Anton Webern

1883 1945

Anton Webern

Composer

Biography

Anton Webern played an important role in the development of atonal music in the 20th century. A student of Arnold Schoenberg and major figure of the Second Viennese School, his compositions followed the twelve-tone serial system the most rigorously, resulting in short, aphoristic works, but with incredible attention to color and organization. Following World War II, his concise oeuvre became the foundation upon which the next generation of forward-looking composers began anew.

Webern was born in Vienna into a family of nobility. His father was an important mining engineer for the government, and the family moved several times early in his life. He first encountered music in piano lessons from his mother, and soon began cello lessons as well. He started composing in his teens, primarily songs, a genre that he would return to later in life. During the same period he attended several productions ofWagner’s operas, which helped instill a deep love of Austro-German repertoire in the young musician.

In 1902 Webern began studying musicology, harmony, and counterpoint at the University in Vienna. He would complete his degree in 1906 with a dissertation on the work of Dutch composer Heinrich Isaac. His research into early polyphonic music would come to greatly influence his ideas of form and counterpoint. Perhaps the most pivotal moment in this early period occurred in 1904, when, after initially planning to study with Hans Pfitzner in Berlin, he returned to Vienna to begin studying withArnold Schoenberg. He would formally study with Schoenberg only until 1908, but the two would remain close colleagues for the rest of Webern’s life. Following his study with Schoenberg, Webern’s music transitioned from the late-romantic chromaticism of works like thePassacaglia (1908), to the highly distilled atonal language that reached its apex with the 32 measures of theThree Little Pieces op. 11 (1914), for cello and piano. Webern was intensely concerned with the form, or organization, of his works. He cited nature as an inspiration for his strict connections of different levels of form, relating small, fragmented gestures to the larger shape of the piece.

In 1911 Webern married Wilhelmine Mörtl, and they had the first of their four children in the same year. After halting attempts at holding various theater conducting positions, Webern finally signed a contract to take up a position in Stettin in 1914, only to have World War I break out the month before he was to begin. He entered the army and served less than half a year before being dismissed for asking a theater in Prague to petition on his behalf. However, after hearing thatSchoenberg had been drafted in the meantime, he again returned to the army with the goal of securing Schoenberg’s release from the service. By the autumn of 1916, and after interventions of various cultural authorities, both were released from military service.

At the beginning of the 1920’s Webern began his conducting career, beginning with choral conducting positions and leading to appearances with orchestras throughout Europe and a position with the State Radio Orchestra. He also went through yet another transition in his compositions: following the increasing brevity of his previous atonal instrumental works, he again focused on the composition of songs, whose texts provided a structural framework to begin expanding the compositions once more. Following Schoenberg’s announcement of the creation of his twelve-tone method, Webern began experimenting with serial elements in his songs of op.17. Webern’s first instrumental work composed completely with the mature twelve-tone technique was theString Trio op. 20 (1928). Webern found in the twelve-tone system, as Schoenberg had, a structural foundation to allow the creation of larger works without the structural function of tonality. However, even with the new technique, much of his music’s characteristic brevity, contrast, and structural integrity remained.

In the years leading up to the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Webern’s music was increasingly excluded by the Austrofacist government, and, after 1938, his music was labeled as degenerate art and performances were banned. By this point his close friends and colleagues were gone: Arnold Schoenberg had left for the United States in 1933, andAlban Berg and Emil Hertzka (an important supporter and director of Universal Editions) had both died. Webern conducted his final concerts in 1936 for the BBC. Unable to earn money conducting or find publishers for his later works, Webern began working as a proofreader and editor. Some of Webern’s greatest late works from this period are theVariations for Piano op. 27 (1936), the String Quartet op. 28 (1938), and theVariations for Orchestra op. 30 (1940), Also notable are several opus numbers, spread over nearly a decade, of twelve-tone vocal compositions inspired by the poetry of Hildegard Jone; his final work was theCantata No. 2 op. 31 (1943) for soprano, bass, choir, and orchestra.

Despite his professional difficulties, Webern had a complex and controversial relationship with Nazism. He was allegedly an admirer of Hitler but was apparently not anti-Semitic, resigning from one post in protest after a controversy over his hiring of a Jewish singer and, years later, going so far as to shelter one of Schoenberg’s sons who remained in Vienna during the war. In a series of lectures given before the war he was also dismissive of the Nazi policies towards art and music.  

Following the death of Webern’s own son Peter in February 1945, Webern and his wife fled the bombing in the Vienna area to join their daughters and grandchildren in the mountain village of Mittersill. They survived the final days of the war but, only four months later, while smoking an evening cigar outside of his daughter’s home, Webern was shot by an American soldier, allegedly in an accidental altercation during an investigation into his stepson’s black market activities. 

Anton Webern’s music, both in his early atonal experiments and later mature twelve-tone style, is highly organized and concentrated, but filled with remarkable colors and contrasts. Its crystalline quality, both expressive and precisely unified, took on an even greater historical significance during the 1950’s Darmstadt school, whose members found in Webern’s music the epitome of musical organization and hints at the total serialism and complexity that would soon appear

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