Webern Mysteries

Anton Webern
Anton Webern; drawing by David Levine

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…

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