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Anton Webern

Anton Webern, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, was a principal composer of the Second Viennese School.  The Second Viennese School thrived before World War I, and is now best known for breaking with tonality and creating serial composition.  The composers of this school theoretically inherited their legacy from a “First Viennese School” (Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven), although the earlier composers were by no means as closely associated with one another as were those of the Second School.  Curiously, all three men’s deaths were somewhat unusual.  In Webern’s case, just after World War II, he was mistakenly killed by an American sniper as Webern smoked a cigar on his veranda.

Viennese Youth

Anton Webern was born in Vienna on December 3, 1883.  His father was a mining engineer who eventually became chief of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Mining.  His family was well-to-do and owned a country estate, the Preglhof, where Webern composed his first pieces.  His early musical training was in piano and cello.

Highly influenced by his cousin Ernst Diez, a respected art historian, Webern was enamored of Richard Wagner and other late nineteenth-century German figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche.  Following his graduation from gymnasium in 1902, his father went as far as to sponsor a trip to Bayreuth in order for him to experience Wagner’s operas in their intended setting.

University Days and Early Years with Arnold Schoenberg

In 1902 Webern entered the University of Vienna as a musicology student of Guido Adler.  At the university he also studied harmony and counterpoint and privately continued his piano and cello lessons.  In 1904, not long after beginning his university career, he became Arnold Schoenberg’s first composition student.  Alban Berg soon followed.  This group of three later became known as the major representatives of the Second Viennese School.  Four years after beginning university, in 1906, Webern received his doctorate in musicology having written a dissertation on Heinrich Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus II.

Shortly thereafter, Webern’s studies with Schoenberg were also formally completed (1908), although he maintained a lifelong obsession with his teacher, often following Schoenberg as he moved from place to place.  In terms of his compositional output while still a student, he only wrote two works to which he assigned opus numbers: the orchestral Passacaglia, op. 1 and the chorus Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen.  Both of these works were written in 1908.  Perhaps part of the reason for this small number of works was that he was often kept busy with administrative and personal tasks for Schoenberg.

Early Professional Endeavors

After leaving Schoenberg, Webern began a career as a conductor.  Despite the fact that he had no formal training in this field, he eventually gained a reputation as a competent and talented conductor.  However, he was somewhat fickle in terms of his job commitments.  For instance, from 1908 to 1913 he took up and quickly left five theater conducting positions alone.  He often quit within a few weeks of starting a post and his decisions as to whether or not to take jobs – or to remain with them – were often influenced by their proximity to Schoenberg.  Thus, for example, in 1911 Schoenberg moved to Berlin and Webern quickly followed.  This was the same year that Webern married his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl, with whom he subsequently had four children. 

Webern’s capricious behavior in terms of conducting posts continued for many years.  He seemed to be most often in negotiations with a theater in Prague.  However, after undergoing psychoanalysis in Vienna, he believed he was ready to make a commitment to a post and in April 1914 signed a contract, not for the first time, with Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland), but the theater was closed about a month after war with Serbia was declared in July 1914.

World War I

In February 1915, Webern enthusiastically enlisted in the military, while at the same time lobbying intensely for Schoenberg’s exemption from duty.  However, after five months of service he managed to be released from his military obligation and to be appointed as a conductor in Prague.  However, he quickly left this position after Schoenberg was drafted, and he re-enlisted in the military.  One of his main objectives was to get his former teacher released from service and he ultimately helped to achieve this goal.  In August 1917, Webern was once again hired in Prague after both men had been released from duty.  However, not long after accepting this position, he quit when Schoenberg moved to Mödling (near Vienna) in December 1917.

Between the Wars

In November 1918 the Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen was founded with Schoenberg as its president and Webern as one of the musical directors.  This society sought to present private performances of contemporary music to select subscribers.  The society only lasted for about four years, but during that time it gave 117 concerts of new music, many of which included Webern’s compositions.  Webern’s compositions from this period and earlier (1908-23) are numbered opuses 1 through 16 and, with the exception of the opuses 1 and 2, are generally atonal.

Starting in 1924 Webern began to exclusively apply Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique to his works.  Along with the use of serialism, the compositions that date from this time until his death in 1945, opuses 17 through 31, are known for their brevity (this quality is apparent even in the earlier works), exploitation of timbre, and employment of counterpoint

In the 1920s Webern also began to receive notice as a conductor and frequently was invited to lead performances internationally.  It was during this time that he accepted a teaching post at the Israelisches Blindeninstitut, an institute for the blind, in Vienna, and remained there for six years.

The 1930s were much more difficult for Webern.  It was in this decade that he lost Schoenberg’s companionship and mentorship when Schoenberg immigrated to America.  Then, in 1935, his colleague Berg died of septicemia.  With the arrival of the Nazis and the Anschluss in 1938, Webern’s compositions were designated “degenerate” art and were banned in Germany and Austria.  As he was no longer conducting, he sustained himself and his family by working for the Austrian publishers Universal Edition. 

However, during this decade he did lecture on the twelve-tone method and some of these lectures were later published in 1960 as Der Weg zur neuen Musik (The Way to the New Music).  These lectures and his later serial compositions had lasting impact on composers who were active in the years following World War II.

The Killing of Anton Webern

While the war went on, Webern continued writing music.  From 1941 to 1943 he worked on his Cantata No. 2, which was his final completed piece.  The cantata is the setting of a text by Hildegard Jone, known for her mystical poetry, and exhibits some compositional influences related to Webern’s dissertation subject, Heinrich Isaac.

As the war neared its end, Webern’s son Peter was killed in 1945.  Webern himself, now an elderly man, was drafted into the air raid police.  And, like his son, Webern was killed as a direct result of the war.  After fleeing their home in Mödling, Webern and his wife joined their daughters in the mountains near Salzburg, Austria.  Shortly after the war’s end in Europe, Webern, who had lit a cigar on the veranda one night, was mistakenly shot and killed on September 15, 1945 by an American soldier who was looking into black market activities in the area.

At the time of his death very few of his works were published and he was not well known as a composer.  In subsequent years however, he was to become a major influence on composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karl Stockhausen, who greatly admired his use of the twelve-tone method.


Bailey, Kathryn: ‘Webern, Anton (Friedrich Wilhelm von)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 01 September 2005), <>   

Grout, Donald J.  A History of Western Music.  7th edition.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Stolba, K Marie.  The Development of Western Music: A History.  Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

Weiss, Piero and Richard Taruskin.  Music in the Western World: A History in Documents.  New York: Schirmer, 1984.