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Webern Mysteries

The influence of Anton Webern in the two decades following World War II exceeded that of any other composer including his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Webern introduced new forms for new contents, and imposed a sensibility challenging that of the modern music of the day—for example, a Bartok Orchestra Concerto, a Schoenberg Piano Concerto, or a Stravinsky Danses concertantes. But more recently, Webern’s range of feeling has been called into question, as has the validity of the relationships between some of his complex constructions and the music one hears. An examination of his musical philosophy, of his approach to composition, and of his own analyses of his later works is needed.

This much and more is provided in a forthcoming biography1 of the composer by Hans Moldenhauer, the first full (Wagner-not-Webern-length) one, a definitive “life” not likely to require significant amplification or revision for at least a decade. Much of the book consists of primary documents, the principal sources being diaries that span most of Webern’s career, several hundred pages of his letters to Schoenberg (together with many of the master’s replies), correspondence with Alban Berg as well as with many lesser musicians and friends, and an oral history that, in view of the comparatively limited sphere of Webern’s activities in his earlier years and the enforced seclusion in his final ones, must be nearly complete.

Even those who have felt the attraction of Webern’s music, and who followed the astonishing shift from esoteric to exoteric in his postwar recognition, will discover from the new book that they knew virtually nothing about the man apart from the circumstances of his death. Also, because his life, work, and philosophy were for thirty years inseparable from his teacher’s, Anton von Webern is Schoenberg biography as well. Finally, Moldenhauer gives new information on the friendship between Webern and Berg. Far from being confined to the most “enigmatic” of the Viennese triumvirate, therefore, the volume is a history of the anti-tonality movement that, twenty-six years after Schoenberg’s death, has become established as the center of gravity in twentieth-century music.

Webern was of noble descent, and his genealogy, longer than that of any other composer, can be traced from the late Renaissance in Alto Adige to present-day America, where one cousin taught Asian art history at Bryn Mawr, and another, an inventor, introduced rotogravure to The New York Sun, and died in Dayton, Ohio, in 1962. An ancestor of the composer fought in America in 1785—but as a captain of Hessian mercenaries, thus making the second of the founding fathers of twelve-tone music ineligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. In the same year, a certain “Herr von Webern,” also probably an ancestor—the name, originally “Weber,” seems to have acquired the “n” of the dative case through a clerical error—is mentioned in a letter by Haydn as his sponsor for the Masonic Lodge to which Mozart already belonged.

The musical education of the young Webern in Klagenfurt during the late 1890s had many advantages over that of an aspiring composer of the same period living in Paris, London, or New York, the most important being the proximity of the provincial Austrian city to Vienna and therefore to the most vital creative forces of the time, Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg. At fourteen Webern was a cellist in the local symphony orchestra, learning the classical repertory from the inside—rather than from classroom dissections of it, or, as the case might be today, passively listening to recordings. Even at this age Webern in his letters displays exceptional musical insight, as when he comments on Liszt’s ingenuity in “weaving elements of old church music” into his Christus. A year later Webern’s taste had matured to the extent that he acknowledged Bach as “the supreme master of music,” a less common judgment then than today, especially from a young musician who shared the current idolatry for Bayreuth and who made the pilgrimage there. But he recovered from his Wagneritis sooner than most worshipers, and from then on Beethoven occupied the highest place in Webern’s pantheon, an edifice allotting more space to Schubert, it would seem, than to Haydn or Mozart; Beethoven was to remain the mainstay of Webern’s conducting, teaching, and lecturing.

Webern’s general education at Klagenfurt Gymnasium and at Vienna University included a thorough grounding in both humanistic and scientific studies: Latin and Greek, German and foreign literature, mathematics and philosophy. His intellectual temperament is evident in his first letter to Schoenberg (July 1906), urging him to read Kant’s Metaphysics of Ethics, and in exchanges of books with Berg—at one Christmas a volume of Baudelaire from Berg, and, from Webern, kant’s letters and Plato: the young composers must have spent hours discussing the theory of transcendent form. Besides being familiar with Goethe, Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other venerables, Webern had read Ruskin, Emerson (Society and Solitude), Thoreau, and such nearer contemporaries as Ibsen, Schnitzler, Strindberg, George, Trakl, Kraus, and Rilke, setting words by the last five to music. In the summer of 1910, shortly after the publication of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Webern was extolling it to Schoenberg, and Rilke’s letters were a vade mecum for Webern in the last months of his life, when he copied passages from them into a commonplace book.

Webern wrote poetry and even a play, and it scarcely needs to be said that he chose the verses for his music with great deliberation. In his search for Latin texts in what was to become a group of canons, he ransacked the complete Breviary, though three of the five pieces in the opus were ultimately taken from other sources: “Dormi Jesu” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, “Asperges me” from the Psalms, and “Christus factus est” from Philippians 2. In later years he especially revered Hölderlin, yet after 1930 his cantata libretti and lieder verses come exclusively from the writings of his (and Martin Buber’s) friend Hildegard Jone, the wife of the sculptor Joseph Humplik and a descendant of Beethoven’s friend the Countess Deym. The reason for this less than ideal preference seems to be Frau Humplik’s affinity for Webern’s mystical nature philosophy: “How much our modes of representation resemble each other,” he wrote to her. It should also be noted that he was an amateur of other arts, being a friend of the architect Adolf Loos, of Klimt—whom the composer lauds in a letter to Berg—and of Kokoschka and Schiele, both of whom drew portraits of Webern.

The two most important events in Webern’s musical development were his apprenticeship to Schoenberg, beginning in the autumn of 1904, and, concurrently, his study of fifteenth-century polyphony under Guido Adler at the University of Vienna. Too little has been made known about the second area, considering that the principles and techniques of the music of this period are almost as important to Webern’s later work as are those derived from Schoenberg. For the doctoral dissertation, Webern transcribed and annotated the second volume of the Choralis Constantinus by Heinrich Isaac (music tutor to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s children, as Poliziano was in other disciplines). Webern’s letters reveal that his training in this high contrapuntal art remained an essential part of his thinking. Here, in a letter to Berg, Webern exults over the just completed variation movement in his Symphony:

Not even the Netherlanders2 have managed this…. Constant mirrorings occur in the fourth variation and, after this central point, everything goes backwards, the entire movement representing a double canon with retrograde motion.

Webern also drew attention to the parallels between structural devices in his Orchestra Variations and those in the music of the period of Josquin, defending these similarities against comparisons with the aesthetics of neoclassicism. “A different style is present,” Webern argued, and, posing the question “Which sort?,” named and eliminated some of the great composers, conceding only that

a certain kinship in the manner of presentation associated with the “Netherlanders” could be found…. [My] music does not deny the development that came then, but, on the contrary, tries to continue it into the future…. What kind of style then? A new one, so I believe.

Later, referring to a movement in what was to become his last completed work, Webern wrote that

This section is constructed in a way that perhaps none of the “Netherlanders” ever thought up;…it is built on a four-part canon of the most complicated kind…only possible, I think, on the basis of the law of the row…. In fact, this may well be the first time it has been so completely operative…Plato[‘s] “nomos” (“law”) is also the word for “Weise” (“melody”): The melody…the soprano sings…may be the nomos for all that follows, in the sense of Goethe’s Urpflanze: “with this model and the key to it, one can proceed to invent plants ad infinitum.”

As for Schoenberg, Webern was not only his student in composition but also his friend, associate, proselytizer, and professional factotum—preparing piano reductions of his music, or arranging it for four-hands and other combinations, writing articles about it, rehearsing and conducting it. The pupil always appears to have been willing to sacrifice his own time and work for the teacher. Thus in September 1911, when Schoenberg’s financial position was even more precarious than usual, Webern undertook a fund-raising campaign and obtained contributions from an artistic intelligentsia that included Richard Strauss and Karl Kraus. And during World War I, Webern devoted his energies to securing Schoenberg’s release from the army—successfully, too, despite being in uniform himself, and no more happily so than the composer of Pierrot Lunaire. But what may have been most important of all for Schoenberg was simply Webern’s unwavering advocacy, which stood as a bulwark against the savage hostility of all but a handful of musicians.

The correspondence between the two composers indicates that they were as devoted as any in music history. “I believe that the disciples of Jesus Christ could not have felt more deeply for their Lord than I do for you,” Webern wrote in August 1911, a remark that seems slightly less intemperate when the reader knows that it came from a man who thought that “Beethoven’s birthday should be celebrated equally with Christmas.” Berg’s letters to Schoenberg are hardly less fervent, but the relations between these two were often strained, and never as intimate, which is indicated by Schoenberg’s use of the familiar “du” form with Webern years before he extended it to Berg. In a 1925 letter, Berg refers to his “faithfulness…toward myself, music, Schoenberg (and he makes this really hard for one)”; the parenthetical remark is inconceivable from Webern. But then, in May 1933, when Schoenberg had been forced to leave Berlin, Berg actually contemplated accepting a teaching post in that city, remarking to his wife that “It would be more feasible now than before, as Schoenberg is no longer there.”

  1. 1

    Anton von Webern, to be published by Knopf, February 1978.

  2. 2

    In the introduction to the Choralis, Webern mentions Ockeghem and Obrecht.

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