Despite his small output as a composer, Anton Webern was
nevertheless an influential figure in the development of music after World War
II. A prominent member of the Second Viennese School, he was born in Vienna on
December 3, 1883, the only surviving son of a civil servant. His mother,
however, was a competent pianist and accomplished singer. Much of his childhood
was spent in Graz and Klagenfurt, but he returned to Vienna to attend the
University beginning in 1902. His studies focused on musicology, writing his
thesis on the 16th century collection of motets, Choralis Constantinus, by Heinrich
Issac. This interest in early music had a significant impact on his own
Webern's earliest efforts in composition were example of the
late Romantic style. However, these works were never performed or published in
his lifetime, though they occasionally receive attention today. He studied
composition with Arnold Schoenberg along with Alban Berg. His graduation piece,
Passacaglia, Op. 1 written in 1908,
combined Webern's interest in older music forms with the development of an
advanced harmonic language and orchestration techniques somewhat indicative of
his later, more mature works.
Following his graduation, Webern took up a number of
conducting posts in Ischl, Teplitz, Danzig, Stettin and Prague. He eventually,
once again, returned to Vienna and helped his former teacher run his Society
for Private Musical Performances from 1918 to 1922. Starting in 1922, he
conducted the Vienna Workers Symphony Orchestra. His first works during this
period were in the freely atonal style of Schoenberg, but with Drei Volkstexte, op. 17, composed in
1925, he adopted the stricter twelve-tone system of his teacher. Furthermore,
he expanded Schoenberg's serial techniques to include rhythm and dynamics and
his innovations led to the technique known as total serialism.
Webern's career was halted by the rise of the Nazi Party. He
spoke out harshly against the growing Nazi Party in private lectures in 1933. The
Nazi Party denounced his music as "cultural Bolshevism" and "degenerate art."
This official disapproval placed serious consequences on Webern's career.
Though he never found it impossible to make a living, it was considerably more
difficult for him and was forced to work as an editor and proofreader for his
publishers. With the help of Werner Reinhart, a Swiss philanthropist, Webern
was able to leave Germany in 1943 and attend the premiere of his Variations for Orchestra, op. 30 in
In the aftermath of World War II, Webern left Vienna and
took up residence in Mittersill in Salzbug. However, he was killed on September
15, 1945 during the Allied occupation of Austria. Stepping out of his house to
smoke a cigar, despite the curfew in effect, he was shot
by an American Army soldier.
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