Anton Webern’s vocal music has long been overshadowed by the aphoristic miniatures and rigorously organized twelve-tone works—both largely instrumental genres—for which the composer is best known. Yet over half of Webern’s output consists of vocal works. During the 1950s, as composers and intellectuals celebrated the “instrumental” Webern, an alternative view of the composer was emerging through the performances of three soprano soloists. Bethany Beardslee gave posthumous premieres of three of Webern’s works in New York and recorded his Four Songs op. 12 for Dial Records. On the other side of the country, Grace-Lynne Martin and Marni Nixon performed works by Webern at the Evenings on the Roof in Los Angeles, and collaborated with Robert Craft on Columbia Records’ Anton Webern: The Complete Music. Beardslee, Martin, and Nixon adopted a variety of approaches to learning Webern’s famously difficult works, and their work paid off: all three sopranos earned praise for weathering the extreme technical challenges of Webern’s soprano lines while also delivering musically satisfying performances. Yet these performances have been largely forgotten in the decades since, as a consequence of changing attitudes toward postwar performance practices as well as the sometimes sexist views of male music critics. Nevertheless, the performances of these sopranos constituted a crucial step toward perspectives on Webern that are now current among contemporary performers and scholars, and understanding their contributions is essential to understanding the vocal side of Webern.

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