Anton Webern ( 3 December 1883 – 15 September 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. Along with his mentor Arnold Schoenberg and his colleague Alban Berg, Webern comprised the core among those within and more peripheral to the circle of the Second Viennese School, including Ernst Krenek and Theodor W. Adorno.
As an exponent of atonality and twelve-tone technique, Webern exerted influence on contemporaries Luigi Dallapiccola, Křenek, and even Schoenberg himself. As tutor Webern guided and variously influenced Arnold Elston, Fré Focke, Philipp Herschkowitz, René Leibowitz, Humphrey Searle, Leopold Spinner, and Stefan Wolpe.
Webern’s music was the most radical of its milieu in its rigorous and resolute apprehension of twelve-tone technique.
His innovations in schematic organization of pitch, rhythm, register, timbre, dynamics, articulation, and melodic contour; his eagerness to redefine imitative contrapuntal techniques such as canon and fugue; and his inclination toward athematicism, abstraction, concision, and lyricism all greatly informed and oriented post-war European, typically serial or avant-garde composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Henri Pousseur, and György Ligeti.
In the United States, meanwhile, Webern’s music was very fruitfully reintroduced to Igor Stravinsky by Robert Craft; and it attracted the interest of Milton Babbitt, although Babbitt ultimately found Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques more useful than those of Webern.
During and shortly after the post-war period, then, Webern was posthumously received with attention first diverted from his sociocultural upbringing and surroundings and, moreover, focused in a direction apparently antithetical to his participation in German Romanticism and Expressionism.
A richer understanding of Webern began to emerge in the later half of the 20th century, notably in the work of scholars Kathryn Bailey, Julian Johnson, and Anne Schreffler, as archivists and biographers (e.g., Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer) regained access to sketches, letters, lectures, audio recordings, and other articles of and associated with Webern’s estate.
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.
He never used his middle names and dropped the “von” in 1918 as directed by the Austrian government’s reforms after World War I.
He lived in Graz and Klagenfurt for much of his youth. But his distinct and lasting sense of Heimat was shaped his by reading Peter Rosegger; and moreover by frequent and extended retreats with his parents, sisters, and cousins to his family’s country estate, the Preglhof, which Webern’s father had inherited upon the death of Webern’s grandfather in 1889.
Webern memorialized the Preglhof in a diary poem “An der Preglhof” and in the tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904), both after Bruno Wille’s idyll. Once Webern’s father sold the estate in 1912, Webern referred to it nostalgically as a “lost paradise”.
He continued to revisit the Preglhof, the family cemetery in Schwabegg, and the surrounding landscape for the rest of his life; and he clearly associated the area, which he took as his home, very closely with the memory of his mother Amelie, who had died in 1906 and whose loss also profoundly affected Webern for decades.
Art historian Ernst Dietz, Webern’s cousin and at that time a student at Graz, may have introduced Webern to the work of Arnold Böcklin and Giovanni Segantini, which Webern came to admire. Segantini’s work was a likely inspiration for Webern’s 1905 single-movement string quartet.
In 1902 Webern began attending classes at Vienna University. 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, especially in terms of his use of 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. 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 (now Teplice, Czech Republic), Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), 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.
In 1926 Webern noted his voluntary resignation as chorusmaster of the Mödling Men’s Choral Society, a paid position, in controversy over his hiring of a Jewish singer, Greta Wilheim, to replace a sick one. Letters document their correspondence in many subsequent years, and she (among others) would in turn provide him with facilities in which to teach private lessons as a convenience to Webern, his family, and his students.
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.
Webern was survived by his wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl, who died in 1949, and their three daughters.