Webern's Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9 (1911-13) represent a critical step for the evolution of atonal musical techniques. They also mark a critical step for the composer, who in his attempt to realize the ideas of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, emerged as a true original. For several years, Webern had doted on Schoenberg personally and artistically. When Schoenberg wrote his Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, in 1911, Webern noted that some of the movements lacked contrast. While Schoenberg apparently gave little thought to the implications of his new work, Webern wrangled with this problem of contrast in the still-emerging language of atonality. Later that year, Webern wrote the internal movements of Op. 9, considering the result as his second string quartet.
In the following year Webern followed Schoenberg to Berlin, where the revered master composed his epochal Pierrot Lunaire, which featuring the Sprechstimme (song-speech) technique. Webern presently composed three movements for string quartet, the second of which featured a Sprechstimme setting of his own poetry. Schoenberg, who had composed a string quartet with the addition of soprano in 1908, was no doubt painfully aware that Webern was in danger of becoming a faceless copycat. Schoenberg's response was to not comment on Webern's new work at all. Hurt and dismayed, Webern eliminated the Sprechstimme movement and used the two remaining movements to bookend his second string quartet. Schoenberg was very pleased with the result and even provided a glowing preface for its publication.
The Six Bagatelles require about five minutes to perform. One difference between Op. 9 and Webern's previous quartet, Op. 5, is that the earlier work contains movements built from sections and contrasts -- in that sense, much in the spirit of Haydn. However, the movements of its successor are through-composed, not sectional, and there are no contrasts that require resolution. The level of musical tension is, nonetheless, very high; the work achieves this effect because the material in the first two measures provides ample opportunity to highlight and juxtapose individual musical gestures, and the dramatic envelope is controlled by the density of such activity.
Alban Berg attempted a similar approach in his Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 4, but Schoenberg felt that Webern was more suited to this particular challenge and persuaded Berg not to pursue this compositional direction. Even Webern himself managed to carve out only two more works in this manner (Opp. 10 and 11) before he exhausted its possibilities. With this trio of works, however, he made a lasting impression upon the keener listeners of his day, and the Six Bagatelles remain among the strangest and most compelling aphorisms in the string quartet repertoire.