Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern (German: [ˈantɔn ˈveːbɐn] (
Webern's music was among the most radical of its milieu, both in its concision and in its rigorous and resolute apprehension of twelve-tone technique. His innovations in schematic organization of pitch, rhythm, register, timbre, dynamics, articulation, and melodic contour; his eagerness to redefine imitative contrapuntal techniques such as canon and fugue; and his inclination toward athematicism, abstraction, and lyricism all greatly informed and oriented intra- and post-war European, typically serial or avant-garde composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Henri Pousseur, and György Ligeti. In the United States, meanwhile, his music attracted the interest of Elliott Carter, whose critical ambivalence was marked by a certain enthusiasm nonetheless; Milton Babbitt, who ultimately derived more inspiration from Schoenberg's twelve-tone practice than that of Webern; and Igor Stravinsky, to whom it was very fruitfully reintroduced by Robert Craft.
During and shortly after the post-war period, then, Webern was posthumously received with attention first diverted from his sociocultural upbringing and surroundings and, moreover, focused in a direction apparently antithetical to his participation in German Romanticism and Expressionism. A richer understanding of Webern began to emerge in the later half of the 20th century, notably in the work of scholars Kathryn Bailey, Julian Johnson, Felix Meyer, Anne Shreffler, as archivists and biographers (most importantly Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer) gained access to sketches, letters, lectures, audio recordings, and other articles of or associated with Webern's estate.
Youth, education, and other early experiences in Austria-Hungary
Webern was born in Vienna, then Austria-Hungary, as Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern. He was the only surviving son of Carl von Webern, a civil servant, and Amelie (née Geer) who was a competent pianist and accomplished singer—possibly the only obvious source of the future composer's talent. He never used his middle names and dropped the "von" in 1918 as directed by the Austrian government's reforms after World War I.
He lived in Graz and Klagenfurt for much of his youth. But his distinct and lasting sense of Heimat was shaped by readings of Peter Rosegger; and moreover by frequent and extended retreats with his parents, sisters, and cousins to his family's country estate, the Preglhof, which Webern's father had inherited upon the death of Webern's grandfather in 1889.
Webern memorialized the Preglhof in a diary poem "An der Preglhof" and in the tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904), both after Bruno Wille's idyll. Once Webern's father sold the estate in 1912, Webern referred to it nostalgically as a "lost paradise". He continued to revisit the Preglhof, the family cemetery in Schwabegg, and the surrounding landscape for the rest of his life; and he clearly associated the area, which he took as his home, very closely with the memory of his mother Amelie, who had died in 1906 and whose loss also profoundly affected Webern for decades.
Art historian Ernst Dietz, Webern's cousin and at that time a student at Graz, may have introduced Webern to the work of the painters Arnold Böcklin and Giovanni Segantini, whom Webern came to admire. Segantini's work was a likely inspiration for Webern's 1905 single-movement string quartet.
In 1902, Webern began attending classes at Vienna University. There he studied musicology with Guido Adler, writing his thesis on the Choralis Constantinus of Heinrich Isaac. This interest in early music would greatly influence his compositional technique in later years, especially in terms of his use of palindromic form on both the micro- and macro-scale and the economical use of musical materials. After graduating, Webern took a series of conducting posts at theatres in Ischl, Teplitz (now Teplice, Czech Republic), Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), and Prague before moving back to Vienna.
As might be expected, the young Webern was enthusiastic about the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert ("so genuinely Viennese"), Hugo Wolf, and Richard Wagner, visiting Bayreuth in 1902. He also enjoyed the music of Hector Berlioz and Georges Bizet. In 1904, he reportedly stormed out of a meeting with Hans Pfitzner, from whom he was seeking instruction, when the latter criticized Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In 1908, Webern wrote rapturously to Schoenberg about Claude Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande. He conducted some of Debussy's music in 1911.
It may have been at Guido Adler's advice that he paid Schoenberg for composition lessons. Webern progressed quickly under Schoenberg's tutelage, publishing his Passacaglia, Op. 1, as his graduation piece in 1908. He also met Berg, then another of Schoenberg's pupils. These two relationships would be the most important in his life in shaping his own musical direction.
Some of Webern's earlier thoughts (from 1903) are as amusing as they might be surprising: besides describing some of Alexander Scriabin's music as "languishing junk," he wrote of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 that it was "boring," that Carl Maria von Weber's Konzertstück in F minor was passé, and that he found Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 3 (which struck Eduard Hanslick as "artistically the most nearly perfect") "cold and without particular inspiration, ... badly orchestrated–grey on grey." These youthful impressions are in some, but not complete or altogether necessarily very significant, contrast to the considered opinions of Webern in the 1930s, by then a decided nationalist who, as Roland Leich described, "lectured at some length on the utter supremacy of German music, emphasizing that leading composers of other lands are but pale reflections of Germanic masters: Berlioz a French Beethoven, Tchaikovsky a Russian Schumann, Elgar an English Mendelssohn, etc." After all, even when young, Webern had described one of Alexander Glazunov's symphonies as "not particularly Russian" (in contrast to some of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's music at the same all-Russian concert) in the same passage as he praised it.
Red Vienna in the First Austrian Republic
From 1918 to 1921, Webern helped organize and operate the Society for Private Musical Performances, which gave concerts of then-recent or -new music by Béla Bartók, Berg, Ferrucio Busoni, Debussy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Max Reger, Erik Satie, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Webern himself. After their Society performances in 1919 (and while working on his own Op. 14–15), Webern wrote to Berg that Stravinsky's Berceuses du chat "[move] me completely beyond belief," describing them as "indescribably touching," and that Stravinsky's Pribaoutki were "something really glorious."
After the dissolution of the Society amid catastrophic hyperinflation in 1921, Webern conducted the Vienna Workers' Symphony Orchestra and Chorus from 1922 to 1934. In 1926, Webern noted his voluntary resignation as chorusmaster of the Mödling Men's Choral Society, a paid position, in controversy over his hiring of a Jewish singer, Greta Wilheim, to replace a sick one. Letters document their correspondence in many subsequent years, and she (among others) would in turn provide him with facilities to teach private lessons as a convenience to Webern, his family, and his students.
Civil War, Austrofascism, Nazism, and World War II
Anton Webern, March 6, 1934, in a letter to Ernst Křenek, responding to the latter's essay "Freedom and Responsibility" published in the Willi Reich's music journal 23. Křenek had advocated for "a Catholic Austrian avante garde" in opposition to "the Austrian provincialism that National Socialism wants to force on us". Webern himself was Roman Catholic, and the leading Vaterländische Front positioned Austria with Fascist Italy on the basis of religious and historical national identity in attempt to remain independent from Nazi Germany; thus the confusion that Webern refers to is the "social chaos" (Krasner) of the Austrian Civil War, which the Social Democrats' Republikanischer Schutzbund lost to the other side's Heimwehr, and he endorses Křenek's advocacy for an art, though certainly meaningful and relevant, relatively transcendent and universal as opposed to immanent and nationalistic. But beyond Křenek, Webern emphasizes a responsibility to an understood "heritage" and presses this appeal with marked wariness of "the confusion" (as Krasner discusses below).
Louis Krasner, as told to Don C. Seibert and published in Fanfare in 1987, elaborating on Webern's "however" clause above; note Krasner's use of "Bolshevik" in a sense distinctly qualified as derogatory, echoing language ("cultural Bolshevism"), itself drawn from anti-Bolshevik propaganda largely on the Right, that had been deployed against Webern et al.
Webern's music, along with that of Berg, Křenek, Schoenberg, and others, was denounced as "cultural Bolshevism" and "degenerate art" by the Nazi Party in Germany, and both publication and performances of it were banned soon after the Anschluss in 1938, although neither did it fare well under the preceding years of Austrofascism. As early as 1933, an Austrian gauleiter on Bayerischer Rundfunk mistakenly and very likely maliciously characterized both Berg and Webern as Jewish composers. As a result of official disapproval throughout the '30s, both found it harder to earn a living; Webern lost a promising conducting career which might have otherwise been more noted and recorded and had to take on work as an editor and proofreader for his publishers, Universal Edition. His family's financial situation deteriorated until, by August 1940, his personal records reflected no monthly income. It was thanks to the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart that Webern was able to attend the festive premiere of his Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, in Winterthur, Switzerland in 1943. Reinhart invested all the financial and diplomatic means at his disposal to enable Webern to travel to Switzerland. In return for this support, Webern dedicated the work to him.
There are different descriptions of Webern's attitude towards Nazism; this is perhaps attributable to its complexity, his internal ambivalence, his prosperity in the preceding years (1918–1934) of post-war Red Vienna in the First Republic of Austria, the subsequently divided political factions of his homeland as represented in his friends and family (from Zionist Schoenberg to his Nazi son Peter), as well as the different contexts in which or audiences to whom his views were expressed. Further insight into Webern's attitudes comes with the realization that Nazism itself was deeply multifaceted, marked "not [by] a coherent doctrine or body of systemically interrelated ideas, but rather [by] a vaguer worldview made up of a number of prejudices with varied appeals to different audiences which could scarcely be dignified with the term 'ideology'".
There is, moreover, significant political complexity to be treated, more than enough to complicate any consideration of individual culpability: it is imperative to note that some Social Democrats viewed the National Socialists as an alternative to the Christian Social Party and later Vaterländische Front in the context of reunification with Germany; for example, Karl Renner, the chancellor who served in both the First (1919–33) and Second (post-1945) Austrian Republics, favored a German Anschluss as an alternative to the then Austrofascist regime, under which Berg, Webern, and the Social Democrats suffered. And Webern's professional circle in Vienna included, besides many Jews, many Social Democrats; for example, for David Josef Bach, a close friend of Schoenberg's as well, Webern conducted many workers' and amateur ensembles. Under the Nazis, some Social Democrats expected, there might be more work and protections for workers and laborers, as well as other social reforms and political stability, if not democracy; Webern may well have hoped to again be able to conduct and to be better able to secure a future for his family.
In broad terms, Webern's attitude seems to have first warmed to a degree of characteristic fervor and perhaps only much later, in conjunction with widespread German disillusionment, cooled to Hitler and the Nazis. On the one hand, Willi Reich notes that Webern attacked Nazi cultural policies in private lectures given in 1933, whose hypothetical publication "would have exposed Webern to serious consequences" later. On the other, some private correspondence attests to his Nazi sympathies. Webern's patriotism led him to endorse the Nazi regime in a series of letters to Joseph Hueber, who was serving in the army and himself held such views. Webern described Hitler on May 2, 1940 as "this unique man" who created "the new state" of Germany; thus Alex Ross characterizes him as "an unashamed Hitler enthusiast".
Violinist Louis Krasner painted not a sentimental portrait but one imbued with a wealth of factual and personal detail for its publication in 1987, describing Webern as clearly naive and idealistic but not entirely without his wits, shame, or conscience; Krasner carefully contextualizes Webern as a member of Austrian society at the time, one departed by Schoenberg and one in which the already pro-Nazi Vienna Philharmonic had even refused to play the late Berg's Violin Concerto. As Krasner vividly recalled, he and Webern were visiting at the latter's home in Maria Enzersdorf, Mödling when the Nazis invaded Austria; Webern, uncannily seeming to anticipate the timing down to 4 o'clock in the afternoon, turned on the radio to hear this news and immediately warned Krasner, urging him to flee, whereupon he did (first to Vienna). Whether this was for Krasner's safety or to save Webern the embarrassment of Krasner's presence during a time of possible celebration in the pro-Nazi Webern family (or indeed in most of pro-Nazi Mödling, by Krasner's description as well as one even more vivid of Arnold Greissle-Schönberg), Krasner was ambivalent and uncertain, withholding judgment. Only later did Krasner himself realize how self-admittedly "foolhardy" he had been and in what danger he had placed himself, revealing an ignorance perhaps shared by Webern. Krasner had even revisited frequently, hoping to convince friends (e.g., Schoenberg's daughter Gertrude and her husband Felix Greissle) to emigrate before time ran out. Krasner eventually left more permanently, after a 1941 incident wherein he felt only his US passport saved him from both locals and police.
Krasner retold from a story related to him in long discussion with Schoenberg's son Görgi, a Jew who remained in Vienna during the war, that the Weberns, much to their risk and credit, had provided Görgi and his family with food and shelter toward the end of the war at the Weberns' home in a Mödling apartment belonging to their son-in-law. Görgi and his family were left behind for their safety when Webern fled on foot with his family to Mittersill, about 75 km. away, for safety of their own in light of the coming Russian invasion; Amalie, one of Webern's daughters, wrote of '17 persons pressed together in the smallest possible space' upon their arrival. Ironically, the Russians pronounced Görgi a "Nazi spy" when he was discovered due to the Nazi munitions and propaganda in the Weberns' basement store-room. Görgi is said to have saved himself from execution by protesting and drawing attention to his clothes, sewn as specified by the Nazis with the yellow Star of David. He continued to live in this apartment with this family until 1969.
Webern is also known to have aided Josef Polnauer, a Jewish friend who, as an albino, managed to largely escape the Nazis' attention and later edit a publication of Webern's correspondence from this time with Hildegard Jone, Webern's then lyricist and collaborator, and her husband, sculptor Josef Humplik.
However, Krasner was particularly troubled by a 1936 conversation with Webern about the Jews, in which Webern expressed his vague but unambiguously anti-Semitic opinion that "Even Schoenberg, had he not been a Jew, would have been quite different!" Krasner remembered, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight at the time (1987), that "Jews ... were at the center of the difficulty. Those who wanted to, put the blame for all this calamity, for all this depraved condition, on the Jews who had brought it with them—along with a lot of radical ideas—from the East. People blamed the Jews for their financial worries. The Jews were, at the same time, the poverty-stricken people who came with nothing, and the capitalists who controlled everything."
When once asked by Schoenberg about his feelings toward the Nazis, Webern nonetheless sought to allay Schoenberg's concerns; similarly, when in 1938 Eduard Steuermann asked Krasner about rumors of Webern's possible "interest in and devotion to the Nazis" on Schoenberg's behalf, Krasner lied by denying the rumors categorically and entirely. As a result, Schoenberg's Violin Concerto of 1934 (or 1935)–36 continued to bear a dedication to Webern, although whittled down as a result of Schoenberg's continuing suspicions or, indeed, on Webern's behalf, i.e., to protect Webern from further Nazi suspicion and persecution. Schoenberg's tone was ultimately conciliatory in remembrance of both Berg and Webern in 1947: "Let us—for the moment at least—forget all that might have at one time divided us ... even if those who tried might have succeeded in confounding us."
Musicologist Richard Taruskin describes Webern accurately if vaguely as a pan-German nationalist but then goes much further in claiming specifically that Webern joyfully welcomed the Nazis with the 1938 Anschluss, at best extrapolating from the account of his cited source Krasner and at worst exaggerating or distorting it, as well as describing it sardonically as "heart-breaking". Taruskin's authority on this delicate issue must be credited, if at all, then only with the significant limitations that he has been polemical in general and hostile in particular to the Second Viennese School, of whom Webern is often considered the most extreme and difficult (i.e., the least accessible). New Complexity composer and performer Franklin Cox not only faults Taruskin as an inaccurate and unreliable historian but also critiques Taruskin as an "ideologist of tonal restoration" (musicologist Martin Kaltenecker similarly refers to the "Restoration of the 1980s," but he also describes a paradigm shift from structure to perception). Taruskin's "reactionary historicist" project, Cox argues, stands in opposition to that of the Second Viennese School, viz. the "progressivist historicist" emancipation of the dissonance. Taruskin himself admits to having acquired a "dubious reputation" on the Second Viennese School and notes that he has been described in his work on Webern as "coming, like Shakespeare's Marc Anthony, 'to bury Webern, not to praise him'".
In contradistinction to Taruskin's methods and pronouncements, musicologist Pamela M. Potter advises that "[i]t is important to consider all the scholarship on musical life in the Third Reich that, taken together, reveals the complexity of the day-to-day existence of musicians and composers", as "[i]t seems inevitable that debates about the political culpability of individuals will persist, especially if the stakes remain so high for composers, for whom an up or down vote can determine inclusion in the canon". In this vein, it might be noted in relation to Taruskin's claim that Webern wrote to friends (husband and wife Josef Humplik and Hildegard Jone) on the day of Anschluss not to invite celebration or to observe developments but to be left alone: "I am totally immersed in my work [composing] and cannot, cannot be disturbed"; Krasner's presence could have been a disturbance to Webern for this reason, and musicologist Kathryn Bailey speculates that this may indeed be why he was rushed off by Webern.
Webern's 1944–1945 correspondence is strewn with references to bombings, deaths, destruction, privation, and the disintegration of local order; but also noted are the births of several grandchildren. At the age of sixty (i.e., in Dec. 1943), Webern writes that he is living in a barrack away from home and working from 6 am to 5 pm, compelled by the state in a time of war to serve as an air-raid protection police officer. On March 3, 1945 news was relayed to Webern that his only son, Peter, died on February 14 of wounds suffered in a strafing attack on a military train two days earlier.
Death in Allied-administered Austria
On 15 September 1945, back at his home during the Allied occupation of Austria, Webern was shot and killed by an American Army soldier following the arrest of his son-in-law for black market activities. This incident occurred when, three-quarters of an hour before a curfew was to have gone into effect, he stepped outside the house so as not to disturb his sleeping grandchildren, in order to enjoy a few draws on a cigar given him that evening by his son-in-law. The soldier responsible for his death was U. S. Army cook PFC Raymond Norwood Bell of North Carolina, who was overcome by remorse and died of alcoholism in 1955.
Webern was survived by his wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl, who died in 1949, and their three daughters.
Anton Webern, June 23, 1910, writing to Schoenberg (and to be much later echoed by Adorno, who described Webern as "the only one to propound musical expressionism in its strictest sense, carrying it to such a point that it reverts of its own weight to a new objectivity")
Webern's compositions are concise, distilled, and select; just thirty-one of his compositions were published in his lifetime, and when Pierre Boulez later oversaw a project to record all of his compositions, including some of those without opus numbers, the results fit on just six CDs. Although Webern's music changed over time, as is often the case over a long career, it is typified by very spartan textures, in which every note can be clearly heard; carefully chosen timbres, often resulting in very detailed instructions to the performers and use of extended instrumental techniques (flutter tonguing, col legno, and so on); wide-ranging melodic lines, often with leaps greater than an octave; and brevity: the Six Bagatelles for string quartet (1913), for instance, last about three minutes in total.
Webern's music does not fall into clearly demarcated periods of division because the concerns and techniques of his music were cohesive, interrelated, and only very gradually transformed with the overlap of old and new, particularly in the case of his middle-period lieder. For example, his first use of twelve-tone technique was not especially stylistically significant and only eventually became realized as otherwise so in later works. As such, the divisions employed below are only a convenient simplification.
Formative juvenilia and emergence from study, Opp. 1–2, 1899–1908
Webern published little of his early work in particular; Webern was characteristically meticulous and revised extensively. Many juvenilia remained unknown until the work and findings of the Moldenhauers in the 1960s, effectively obscuring and undermining formative facets of Webern's musical identity, highly significant even more so in the case of an innovator whose music was crucially marked by rapid stylistic shifts. Thus when Boulez first oversaw a project to record "all" of Webern's music, not including the juvenilia, the results fit on three rather than six CDs.
Anton Webern, letter to Alban Berg
Webern's earliest works consist primarily of lieder, the genre that most testifies to his roots in Romanticism, specifically German Romanticism; one in which the music yields brief but explicit, potent, and spoken meaning manifested only latently or programmatically in purely instrumental genres; one marked by significant intimacy and lyricism; and one which often associates nature, especially landscapes, with themes of homesickness, solace, wistful yearning, distance, utopia, and belonging. Robert Schumann's "Mondnacht" is an iconic example; Eichendorff, whose lyric poetry inspired it, is not far removed from the poets (e.g., Richard Dehmel, Gustav Falke, Theodor Storm) whose work inspired Webern and his contemporaries Alban Berg, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, and Alexander Zemlinsky. Wolf's Mörike-Lieder were especially influential on Webern's efforts from this period. But well beyond these lieder alone, all of Webern's music may be said to possess such concerns and qualities, as is evident from his sketches, albeit in an increasingly symbolic, abstract, spare, introverted, and idealized manner.
Webern's first piece after completing his studies with Schoenberg was the Passacaglia for orchestra (1908). Harmonically, it is a step forward into a more advanced language, and the orchestration is somewhat more distinctive than his earlier orchestral work. However, it bears little relation to the fully mature works he is best known for today. One element that is typical is the form itself: the passacaglia is a form which dates back to the 17th century, and a distinguishing feature of Webern's later work was to be the use of traditional compositional techniques (especially canons) and forms (the Symphony, the Concerto, the String Trio, and String Quartet, and the piano and orchestral Variations) in a modern harmonic and melodic language.
Atonality, lieder, and aphorism, Opp. 3–16 and Tot, 1908–24
For a number of years, Webern wrote pieces which were freely atonal, much in the style of Schoenberg's early atonal works. Indeed, so in lockstep with Schoenberg was Webern for much of his artistic development that Schoenberg in 1951 wrote that he sometimes no longer knew who he was, Webern had followed so well in his footsteps and shadow, occasionally outdoing or stepping ahead of Schoenberg in execution of Schoenberg's own or their shared ideas.
There are, however, important cases where Webern may have even more profoundly influenced Schoenberg. Haimo marks the swift, radical influence in 1909 of Webern's novel and arresting Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, on Schoenberg's subsequent piano piece Op. 11, No. 3; Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16; and monodrama Erwartung, Op. 17. This shift is distinctly pronounced in a letter Schoenberg wrote to Busoni, which describes a rather Webernian aesthetic:
Harmony is expression and nothing else. ... Away with Pathos! Away with protracted ten-ton scores .... My music must be brief. Concise! In two notes: not built, but "expressed"!! And the results I wish for: no stylized and sterile protracted emotion. People are not like that: it is impossible for a person to have only one sensation at a time. One has thousands simultaneously. ... And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, the illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the senses or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music.
In 1949, Schoenberg still remembered being "intoxicated by the enthusiasm of having freed music from the shackles of tonality" and believing with his pupils "that now music could renounce motivic features and remain coherent and comprehensible nonetheless".
But with Opp. 18–20, Schoenberg turned back and revived old techniques, very self-consciously returning to and transforming tradition by the concluding songs of Pierrot lunaire (1912), Op. 21, with, e.g., intricately interrelated canons in "Der Mondfleck", clear waltz rhythms in "Serenade", a barcarolle ("Heimfahrt"), triadic harmony throughout "O alter Duft". Pierrot was received by Webern as a direction for the composition of his own Opp. 14–16, most of all with respect to contrapuntal procedures (and to a lesser degree with respect to the diverse and innovative textural treatment among instruments in increasingly smaller ensembles). "How much I owe to your Pierrot", he wrote Schoenberg upon completing a setting of Georg Trakl's "Abendland III", Op. 14, No. 4, in which, rather unusually for Webern, there is no silence or rest until a pause at the concluding gesture.
Indeed, a recurring theme of Webern's World War I settings is that of the wanderer, estranged or lost and seeking return to or at least retrieval from an earlier time and place; and of some fifty-six songs on which Webern worked 1914–26, he ultimately finished and later published only thirty-two set in order as Opp. 12–19. This wartime theme of wandering in search of home ties in with two intricately involved concerns more broadly evident in Webern's work: first, the death and memory of members of Webern's family, especially his mother but also including his father and a nephew; and second, Webern's broad and complex sense of rural and spiritual Heimat. Their importance is marked by Webern's stage play, Tot (October 1913), which, over the course of six alpine scenes of reflection and self-consolation, draws on Emanuel Swedenborg's notion of correspondence to relate and to unite the two concerns, the first embodied but otherworldly and the second concrete if increasingly abstracted and idealized.
The similarities between Tot and Webern's music are striking. In an often programmatic or cinematic fashion, Webern ordered his published movements, themselves dramatic or visual tableaux with melodies that frequently begin and end on weak beats or else settle into ostinati or the background. In them, tonality — useful for communicating direction and narrative in programmatic pieces — becomes more tenuous, fragmented, static, symbolic, and visual or spatial in function, thus mirroring the concerns and topics, explicit or implicit, of Webern's music and his selections for it from the poetry of Stefan George and later Georg Trakl.
Webern's dynamics, orchestration, and timbre are given so as to produce a fragile, intimate, and often novel sound, despite distinctly recalling Mahler, not infrequently bordering on silence at a typical ppp. In some cases, Webern's choice of instrument in particular functions to represent or to allude to a female voice (e.g., the use of solo violin), to inward or outward luminosity or darkness (e.g., the use of the entire range of register within the ensemble; registral compression and expansion; the use of celesta, harp, and glockenspiel; the use of harmonics and sul ponticello), or to angels and heaven (e.g., the use of harp and trumpet in the circling ostinati of Op. 6, No. 5, and winding to conclusion at the very end of Op. 15, No. 5).
Technical consolidation and formal coherence and expansion, Opp. 17–31, 1924–43
With the Drei Volkstexte (1925), Op. 17, Webern used Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique for the first time, and all his subsequent works used this technique. The String Trio (1926–7), Op. 20, was both the first purely instrumental work using the twelve-tone technique (the other pieces were songs) and the first cast in a traditional musical form.
Webern's music, like that of both Brahms and Schoenberg, is marked by its emphasis on counterpoint and formal considerations; and Webern's commitment to systematic pitch organization in the twelve-tone method is inseparable from this prior commitment. Webern's tone rows are often arranged to take advantage of internal symmetries; for example, a twelve-tone row may be divisible into four groups of three pitches which are variations, such as inversions and retrogrades, of each other, thus creating invariance. This gives Webern's work considerable motivic unity, although this is often obscured by the fragmentation of the melodic lines. This fragmentation occurs through octave displacement (using intervals greater than an octave) and by moving the line rapidly from instrument to instrument in a technique referred to as Klangfarbenmelodie.
Webern's last pieces seem to indicate another development in style. The two late Cantatas, for example, use larger ensembles than earlier pieces, last longer (No. 1 around nine minutes; No. 2 around sixteen), and are texturally somewhat denser.
Arrangements and orchestrations
In his youth (1903), Webern orchestrated at least five of Franz Schubert's various lieder, giving the piano accompaniment to an appropriately Schubertian orchestra of strings and pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns: "Der Vollmond Strahlt auf Bergeshöhn" (the Romanze from Rosamunde), "Tränenregen" (from Die schöne Müllerin), "Der Wegweiser" (from Winterreise), "Du bist die Ruh", and "Ihr Bild"; in 1934, he did the same for Schubert's six Deutsche Tänze (German Dances) of 1824.
For Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances in 1921, Webern arranged, among other things, the 1888 Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz) of Johann Strauss II's Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) for string quartet, harmonium, and piano.
In 1924, Webern arranged Franz Liszt's Arbeiterchor (Workers' Chorus, c. 1847–48) for bass solo, mixed chorus, and large orchestra; it was premièred for the first time in any form on March 13 and 14, 1925, with Webern conducting the first full-length concert of the Austrian Association of Workers Choir. A review in the Amtliche Wiener Zeitung (March 28, 1925) read "neu in jedem Sinne, frisch, unverbraucht, durch ihn zieht die Jugend, die Freude" ("new in every respect, fresh, vital, pervaded by youth and joy"). The text, in English translation, reads in part: "Let us have the adorned spades and scoops,/ Come along all, who wield a sword or pen,/ Come here ye, industrious, brave and strong/ All who create things great or small." Liszt, initially inspired by his revolutionary countrymen, had left it in manuscript at publisher Carl Haslinger's discretion.
Biographers Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer describe Webern's reaction to Otto Klemperer's confused and unsympathetic 1936 ISCM performance of his Symphony (1928), Op. 21, which Webern had earlier played at the piano for Klemperer "with enormous intensity and fanaticism ... passionately".
Webern insisted on lyricism, nuance, rubato, sensitivity, and both emotional and intellectual understanding in performance of music; this is evidenced by anecdotes, correspondence, extant recordings of Schubert's Deutsche Tänze (arr. Webern) and Berg's Violin Concerto under his direction, many such detailed markings in his scores, and finally by his compositional process as both publicly stated and later revealed in the musical and extramusical metaphors and associations everywhere throughout his sketches. As both a composer and conductor, he was one of many (e.g., Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hermann Scherchen) in a contemporaneous tradition of conscientiously and non-literally handling notated musical figures, phrases, and even entire scores so as to maximize expressivity in performance and to cultivate audience engagement and understanding.
This aspect of Webern's work had been typically missed in his immediate post-war reception, however, even as it may radically affect the music's reception. For example, Boulez's "complete" recording of Webern's music yielded more to this aesthetic the second time after largely missing it the first; but Eliahu Inbal's rendition of Webern's symphony with the hr-Sinfonieorchester is still far more within the spirit of the late Romantic performance tradition (which Webern seemingly intended for his music), nearly slowing to half-tempo for the whole of first movement and taking care to delineate and shape each melodic strand and expressive gesture throughout the entirety of the work.
Legacy, influence, and posthumous reception
George Benjamin, describing Webern's Symphony, Op. 21.
Webern's music began to be performed more widely in the 1920s; by the mid-1940s, its effect was decisive on many composers, even as far-flung as John Cage. In part because Webern had largely remained the most obscure and arcane composer of the Second Viennese School during his own lifetime, interest in Webern's music increased after World War II as it came to represent a universally or generally valid, systematic, and compellingly logical model of new composition, with his œuvre acquiring what Alex Ross calls "a saintly, visionary aura". When Webern's Piano Variations were performed at Darmstadt in 1948, young composers listened in a quasi-religious trance. In 1955, the second issue of Eimert and Stockhausen's journal Die Reihe was devoted to Webern's œuvre, and in 1960 his lectures were published by Universal Edition.
Meanwhile, Webern's characteristically passionate pan-German nationalism and censurable, sordid political sympathies (however naive or delusional and whether ever dispelled or faltered) were not widely known or went unmentioned; perhaps in some part due to his personal and political associations before the German Reich, his degradation and mistreatment under it, and his fate immediately after the war. Significantly as relates to his reception, Webern never compromised his artistic identity and values, as Stravinsky was later to note.
It has been suggested that the early 1950s' serialists' fascination with Webern was concerned not with his music as such so much as enabled by its concision and some its apparent plainness in the score, thereby facilitating musical analysis; indeed, composer Gottfried Michael Koenig speculates on the basis of his personal experience that since Webern's scores represented such a highly concentrated source, they may have been considered the better for didactic purposes than those of other composers. Composer Robert Beyer thus criticized the approach of early serialists to Webern's music as reductive and narrowly focused on some of Webern's apparent methods rather than on his music more generally, especially neglecting timbre in their typical selection of Opp. 27–28. Composer Karel Goeyvaerts recalled that at least on first impression, the sound of Webern's music reminded him of "a Mondrian canvas," explaining that "things of which I had acquired an extremely intimate knowledge, came across as crude and unfinished when seen in reality." Expressing a related opinion, noted contemporaneous German music critic and contributor to Die Reihe Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski wrote in the Darmstädter Tagblatt (September 3, 1959) that some of the later and more radical music at Darmstadt was "acoustically absurd [if] visually amusing"; several days later, one of his articles in the Der Kurier was similarly headlined "Meager modern music—only interesting to look at."
To composers in the then Communist Bloc in Central and Eastern Europe, Webern's music and its techniques promised an exciting, unique, and challenging alternative to socialist realism, with its perceived tendency to kitsch and its nationalist and traditionalist overtones. Whereas Berg's Lyric Suite may have influenced the third and fourth string quartets of Bartók in 1927 via an ISCM concert (in which Bartók himself performed his own Piano Sonata), Webern's influence on later composers from what became the Hungarian People's Republic and from other countries behind the Iron Curtain was sometimes mediated or obstructed by politics. As Ligeti explained to a student in 1970, "In countries where there exists a certain isolation, in Eastern Europe, one cannot obtain correct information. One is cut off from the circulation of blood." Nonetheless, Webern's work was a seminal influence on that of both Endre Szervánszky and György Kurtág following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, as well as on Ligeti himself. Later still and farther east, Sofia Gubaidulina, for whom music was an escape from the socio-political atmosphere of post-Stalinist Soviet Russia, cited the influence of both J.S. Bach and Webern in particular.
Recordings by Webern
- Hayes 1995, 18.
- Johnson 1999, 83.
- Johnson 1999, 21, 220.
- Hayes 1995, 19.
- Johnson 1999, 99.
- Johnson 1999, 20–23.
- Johnson 1999, 102.
- Johnson 1999, 57, 80.
- Johnson 1999, 22, 38, 74–75, 79, 86, 94, 128.
- Johnson 1999, 252.
- Johnson 1999, 72-77.
- Bailey 1996, 32.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 292, 450.
- Bailey 1998, 121.
- Stewart 1991, 188.
- Bailey 1998, 164.
- Wodak 2009, 52.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987, 337–8.
- Taruskin 2008a, 211–12.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 473–75, 478, 491, 498–99.
- Bailey 1998, 165.
- Bailey 1998, 161.
- Notley 2010.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 166.
- Shreffler 1999, 301.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 169.
- Fulbrook 2011, 1920.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987, 338.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 167.
- Webern 1963, 7, 19–20.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 174.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 527.
- Ross 2007, 267.
- Ross UK edition 2008, 323.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987, 341.
- Greissle-Schönberg 2003b.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987.
- Greissle-Schönberg 2003a
- Bailey 1998, 183.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 173.
- Webern 1967.
- Bailey 1998, 105.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987, 345.
- Arnold Schönberg Center n.d.
- Kater 1999, clv.
- Krasner and Seibert 1987, 346-47.
- Taruskin 1996.
- Mitchinson 2001, 34.
- McDonald n.d.
- Kosman 2014.
- Forte 1986, 321.
- Schuijer 2008.
- Taruskin 2008b, 397.
- Bick 2009.
- White 2008, 203.
- Eichner 2012, 28.
- Johnson 1999, 128.
- Prausnitz n.d., 261.
- Doctor 1999, 200.
- Paddison 1998, 51.
- Bryan 1999, 14.
- Perle n.d., 45.
- Cox 2011, 1,36-38,53.
- Taruskin 2011, 3.
- Potter 2005, 446.
- Shreffler 1999, 299.
- Bailey 1998, 86, 165.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 600–601.
- Moldenhauer 1961, 85, 102, 114–16; Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 632.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 113.
- Adorno 2004, 418.
- Adorno 1984, 448.
- Webern 2000.
- Shere 2007, 7.
- Meyer and Shreffler 1996, 136.
- Chen 2006.
- Puffett 1996, 38.
- Yang 1987, vi.
- Anon. 1991.
- Hayes 1995, 71.
- Johnson 1999, 42–45.
- Johnson 1999, 211–36.
- Johnson 1999, 149.
- Haimo 2010, .
- Haimo 2006, 318–352.
- Johnson 1999, 149–150.
- Johnson 1999, 129.
- Johnson 1999, 121.
- Johnson 1999, 34–35.
- Johnson 1999, 105–08.
- Johnson 1999, .
- Leeuw 2005, 161.
- Shere 2007, 10.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 67, 746.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 237.
- Merrick 1987, 31.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 282.
- Arnold 2002, 386–87.
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 470–71, 679–80..
- Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 470–71..
- Stravinsky 1959.
- Service 2013.
- Grant 2001, 103.
- Fosler-Lussier 2007, 38.
- Grant 2001, 104.
- Goeyvaerts 1994, 39.
- Iddon 2013, 250.
- Antokoletz and Susanni 2011, xxix.
- Fosler-Lussier 2007, 49.
- Frandzel 2002.
- Adorno, Theodor. 1984. Musikalische Schriften, Vol. 5. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 18. Suhrkamp Verlag ISBN 9783518576960.
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- Ahrend, Thomas, and Stefan Münnich. 2018. Anton Webern. Oxford Bibliographies in Music. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0238.(subscription required)
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- Anon. 1991. [Unknown title] Gramophone (June): , cited as "Notes and Editorial Reviews" at "Webern: Complete Works Op 1–31 / Pierre Boulez, Sony, Catalog #: 45845", CD reissue by ArkivMusic, ArkivMusic website (Accessed 2 August 2014).
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- Goeyvaerts, Karel. 1994. "Paris: Darmstadt 1947–1956: Excerpt from the Autobiographical Portrait", translated by Patrick Daly, Peter Vosch, and Roger Janssens. Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap 48 (The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts. A Collection of Essays): 35-54.
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- Anton Webern at the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Anton Webern: Biography & list of works (in English and French)
- Anton Webern Works Discography, recordings 1939–2010, compiled by Miriam Quick (February 2010). Excel file.
- Anton Webern biography and works on the UE website (publisher)
- Anton Webern Gesamtausgabe (Complete Edition)
- The Complete Works of Anton v. Webern compiled by Bill Hammel
- Das Synthese-Denken bei Anton Webern dissertation by Karlheinz Essl with English abstract (1988)
- www.antonwebern.com opus list, short biography, music and photo download
- Free scores by Anton Webern at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Free scores by Anton Webern in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- "Anton Webern biography" (in French). IRCAM.
- Excerpts from sound archives of Webern's works.