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Anton von Webern

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Anton von Webern

total serialism.


Except for the violin pieces and a few of my orchestra pieces, all of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother.

Anton Webern, letter to Alban Berg[1]

Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, 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—the only obvious source of the future composer's talent.[2] He never used his middle names and dropped the "von" in 1918 as directed by the Austrian government's reforms after World War I. After spending much of his youth in Graz and Klagenfurt, Webern attended Vienna University from 1902. 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 by employing palindromic form on both the micro- and macro-scale and the economical use of musical materials.

He studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, writing his Passacaglia, Op. 1 as his graduation piece in 1908. He met Alban Berg, who was also a pupil of Schoenberg's, and these two relationships would be the most important in his life in shaping his own musical direction. After graduating, he took a series of conducting posts at theatres in Ischl, Teplitz, Danzig, Stettin, and Prague before moving back to Vienna. There he helped run Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances from 1918 through 1922 and conducted the "Vienna Workers Symphony Orchestra" from 1922 to 1934.

Webern and Nazism

The historical achievement of Hitler, the extermination of Marxism, will be celebrated by posterity (including the French, the English and all the exploiters of crimes against Germany) no less gratefully than the great deeds of the greatest Germans. If only a man were born to music, who would finally exterminate the musical Marxists: for this it would be necessary for the masses to become better acquainted with this inherently elusive art—but this is, and must remain, a contradiction in terms. "Art" and the masses have never belonged together: so where would one never find the quantity of musical "brownshirts" necessarily to chase away the musical Marxists? I have already provided the weapons; but the music, the true German music of the greats, is in no way understood by the masses who are supposed to bear weapons.

Anton Webern, letter to a pupil, 1933.[3]

There are different descriptions of Webern's initial attitude towards Nazism. 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.[4] However, other sources, including private correspondence indicate Nazi sympathies.[5] According to violinist Louis Krasner, Webern welcomed the Nazis during the Anschluss in 1938.[5] Critic John Rockwell mentions of Webern "evidence indicating Fascist or at least authoritarian tendencies",[6] Richard Taruskin describes him as a German nationalist,[5] while Alex Ross calls him "an unashamed Hitler enthusiast".[7][8]

Webern's music 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.[5][9][10]

During World War II, Webern's patriotic fervor led him to endorse the Nazi regime in a series of letters to Joseph Hueber, where he described Hitler on 2 May 1940 as "this unique man" who created "the new state" of Germany.[11] 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.

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.[12]


He left Vienna near the end of the war, and moved to Mittersill in Salzburg, believing he would be safer there. On 15 September 1945, during the Allied occupation of Austria, he 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.[13]

Webern was survived by his wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl, and their three daughters. His only son, Peter, died on 14 February 1945 of wounds suffered in a strafing attack on a military train two days earlier.[14]

Webern's music

"Sehr langsam"
Sample of "Sehr langsam" from String Trio Op. 20, an example of the twelve-tone technique, which is a type of serialism.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Webern was not a prolific composer; just thirty-one of his compositions were published in his lifetime, and when Pierre Boulez oversaw a project to record all of his compositions, including those without opus numbers, the results fit on just six CDs.[15]

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 (1913), for instance, last about three minutes in total.

Webern's earliest works are in a late Romantic style. They were neither published nor performed in his lifetime, though they are sometimes performed today. They include the orchestral tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904) and the Langsamer Satz (1905) for string quartet.

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.

For a number of years, Webern wrote pieces which were freely atonal, much in the style of Schoenberg's early atonal works. With the Drei Volkstexte op. 17 (1925) he used Schoenberg's twelve tone technique for the first time, and all his subsequent works used this technique. The String Trio op. 20 (1927) 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 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.

Reception and Influence

Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge.

Webern's music started to spark some interest in the 1920s. By the 1930s his works were influencing Milton Babbitt, and in mid-1940s they were having a decisive effect on John Cage. However, he mostly remained the most obscure and arcane composer of the Second Viennese School in his lifetime.[7]

After World War II, interest in Webern increased,[18] and his oeuvre acquired what Alex Ross calls "a saintly, visionary aura".[7] When Webern’s Piano Variations were performed at Darmstadt in 1948, young composers listened in a quasi-religious trance.[7] However, Webern's avid Nazi sympathies were not widely known, or went unmentioned.[7]

In 1955, the second issue of Eimert and Stockhausen's journal Die Reihe was devoted to Webern's oeuvre, and in 1960 his lectures were published by Universal Edition.[18]

Webern's influence on later composers, and on post-WWII avant garde music developments in Europe and America were immense, particularly in Paris under the influence of the Webern disciple, Rene Leibowitz and at the Darmstadt school; and concurrently, in New York City under the influences of another Webern disciple, the composer, Stefan Wolpe and the French composer-conductor, Jacques-Louis Monod. His mature works, using Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, have a textural clarity and emotional coolness which greatly influenced composers at Darmstadt, such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

It has been suggested that the serialists' fascination with Webern's works came not for their audible content, but rather from the transparency of their scores, which made their musical analysis easier.[19] It has been noted several times that the analytical clarity present in Webern's scores contrasts sometimes with the perceived result. One of the founders of European post-Webern serialism, Karel Goeyvaerts, wrote: "[the impression of the first time I heard Webern's music in a concert performance] was the same as I was to experience a few years later when I first laid eyes on a Mondriaan canvas...: those things, of which I had acquired an extremely intimate knowledge, came across as crude and unfinished when seen in reality"[20][19]

Recordings by Webern

  • Webern conducts "Berg - Violin Concerto" B000003XHN
  • Webern conducts his arrangement of Schubert's German Dances B000002707

List of works

See also



  • Bailey, Kathryn. 1991. The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms in a New Language. Music in the Twentieth Century 2. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-39088-5 (cloth) ISBN 0-521-54796-2 (pbk. ed., 2006).
  • Bailey, Kathryn (ed.). 1996. Webern Studies. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47526-0
  • Bailey, Kathryn. 1998. The Life of Webern. Musical Lives. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57336-X (cloth) ISBN 0-521-57566-4 (pbk).
  • Ewen, David. 1971. "Anton Webern (1883–1945)," in Composers of Tomorrow's Music, 66–77. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. ISBN 0-396-06286-5.
  • Forte, Allen. 1998. The Atonal Music of Anton Webern New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07352-6.
  • Galliari, Alain. 2007. "Anton von Webern". Paris: Fayard. ISBN 978-2-213-63457-9
  • 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.
  • Grant, M. J. 2001. Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe. Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521619929.
  • Hayes, Malcolm. 1995. Anton von Webern London: Phaidon Pres. ISBN 0-7148-3157-3.
  • Leeuw, Ton de. 2005. Music of the Twentieth Century: A Study of Its Elements and Structure, translated from the Dutch by Stephen Taylor. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 90-5356-765-8. Translation of Muziek van de twintigste eeuw: een onderzoek naar haar elementen en structuur. Utrecht: Oosthoek, 1964. Third impression, Utrecht: Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema, 1977. ISBN 90-313-0244-9.
  • Mead, Andrew. 1993. "Webern, Tradition, and 'Composing with Twelve Tones'". Music Theory Spectrum 15, no. 2:173–204. 10.2307/745813
  • Moldenhauer, Hans. 1961. The Death of Anton Webern: A Drama in Documents New York: Philosophical Library. OCLC 512111
  • Moldenhauer, Hans. 1966. Anton von Webern Perspectives. Edited by Demar Irvine, with an introductory interview with Igor Stravinsky. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Moldenhauer, Hans, and Rosaleen Moldenhauer. 1978. Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-47237-3 London: Gollancz. ISBN 0-575-02436-4.
  • Noller, Joachim. 1990. "Bedeutungsstrukturen: zu Anton Weberns 'alpinen' Programmen." Neue Zeitschrift für Musik151, no. 9 (September): 12–18.
  • Perle, George. 1991. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Sixth ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Ross, Alex. 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7
  • Rockwell, John. 1983. All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred Knopf. Reprinted New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. ISBN 0306807505, 9780306807503.
  • Stravinsky, Igor. 1959. "[Foreword]". Die Reihe 2 (2nd revised English edition): vii.
  • ISBN 978-0-520-24977-6.
  • Webern, Anton. 1963. The Path to the New Music. Edited by Willi Reich. [Translated by Leo Black.] Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Theodore Presser Co., in Association with Universal Edition. Reprinted London: Universal Edition, 1975. (Translation of Wege zur neuen Musik. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1960.)
  • Wildgans, Friedrich. 1966. Anton Webern. Translated by Edith Temple Roberts and Humphrey Searle. Introduction and notes by Humphrey Searle. New York: October House.

Further reading

  • Tsang, Lee. 2002. "The Atonal Music of Anton Webern (1998) by Allen Forte". Music Analysis 21, no. 3 (October): 417–27.


  • WebernUhrWerk - generative music generator by Karlheinz Essl, based on Anton Webern's last twelve-tone row, commemorating his sudden death on 15 September 1945. - Free download for Mac OS X and Windows XP.

External links

  • Anton Webern biography and works on the UE website (publisher)
  • 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)
  • opus list, short biography, music and photo download
  • Free scores by Anton Webern at the International Music Score Library Project
  • Free scores by Anton Webern in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
  • (French) IRCAM's website.
  • Excerpts from sound archives of Webern's works.
  • - listening

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