Concert Notes

Egon Wellesz’s “Vorfrühling” (“The Dawn of Spring”)

Notes by TŌN percussionist Nick Goodson

When I began to write program notes for this piece, I was overcome by a familiar habitual response and quickly navigated to Wikipedia. Upon reading about Wellesz’s life, I immediately thought, “Why haven’t I heard of this composer?” Well, perhaps you have never heard of this composer either, but that is about to change.

Born in Vienna, Wellesz belonged to the Second Viennese School and enjoyed commercial success before Schoenberg’s more well-known students: Berg and Webern. Like many composers of this generation, Wellesz was also a musicologist. This led to his early research into Viennese and Venetian baroque opera, and later, what he is most known for in musicology: research into Byzantine ecclesiastical chant and its relationship to Gregorian chant. His career as a significant musicologist is likely why I had not heard of him: his scholarly pursuits tended to overshadow his compositional output. In a world that is dependent on sound and musical score, his compositional achievements tend to be understated simply because he was better known for his scholarly pursuits. However, Wellesz composed over 100 pieces, including five symphonies, 15 choral works, five operas, and numerous other chamber works.

In the case of Vorfrühling (The Dawn of Spring), composed in 1911, we get to experience a piece from early in Wellesz’s composition career, a time when he certainly would have been influenced by Debussy. It is evident that this piece shares a lineage with the tone poem tradition. It maintains a dark, cautious, yet curious character throughout, like someone emerging from a state of deep sleep, their senses acclimating to early morning rays of sun, unsure of what the day may bring. There are frequent interjections from various instruments and haunting motifs from the low strings that remind us that the specters of the night have only recently retreated upon seeing those rays of sun. Perhaps the subject of this piece had a big day ahead, or perhaps they had a few too many drinks the night before. We can’t know for certain, but I think this piece captures the essence of “dawn” and provides a muse for reflection as we enter the new season.