Anton Webern

The Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945), one of the first important disciples of Schoenberg, carried many of that master's ideas to their logical extremes. Webern's music was very influential on postwar European composers.

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna on Dec. 3, 1883, to the mining engineer Karl von Webern and his wife, Amalia. When he was ten years old, the family moved to Klagenfurt. There Webern began his first music lessons; he studied piano, cello, and the rudiments of theory and began to compose songs. At the gymnasium he studied the traditional courses in the humanities.

After graduation in 1902, Webern traveled to Bayreuth to hear performances of Richard Wagner's works. This experience impressed Webern deeply, and on entering the University of Vienna in the fall of 1902, he devoted himself more intensely to studies in harmony and counterpoint, as well as to courses in musicology under Guido Adler. A typical piece of this period is a ballade with orchestral accompaniment, Jung Siegfried, which shows the influence of Wagnerian ideas.

In 1904, after an abortive attempt to study with Hans Pfitzner in Berlin, Webern began lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, who was the dominating figure of his life, even though Webern carried some of Schoenberg's ideas further than the older composer could entirely approve. At this time, too, Webern became friendly with another Schoenberg pupil, Alban Berg. The friendship lasted till Berg's death in 1935; it was a personally and artistically stimulating relationship for both composers.

While Webern was developing his distinctive style under Schoenberg's guidance, he was also completing a major project in musicology. In 1906 he received his doctorate from the University of Vienna for his dissertation on Heinrich Isaac's Choralis Constantinus, an important Renaissance collection of liturgical compositions. His edition of part two of this work is still standard.

Webern's studies with Schoenberg lasted till 1908. Some works written during this 4-year period are the Passacaglia for Orchestra, the chorus Entflieht auf leichten kähnen (text by Stefan George), and the Five Songs (also with texts by George), as well as a Piano Quintet in C Major. In the Five Songs, Webern already followed Schoenberg in transcending the limitations of classical tonality. His following works are atonal, that is, written without reference to a key center.

Webern's compositions of the next 10 years became more and more concise; some are less than a minute long. His dynamic effects were often delicate; he made use of the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody), frequently dividing a melody among a succession of different instruments with resultant subtle changes in tone color. Works representative of this new style are the Five Pieces for String Quartet (1909), the Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1910), the Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (1913), and the Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914), as well as groups of orchestral pieces and songs. Schoenberg's preface to the Six Bagatelles, which he wrote in 1924 for their publication by Universal-Edition, gives a vivid impression of the style:

"Just as the brevity of these pieces speaks in their favor, even so it is necessary to speak in favor of this brevity. Think of the concision which expression in such brief form demands! Every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel. But to achieve such concentration—to express a novel in a single gesture, a great joy in a single breath—every trace of sentimentality must be correspondingly banished."

During these years Webern was going from job to job as theater conductor. He worked in Bad Ischl, Vienna, Teplitz, Danzig, and Stettin. But these positions did not suit him. The introverted, sensitive composer was unhappy with the low standards of the opera houses in provincial towns, and he did not like theatrical life. His marriage to his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl in 1911 brought a welcome stability to this rather frustrating existence. In 1915 he joined the Austrian army as a volunteer but was dismissed after a year because of poor eyesight.

After World War I Webern took an active part in Schoenberg's Society for Private Performances in Vienna. This organization did valuable work in presenting major contemporary compositions to a highly selective audience. When it had to dissolve in 1922 because of rising costs, Webern took over the direction of the Vienna Workers' Symphony Orchestra and, in the following year, added the responsibility of the Vienna Workers' Singing Society. The performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony by these groups under his direction in 1926 was long remembered.

Webern's adoption of the twelve-tone method came in 1924, with the Drei Volkstexte for soprano, violin, clarinet, and bass clarinet. These songs, based on religious folk poetry, were the first works in which Webern used strict twelve-tone rows in the Schoenbergian sense. His acceptance of the new technique was wholehearted, and he used it till the end of his life. Important twelve-tone compositions of the 1920s were the String Trio (1927) and the Symphony (1928), as well as two groups of songs.

After 1933 Webern led a very retired existence. Political conditions in Germany and Austria did not favor his radical kind of music. He earned his living mainly by giving private lessons; after 1941 he was employed as a reader by Universal-Edition, evaluating new scores that were sent to them for consideration. Major works composed between 1933 and 1945 included the Concerto for Nine Instruments (1934), Variations for Piano (1936), String Quartet (1938), First Cantata for soprano solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1939), Variations for Orchestra, and Second Cantata for soprano and bass solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1941-1943). The texts for the two cantatas are by Hildegard Jone; she and her husband, the sculptor Josef Humplik, were among Webern's closest friends.

Webern remained in retirement during World War II, staying in his home in Mödling near Vienna. In Easter, 1945, he moved his family to Mittersill, near Salzburg, where he thought they would be safer. There, through a tragic error, he was shot to death by an American occupation soldier on Sept. 15, 1945.

After World War II it was Webern's work rather than Schoenberg's that inspired the young European composers. Webern's radical position led these composers to consider him as the true founder of the new music.

Further Reading on Anton Webern

Webern's ascetic personality is glimpsed in his writings, The Path to the New Music (trans. 1963) and Letters to Hildegard Jone and Josef Humplik (1963; trans. 1967). Friedrich Wildgans, Anton Webern (1966), is a straightforward narrative with brief comments on the works. A moving account of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death is Hans Moldenhauer, The Death of Anton Webern: A Drama in Documents (1961). Detailed musical analysis are in Walter Kolneder, Anton Webern: An Introduction to His Works (1961; trans. 1968), and in Anton von Webern: Perspectives, compiled by Hans Moldenhauer and edited by Demar Irvine (1966).

René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (1947; trans. 1949), offers an enthusiastic introduction to Webern, as does George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (1962; 2d rev. ed. 1968). Also useful are the sections on Webern in Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship (1966; trans. 1968); Wilfrid Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (1967); and Joan Peyser, The New Music: The Sense behind the Sound (1971).

Additional Biography Sources

Moldenhauer, Hans, Anton von Webern, a chronicle of his life and work, New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House, 1979, 1978.

Neighbour, O. W. (Oliver Wray), The New Grove Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, New York: Norton, 1983.

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