tedious and takes A LOT of time at the beginning of practice, but I find it’s one of those methods where investing a lot in the beginning yields a great payoff later. I knew that even if I couldn’t sing the songs fully the first day or two I was studying them, that if I trusted this method and slept on it, the next time I revisited the songs the pitches would have stuck. Luckily, they did for the most part—of course, this is only the beginning with Webern since one can certainly become unmoored when singing these lines over the piano part. Training your ear and brain with this music is definitely the way to learn it—and also a healthy way of saving yourself from vocal fatigue as many of Webern’s phrases have octave-plus leaps to the extremes of ones range with pianissimo markings. You certainly don’t want to be blindly aiming for a pitch and tiring your vocal mechanism.

After three eight-hour days of solitary work (and a performance of Bach’s Mass in B-Minor the same week), I met with my Daniel Schlosberg (a brilliant musician) on Thursday morning. We started with Eingang, the first and longest of the op. 4 songs. In many ways, it is the most straightforward song as well (thank you, Webern!) as there are often vocal pitches shadowed (or foreshadowed) in the piano part. This one came together relatively easily and since it was about three minutes (perhaps Webern’s longest song?) of the eight or nine minutes total. It was a huge psychological boost knowing that at least we would start strong in the performance. We spent four hours that day, breaking apart sections and practicing in every way possible for a singer and pianist rehearsing songs. For instance, since my solo practice had focused so much on intervals and pitches, it was especially helpful in our rehearsal together for me to speak in rhythm as Daniel played the piano part so we could lock in the phrasing, accelerandos, rubatos, polyrhythms, meter changes, etc. This week of intense practice reminded me that one should always break music apart into small units of pitch and rhythm when learning AND slow everything down. We spent time doing that Thursday and by the end of another four-hour session on Friday, we were basically able to perform the songs (with 85% accuracy on my part) effectively and with commitment.

By our performance on Saturday afternoon, I felt intensely focused and nervous, but also so charged and honored to sing Webern for a room full of people who understood and appreciated this music so deeply. As an added bonus, Elizabeth Marvin was in attendance, so the event resonated even more, since It was wonderful to perform for the theorist and fellow singer who first introduced me to and coached me on Webern songs. I also tried to tell myself that although many people in the room would be familiar with the songs from an analytical perspective, they might not all be able to tell if I sang a few slightly wrong pitches within the sweep of a large gesture—I told myself to hold on to the aural anchor points my ear had grasped during our preparation and to fully commit to the text, gesture and distinct atmosphere created in each song.

This experience was incredibly liberating. Although we learned the piece in just a week, we had to trust in what we could do and we had to perform as though we’d known the songs for years. I felt confident that I had done the best work I could have done to prepare and honor the legacy of Allen Forte. I have immense respect for the field of music theory, and after this experience, I have a deeper understanding of theory’s practical use in practice and performance. At best, all music, especially the brilliantly crafted complexity of Webern’s, is amazing in that way—we seek to understand and experience it in multifarious ways through analysis and performance. In my opinion as a singer and a theory enthusiast, both lines of inquiry are equally important and work to enhance each other. All methods of understanding and experiencing music more deeply should be respected.

The author, mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney, holds the D. M. A. from the Eastman School of Music and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. For more information visit http://www.katemaroney.com.

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6 thoughts on “Reflections on learning Webern Op. 4 Songs for Allen Forte’s Memorial

  1. Very thoughtful and musical — I especially like the focus on rhythm and phrasing after learning the notes ( w/ some help from sets!) — a step not always taken!!!

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  2. Thanks, Kate, for an interesting piece! I’m intrigued by two things: (1) the contrast between your old learning method (by rote) and the new one (with analysis, since you had only a few days and found it was faster); and (2) that you describe your practicing focusing a lot on the difficult pitches, but the rehearsal and performance more on rhythm and gesture. A question: How much in a post tonal theory class do or should we focus on rhythm and gesture? Do we tend to support a “hegemony of pitch” since we have better theories for pitch sets? How would our relationship with performers evolve if our discipline took more cues from which musical elements seem salient to performers, if we had more of a two-way street with perspectives from performers informing analysis?

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  3. Thank you for posting my piece. Especially after this recent experience with Webern, I feel it would be helpful for a “two-way street” in music schools and conservatories between theory and performing–collaboration among faculty in all areas with an emphasis on how students’ development in each area can strengthen and inform the other. For example, it would be great for final projects for performers in theory classes to comprise of 1) analyzing a piece, 2) performing the piece in recital and/or in class, and then 3) analyzing their practice of the piece and the methods they used that connect the learning of a piece to the theory they’re learning in class. I know this happens in some classes. It really reinforces the practical use of theory and analysis for performers. I can’t tell you how often singers seem to lack understanding of that practical connection until they’re asked to sight sing at an audition….

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  4. This is a wonderful piece! Kate has great insights. As a conductor, I appreciated her mention of choral singing as a reason she was ready for this gig. I don’t have the answers, yet I find myself wondering how much can be incorporated into the rehearsal setting for choral ensembles and how an effective conductor could instill these values into the work done between rehearsals, for groups of varying levels.

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  5. Thanks for sharing your experience! I usually teach “Dies ist ein Lied for dich allein” in my Performance and Analysis DMA seminar, in tandem with Betsy Marvin and Bob Wason’s article on the early Webern songs. Most recently, 2 students presented on the article and the song, and performed the song – quite beautifully. I was a bit taken aback upon learning of their practice strategy: they learned the vocal part over quasi-tonal harmonies (adjusted from Webern’s harmonies), and, once learnt, replaced those harmonies with Webern’s actual piano writing!

    This is akin to learning a language in translation—each new utterance is translated back into a familiar language. One might argue that ultimately this is not the way to truly speak and understand a new language. However, it raises an interesting question about expedience in practicing. You can’t argue with it if it works! (but longterm … ??) To what degree should practicing/learning rely upon the expedient or upon what might be a ‘truer’ representation of a piece’s workings, if the two are in conflict? The latter is a longer learning curve. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this issue.

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  6. Daphne describes an interesting (if unorthodox) strategy — but it accords to some extent to what many string players do while working on intonation in post-tonal music — namely, orienting around short grounds of notes (two or three at a time) that fit into some diatonic collection and pretending that those notes represent the equivalent scale degrees. On violin and viola, our fingerings are so oriented around diatonic collections (a new letter name generally equals a new finger) that it can be hard to really switch, in a visceral way, to thinking in equal-tempered semitones (as set theory would asks us to).

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