Anton Webern’s Two Songs, Op. 8 on Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910-1926) stand at the intersection between the composer’s spiritual ideals involving a fascination for angels, his personal circumstances at the time of the songs’ composition, and the literary influences of Weininger, Balzac, and especially Rilke. The Lieder absorb the Rilkean notions of transcendence and “intransitive love,” themes developed in the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the source of Webern’s texts. According to Rilke, lovers access the higher spiritual realm of angels by forsaking (rather than yearning for) proximity and possession. This concept resonates with the relationship Webern crafts between the chamber orchestra and the vocal line, one that eludes the goals it projects and expresses quasi-intangible motivic connections that dematerialize as soon as they form. The Op. 8 songs represent a turning point that reverberated throughout Webern’s personal and spiritual life: the promise of transcendence that Rilke’s poems held was couched in terms that echoed the hardships and rewards of his relationship with his future wife and, at the same time, resonated with the composer’s religious and artistic morals.
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