Anton Webern was an Austrian composer and conductor, and a core member of the Second Viennese School.
Webern was born in Vienna on 3 December 1883 and died in Mittersill, near Salzburg, on 15 September 1945. He was married to his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl and they had four children.
Webern studied the piano and cello as a child and also began composing from a young age. Between 1902 and 1906 he studied musicology at the University of Vienna with Guido Adler as well as harmony and counterpoint with Hermann Graedener and Karl Navrátil respectively. In 1904, during his University studies, he also began composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg and although his formal training with him only lasted until 1908 the two developed a life-long friendship. Webern greatly admired Schoenberg and was very devoted to him. He also benefitted from contact with the circle of pupils that were studying with Schoenberg, particularly Alban Berg. Webern and Berg often assisted Schoenberg in the preparation of performance parts and piano arrangements of his works and also strongly promoted the work of their teacher and mentor.
Webern held several conducting posts in his lifetime, albeit only for brief periods as he wanted to commit himself to composition. In the 1920s he started composing using the twelve-tone technique – a composition technique that Schoenberg had introduced to his close circle of pupils – which marked an important phase in his career. Webern developed and refined this technique, although his works had already shown features of atonality since 1908 through the lack of key signatures.
The rise of the Nazi party and the subsequent Anschluss (Union) that Germany under Hitler secured with Austria in 1938 greatly affected Webern’s professional career, as his work was classed as ‘degenerate art’ and was banned from publication and public performances. These years were also marked by the loss of his two closest friends and collaborators: Schoenberg emigrated to America in 1933, and Berg died unexpectedly in 1935.
When did Webern die?
Webern was accidentally shot dead in Mittersill by an American soldier on the evening of 15 September 1945. Webern and his wife had fled Vienna a few months previously and were staying with one of their daughters and her family in Mittersill. The accident happened while Webern stepped outside onto the veranda of the house to smoke a cigar, and was the result of an operation by two American soldiers the same evening to arrest Webern’s son-in-law for black-market activities.
What did Webern compose?
Apart from a few orchestral works Webern mainly composed vocal and instrumental chamber music. He did not write any operas and wrote only one symphony. He was predominantly a vocal composer, writing numerous songs for solo voice and piano or other instrumental accompaniment. His most well-known instrumental compositions include:
- Passacaglia, op.1 (1908)
- Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, op. 6 (1909)
- Five pieces for orchestra, op.10 (1913)
- Three little pieces for cello and piano, op.11 (1914)
- Symphony, op.21 (1928)
- Concerto for nine instruments, op.24 (1934)
- Variations for piano, op.27 (1936)
- String Quartet, op.28 (1938)
- Variations for orchestra, op.30 (1940)
Webern exemplified a very particular care for detail, even strictness, in his musical compositions in all compositional elements (form, texture, dynamics, special effects, etc). His works are also characterised by their conciseness and brevity: some are only a few bars long. He also favoured extremes of dynamics in his works, often using the indication ppp (denoting pianissimo possibile, or as quiet as possible) and used extensive special effects in his works. He is also known for his inventive use of instrumentation by distributing successive tones in a single melody to different instruments, thereby creating great variety of colour and texture. His interest in tone colour is also exemplified in his writing for unusual instrumental combinations.
Although Webern’s music did not receive much recognition during his lifetime, interest in his music increased after his death and influenced many later composers, such as Luigi Dallapiccola, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez.