Anton Webern

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Anton Webern in Stettin, October 1912

Anton Webern (German: [ˈantɔn ˈveːbɐn] ( ); 3 December 1883 – 15 September 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. He was a member of the Second Viennese School. As a student and significant follower of Arnold Schoenberg, he became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique; in addition, his innovations regarding schematic organization of pitch, rhythm and dynamics were formative in the musical technique later known as 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[edit]

Your 'avowal of faith' has given me extaordinary joy, your avowal of the viewpoint that art has its own laws and that, if one wants to achieve something in it, only these laws and nothing else can have validity. However, as we recognize this we also sense that, the greater the confusion becomes, the graver is the responsibility placed on us to safeguard the heritage given us for the future.

Anton Webern, March 6, 1934, in a letter to Ernst Křenek, responding to the latter's essay "Freiheit und Verantwortung" published earlier 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."[3]

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.[4][5][6] As early as 1933, an Austrian gauleiter on Bayerischer Rundfunk mistakenly and very likely maliciously characterized both Berg and Webern as Jewish composers.[7] As a result of official disapproval, both found it harder to earn a living, and Webern 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.[8] 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.[9]

There are different descriptions of Webern's attitude towards Nazism; this is perhaps attributable either to its complexity, his internal ambivalence, his prosperity in the preceding years (1918–1934) of Red Vienna, the subsequently divided political factions of his homeland as represented in his friends and family (from Zionist Schoenberg to his Nazi son Peter),[10] or 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 wold-view made up of a number of prejudices with varied appeals to different audiences which could scarcely be dignified with the term 'ideology.'"[11]

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; but he was no antisemite.[12] 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.[13] On the other, some private correspondence attests to his Nazi sympathies, though he denied these to Schoenberg when asked (only once), who heard rumors, never confirmed to him by Rudolf Kolisch, Louis Krasner, or Eduard Steuermann, and then strenuously denied to him by Webern.[4] (As such, Schoenberg's Violin Concerto of 1935 continued to bear a dedication to Webern.)[14] Webern's patriotism led him to endorse the Nazi regime, for example, in a series of letters to Joseph Hueber, who was serving in the army and himself held such views:[12][15] Webern described Hitler on May 2, 1940 as "this unique man" who created "the new state" of Germany.[16] Thus journalist and music critic John Rockwell mentions of Webern "evidence indicating Fascist or at least authoritarian tendencies";[17] likewise, Alex Ross calls him "an unashamed Hitler enthusiast."[18][19]

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 during the Anschluss in 1938, at best extrapolating from the account of his cited source Krasner and at worst exaggerating or distorting it,[14] as well as describing it sardonically as "heart-breaking."[4] 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[20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27] and hostile in particular to the Second Viennese School,[28][29][30][31][32] of whom Webern is often considered the most extreme and difficult (i.e., the least accessible). In contrast to Taruskin's methods and pronouncements, musicologist Pamela M. Potter[33] 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."[34]

Krasner himself 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.[14] As Krasner vividly recalled, he and Webern were visiting at the latter's home in Maria Enzersdorf or Mödling (sources differ, although the two are extremely close to one another) 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 immediately, whereupon he did (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),[35] Krasner was ambivalent and uncertain, withholding judgment. Only later did Krasner 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.[14]

Moreover, 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.[36] Görgi is said to have noted that most Austrians had become less sympathetic to the Nazis as they witnessed atrocities, even welcoming the approaching Russian invasion. For safety, Görgi and his family were left behind when Webern fled on foot with his family to Mittersill for safety of their own; Amalie, one of Webern's daughters, wrote of '17 persons pressed together in the smallest possible space' upon their arrival.[37] Ironically, the Russians pronounced Görgi a "Nazi spy" when he was discovered due to the Nazi munitions and propagranda 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.[36]

Webern is also known to have aided Josef Polnauer, a Jewish friend who, as an albino, managed to largely escape the Nazis' attention[14][38] and later edit a publication of Webern's correspondence from this time with Hildegard Jone, Webern's then lyricist and collaborator, and her husband Josef Humplik.[39][40]

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.[37] 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.[41] Then, at the age of sixty, 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.[37]


On 15 September 1945, returned 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.[42]

Webern was survived by his wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl, and their three daughters.

Webern's music[edit]

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

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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.[43]

The symmetry of Webern's tone row from Variations, Op. 30 About this sound Play , is apparent from the equivalent, P1=IR1 and R12=I12, and thus reduced number of row forms, two, P and R, plus transpositions. Consisting of three related tetrachords: a and c consisting of two minor seconds and one minor third and b consisting of two minor thirds and one minor second. Notes 4–7 and 6–9 also consist of two minor seconds and one minor third. "The entire series thus consists of two intervals and has the greatest possible unity of series form, interval, motif, and chords."[44]

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[edit]

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.

Igor Stravinsky[45]

Paradoxically, this product of hermetic constructivism seems infused with intense emotion, that emotion evenly diffused across the whole surface of the music. Gone is the mono-directional thrust of Classical and Romantic music; in its place a world of rotations and reflections, opening myriad paths for the listener to trace through textures of luminous clarity yet beguiling ambiguity

George Benjamin, describing Webern's Symphonie, op. 21[46]

Webern's music started to spark some interest in the 1920s and in the 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.[18]

After World War II, interest in Webern increased,[47] and his œuvre acquired what Alex Ross calls "a saintly, visionary aura."[18] When Webern’s Piano Variations were performed at Darmstadt in 1948, young composers listened in a quasi-religious trance.[18] However, Webern's avid Nazi sympathies were not widely known, or went unmentioned.[18]

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.[47]

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.[48][not in citation given] 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."[49][48]

Recordings by Webern[edit]

List of works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hayes 1995 , 71.
  2. ^ Hayes 1995, 18.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Taruskin 2009, 211–12.
  5. ^ Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 473–75, 478, 491, 498–99.
  6. ^ Bailey 1998, 165.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Music of the Viennese School.
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ Webern 1963, 7, 19–20.
  14. ^ a b c d e
  15. ^
  16. ^ Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 527.
  17. ^ Rockwell 1983,[page needed]
  18. ^ a b c d e Ross 2007, p. 267.
  19. ^ Ross (UK edition 2008): p. 323
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ a b
  37. ^ a b c
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^ Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1979, 600–601.
  42. ^ Moldenhauer 1961, 85, 102, 114–16; Moldenhauer and Moldenhauer 1978, 632.
  43. ^ Complete Webern Edition, Deutsche Grammophon. 6CD set 457 637-2.
  44. ^ Leeuw 2005, 161.
  45. ^ Stravinsky 1959.
  46. ^
  47. ^ a b Grant 2001 , 103.
  48. ^ a b Grant 2001 , 104.
  49. ^ Goeyvaerts 1994 , 39.


  • 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. doi: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.
  • Taruskin, Richard. 2009. "The Dark Side of the Moon". In his The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, 202–16. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 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[edit]

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

External links[edit]


  • 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.)