Friday, December 3, 8883

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Anton [Friedrich Wilhelm von] Webern (December 3, 1883, Vienna, Austria - September 15, 1945) spent much of his youth in

Graz and

Klagenfurt, and began studies at

Vienna University in 1902, where he studied musicology with

Guido Adler, writing his thesis on the Choralis Constantinus of

Heinrich Isaac (1455-1517. This interest in early music would greatly influence Webern's compositional technique by employing large-and-small scale palindromic form and in the restricted use of materials.

Webern's earliest works are late-romantic and were neither published nor performed in his lifetime. These include the orchestral tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904) and the Langsamer Satz (1905) for string quartet.

The composer studied with Arnold Schoenberg, writing his Passacaglia, Op. 1 as his graduation piece in 1908.

Harmonically speaking, the work is a step forward into a more advanced language, and the orchestration is somewhat more distinctive than his earlier endeavor. One element that is typical is the passacaglia form itself and a distinguishing feature of Webern's later work was to be the use of traditional compositional techniques (especially canons) and genres (as was also the case with Schoenberg) in new melodic and harmonic contexts.

Webern met Schoenberg's student Alban Berg during this time and the three mutually influenced each other as a triumvirate Second Viennese School of composers. For a number of years, Webern and Berg wrote pieces which were freely atonal, much in the style of their teacher's early atonal works -- but in the former's case briefer and tautly organized, the latter's more post-romantic and wide-ranging.

After graduating, Webern took a series of conducting posts at theatres in Ischl, Teplitz, Danzig, Stettin, and Prague before moving back to Vienna.


Entflieht auf Leichten Kähnen, for a cappella choir on a text by Stefan George, Op. 2 (1908)

Five Lieder on Der Siebente Ring, for voice and piano, Op. 3 (1908)

Five Lieder after Stefan George, for voice and piano, Op. 4 (1909)

Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909)

Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1910)

Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 (1910)

Two Lieder, on Texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, for voice and piano, Op. 8 (1910)

[Webern, 1912]


Like almost every composer who had a career of any length, Webern's music changed over time. However, 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, Op. 9 (1913) last about three minutes in total.


Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1913)

I. Sehr ruhig und zart

II. Lebhaft und zart bewegt

III. Sehr langsam und ausserst ruhig

IV. Fliessend, ausserst zart



Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11, (1914)

Four Lieder, for voice and piano, Op. 12 (1917)

Four Lieder, for voice and orchestra, Op. 13 (1918)

While Webern never used his middle names, he dropped the von in 1918 as directed by the Austrian government's reforms after World War I. In Vienna, the composer helped run Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances from 1918 through 1922.


Six Lieder for Voice, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Violin, and Cello, Op. 14 (1921)

Five Sacred Songs, for voice and small ensemble, Op. 15 (1922)


Webern conducted the Vienna Workers Symphony Orchestra from 1922 to 1934.


Five Canons on Latin texts, for high soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet, Op. 16 (1924)

Three Traditional Rhymes, for voice, violin (doubling viola), clarinet and bass clarinet, Op. 17 (1924)


With the Drei Geistliche Volkslieder, for voice, Eb clarinet, and guitar, Op. 18 (1925), Webern used Schoenberg's 12-tone method for the first time, and all his subsequent works used this technique.


Two Lieder, for mixed choir, celesta, guitar, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet, Op. 19 (1926)


The String Trio, Op. 20 (1927) was both his first purely instrumental work using the 12-tone technique and the first cast in a traditional musical form.

Webern's tone rows are often arranged to take advantage of internal symmetries; for example, a 12-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 (the notion of tone-color melody [klangfarbenmelodie]).

Symphony, Op. 21 (1928)

Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone and Piano, Op. 22 (1930)


[Webern, 1930]

While Webern sharply attacked Nazi cultural policies in private lectures given in 1933, their intended publication did not take place at that time, which proved fortunate since this later "would have exposed Webern to serious consequences."


Three Songs on Hildegard Jone's "Viae inviae," for voice and piano, Op. 23 (1934)

Concerto for Nine Instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola and piano), Op. 24 (1934)

Three Lieder on Texts by Hildegard Jone, for voice and piano, Op. 25 (1934-35)

Das Augenlicht, for mixed choir and orchestra, on a text by Hildegard Jone, Op. 26 (1935)

Piano Variations, Op. 27 (1936)


Webern's music was denounced as "cultural Bolshevism" and "degenerate art" by the Nazi Party in Germany, even before they seized power in Austria in 1938.


String Quartet, Op. 28 (1938, the tone row of this work is based around BACH)


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.


Cantata No. 1, for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra, Op. 29 (1939)

I. Zudender Lichtblicht

II. Kleiner Flugel



Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 (1940)


[Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, 1940]

During the war, however, Webern's patriotic fervor led him to endorse the Nazi regime in a series of letters to Joseph Hueber, where he described Hitler on May 2, 1940, as "this unique man" who created "the new state" of Germany. As a result of official disapproval, he found it harder (though at no stage impossible) to earn a living, and had to take on work as an editor and proofreader for his publishers, Universal Edition.


Cantata No. 2, for soprano, bass, choir and orchestra, Op. 31 (1943)


He left Vienna near the end of the war, and moved to Mittersill in Salzburg, believing he would be safer there. On September 15, 1945, during the Allied occupation of Austria, he was accidentally shot dead by an American Army soldier following the arrest of his son-in-law for black market activities, when, despite the curfew in effect, he stepped outside the house

to smoke

a cigar without disturbing his sleeping grandchildren. The soldier responsible, army cook Private First Class Raymond Norwood Bell, was overcome by remorse and died of alcoholism in 1955.

Webern was not a prolific composer, as the above 31 compositions with opus numbers (published in his lifetime) would suggest.

Robert Craft recorded The Complete Works of Anton Webern on four LP Records.

Pierre Boulez oversaw a project to record all of his work including those without opus numbers, the results fit on just six CD's.

However, Webern's influence on later composers, and particularly on the post-war avant garde, was immense. His mature works have a textural clarity, emotional coolness, and a schematic organization of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics that became known as serialism. The style proved influential for many, including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Igor Stravinsky, who noted: "Doomed to total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference, he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, of whose mines he had a perfect knowledge."

[8883 Varese / 8883 Webern / 8882 Stravinsky]