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Webern, Anton (1883 - 1945)

Anton Webern was an Austrian composer and conductor. With Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, he was a leading exponent of twelve-tone composition.

With their self-defined position as the musical heirs to Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, the composers of the Second Viennese School were firmly grounded in the music of the past. This is perhaps truest of Anton Webern, who began his musical career as a doctoral student in musicology, writing a dissertation on the music of Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517). At the same time, Webern's music represents the most extreme statement of the ideals of the twelve-tone method of composition and is the most fundamentally radical of the three composers' works.

Webern began his studies with Schoenberg at the same time he was completing his studies in musicology (1904–1908). He also conducted various regional orchestras, and from 1922 to 1934 he conducted the Vienna Workers' Symphony. Hitler's rise to power in the Thirties and the eventual forceful annexation of Austria brought great personal hardship to the composer. In 1933 his mentor, Schoenberg, emigrated to America. Webern's modernist music was banned, and his works burned. He had to work as a proofreader in Vienna to avoid forced labor for the Nazis. He died soon after the war's end, mistakenly shot by an American soldier while smoking a cigar on the porch of his home.

Like his fellow student, Alban Berg, Webern quickly transformed his style from the rich language of postromanticism to the more sparing world of atonality and twelve-tone writing. Webern took two principal elements of the style, brevity and the focus on individual sounds, to their extremes. All of his works are short (his entire output, some thirty pieces, totals only about three hours' worth of music). His Symphony, for example, is only ten minutes long, and some of the movements of his pieces last less than thirty seconds. Because of this, each individual note, articulation, dynamic, and timbre takes on new significance. Ultimately, Webern took these other elements and applied the principles of twelve-tone procedure to them, creating a technique known as serialism (later composers, such as Pierre Boulez, would extend these ideas even further).

Like Berg and Schoenberg, Webern found his individual voice in the twelve-tone technique. For Webern, this meant a concentrated contrapuntal style in which all the elements formed complex relationships. This interest in the virtuosic possibilities of counterpoint is fully in line with his scholarly interest in the intensely contrapuntal style of Isaac's sacred music. Of the three composers' works, Webern's is the most difficult to approach. However, underneath the spare, seemingly fragile texture is a language of rich and elegant gesture. His Passacaglia, Op. 1, is a good example, and more recognizably "Viennese." But even in his later works, there is a sparse and concentrated lyricism that makes this music rewarding for the listener who is willing to take the time to hear it.

  1. Variations
Jan 5, 2016
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