Though the entire collection of his works does not exceed more than three hours of performance time, Anton Webern stands tall among the 20th century’s most significant composers. Tragic would be too less a word while describing his accidental death just a few months after the war. He was accidently shot by an American army soldier. If he had been alive in the post war era, he would have been able to taste success in the music field, which dodged him during his lifetime. He was about to join a group of young composers. Webern lived in a turbulent era and plenty of obstacles stood in his path of growth and development, whose music was simply too austere and uncompromising. The oppression of the Nazi party and the stress of the war made his later works sound atonal. However, he was not a man who believed in quantity and there are only thirty-one compositions, which can be attributed to Anton Webern. He did not produce works quickly, instead produced works which are of the highest range, ones which had profound influence on the modern music world.
Anton Webern’s Childhood And Early Life
Webern was born on 3December 1883, in Vienna, in Austria, as the only surviving son of a civil servant, Carl Von Webern and Amelie, who was a pianist and an established singer. Young Webern might have inherited the talent from his mother. Webern never used his middle names and dropped the Von in 1918 as directed by the reforms of the Austrian government after the World War II. Webern spent his youth in Graz and Klagenfurt and attended the Vienna University in 1902. There he studied musicology with Guido Adler and wrote his theses on Heinrich Isaac’s ‘Choralis Constantinus’. He received his doctoral thesis in 1906. This early interest in music greatly influenced his compositional techniques in later years.
In 1904, he started private studies in composition with Arnold Schoenberg and became his keen supporter. His fellow student was Alban Berg, who would have a strong influence in his music. A. Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Webern together laid the foundation for what later became popular as the SecondViennese School of Composition. The unifying element in this was the adoption of A. Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone technique’ in composition. Their rivals would refer them as—Arnold Schoenberg as God the Father, Berg as the Son and Webern as the Holy Ghost.
Early Musical Career
From the time span of 1908 to 1914, Webern was very active as a theatre conductor in Germany and Vienna. However, these positions were not apt for him as he was unhappy with the low standards of opera houses in provincial towns and he hated theatrical life. His marriage with his cousin Wilhelmine Mortl in 1911 brought about stability to his frustrating life. He served in the Austrian army from 1915 to 1916, but was discharged off his duties due to poor eye sight. From 1917 to 1918, he worked as a conductor at Deutsches Theater in Prague. In 1918, he settled in Modling near Vienna, where he taught composition on a private basis. From 1918 to 1922, he supervised the programs of Society for Private Musical Performances, which was organized in Vienna to promote modern music without being exposed to reactionary opposition.
Webern was the conductor of the Schubertbund (1921-1922) and Mödling Male Chorus (1921-1926). He led the Vienna Workers' Symphony concerts (1922-1934) and the Vienna Workers' Chorus (1923-1934), both sponsored by the Social Democratic Party. From 1927 to 1938 he worked as a conductor on the Austrian Radio and also conducted guest engagements in Switzerland, Spain and Germany. From 1929 onwards, he made frequent visits to England and worked there as a Guest conductor with BBC Symphony Orchestra. He devoted most of the time to private teaching, lecturing and composition. He also worked as an editor and proofreader for his publishers, Universal Edition. In 1926, he took up a teaching post at the Jewish Cultural Institute for the Blind.
Later Life And Compositions
After Hitler took over the reign in 1933, Webern’s music was banned as a manifestation of cultural Bolshevism and degeneration of art. His position in Austria became all the more difficult as after Anschluss, the occupation and annexation of Austria, in 1938, his works could not be published. Though Webern has sharply criticized the Nazi cultural policies though private lectures given in 1933, their intended publication did not occur at that time which proved fortunate to some extent. If it had been published, there would have been even more serious consequences. Despite all this, Webern’s works with the Vienna Workers Chorus ended and four years later, his contract with Austrian Radio was also terminated. He tried to survive in the country by taking private tuitions to certain pupils and making piano arrangements of musical scores.
He composed three important choral works during the period of 1938 to 1944. In 1940, he produced his orchestral composition called ‘Variations, Op 30’. It was because of the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart that Webern was able to attend the festive premiere of ‘Variations for Orchestra’, in Winterthur, in Switzerland, in 1943. Reinhart used all his monetary and diplomatic means to facilitate the travelling of Webern to Switzerland. In return for the support rendered, he dedicated the songs to Reinhart.
Though not a prolific composer, the influence of his works on the later composers was immense. There were hardly thirty one of his compositions which were published during his lifetime. His works, which used Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, had a textual clarity associated with it and an emotional coolness, which greatly influenced composers.
As in the case of any other composer, even Webern’s music transformed over time. Some of his works were in a late romantic style though they are neither published nor performed during his lifetime. The impact of these works on the common man was disconcerting. However, the amazing skill and novelty of the technique made the music reach beyond the boundaries of time. After his death, the performances of his works multiplied and began to influence larger range of musicians. Nowadays, Jazz composers have started to follow the ideas of Webern’s tone colour and the analytical treatises have been published in various languages. The International Webern Festival celebrated the centennial of his birth on 1983.
Personal life And Death
Webern married Wilhelmine Mortl in 1911 and had three daughters and a son. However, in February 1945, he and his wife had to flee from Vienna to Mittersil near Salzberg, as their son was killed in an air bombardment of a troop train on the eastern front. They stayed with their daughter where they thought it would be safe. However, his life ended in a tragic note when on the evening of September 15, 1945, he was shot and killed by an American soldier by mistake, when he stepped out of his son-in-law’s house. Austria was under the occupation of Allies and his son-in-law was arrested for black-market activities. Despite the curfew that was imposed, he stepped out of his house to enjoy a cigar, when he was shot. The soldier who was responsible for the action, Raymond Norwood Bell was overcome by regret and died of alcoholism in 1955.
Anton Webern was one of the key figures who pioneered the so-called second Viennese school. He was also one of the best exponents of the “twelve-tone technique” and his innovations regarding pitch, rhythm and dynamics led to the formation of a music technique which was later known as total serialism.