Anton Webern's 1939 Cantata No. 1, Op. 29, is one of only two cantatas Webern completed in his lifetime. The librettist was Hildegard Jone, a friend of Webern who supplied the texts for all of his late works. The cantatas were the most ambitious and rewarding of all their combined efforts, but are rarely recorded or performed because of their difficulty. Many Webern fans regard the smaller First cantata as a warm up for the Second, but this opinion fails to recognize the specific strengths of the Op. 29. The first cantata, with its three brief movements and scoring for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, has the intimate appeal of community church music from the late Renaissance/early Baroque period. Its liturgy, almost rustic, shares a common prayer that sounds as though it was not intended to resonate outside the performance space, or to be heard as art for secular appreciation.
The composer's native Austria was fully embroiled in World War II when the Op. 29 was completed. The War was clearly an impediment to his career, and threatened the lives of his friends, including his former teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, forcing many to leave countries occupied by Germany or unsympathetic to their anti-Semitic crusade. While Webern never betrayed his Jewish associates, he came to believe that the war on European Jewry was a tactic to attract support for a party that would lead Middle Europe to new heights of prosperity. Richard Strauss made the same mistake and become a party member.
Webern's first cantata has a joyous insularity that invites the listener to celebrate the love of God and His creations without regard for world events. Jone's symbolist poetry, which has not received the attention that Webern's music has enjoyed, is perfectly compatible with this unconscious mandate, including Apollo and other Roman gods in a monotheistic context. At the same time, his Op. 29 is a warm, life-affirming work of great integrity that transcends mere escapism. It ennobles existence and spirituality with precision and whole-heartedness that continually reveals new levels of hope in subsequent hearings.
The influence of Schoenberg, who had by far the greatest impact on Webern's music, is virtually undetectable. However, the subsequent vocal music of Boulez and Dallapicolla is grounded in the cantatas of Webern. There are no seams in the Op. 29 that reveal his unbalanced view of the contemporary world. Like Mozart, Webern felt that he could compose his way through any crisis, that his art would abolish the cultural and political opposition that surrounded him. His second cantata is a much larger and more complex variation of this argument, one that influenced the direction of music. His first cantata has a municipal attractiveness, one that invites listeners to partake in a celebration of the things that make life worth living.