Anton Webern (1883-1945) was an Austrian composer, renowned conductor and devoted early pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. A trusted member of Schoenberg’s inner circle, Webern is widely recognized as one of the first champions of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique. His works, while characteristically brief in duration, display an exquisite, meticulous construction balancing expressive demands and emotive energies against the binding constraints of their organizing system.
Born in Vienna, the son of a prominent Austrian government official, Webern was sired into minor nobility, moving between provincial capitals in Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. He received his first musical training from his mother who was an amateur pianist, and in his formative years, he studied piano and cello privately and at the Klagenfurt Bundesgymnasium. Enamored of Wagner, on graduating from the Bundesgymnasium in Spring 1902 he was rewarded by his father with a trip to Bayreuth to see Parsifal and Der fliegende Holländer. In 1904 he entered private composition lessons with Schoenberg in Vienna, thus beginning an allegiance that would last the remainder of his life. Though leaving his formal apprenticeship with Schoenberg in 1908, the two would remain extraordinarily close through political tumult of the ensuing decades.
Since 1913 with his Op. 9, Sechs Bagatellen for string quartet, Webern’s compositions had explored approaches to exhausting the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, but working with Schoenberg a more rigorous and complete approach to atonal construction began to coalesce into a formalized system. But whereas Schoenberg’s music deployed these structures with much bombast and privilege to dissonance, Webern’s compositions probe a decidedly divergent aesthetic, adopting a spare, pointillist approach while emphasizing sensitivity to timbre in their orchestration. By 1927 Webern’s mastery of the twelve-tone technique was evident in his Op. 20 String Trio in which he expertly weaves a conversational tapestry full of violent outbursts and points of dissonant stasis, seeded throughout with echoes of waltz rhythms. The following year brought Op. 21 Symphonie (1928) which lyrically hearkens back to Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) in its klangfarbenmelodie. Yet despite the music’s systematic construction, these pieces transcend structuralism, the systematic determination of pitch freeing the composer’s attention to focus more acutely on the discursive elements of the work.