Childhood & Early Life
Anton Webern was born on 3 December 1883, in Vienna, Austria. Named Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern at birth, he never used his middle names and later gave up ‘von’ to comply with the 1919 reforms of the Austrian government.
His father, Carl von Webern, was a mining engineer employed with the Habsburg government. He later reached the rank of chief of mining, the highest rank in his profession. His mother, Amelie (née Geer) Webern, was a competent pianist and accomplished singer.
Anton was born fourth of his parents’ five children, having two surviving sisters, named Rosa and Maria. His other two siblings, a brother and a sister, died in infancy.
Growing up in a musical environment, Anton began his education at Vienna, where the family lived until 1889. It was also at Vienna that he began his music lesson under his mother. at the age of five.
In 1890, his father was transferred to Graz and another four years later to Klagenfurt. At Klagenfurt, Anton attended Klagenfurt Humanistisches Gymnasium, studying traditional courses in humanities. By then, his musical talent must have started blooming for the school records show that he got high grades in music.
Sometime during his stay in Klagenfurt, he began studying the works of Peter Rosegger, which greatly influenced him. More important to him was the long retreats at their family estate, the Preglhof, a 500 acre property surrounded by soft and gentle mountains near Austria’s border with Slovenia.
Until the age of 18, he spent most of his holidays at the Preglhof, enjoying nature in the company of his sisters and cousins. It soon became the centre of his ‘heimat’, giving him a sense of belonging, having great influence on his creativity.
In 1897, while still residing at Klagenfurt, Anton began his formal education in music; learning cello, piano, counterpoint and rudimentary musical theory with Dr. Edwin Komauer, shortly inheriting his master’s enthusiasm for Wagner, Mahler and Wolf. This was also the time he began playing cello at the local orchestra.
In 1899, he started composing music, writing two pieces for cello and piano. He also wrote several songs such as the ‘Vorfruhling’ during this period, noting them down in notebooks and then making copies of the same work, presumably one for the pianist and the other for the singer.
In a notebook entry dated 1901, we find him listing four songs as opus 1. It is possible that he planned to publish these works; but that did not happen just then. These notebooks, nine in number, also reveal that by 1900, he had started attending concerts on regular basis.
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At University of Vienna
In 1902, Anton Webern graduated from Klagenfurt Humanistisches Gymnasium. He celebrated the event by attending Bayreuth Festival, hearing Richard Wagner's operas. They left a deep impression on his young mind.
In the autumn of 1902, he entered the Musicological Institute at the University of Vienna with musicology and composition, studying musicology with Guido Adler, harmony with Herman Graedener and counterpoint with Karl Navratil. All along, he continued to write, though at a much slower rate.
In 1903, he picked up the pace, writing twelve songs until 1904. During this period, he realized that he needed a true composition teacher and thought of studying with Hans Pfitzner in Berlin. But when it failed to materialize he decided on Arnold Schoenberg, who had just moved to Vienna.
From the autumn of 1904, Webern began to study privately with Arnold Schoenberg. Just before he joined the master, he wrote his first large orchestra, ‘Im Sommerwind’. Until then, he had mostly written short songs for voice and piano. The few orchestras he had created until then were very small.
At Schoenberg’s class, Webern met and subsequently became friend with Alban Berg. Under the guidance of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg began to experiment with music, eventually leading to the development of atonality and the ‘Second Viennese School’.
Along with studying with Schoenberg, Webern started working on his doctoral degree, writing his thesis on Heinrich Isaac’s ‘Choralis Constantinus', earning his PhD in 1906. However, he continued his study with Schoenberg until 1908.
By 1908, he had number of well-known works to his credit. Under Schoenberg’s guidance he wrote five songs based on the poems of Richard Dehmel, fourteen songs to text by Stefan George, several string quarters, the orchestral ‘Passacaglia Op 1’ (1908), and the choral canon ‘Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen’ (1908).
In 1908, Anton Webern began his career as conductor at a theatre in Bad Ischi, Austria. He was not very successful in his first venture because he hated routines, a prerequisite for theatre work, preferring to focus on free creative work.
From Ischi, he first moved to Teplitz (Teplice) and then to Danzig (Gdańsk) and finally to Stettin (Szczecin), conducting at theatres, until he joined the Austrian Army in 1915. Although he failed to make his mark as a conductor during this period, he now began to bloom as a composer.
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Some of his most notable compositions of this period were ‘Five Movements for String Quartet’ (1909), ‘Six Pieces for Orchestra’ (1909), ‘Four Pieces for Violin and Piano’(1910), ‘Two Songs, Opus 8’ (1910), ‘Six Bagatelles for String Quartet’ (1911–13), ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’ (1911–13), and ‘Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano’ (1914).
These works, written between 1909 and early 1914, highlights a growing tendency to squeeze in highest intensity into very short space. But ‘The Cello Sonata’, written in the later part of 1914, shows that he was slowly returning to a more expanded form.
In 1915, Webern joined the Austrian Army; but was discharged by the end of 1916 because of his poor eyesight. In 1917, he moved to Prague, where he found employment as a conductor at the Deutsches Theater, remaining there until he returned to Vienna in 1918.
The period had been equally productive for Webern, composing ‘Four Songs, Opus 12’ (1915–17) and ‘Opus 13’ (1914–18). In 1917, he also started working on his ‘Six Songs’, ‘Five Scared Songs’; but they would take few more years to complete.
On returning to Vienna, he settled down in Mödling, a small town located southwest to the city. To earn his living, he now began to take up private students. Also from 1908 to 1922, he supervised the programs of Schoenberg’s organization, Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances).
From 1921, he started taking up various assignments, being employed as a conductor at the Schubertbund and the Mödling Male Chorus. He also led the Vienna Workers' Symphony concerts from 1922 to 1934 and the Vienna Workers' Chorus from 1923 to 1934
In 1924, Schoenberg formulated his 12-tone method, opening up endless opportunities in composition. In the same year or possibly in 1925, Webern composed ‘Kinderstück’ for piano, using this technique, developing it into its fullest potential in his future works.
In 1926, Anton Webern had to resign from Mödling Male Chorus for hiring a Jewish singer, Greta Wilheim. In the following year, he became a conductor on the Austrian Radio, holding the position till 1938. This was also the period when he started taking international tours, visiting Germany, Switzerland and Spain.
Continuing to create music, he wrote ‘String Trio’ in 1927, ‘Symphony’ in 1928 and ‘Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano’ in 1930. Meanwhile from 1929, he made several trips to England, becoming a guest conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
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In spite of his travels abroad, Anton Webern’s main vocation remained composition, private teaching, and lecturing. In early 1930s, he wrote number of celebrated works, such as ‘Three Songs, Opus 23’ (1933–34), ‘Concerto for 9 Instruments’ (1934), ‘Three Songs, Opus 25’ (1934), ‘Das Augenlicht’ (1935), ‘Piano Variations’ (1935–36) etc.
In 1933, Anton Webern was mistakenly branded as a Jewish composer on Bayerischer Rundfunk, a private broadcaster based in Munich. Shortly thereafter the Nazi government also banned the performance of the music by ‘Second Vienna School’. Webern was no more employable as a conductor, and had to depend upon private teaching for sustenance.
His economic condition became worse with the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He was now forced to make piano arrangements for lesser composers, having no fixed income until 1940. After 1941, he became an editor and proofreader for Universal Edition. Yet, he continued creating music.
In 1935, he wrote ‘Ricercata’ from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Musical Offering of 1747. ‘String Quartet’ (1937–38), ‘Cantata No. 1’ (1938–39)’, ‘Variations Op 30’ (1940) ‘Cantata No. 2’ (1941–43) etc were some of his celebrated works of this period.
In spite of hardships and musical isolation, Webern still retained few friends. One of them was Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart, who arranged for him to attend the premiere of his ‘Variations for Orchestra, op. 30’ in Winterthur, Switzerland in 1943. This was the last big musical event in his career.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1911, Anton Webern married his first cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl, his mother’s sister’s daughter. However, the marriage could not be solemnized before 1915 because the union between first cousins was prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church. The couple had four children; three daughters and a son named Peter.
In February 1945, Peter was killed while the train he was traveling in was bombed in a strafing attack. Later in the same year, as the Russian Army was about to capture Vienna, Webern and his wife fled to Mittersill near Salzburg. His three daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren were already living there.
On the evening of 15 September 1945, forty-five minutes before the curfew was to go into effect, Webern stepped out of his house in Mittersill to smoke a cigar, presented by his son-in-law. As he came out, he was mistakenly shot and killed by a soldier of the allied force.
After his death, his works began to gain in popularity. From the beginning of 1950s, his works began to be hailed as the cornerstone of modern music both by younger generation of musicians like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and acknowledged masters like Igor Stravinsky.