Anton Webern's Three Songs, Op. 18, are, in character, siblings to his Three Traditional Rhymes, Op. 17, of the previous year; both sets exude a self-assured intimacy and clarity of expressive purpose. The combination of the composer's characteristically sparse textures and an unconventional scoring (soprano voice, E flat clarinet, and guitar) presents a number of special performance challenges, not the least of which is managing to bring out dynamic variety without ever exceeding the volume constraints of the guitar. The rhythmic difficulty of the score and the intervallically challenging voice part risk, in less than fully capable hands, sounding like modernistic pretension; however, a faithful performance reveals the composer's lighthearted approach, and an undercurrent of depth that somehow affirms the goodhearted, free breaths that constitute these minute-long songs.
The texts illustrate a flirtation with one's betrothed and the Mother Mary. It is a strange romance to contemporary sensibilities, but it has a prevailing sweetness that affirms both love and faith in a holistic way.
Expressionism, which pervaded the Austrian avant-garde as recently as ten years earlier, had more or less been exhausted in the imaginations of most composers. Among Webern's most immediate peers, the Second Viennese School, only Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, completed in 1925, adhered to the psycho-dramatic conventions of Expressionism to any lasting effect. At that time, Schoenberg was working with loosely classical forms, and Webern was drawing inspiration from Dutch music of the Renaissance. With Expressionism past, there was no movement to replace it the way Romanticism seamlessly replaced Classicism. Webern's newly independent outlook was free to accommodate his own worldview and musical outlook, which were inextricable from a need to celebrate God's creations. A large part of this investigation took the form of botanical research. The natural lines of development that he found in flora would translate to him as methods of manipulating the tone row. The musical compositions that resulted from Webern's enquiries took the form of a constant recombination of basic elements that never transform their beginnings, but constantly rearticulate the initial music in new ways. Webern's atonal investigations had taught him how to use the most basic elements of music to glean their maximum expressive power. His use of the tone row in these songs is still fairly simple, perhaps because he could make so much out of comparatively little. It would be a few years down the road before he would break down the row into mirror forms, cells, and other, more complex 12-tone innovations.
Like his Op. 17, Webern's Three Songs, Op. 18 was not heard publicly during the composer's lifetime. Robert Craft conducted the songs' premiere on February 8, 1954, in Los Angeles. The soloist was Grace-Lynne Martin.