- Anton von Webern - Avant Guarde Composer [Biography]
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Anton Webern

Anton Webern (December 3, 1883 - September 15, 1945) was a composer of classical music and a member of the so called Second Viennese School. He was born Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern but never used his middle names, and dropped the von in 1918.

Webern was born in Vienna in Austria. After spending much of his youth in Graz and Klagenfurt, Webern attended Vienna University from 1902. There he studied musicology with Guido Adler, writing his thesis on the Choralis Constantinus of Heinrich Isaac. This interest in early music would greatly influence his compositional technique in later years.

He studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, writing his Passacaglia, Op. 1 as his graduation piece in 1908. He met Alban Berg, who was also a pupil of Schoenberg's, and these two relationships would be the most important in his life in shaping his own musical direction. After graduating, he took a series of conducting posts at theatres in Ischl, Teplitz, Danzig, Stettin, and Prague before moving back to Vienna. There he helped to run Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances and conducted the Vienna Workers Symphony Orchestra from 1922 to 1934.

Webern's music was denounced as "cultural Bolshevism" when the Nazi Party seized power in Austria in 1938. As a result, he found it harder to earn a living, and had to take on work as an editor and proof-reader for his publishers, Universal Edition. Webern left Vienna in 1945 and moved to Mittersill in Salzburg, believing he would be safer there. On September 15 however, during Allied occupation of Austria, he was accidentally shot dead by an American Army soldier following the arrest of his son-in-law for black market activities.

Webern's music

Like almost every composer who had a career of any length, Webern's music changed over time. However, it is typified by very spartan textures, in which every note can be clearly heard; carefully chosen timbres, often resulting in very detailed instructions to the performers and use of extended instrumental techniques (flutter tounging, col legno, and so on); frequent melodic leaps over the interval of a minor second or major seventh; and brevity: the Six Bagatelles for string quartet (1913), for instance, last about three minutes in total.

Webern's very earliest works are in a late Romantic style. They were neither published nor performed in his lifetime, though they are sometimes performed today. They include the orchestral tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904) and the Langsamer Satz (1905) for string quartet.

Webern's first piece after completing his studies with Schoenberg was the Passacaglia for orchestra (1908). Harmonically speaking, it is a step forward into a more advanced language, and the orchestration is somewhat more distinctive. However, it bears little relation to the fully mature works he is best known for today. One element that is typical is the form itself: the passacaglia is a form which dates back to the 17th century, and a distinguishing feature of Webern's later work was to be the use of traditional compositional techniques (especially canons) and forms (the Symphony, the String Trio, the piano Variations) in a much more modern harmonic and melodic language.

For a number of years, Webern wrote pieces which were freely atonal, much in the style of Schoenberg's early atonal works. With the Drei Geistliche Volkslieder (1925) he used Schoenberg's twelve note technique for the first time, and all his subsequent works used this technique. The String Trio (1927) was both the first purely instrumental work using the twelve note technique (the other pieces were songs) and the first to use a traditional musical form.

Webern's tone rows are often very intricately arranged such that within each twelve note row, the pitches are arranged into four groups of three which are variations on each other. This gives Webern's work a great motivic unity, although this is often disguised by his technique of moving a single melodic line around different instruments.

Webern's last pieces seem to indicate another development in style. The two late Cantatas, for example, use larger ensembles than earlier pieces, last longer (No. 1 around nine minutes; No. 2 around sixteen), are texturally somewhat denser, and use simpler tone rows, without the internal motivic organisation of his middle-period works. His death after completing his Cantata No. 2 of 1943 makes it impossible to know where this apparently new direction might have taken him.

contributed by Wikipedia

5 January 2004

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