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Anton Webern

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

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 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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Webern, Anton

Webern, Anton ( Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern) (b Vienna, 1883; d Mittersill, 1945). Austrian composer and conductor. Early tuition from his mother, a pianist. (Most of his works were written in her memory.) Studied at Klagenfurt with Edwin Komauer, composing first works in 1899. Entered Vienna Univ. 1902, studying musicology with Guido Adler. Studied comp. with Pfitzner but became pupil of Schoenberg 1904–8. Ed. works of 15th-cent. Dutch composer Heinrich Isaak. Became close friend of Berg. Was operetta cond. at Bad Ischl (1908), Teplitz (1910), Danzig (1910–11), Stettin (1911–12), and Prague 1917. In Vienna 1918–22 was active in Schoenberg's Soc. for Private Perfs., and cond. Vienna workers' sym. concerts 1922–34. Cond. and mus. adviser, Austrian Radio 1927–38. Visited London 5 times to conduct for BBC (1929, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1936). Music proscribed by Nazis as ‘cultural Bolshevism’ although Webern was sympathetic to their cause (as is reflected in texts of his cantatas). Worked as publisher's proof-reader during war. Accidentally shot by Amer. sentry, 1945.

Largely ignored except by the BBC in his lifetime, Webern's mus. became a rallying-point for the post–1945 generation of European composers, such as Stockhausen, Boulez, and Maderna (and for some of the older generation, e.g. Stravinsky and Eimert). They were attracted by the way in which his mus., through its sheer concentration, opened up a new and more complete serialism based on the est. of the relationship between a particular note and a particular quality of sound. Even in the earliest works to which he gave an opus no. there is preoccupation with the inter-relationship of symmetrical structures. From 1908 until the late 1920s Webern wrote in a free atonal style. A characteristic of many of the works of this period is their epigrammatic brevity. The 4th of his 6 Pieces for orch. has only 6 bars. Timbre plays an important role, also str. effects such as col legno and sul ponticello. In his vocal mus., the extremes of range are contrasted, with fragmented instr. accs. In this period he wrote his last atonal work, the 5 Canons, Op.16, and adopted 12-note technique from his Op.18, 3 Songs. His last group of works, 1928–45, is marked on the one hand by a simplification of the contrapuntal texture and on the other by an increasingly complex use of the note-row. The row is often broken down to 3 or 6 notes, and the resulting structures are related by imitation, inversion, retrograde-inversion, palindromic devices, etc. The sym. of 1928 has a theme and variations as its 2nd of 2 movts., the theme and each variation being symmetrical. He comp. an important set of pf. variations, and 3 cantatas in which the beauty of the vocal writing is a reminder of how much Webern derived from the medieval masters whose work he had studied. Although the post-war avant-garde admired his mus. for its technical innovations, such as serialization of durations and dynamic levels, it should not be forgotten that Webern's place is in the romantic tradition, as his choice of texts implies, and that his homage to classical forms, such as the passacaglia and the canon, is an unwavering feature of his work. He remained, too, a lifelong admirer of Wagner's operas and he was apparently a superb cond. of Schubert, Mahler, and Brahms. Prin. works: ORCH.: Im Sommerwind, idyll (1904); 3 Studies on a Ground (1908; f.p. 1978); Passacaglia, Op.1 (1908); 5 Movements, Op.5 (orig. for str. qt., arr. for str. 1929); 6 Stücke (6 Pieces), Op.6 (1909–10, rev. for smaller orch. 1928); 5 Stücke, Op.10 (1911–13); 5 Stücke (1911–13, f.p. 1969, pubd. 1971); Sym., Op.21, cl., bcl., 2 hn., hp., vns., vas., vcs. (1928); Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24, fl., ob., cl., hn., tpt., tb., vn., va., pf. (1931–4); Variations, Op.30 (1940). Also 5 Stücke, 1913, related to Op.6 and Op.10; 8 Fragmente, 1911–13, related to Op.10.CHORAL: Entflieht auf Leichten Kähnen (Flight to Light boats), Op.2, double canon, unacc. ch. (1908); 2 Goethe Lieder, Op.19, ch., gui., cel., vn., cl., bcl. (1926); Das Augenlicht (Eyesight), Op.26, ch., orch. (1935); Erste Kantate (1st Cantata), Op.29, sop., ch., orch. (1938–9); Zweite Kantate (2nd Cantata), Op.31, sop., bass, ch., orch. (1941–3).VOICE(S) & INSTR(S).: Siegfrieds Schwert ( Siegfried's Sword), ballad, ten., orch. (1903, f.p. 1978); 2 Lieder (Rilke), Op.8, v., cl., hn., tpt., cel., hp., vn., va., vc. (1910); 3 Lieder, sop., small orch. (1913–14); 4 Lieder, Op.13, sop., orch. (1914–18); 6 Lieder (Trakl), Op.14, high v., cl., bcl., vn., vc. (1917–21); 5 Geistliche Lieder (5 Spiritual Songs), Op.15, high sop., fl., cl., bcl., tpt., hp., vn., va. (1917–22); 5 Canons (Latin texts), Op.16, high sop., cl., bcl. (1923–4); 3 Folk-Songs, Op.17, v., cl., bcl., vn. or va. (1924); 3 Lieder, Op.18, v., E♭ cl., gui. (1925).VOICE & PIANO: 2 Songs (Avenarius) (1900–1); 3 Gedichte (1899–1903); 8 frühe Lieder (1901–4); 3 Lieder (Avenarius) (1903–4); 5 Dehmel Lieder (1906–8); 5 Lieder aus der siebente Ring (George), Op.3 (1907–8); 5 Stefan George Lieder, Op.4 (1908–9); 4 Lieder, Op.12 (1915–17); 3 Gesänge (Jone), Op.23 (1934); 3 Lieder (Jone), Op.25 (1934–5).CHAMBER MUSIC: str. qt. in 1 movt. (1905); Langsamer Satz, str. qt. (1905); pf. quintet in 1 movt. (1906); 5 Movements, str. qt., Op.5 (1909, scored for str. orch. 1929); 4 Pieces, Op.7, vn., pf. (1910); 6 Bagatelles, Op.9, str. qt. (1913); 3 Little Pieces, Op.11, vc., pf. (1914); vc. sonata (1914); Movement, str. trio (1925); str. trio, Op.20 (1926–7); qt., Op.22, vn., cl., ten. sax., pf. (1930); str. qt., Op.28 (1936–8).PIANO: Kinderstück (1924); Variations, Op.27 (1935–6).ARRS. OF OTHER COMPOSERS: Bach: Ricercare from The Musical Offering for chamber orch. Schoenberg: Nos. 2 and 6 of 6 Orchester-Lieder, Op.8, arr. for v. and pf.; Kammersymphonie, Op.9, arr. for fl. (or 2 vn), cl. (or va.), vn., vc., pf. (1922); 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16, arr. for 2 pf.; Prelude and Interludes from Gurrelieder, arr. 2 pf., 8 hands (1910). Schubert: Deutsche Tänze vom Oktober 1824, arr. for orch.; Rosamunde Romanze, Ihr Bild, Der Wegweiser, Du bist die Ruh’, and Tränenregen, arr. for v. and small orch. Wolf: Lebe wohl, Der Knabe und das Immelein, and Denk es, O Seele, arr. for v. and full orch.

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Webern, Anton von

Anton von Webern (än´tōn fən vā´bərn), 1883–1945, Austrian composer and conductor; pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. He conducted theater orchestras in Prague and in various German cities until 1918, devoting himself thereafter to composition and teaching. His first composition, a passacaglia for orchestra (1908), which showed the postromantic influence of Mahler, gave no hint of the exclusive use of the twelve-tone technique (see atonality) of Schoenberg that was to characterize the rest of his output. In his relatively few works, mostly for small chamber combinations or for voice, he reduced music to its barest essentials, depriving it of traditional harmonic concepts. He concentrated many fragmented musical events, ordered by intricate contrapuntal, rhythmic, and dynamic patterns, into extremely contracted time spans. For example, the whole of Five Pieces for Orchestra (1911–13) contains only 76 measures. In later works, such as Variations (1940) for orchestra, he strove for total variation, the opposite of traditional developmental technique. His individual style was both poetic and intensely expressive, and his music has become increasingly influential, although it remains outside the popular taste. Webern was accidentally killed by a sentry during the American occupation of Germany.

See his letters, ed. by J. Polnauer (tr. 1967); his The Path to the New Music, ed. by W. Reich (tr. 1963); biography by F. Wildgans (tr. 1966); study by R. Leibowitz (tr. 1949, repr. 1970).

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Webern, Anton von

Webern, Anton von (1883–1945) Austrian composer. His Passacaglia was written using late-Romantic tonality. Influenced by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, Webern adopted atonality, as in the Six Bagatelles (1913), and then twelve-tone music, notably in his symphony (1928). His works are typically extremely short and characterized by strict counterpoint.

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