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Anton Webern

(1883—1945) Austrian composer


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(b Vienna, 1883; d Mittersill, 1945).

Austrian composer and conductor. Early tuition from his mother, a pianist. (Most of his works were written in her memory.) Studied at Klagenfurt with Edwin Komauer, composing first works in 1899. Entered Vienna Univ. 1902, studying musicology with Guido Adler. Studied comp. with Pfitzner but became pupil of Schoenberg 1904–8. Ed. works of 15th‐cent. Dutch composer Heinrich Isaak. Became close friend of Berg. Was operetta cond. at Bad Ischl (1908), Teplitz (1910), Danzig (1910–11), Stettin (1911–12), and Prague 1917. In Vienna 1918–22 was active in Schoenberg's Soc. for Private Perfs., and cond. Vienna workers' sym. concerts 1922–34. Cond. and mus. adviser, Austrian Radio 1927–38. Visited London 5 times to conduct for BBC (1929, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1936). Music proscribed by Nazis as ‘cultural Bolshevism’ although Webern was sympathetic to their cause (as is reflected in texts of his cantatas). Worked as publisher's proof‐reader during war. Accidentally shot by Amer. sentry, 1945. (See The Death of Anton Webern: a drama in documents by Hans Moldenhauer, NY 1961.)

Largely ignored except by the BBC in his lifetime, Webern's mus. became a rallying‐point for the post–1945 generation of European composers, such as Stockhausen, Boulez, and Maderna (and for some of the older generation, e.g. Stravinsky and Eimert). They were attracted by the way in which his mus., through its sheer concentration, opened up a new and more complete serialism based on the est. of the relationship between a particular note and a particular quality of sound. Even in the earliest works to which he gave an opus no. there is preoccupation with the inter‐relationship of symmetrical structures. From 1908 until the late 1920s Webern wrote in a free atonal style. A characteristic of many of the works of this period is their epigrammatic brevity. The 4th of his 6 Pieces for orch. has only 6 bars. Timbre plays an important role, also str. effects such as col legno and sul ponticello. In his vocal mus., the extremes of range are contrasted, with fragmented instr. accs. In this period he wrote his last atonal work, the 5 Canons, Op.16, and adopted 12‐note technique from his Op.18, 3 Songs. His last group of works, 1928–45, is marked on the one hand by a simplification of the contrapuntal texture and on the other by an increasingly complex use of the note‐row. The row is often broken down to 3 or 6 notes, and the resulting structures are related by imitation, inversion, retrograde‐inversion, palindromic devices, etc. The sym. of 1928 has a theme and variations as its 2nd of 2 movts., the theme and each variation being symmetrical. He comp. an important set of pf. variations, and 3 cantatas in which the beauty of the vocal writing is a reminder of how much Webern derived from the medieval masters whose work he had studied. Although the post‐war avant‐garde admired his mus. for its technical innovations, such as serialization of durations and dynamic levels, it should not be forgotten that Webern's place is in the romantic tradition, as his choice of texts implies, and that his homage to classical forms, such as the passacaglia and the canon, is an unwavering feature of his work. He remained, too, a lifelong admirer of Wagner's operas and he was apparently a superb cond. of Schubert, Mahler, and Brahms. Prin. works:

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Subjects: Music.


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