Anton (Friedrich Wilhelm) von Webern


Like Stravinsky, few could have guessed what an influence the music of the past had exerted on Anton Webern.  Learning cello and piano from an early age, he enrolled at the University of Vienna to study music.  While there, he sang under prominent conducters of the day such as Nikisch and Mahler.  It was there that he was to meet Arnold Schönberg , whose influence as a compositional tutor was to alter his musical perspective irrevocably.

When Webern and his co-pupil Alban Berg began their studies with Schönberg, they were instructed in a late-romantic style of composition taking its brief from the works of masters such as Brahms and Reger.  The emphasis from the beginning was on pushing the boundaries of tonality, always with a rigorous justification for one's actions through structure and well-formed part-writing.

At the same time, Webern was studying the counterpoint of the Flemish Renaissance, in particular the music of Heinrich Isaac.  He maintained a love for this music throughout his career and its simple elegance shone through as an influence in his own work.  He gained a DPhil in 1906 and published new editions of Isaac's work.

Many think of Webern's work as cold, mathematical and distant; this is at odds with the expressionist ethos of Schönberg, who by now was almost an idol in his eyes.  It was also at odds with the texts he was setting in the majority of his work, which often had mysterious or mystical themes.  The image has probably come about due to the difficulties his works present in performance - in performing them accurately there has often been neglect in interpretation, a situation remedied more nowadays by interpreters such as Pierre Boulez.

Following the early Passacaglia (at 10 minutes his longest single stretch of music) Webern's pieces became ever shorter and more exquisitely detailed.  He spurned thematic development in favour of tone colour, atonality and later, following Schönberg's lead, the precise relationships of serialism.  For many, Webern was the quintessential serialist, jettisoning everything possible from his music except for that which could be demonstrated as consistent - canons, set sequences of notes, contrapuntal techniques such as cancrizans.  When Boulez said "Schoenberg is dead", he hailed Webern as the model all composers should look to.

Webern strove against the odds to establish himself as a conductor, and although this meant bowing to audience pressure and conducting much light repertoire, he used his somewhat shaky platform to promote new music wherever possible.  The advent of World War II meant an end to creative employment and he worked at Universal Edition.  In the final days of the war he was shot mistakenly by an American soldier.

Related composers: Stravinsky, Schönberg, Berg, Brahms, Reger

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