Anton Webern | Biography


Anton Webern’s output is notoriously small. Just thirty-one original works have been allocated opus numbers, alongside a few orchestrations of works by other composers, including Bach and Schubert. In combination with his preference for concision, this means that his complete works can be experienced in a matter of hours. Yet despite their brevity and density, his compositions had considerable impact: Stockhausen successfully applied Webern’s thinking to the new sonic resources of the twentieth century, and Stravinsky described his pieces as ‘dazzling diamonds’. Webern’s family came from aristocratic Tyrolean stock. His father was a successful civil servant, who gave his son early inspiration by way of a ticket to the Bayreuth Festival to celebrate his acceptance at the University of Vienna. Webern studied there under the musicologist Guido Adler and was awarded a doctorate in 1906. By this time he had already been composing for six years. During his studies, Webern wrote a few pieces in a Romantic style, including Im Sommerwind, a tone poem for orchestra, and the Langsamer Satz string quartet. Unpublished and unperformed during the composer’s lifetime, these works were largely bypassed while 12-note writing was dominant. From 1904 until 1908 Webern studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, the founder of the 12-note system who, together with Alban Berg, would remain an important influence on the younger composer. Webern’s earliest catalogued works, the Passacaglia for orchestra and Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen for choir and ensemble (both 1908), have their own kinds of intensity. Both are complex but essentially tonal pieces and involve recognisable keys. Yet from this point Webern’s music relied less on tonal convention and evolved into the implosive style with which he would be identified. His apprenticeship was now over. Needing to support his family, Webern worked in music publishing and as a jobbing conductor in various European cities. Initially he conducted operetta in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, a duty he detested. While serving two years' compulsory military service during this period, he composed a range of works. These included Six Pieces for large orchestra and Five Movements for string quartet. An orchestral version of the latter came many years later. His disregard for received wisdom was underlined in his approach to orchestration. Five Pieces (1911–13) employs a tiny ‘orchestra’ (four strings, seven winds), yet Webern finds room for percussion, fretted instruments, reed organ and harp. The following year, however, he embarked on a 12-year exploration of music for solo voice, accompanied by piano or mixed chamber groups. Webern did not put Schoenberg’s ideas fully into practice until the Drei Volkstexte of 1925, but his was probably the least compromised music of Schoenberg’s followers. The principle notion of 12-note music is that each pitch of the chromatic scale must be used before any can be re-used. Webern went further: delighting in symmetries and canons, he applied similar principles of organisation to his rhythms and dynamics as well. The Goethe settings of the Three Songs of 1926 saw him return to choral music for the first time in 18 years. Through this medium he was eventually able to present his music to a wider audience. In 1938 Das Augenlicht (1935) for choir and orchestra was performed in London under the auspices of the International Society for Contemporary Music. With its evocative, allusive text by Webern’s collaborator and friend, the poet Hildegard Jone, it remains one of the composer’s most striking works. Jone also provided the text for the two cantatas which, along with the Variations for Orchestra, op. 30, were to be Webern’s final compositions. All three pieces are richly expressive and again draw upon traditional classical structures. But they are infused with the particular energy of a composer who had by then mastered and possibly surpassed the techniques of his teacher. Webern was a contradictory, difficult individual. One theory has it that he was beset by undiagnosed psychological problems. These would have accounted for his mood swings and difficult ‘episodes’. A supporter of the principles underlying Nazism, he nonetheless rejected the movement’s restrictive approach to artistic progress. He condemned the expulsion of Schoenberg from Germany. Indeed, his own music was regarded by the regime as entartete (degenerate). Having never secured a conventional academic position, Webern relied on private teaching to supplement his income. During his lifetime his music was barely known. Most of its performances came at the hands of amateurs, albeit to a high standard. Yet even these were made impossible under the Nazis, who closed the Vienna workers' choir and orchestra. His death was tragic and haphazard: while he was enjoying a post-curfew cigarette four months after the end of World War Two, the glow from his cigar was spotted by a trigger-happy soldier, and he was shot.