Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern (December 3, 1883–September 15, 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor, a member of the Second Viennese School. Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, the only surviving son of Carl von Webern, a civil servant, and Amelie (née Geer) who was a competent pianist and accomplished singer. 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.
Webern’s earliest works are in a late Romantic style and include the orchestral tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904) and the Langsamer Satz (1905) for string quartet. Webern studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, writing his Passacaglia for orchestra, 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.
During this time, Webern’s work used traditional compositional techniques, especially canons, and forms–the Symphony, the Concerto, the String Trio and String Quartet, and the Variations—in a modern harmonic and melodic language. 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, as all the other pieces were songs, and the first cast in a traditional musical form.
Webern’s music was denounced as “cultural Bolshevism” and “degenerate art” by the Nazi Party in Germany, even before the Austrian Anschluss of 1938. 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. Webern was not a prolific composer; just thirty-one of his compositions were published in his lifetime. 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.
Webern 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 shot and killed by an American Army soldier 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. Webern was survived by his wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl, and their three daughters. His only son, Peter, had died on February 14, 1945 of wounds suffered in a strafing attack on a military train two days earlier.
As a student and significant follower of Arnold Schoenberg, Webern became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique. His influence on later composers, and on post-WWII avant garde music developments in Europe and America was immense, particularly in Paris, France, under the influence of the Webern disciple, Rene Leibowitz, and in New York City, New York, under the influences of another Webern disciple, composer, Stefan Wolpe. His mature works, using Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, have a textural clarity and emotional coolness which greatly influenced composers at Darmstadt, Germany, such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
My collection includes the following works by Webern:
Concerto for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano, op. 24.
Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 10.
In Sommerwind, Idyll after a Poem of Bruno Wille.
Passacaglia, op. 1.
Six Orchestral Pieces, op. 6 (arr. for reduced orchestra, 1928).
Symphony, op. 21.
Variations, op. 30.