The 20th-century modernist pioneer


Sixty years after his death, Webern remains a composer whose music is more known about than known. During his lifetime he struggled for recognition, with limited success in his notoriously conservative home city of Vienna or beyond.

Then the young lions of the post-war avant garde, led by Boulez and Stockhausen, began to set a new agenda for modern music. And so Webern was posthumously and polemically canonised as the founding father of modernism. He seemed to be the ideal composer to symbolise the modernist ideal of scrapping the musical past and starting again from scratch. It’s an image that still sticks.

As artistic crusades go, this one contained a degree of truth. More insistently than Schoenberg, his former teacher, Webern did develop a radical approach to the issue of what music itself actually is, and how its grammar and syntax works. But as he never failed to proclaim, his music was also, in its own way, as directly rooted in tradition as was Schoenberg’s.

He would have been around to say so, too, but for his accidental death in September 1945 – in the Austrian mountain village of Mittersill, at the hands of an American soldier in the occupying allied forces.

By the end of the 1950s, the modernist ascendancy had begun to give way to today’s more accommodating view of the many different idioms that ‘new’ music can encompass. And Webern’s name is now something of a rarity on concert programmes. The pendulum would seem to have swung the other way.

Or has it? A quick check of just one internet website reveals a total of 179 currently available CDs featuring Webern’s music. So people are listening to it.

Early years

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna in 1883, the son of a high-flying civil servant who had formerly been a mining engineer. The family soon moved to the town of Klagenfurt in Carinthia, whose surrounding hills, lakes and forests were always to remain Webern’s true Heimat (homeland).

His musical talent came mostly from his mother; she was an accomplished pianist and singer to whom he was deeply devoted, and he and his two sisters grew up playing chamber music together. Even in his teens he was showing serious natural talent as a Lieder composer. His composing, pianistic and cello-playing skills won him a place at Vienna University to study music and fine art.

His professor was the progressively minded musicologist Guido Adler, who soon had the 18-year-old Webern tackling transcription of early music from its original notation. The importance of Webern’s early, pre-Schoenberg encounters with the music of Josquin Desprez, Heinrich Isaac and their Renaissance contemporaries cannot be over-estimated: his admiration for this music was to be a major influence on his later works in particular.

Compositional style and influences

In 1904 he also produced a first substantial composing statement of his own: Im Sommerwind (In the Summer Wind), an ‘idyll for large orchestra’ written in a conventional, Richard Strauss-influenced style of much loveliness.

Then Adler encouraged Webern to follow up a newspaper advertisement for private composition lessons with a local firebrand called Arnold Schoenberg. Smitten by Schoenberg’s overwhelming personality, Webern became an unswerving supporter and disciple. Schoenberg’s other outstanding pupil was a tall, charming, sophisticated young Viennese called Alban Berg, who became Webern’s close and lifelong friend.

Pre-World War I Vienna was a place where the cultural waves rolled excitingly high, with Mahler conducting at the Vienna Court Opera (Webern was a committed admirer), and an ongoing sequence of embattled premieres of works by Schoenberg and the members of his derided ‘High School of Dissonance’.

Among these was Webern’s orchestral Passacaglia Op. 1, whose premiere he conducted himself in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal in 1908. As it was to turn out, the music’s flaring rhetoric and bold orchestral virtuosity pointed more towards the future direction of Berg’s style than to Webern’s own. He himself never again composed a work of this Schoenbergian, single-movement kind, preferring smaller forms instead.

Webern's Passacaglia

Besides, the voice was central to Webern’s art. Two thirds of his music is vocal; and his early output of songs shows that he was the finest Lieder composer since Hugo Wolf. Yet for some obscure reason he chose to leave all of these early vocal creations unpublished and without opus numbers: lost for many years, they only resurfaced in the 1960s.

As Schoenberg’s music moved beyond traditional keys and harmony, so did Webern’s. His Stefan George – Lieder Op. 3 & 4 (1908-9), and the fiercely expressionist Five Pieces for String Quartet Op. 5 (1909) began to explore the outer reaches of total chromaticism.

Webern's Five Pieces for String Quartet

The obsessively dark and introspective tone of these works, and of the Six Orchestral Pieces Op. 6 in particular, were connected in Webern’s mind to the death of his mother in 1906 – an emotional shock from which he took many years to recover, despite his deepening relationship with his cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl, whom he married in 1911 (spurred on by her advanced pregnancy).

Webern's Six Orchestral Pieces


The years up to World War I saw Webern developing an extreme compression of musical statement and development – as in the hyper-impacted Six Bagatelles Op. 9 for string quartet, and the two superb Rilke Songs Op. 8 for voice and chamber group.

Webern's Six Bagatelles

By now his life had become determined by a set of enduring values – devotion to his family (he and Wilhelmine were to have four children); similar devotion to Schoenberg and his cause; and a nature-worship as deep as Mahler’s.

Webern was a proficient alpinist, capable of long and serious climbs. He adored the Austrian mountains and their wild flowers and plants, and felt truly at one with the world he referred to as da oben (‘up there’). The affinity is audible in his music, with its spare, quiet vividness and purity, and the intersection of minutely clear detail with a sense of vast surrounding spaces.

Impact of World War I

The upheavals of World War I and the following years included the hyperinflation which wiped out Webern’s inheritance. But despite his financial worries, he persisted with his composing. An impressive sequence of songs, mostly chamber-accompanied, emerged during the war years and the 1920s.

Then came an intricate String Trio Op. 20 (1927) and the Symphony Op. 21 (1928). The spacious diction of the Symphony marked a new style, which fused the contrapuntal approach of Webern’s Renaissance ‘Netherlanders’ with Schoenberg’s 12-note method.

Webern's Symphony Op. 21

As the First Austrian Republic’s political instability led towards the embrace of Hitler and Nazism, Webern’s inner musical vision remained undimmed, producing a sequence of masterworks that includes the Op. 23 and Op. 25 Lieder (1933-34); the choral cantata Das Augenlicht (premiered by the BBC SO in 1938); and the beautiful Cantata No. 1 Op. 29 (1938-40).

Outwardly, his over-literal patriotism and love of his Germanic Heimat led him perversely to approve the Third Reich’s 1938 Anschluss of Austria. Stupefyingly, his support for Nazi rule persisted even when his own music was pronounced ‘degenerate’, and performances of it were banned. Meanwhile he persisted in visiting Jewish friends who had gone into hiding, on the grounds that the political situation made no difference to their continuing association.

Much sanctimonious ink has been spilled as to whether Webern’s music is somehow posthumously contaminated by this near-transcendent capacity for political self-delusion. But it takes a seriously prejudiced ear to hear the precepts of the Third Reich as being articulated in any way in Webern’s later works.

As the war began to be lost, Webern reverted to a belated wish for deliverance from the conflict. With the Red Army closing in on Vienna, Webern and Wilhelmine made their way west to Mittersill in the Salzburg Alps, ending up in US-occupied territory. One September evening Webern stepped outside during a local curfew to smoke a cigar. He startled one of the US soldiers and one of three bullets proved fatal.

But while Webern’s Third Cantata remained incomplete, his other works endure. As Stravinsky wrote in 1955, on the tenth anniversary of Webern’s death: ‘We must not only hail this great composer but also a real hero. Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge.’

Malcolm Hayes