Anton Webern

Anton Webern
Webern in Stettin, October 1912
Webern in Stettin, October 1912
Born3 December 1883
Vienna, Austria
Died15 September 1945(1945-09-15) (aged 61)
Mittersill, Austria
  • Composer
  • conductor
WorksList of compositions

Anton Webern (German: [ˈantoːn ˈveːbɐn] ; 3 December 1883 – 15 September 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. His music was among the most radical of its milieu in its concision and use of then novel atonal and twelve-tone techniques in an increasingly rigorous manner, somewhat after the Franco-Flemish School of his studies under Guido Adler. With his mentor Arnold Schoenberg and his colleague Alban Berg, Webern was at the core of those within the broader circle of the Second Viennese School. He was arguably the first and certainly the last of the three to write music in an aphoristic, expressionist style, reflecting his instincts and the idiosyncrasy of his compositional process.

Peripatetic and unhappy in his early conducting career, Webern came to some prominence and increasingly high regard as a vocal coach, choirmaster, conductor, and teacher in Red Vienna. With a publication agreement through Emil Hertzka's Universal Edition and Schoenberg away at the Prussian Academy of Arts, Webern wrote music of increasing confidence, independence, and scale from the 1920s onward. He maintained his "path to the new music" while marginalized as a "cultural Bolshevist".

Posthumously Webern's later music was celebrated by a variety of mid-century musicians, especially composers, in a phenomenon known as post-Webernism. Yet most understanding was fledgling after years of severe disruption when his work was dismissed or opposed, nor were his musical semantics or semiotics, performance practices, or sociocultural contexts widely studied. This situation was gradually improved by musicians and scholars who helped publish and record his complete works as well as establish his music as modernist repertoire.


1883–1908: Upbringing between late Imperial Vienna and countryside

  • (left) Schloss Preglhof, Webern's childhood home, in Oberdorf
  • (middle) A brick barn in a field of wildflowers on the Preglhof estate
  • (right) Family grave at the cemetery in Schwabegg, on a meander spur of the Drava

Heimat and university

Webern was born in Vienna, then in Austria-Hungary. He was the only surviving son of Carl von Webern, a descendent of minor nobility [de], high-ranking civil servant, mining engineer, and owner of the Lamprechtsberg copper mine in the Koralpe; and Amalie (née Geer), a competent pianist and accomplished singer. He lived in Graz and Klagenfurt for much of his youth, but his distinct and lasting sense of Heimat was shaped by reading Rosegger and by summers with his parents, sisters, and cousins at their country estate, the Preglhof.

After a trip to Bayreuth, Webern studied musicology at the University of Vienna (1902–1906) with Guido Adler, a friend of Mahler, composition student of Bruckner, and devoted Wagnerian who had been in contact with both Wagner and Liszt. He learned the historical development of musical styles and techniques, writing his doctoral thesis on Heinrich Isaac's Choralis Constantinus.

Webern also studied art history and philosophy under professors Max Dvořák, Laurenz Müllner [de], and Franz Wickhoff, joining the Albrecht Dürer Gesellschaft in 1903. His cousin Ernst Dietz, an art historian studying in Graz, may have led him to the work of Böcklin and Giovanni Segantini, which he admired along with that of Ferdinand Hodler and Moritz von Schwind.

Schoenberg and his circle

In 1904, he approached Hans Pfitzner for composition lessons but left angrily when Pfitzner criticized Mahler and Richard Strauss. Adler admired Schoenberg's work and may have sent Webern to him for composition lessons. Thus Webern met Berg, another Schoenberg pupil, and Schoenberg's brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, through whom Webern may have worked as an assistant coach at the Volksoper (1906–1908). Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became devoted, lifelong friends with similar musical trajectories.

Also through Schoenberg, who painted and had a 1910 solo exhibition at Hugo Heller [de]'s bookstore, Webern met Karl Kraus, whose lyrics he later set, e.g., Op. 13/i. He also met Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Oppenheimer (with whom he corresponded on Ich–du terms), Egon Schiele, and Emil Stumpp. In 1920, Webern wrote Berg about the "indescribable impression" Klimt's work made on him, "that of a luminous, tender, heavenly realm". Webern and others gave Schoenberg Klimt prints for his 1921 birthday.

1908–1918: Early adulthood and war in Austria-Hungary

Webern, 1912

Early conducting career

Webern conducted and coached singers and choirs in opera, operetta, musical theater, and light music in his early career. A summer 1908 engagement with Bad Ischl's Kurorchester [de] was "hell". He walked out on engagements in Innsbruck (1909) and at Bad Teplitz's Civic Theater (1910). He worked with Heinrich Jalowetz in Danzig (1910–1911) and Stettin (1912–1913), briefly following Schoenberg to Berlin (1911–1912) in-between. He repeatedly quit and was taken back by Zemlinsky at the Deutsches Landestheater Prague (1911–1918).

His repertoire included Leo Fall's Dollarprinzessin, Friedrich von Flotow's Wintermärchen, Sidney Jones' Geisha, Franz Lehár's Graf von Luxemburg and Lustige Witwe, Albert Lortzing's Waffenschmied, Jacques Offenbach's Belle Hélène, Oscar Straus's Walzertraum, and Johann Strauss II's Fledermaus and Zigeunerbaron in addition to Gounod, Mozart, Schumann, and Wagner, among others. News reports praised Webern's "sensitive, devoted guidance" as conductor of Fall's Geschiedene Frau in 1910. He particularly enjoyed Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann and Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia.

Illness, mourning, and paradises

Webern had little time (mostly summers) to compose and often felt mistreated. "It appears ... improbable that I should remain with the theatre. It is ... terrible. ... I can hardly ever adjust to being away from home," he wrote Schoenberg in 1910. Miserably ill, he sought medical advice and took rest at the Kurhaus Semmering [de]. In 1912–1913 he had a breakdown and saw Alfred Adler, who noted his idealism and perfectionism. Adler evaluated his symptoms as psychogenic responses to unmet expectations. Webern wrote Schoenberg that Adler's psychoanalysis was helpful and insightful.

Webern revisited the Preglhof (sold by his father in 1912 and mourned as a "lost paradise"), the family grave at the cemetery in Schwabegg, and the surrounding Carinthian-Styrian Alps his entire life. He associated these places with the memory of his mother, whose 1906 loss profoundly affected him. He wrote Schoenberg (Sept. 1912), "When I read letters from my mother, I could die of longing for the places where all these things have occurred". His music enduringly reflected these memories: "my compositions ... relate to the death of my mother"; "through my work, all that is past becomes like a childhood". For Christmas in 1912, Webern gave Schoenberg Rosegger's Waldheimat [de], from which Johnson highlighted the passage:

Childhood days and childhood home!
It is that old song of Paradise. There are people for whom ... Paradise is never lost ... in them God's kingdom ... rises ... more ... in ... memory than ... ever ... in reality; ... children are poets and retrace their steps.

Always an avid mountaineer, Webern backpacked and climbed the Gaisstein, Grossglockner, Hochschober, Hochschwab, and Schneealpe (among others) from his youth until his old age, keeping accounts in his diary and expressing them in his music. He was fascinated by alpine features like the climate and winds, glaciers, pines, and springs "crystal clear down to the bottom". He collected and organized the "mysterious" herbs and fragrant flowers in pressed albums, later keeping a garden. He celebrated trips "up there, in the heights", where "one should stay". In 1933, Joseph Hueber recalled Webern stopped in a meadow, dug his hands into the soil, and smelled the flowers and grass before rising to ask: "Do you sense 'Him' sometimes also as strongly as I, 'Him, Pan'?"

World War I

Webern served intermittently and patriotically in World War I, moving frequently and tiring. Eventually he hoped for its end. Despite Schoenberg's and his father's advice that he not quit conducting, in 1918 Webern returned to Schoenberg in Mödling, hoping to compose more. His finances were so poor that he soon explored a return to Prague, but other opportunities arose.

1918–1933: Rise in Rotes Wien (Interwar Vienna)

Webern, 1927, portrait by Georg Fayer

Society for Private Musical Performances

Webern worked with friends at the Society for Private Musical Performances (1918–1921), promoting new music through performances and contests. Music included that of Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Korngold, Mahler, Novák, Ravel, Reger, Satie, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Webern himself. Webern wrote Berg about Stravinsky's "indescribably touching" Berceuses du chat and "glorious" Pribaoutki, which Schoenberg conducted at a sold-out 1919 Society concert. There was perhaps some shared influence among Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern at this time. The Society dissolved amid catastrophic hyperinflation in 1921.

Mature conducting career

Webern worked as director of the Wiener Schubertbund and in 1922 of the mixed-voice amateur Singverein der Sozialdemokratischen Kunstelle and the Arbeiter-Sinfonie-Konzerte through David Josef Bach, Director of the Sozialdemokratische Kunststelle. In 1926, Webern resigned as chorusmaster of the Mödling Männergesangverein for hiring Jewish soprano Greta Wilheim as a stand-in soloist for Schubert's cantata Mirjams Siegesgesang. Österreichischer Rundfunk aired his performances at least twenty times starting in 1927. In 1933 he hired Erich Leinsdorf as Singverein pianist; they performed Stravinsky's ballet-cantata Les Noces.

Perhaps on religious grounds, Krenek speculated, Webern may have been uneasily dependent on the Social Democrats for conducting work. Citing Roberto Gerhard and Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Walter Kolneder judged, "Artistic work for and with workers was [from] a ... Christian standpoint which Webern took very seriously". Some on the left, notably Oscar Pollak [de] in Der Kampf (1929), criticized Webern's programming as more ambitious and bourgeois than popular and proletarian.

Relative success amid political instability

Social DemocratChristian Social relations polarized and radicalized amid the Schattendorfer Urteil [de]. Webern and others signed an "Announcement of Intellectual Vienna" published on the front page of the Social Democrats' daily Arbeiter-Zeitung days before the 1927 Austrian legislative election. On Election Day in Die Reichspost [de], Ignaz Seipel of the Einheitsliste [de] officially applied the term "Red Vienna" pejoratively, attacking Vienna's educational and cultural institutions. Social unrest escalated to the July Revolt of 1927 and beyond. Webern's nostalgia for social order intensified with increasing civil disorder. With poor finances, in 1928 friends fundraised for him, partly for another stay at the Kurhaus Semmering.

Webern's music was performed more widely starting in the latter half of 1920s, yet he found no great success as Berg enjoyed with Wozzeck nor as Schoenberg did, to a lesser extent, with Pierrot lunaire or in time with Verklärte Nacht. His Symphony, Op. 21, was performed in New York by the League of Composers (1929) and in London at the 1931 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival. He twice received the Preis der Stadt Wien für Musik [de]. Ernst Krenek's impression was that Webern resented his financial hardships and lack of wider recognition.

In 1928, Berg celebrated the "lasting works" and successes of composers "whose point of departure was ... late Mahler, Reger, and Debussy and whose temporary end point is in ... Schoenberg" in their rise from "pitiful 'cliques'" to a large, diverse, international, and "irresistible movement". But they were soon marginalized and ostracized in Central Europe with few exceptions. In Der Weg zur Neuen Musik, an eight-lecture series Webern delivered at Rita Kurzmann-Leuchter [de]'s and her physician husband Rudolf Kurzman's home (Feb.–Apr. 1933), Webern attacked fascist cultural policy, asking "What will come of our struggle?" He observed that "'cultural Bolshevism' is the name given to everything that is going on around Schoenberg, Berg, and myself (Krenek too)" and warned, "Imagine what will be destroyed, wiped out, by this hate of culture!"

1933–1938: Perseverance in Schwarzes Wien (Austrofascist Vienna)

Politicization of career and music

Financial crises, complex social and political movements, pervasive antisemitism, culture wars, and renewed military conflicts continued to shape Webern's world, profoundly circumscribing his life. In the Austrian Civil War, Austrofascists executed, exiled, and imprisoned Social Democrats, outlawed their party, and abolished cultural institutions. Stigmatized by his decade-long association with Social Democrats, Webern lost a promising conducting career, which might have been better recorded. He worked as a UE editor and IGNM-Sektion Österreich [de] board member and president (1933–1938, 1945). He lectured more at the Kurzmann-Leuchter home, privately in 1934–1935 on Beethoven's piano sonatas to about 40 attendees and later in 1937–1938.

His music and that of Berg, Krenek, Schoenberg, et al. was declared "Jewish" in Austria and "Entartete Kunst" by Nazis. Persevering, Webern wrote Krenek that "art has its own laws ... if one wants to achieve something in it, only these laws and nothing else can have validity"; upon completing Op. 26 (1935), he wrote DJ Bach, "I hope it is so good that (if people ever get to know it) they will declare me ready for a concentration camp or an insane asylum!" The Vienna Philharmonic nearly refused to play Berg's Violin Concerto (1936). Peter Stadlen's 1937 Op. 27 premières were the last Viennese Webern performances until after World War II. The critical success of Hermann Scherchen's 1938 ISCM London Op. 26 première encouraged Webern to write more cantatas and reassured him after a cellist quit Op. 20 mid-performance, declaring it unplayable.

Altered milieu and political confusion

Webern's milieu comprised vast differences. Like most Austrians, he and his family were Catholic, though not church regulars; Webern was devout if unorthodox. They became politically divided. His friends (e.g., then Zionist Schoenberg, left-leaning Berg) were of a mostly Jewish milieu in late Imperial and then "red" (Social Democratic) Vienna. Alma Mahler, Krenek, Willi Reich [de], and Erwin Stein preferred or supported the "lesser evil" of Austrofascists (or aligned Italian fascists) vis-à-vis the more antisemitic Nazis. Presuming power would moderate Hitler, Webern mediated among friends with an optimistic, perhaps self-soothing, complacency, exasperating those who were at risk. He found himself surrounded mostly by one side as Schoenberg emigrated to the US (1933), Berg died (1935), and DJ Bach, among others, fled or worse.

Webern's views of National Socialism were variously described. His published items reflected his audience or context. Secondary literature reflected limited evidence or ideological orientations and admitted uncertainty. Julie Brown noted hesitancy to approach the topic and echoed the Moldenhauers, considering the issue "vexed" and Webern a "political enigma". Bailey Puffett considered his politics "somewhat vague" and his situation "complex", noting that he practically avoided definitive political association. Julian Johnson described him as "personally shy, a man of private feeling and essentially apolitical", "prone to identify with Nazi politics as ... other ... Austrians". Violinist Louis Krasner surmised Webern's cognitive dissonance, finding him "idealistic and rather naive". In 1943 Kurt List described Webern as "utterly ignorant" and "perpetual[ly] confus[ed]" about politics, "a ready prey to the personal influence of family and friends".

1938–1939: Inner emigration in Nazi Germany


Krasner's last Webern visit was interrupted by the Anschluss: Webern turned on the radio to hear the news, urging Krasner to flee. Krasner wondered whether Webern knew the Anschluss was planned that day, as Webern's family included Nazis, and whether this was for his safety or to save Webern the embarrassment of Krasner's presence during a time of possible celebration in Webern's home or indeed in most of Mödling. Bailey Puffett suggested otherwise, noting Webern wrote his lyricist and collaborator Hildegard Jone [de] and her spouse, sculptor Josef Humplik that day, "I am totally immersed in my work [composing] and cannot, cannot be disturbed."

Bailey Puffett wrote that Webern likely hoped to conduct again, securing a firmer future for his family under a new regime proclaiming itself "socialist" no less than nationalist. As an expression of pan-Germanism and populism, many German-speaking Volk, especially Austrian Deutschnationalisten, hoped for stability and prosperity within a nation-state (the Reich). In opposition to the Austrofascists and after years of Nazi soft power proceeding to occupation, some on the Austrian left had promoted unification and now supported the post hoc 1938 Austrian Anschluss referendum on premises of Realpolitik and self-determination in line with the Grossdeutsche Lösung (1848), the Provisional National Assembly's unanimous support (1918), and the Linz Program [de] (1926-1933).

Kristallnacht and recoil

Kristallnacht shocked Webern. He visited and aided Jewish colleagues DJ Bach, Otto Jokl [de], Josef Polnauer, and Hugo Winter. For Jokl, a former Berg pupil, Webern wrote a recommendation letter to facilitate emigration. When that failed, Webern served as his godfather in a 1939 baptism. Polnauer, a fellow early Schoenberg pupil, historian, and librarian whose emigration Schoenberg and Webern were unable to secure, managed to survive the Holocaust as an albino; he later edited a 1959 UE publication of Webern's correspondence from this time with Humplik and Jone. Webern moved Humplik's 1929 gift of a Mahler bust to his bedroom.

Webern found himself increasingly alone, with "almost all his friends and old pupils ... gone", and his financial situation was poor. He had considered joining Schoenberg in the US since 1933 but was reluctant to leave home and family. He entered a period of "inward emigration", writing to artist Franz Rederer in 1939, "We live completely withdrawn. I work a lot." He corresponded extensively to maintain relationships, imploring his student George Robert to play Schoenberg in New York and expressing his loneliness and isolation to Schoenberg. Then war limited postal service.

1939–1945: Hope and disillusionment during World War II

Swiss and Reich prospects

Webern's music was performed mostly outside the Reich, where only his tonal music and arrangements were allowed as works not in the style of a "Judenknecht". Supported by IGNM-Sektion Basel, the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, and Werner Reinhart, he attended three Swiss concerts. Webern intimated to Willi Reich that he might emigrate, joking (Oct. 1939) "Anything of the sort did seem quite out of the question for me!" But he failed to obtain conducting opportunities. In 1940, Erich Schmid conducted Op. 1 in Winterthur; soprano Marguerite Gradmann-Lüscher sang Op. 4 and most of Op. 12 (not No. 3) at the Musik-Akademie der Stadt Basel, Schmid accompanying. In Feb. 1943, Scherchen gave the world premiere of Op. 30 at the Winterthur Stadthaus [de]. These were Webern's last trips outside the Reich, where he also hoped for opportunities.

Webern met with former Society violist Othmar Steinbauer about a formal teaching role in Vienna in early 1940, but nothing materialized. He lectured at the homes of Erwin Ratz and Carl Prohaska [de]'s widow Margaret (1940–1942). Many private pupils came to him between 1940 and 1943, even from afar, among them briefly Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

Wartime hopes and disillusionment

Sharing in wartime public sentiment at the height of Hitler's popularity (spring 1940), Webern expressed high hopes, crediting him as "unique" and "singular" for "the new state for which the seed was laid twenty years ago". These were patriotic letters to Joseph Hueber, an active soldier, baritone, close friend, and mountaineering companion who often sent Webern gifts. Indeed, Hueber had just sent Webern Mein Kampf. Unaware of Stefan George's aversion to the Nazis, Webern marveled suggestively at the wartime leader envisioned in rereading Das neue Reich [de], but "I am not taking a position!" he wrote active soldier, singer, and onetime Social Democrat, Hans Humpelstetter. For Johnson, "Webern's own image of a neue Reich was never of this world; if his politics were ultimately complicitous it was largely because his utopian apoliticism played so easily into ... the status quo."

By Aug. 1940, Webern depended financially on his children. He sought wartime emergency relief funds from Künstlerhilfe Wien and the Reichsmusikkammer Künstlerdank [de] (1940–1944), which he received despite indicating non-membership in the Nazi Party on an application. Whether Webern ever joined the party was unknown. This represented his only income after mid-1942. He nearly exhausted his savings by 1944.

His 1943–1945 letters were strewn with references to bombings, death, destruction, privation, and the disintegration of local order, but several grandchildren were born. In Dec. 1943, aged 60, he wrote from a barrack that he was working 6 am–5 pm as an air-raid protection police officer, conscripted into the war effort. He corresponded with Reich about IGNM-Sektion Basel's concert marking his sixtieth, in which Paul Baumgartner played Op. 27, Walter Kägi Op. 7, and August Wenzinger Op. 11. Gradmann-Lüscher sang both Opp. 3 and 23 (world premiere). His only son Peter, intermittently conscripted since 1940, was killed in an air attack (14 Feb. 1945). Airstrike sirens interrupted the family's mourning.

Refuge and death in Mittersill

Grave of Webern and his wife Minna at the cemetery in Mittersill

The Weberns assisted Schoenberg's first son Görgi during the war; with the Red Army's April 1945 arrival imminent, they gave him their Mödling apartment, the property and childhood home of Webern's son-in-law Benno Mattl. Görgi later told Krasner that Webern "felt he'd betrayed his best friends." The Weberns fled west, resorting to traveling partly on foot to Mittersill to rejoin their family of "17 persons pressed together in the smallest possible space".

On the night of 15 Sept. 1945, Webern was outside smoking when he was shot and killed by a US soldier in an apparent accident. Webern's wife Wilhelmine "Minna" Mörtl's last years were marred by grief, poverty, and loneliness as friends and family continued emigrating. She wished Webern lived to see more success. With the abolition of Entartete Kunst policies, Alfred Schlee [de] solicited her for hidden manuscripts; thus Opp. 17, 24–25, and 29–31 were published. She worked to get Webern's 1907 Piano Quintet published via Kurt List.

In 1947 she wrote Dietz, now in the US, that by 1945 Webern was "firmly resolved to go to England". Likewise, in 1946 she wrote DJ Bach in London: "How difficult the last eight years had been for him. ... [H]e had only the one wish: to flee from this country. But one was caught, without a will of one's own. ... It was close to the limit of endurance what we had to suffer." Minna died in 1949.


Tell me, can one at all denote thinking and feeling as things entirely separable? I cannot imagine a sublime intellect without the ardor of emotion.

Webern wrote to Schoenberg (June 1910). Theodor Adorno described Webern as "propound[ing] musical expressionism in its strictest sense, ... to such a point that it reverts of its own weight to a new objectivity".

Webern's music was organic and parsimonious, with very small motifs, palindromes, and parameterization on both the micro- and macro-scale. His idiosyncratic approach reflected affinities with Schoenberg, Mahler, Guido Adler and early music; interest in esotericism and Naturphilosophie; and thorough perfectionism. He engaged with the work of Goethe, Bach, and the Franco-Flemish School in addition to that of Hugo Wolf, Brahms, Wagner, Liszt, Schumann, Beethoven, Schubert ("so genuinely Viennese"), and Mozart. Stylistic shifts were not neatly coterminous with gradually developed technical devices, particularly in the case of his mid-period Lieder.

His music was also characteristically linear and song-like. Much of it (and Berg's and Schoenberg's) was for singing. Johnson described the song-like gestures of Op. 11/i. In Webern's mid-period Lieder, some heard instrumentalizing of the voice (often in relation to the clarinet) representing yet some continuity with bel canto. Lukas Näf described one of Webern's signature hairpins (the Op. 21/i mm. 8–9 bass clarinet tenuto note) as a messa di voce requiring some rubato to execute faithfully. Concision, adventurous textures and timbres, and melodies of wide leaps and sometimes extreme ranges and registers were typical.

For Johnson, Webern's rubato compressed Mahler's "'surging and ebbing'" tempi; this and Webern's dynamics indicated a "vestigial lyrical subjectivity." Webern often set carefully chosen lyric poetry. He related his music not only to nostalgia for the lost family and home of his youth, but also to his Alpinism and fascination with botanical aromatics and morphology. He was compared to Mahler in his orchestration and semantic preoccupations (e.g., memory, landscapes, nature, loss, often Catholic mysticism). In Jone, who he met with her husband Humplik via the Hagenbund, Webern found a lyricist who shared his esoteric, natural, and spiritual interests. She provided texts for his late vocal works.

Webern's and Schoenberg's music distinctively prioritized minor seconds, major sevenths, and minor ninths as noted in 1934 by microtonalist Alois Hába. The Kholopov siblings noted the semitone's unifying role by axial inversional symmetry and octave equivalence as interval class 1 (ic1), approaching Allen Forte's generalized pitch-class set analysis. Webern's consistent use of ic1 in cells and sets, often expressed as a wide interval musically, was well noted. Symmetric pitch-interval practices varied in rigor and use by others (e.g., Berg, Schoenberg, Bartók, Debussy, Stravinsky; more nascently Mahler, Brahms, Bruckner, Liszt, Wagner). Berg and Webern took symmetric approaches to elements of music beyond pitch. Webern later linked pitches and other parameters in schemes (e.g., fixed or "frozen" register).

Relatively few of Webern's works were published in his lifetime. Amid fascism and Emil Hertzka's passing, this included late as well as early works and those without opus numbers. His rediscovery prompted many publications, but some early works were unknown until after the work of the Moldenhauers well into the 1980s, obscuring formative facets of his musical identity. Thus when Boulez first oversaw a project to record Webern's music, the results fit on three CDs and the second time, six. A Gesamtausgabe has remained in progress.

1899–1908: Formative juvenilia and emergence from study

Webern published little juvenilia; like Brahms, he was meticulous and self-conscious, revising extensively. His earliest works were mostly Lieder on works of Richard Dehmel, Gustav Falke, and Theodor Storm. He set seven Ferdinand Avenarius poems on the "changing moods" of life and especially nature (1899–1904). Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf were important models. With its brief, potent expressivity and utopianization of the natural world, the (German) Romantic Lied had a lasting influence on Webern's musical aesthetic. He never abandoned its lyricism, intimacy, and wistful or nostalgic topics, though his music became more abstract, idealized, and introverted.

Webern memorialized the Preglhof in a diary poem "An der Preglhof" and in the tone poem Im Sommerwind (1904), both after Bruno Wille's idyll. In Webern's Sommerwind, Derrick Puffett found affinities with Strauss's Alpensinfonie, Charpentier's Louise, and Delius's Paris.

At the Pregholf in summer 1905, Webern wrote his tripartite, single-movement string quartet in a highly modified sonata form, likely responding to Schoenberg's Op. 7. He quoted Jakob Böhme in the preface and mentioned the panels of Segantini's Trittico della natura as "Werden–Sein–Vergehen" in sketches. Sebastian Wedler argued that it bore the influence of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, particularly in its germinal three-note motive, the opening fugato of its third (development) section, and perhaps in its Nietzschean reading (via Thus Spoke Zarathustra's eternal recurrence) of Segantini's triptych. In its opening harmonies, Allen Forte and Heinz-Klaus Metzger noted Webern's anticipation of Schoenberg's atonality in Op. 10.

Danzig's Friedrich-Wilhelm-Schützenhaus [de] in a 1906 postcard photograph

The Passacaglia, Op. 1 (1908) was Webern's graduation piece after study with Schoenberg. Its chromatic harmonic language and less conventional orchestration distinguished it from prior works; its form foreshadowed those of his later works. Conducting the 1911 Danzig premiere of Op. 1 at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Schützenhaus [de], he paired it with Debussy's 1894 Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Ludwig Thuille's 1896 Romantische Ouvertüre, and Mahler's 1901–1904 Kindertotenlieder in a poorly attended Moderner Abend concert. The Danziger Zeitung [de] critic derided Op. 1 as an "insane experiment".

In 1908 Webern also began an opera on Maeterlinck's Alladine et Palomides [fr], of which only unfinished sketches remained. As an opera conductor, he knew "perfectly ... every cut, ... unmarked cadenza, ... theatrical joke". When in high spirits, he would sing bits of Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann, a personal favorite. He "adored" Mozart's Il Seraglio and revered Strauss, predicting Salome would last. He later expressed interest in writing an opera to Max Deutsch, "if I ... find a good text". In 1930, he asked Jone for "opera texts, or rather dramatic texts", planning cantatas instead.

1908–1914: Atonality and aphorism

Webern's music, like Schoenberg's, was freely atonal after Op. 2. Some of their and Berg's music from this time was published in Der Blaue Reiter.

Schoenberg and Webern were so mutually influential, the former later joked, "I haven't the slightest idea who I am". In Op. 5/iii, Webern borrowed from Schoenberg's Op. 10/ii. In Op. 5/iv, he borrowed from Schoenberg's Op. 10/iv setting of "Ich fühle luft von anderen planeten".

But Webern was no epigone. The first of his innovative and increasingly extremely aphoristic Opp. 5–11 (1909–1914) radically influenced Schoenberg's Opp. 11/iii and 1617 (and Berg's Opp. 45). "[H]aving freed music from the shackles of tonality," Schoenberg wrote, he and his pupils believed "music could renounce motivic features". This "intuitive aesthetic" arguably proved to be aspirational insofar as motives persisted in their music.

Two enduring topics emerged in Webern's work: familial (especially maternal) loss and memory, often involving some religious experience, and abstracted landscapes idealized as spiritual, even pantheistic Heimat (e.g., the Preglhof, the Eastern Alps). Webern explored these ideas via Swedenborg's correspondences in Tot (Oct. 1913), a stage play in six reflective, self-consoling Alpine tableaux vivants.

Webern's music took on the character of such static dramaticovisual scenes, with pieces frequently culminating in the accumulation and amalgamation (often the developing variation) of compositional material. Fragmented melodies frequently began and ended on weak beats, settled into or emerged from ostinati, and were dynamically and texturally faded, mixed, or contrasted. Tonality became less directional, functional, or narrative than tenuous, spatial, or symbolic as fit Webern's topics and literary settings. Oliver Korte traced Webern's Klangfelder to Mahler's "suspensions".

Expanding on Mahler's orchestration, Webern linked colorful, novel, fragile, and intimate sounds, often nearly silent at ppp, to lyrical topics: solo violin to female voice; closed or open voicings, sometimes sul ponticello, to dark or light; compressed range to absence, emptiness, or loneliness and registral expansion to fulfillment, (spiritual) presence, or transcendence; celesta, harp, and glockenspiel to the celestial or ethereal; and trumpet, harp, and string harmonics to angels or heaven.

With elements of Kabarett, neoclassicism, and ironic Romanticism in Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (1912), Schoenberg began to distance himself from Webern's and latterly Berg's aphoristic expressionism, which provoked the 1913 Skandalkonzert.

1914–1924: Mid-period Lieder

During and after World War I (1914–1926) Webern worked on some fifty-six songs, following Schoenberg's advice to set texts as a means of composing something more substantial than aphorisms. He finished thirty-two, ordered into sets as Opp. 12–19. The first of these mid-period Lieder was an unfinished setting of a passage ("In einer lichten Rose ...") from Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXXI.

Walter Kolneder noted "regression" to relatively "long arcs of melody" in Op. 12 by comparison to "'atomization' of the melodic line" in Op. 11. Adorno wrote that in Op. 12 "Webern's music secretly expands: he is mastering the solution which Schoenberg first displayed in Pierrot ... and ... Op. 22: that one cannot persist with the method of absolute purity". The contrapuntal procedures and nonstandard ensemble of Pierrot influenced Webern's Opp. 14–16: "How much I owe to your Pierrot", he told Schoenberg after setting Trakl's "Abendland III" (Op. 14/iv), in which, distinctly, there was no silence until a pause at the concluding gesture. Webern mingled his usual topics with recurrent wartime themes of wandering in search of home or solace.

Schoenberg "yearn[ed] for a style for large forms ... to give personal things an objective, general form." Since 1906 Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern indulged shared interest in Swedenborgian mysticism and Theosophy, reading Balzac's Louis Lambert and Séraphîta and Strindberg's Till Damaskus and Jacob lutte. Gabriel, protagonist of Schoenberg's semi-autobiographical Die Jakobsleiter (1914–1922, rev. 1944) described a journey: "whether right, whether left, forwards or backwards, uphill or down – one must keep on going without asking what lies ahead or behind", which Webern interpreted as a pitch-space metaphor. Schoenberg later reflected on "how enthusiastic [Webern and I] were about this." On the journey to composition with twelve tones, Webern revised many of his mid-period Lieder in the years after their apparent composition but before publication, increasingly prioritizing clarity of pitch relations, even against timbral effects, as Anne Shreffler and Felix Meyer described.

After Op. 16, Webern used twelve-tone technique for the first time, though he and Schoenberg had long experimented with the idea. Twelve-tone sets appear at the start of Op. 12/i (with repeated notes) and in some bars of Op. 12/iv, with many further examples of ten- and eleven-tone sets.

1924–1945: Formal coherence and expansion

The symmetry of Webern's tone row from Variations, Op. 30, was apparent from the equivalent, P1=IR1 and R12=I12, and thus reduced number of row forms, two, P and R, plus transpositions. Consisting of three related tetrachords: a and c consisting of two minor seconds and one minor third and b consisting of two minor thirds and one minor second. Notes 4–7 and 6–9 also consist of two minor seconds and one minor third. "The entire series thus consists of two intervals and has the greatest possible unity of series form, interval, motif, and chords.

Webern's 1926–1927 String Trio, Op. 20, was his first large-scale non-vocal work since the 1914 Cello Sonata. He produced many sketches and drafts toward this goal, including an abandoned 1917 string quartet; other efforts toward a string trio; a seventeen-measure 1920 movement scored for clarinet, trumpet, and violin; and piano works including Kinderstück (1924, intended as one of a set) and Klavierstück (1925).

Like Brahms's and Schoenberg's, Webern's music was marked by contrapuntal rigor, formal schemes, and systematic pitch organization long before twelve-tone technique. His tone rows comprised pitch groups symmetrically related by inversion, retrograde, or both (retrograde inversion), yielding invariance. He varied this structural and motivic unity superficially as before (e.g., fragmentation, Klangfarbenmelodie, and octave displacement).

Webern made further strides in his cantatas as he ecstatically wrote the Humpliks, synthesizing the rigorous style of his mature instrumental works with the word painting of his Lieder on a orchestral scale. His textures were somewhat denser yet more homophonic at the surface through nonetheless contrapuntal polyphonic means. In Op. 31/i he alternated lines and points, culminating twice in twelve-note simultaneities. For Rochberg "the principles of 'the structural spatial dimension' ... "join[ed] forces with lyrico-dramatic demands" in Webern's late cantatas and songs (Opp. 23, 25–26, 29, and 31).

At his death he left sketches for the movement of an apparent third cantata (1944–1945), first planned as a concerto, setting "Das Sonnenlicht spricht" from Jone's Lumen cycle.

Arrangements and orchestrations

In his youth (1903), Webern orchestrated five or more Schubert Lieder for an appropriately Schubertian orchestra (strings and pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns). In 1934, he did the same for two of Schubert's 1824 Six German Dances.

For Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances in 1921, Webern arranged, among other things, the 1888 Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz) of Johann Strauss II's Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) for string quartet, harmonium, and piano.

In 1924 Webern arranged Liszt's Arbeiterchor (Workers' Chorus, c. 1847–1848) for bass solo, mixed chorus, and large orchestra; thus Liszt's work was finally premièred when Webern conducted the first full-length concert of the Austrian Association of Workers Choir (13 and 14 March 1925). A review in the Wiener Zeitung (28 March 1925) read "neu in jedem Sinne, frisch, unverbraucht, durch ihn zieht die Jugend, die Freude" ("new in every respect, fresh, vital, pervaded by youth and joy"). The text (in English translation) read in part: "Let us have the adorned spades and scoops,/Come along all, who wield a sword or pen,/Come here ye, industrious, brave and strong/All who create things great or small."

Reception, influence, and legacy

Webern's music was generally considered difficult by performers and inaccessible by listeners alike. "To the limited extent that it was regarded", Milton Babbitt observed, it represented "the ultimate in hermetic, specialized, and idiosyncratic composition".

Composers and performers first tended to take Webern's work, with its residual post-Romanticism and initial expressionism, in mostly formalist directions with a certain literalism, departing from Webern's own practices and preferences in extrapolating from elements of his late style. This became known as post-Webernism. A richer, more historically informed understanding of Webern's music and its performance practice began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer sought and archived sketches, letters, lectures, recordings, and other articles of Webern's (and others') estates.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Webern's marginalization under Gleichschaltung was appreciated, but his pan-Germanism and assistance to Jewish friends were not as known or often mooted. For many, like Stravinsky, Webern never compromised his artistic identity and values, but for others the matter was less simple.

Performance practice

Eric Simon ... related ... : 'Webern was obviously upset by Klemperer's sober time-beating. ... [T]o the concert master [he] said: "... the phrase there ... must be played Tiiiiiiiiiii-aaaaaaaaa." Klemperer, overhearing ... said sarcastically: "... [N]ow you probably know exactly how you have to play the passage!"' Peter Stadlen ... [described Webern]'s reaction after the performance: ... '"A high note, a low note, a note in the middle—like the music of a madman!"'

The Moldenhauers detailed Webern's reaction to Otto Klemperer's 1936 Vienna performance of his Symphony (1928), Op. 21, which Webern played on piano for Klemperer "with ... intensity and fanaticism ... passionately".

Webern notated articulations, dynamics, tempo rubato, and other musical expressions, coaching performers to adhere to these instructions but urging them to maximize expressivity through musical phrasing. This was supported by personal accounts, correspondence, and extant recordings of Schubert's Deutsche Tänze (arr. Webern) and Berg's Violin Concerto under Webern's direction. Ian Pace considered Peter Stadlen's account of Webern's coaching for Op. 27 as indicating Webern's "desire for an extremely flexible, highly diaphanous, and almost expressively overloaded approach".

This aspect of Webern's work was often overlooked in his immediate post-war reception, which was roughly coterminous with the early music revival. Stravinsky engaged with Webern and Renaissance music in his later music; his amanuensis Robert Craft performed Webern as well as Monteverdi, Schütz, Gabrieli, and Tallis. Many musicians performed "music that is at the same time old and new", as Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople glossed it and as Richard Taruskin addressed. J. Peter Burkholder noted early and new music audience overlap.

Felix Galimir of the Galimir Quartet told The New York Times (1981): "Berg asked for enormous correctness in the performance of his music. But the moment this was achieved, he asked for a very Romanticized treatment. Webern, you know, was also terribly Romantic—as a person, and when he conducted. Everything was almost over-sentimentalized. It was entirely different from what we have been led to believe today. His music should be played very freely, very emotionally."


Schoenberg admired Webern's concision. Berg joked about his brevity. Hendrik Andriessen found Webern's music "pitiful" in this regard. In their second (1925) Abbruch self-parody, Anbruch [de] editors jested that "Webern's" (Mahler's) "extensive" Symphony of a Thousand had to be abbreviated.

For Felix Khuner, Webern was "just as revolutionary" as Schoenberg. In 1927, Hans Mersmann wrote that "Webern's music shows the frontiers and ... limits of a development which tried to outgrow Schoenberg's work."

Many artists portrayed Webern (often from life) in their work. Kokoschka (1912), Schiele (1917 and 1918), B. F. Dolbin [de] (1920 and 1924), and Rederer (1934) made drawings of Webern. Oppenheimer (1908), Kokoschka (1914), and Tom von Dreger [de] (1934) painted him. Stumpp made two lithographs of him (1927). Later, Humplik twice sculpted Webern (1927 and 1928), Jone variously portrayed him (1943 lithograph, several posthumous drawings, 1945 oil painting), and Rederer made a large woodcut of him (1964).

Identifying with Webern as a "solitary soul" amid 1940s wartime fascism, Luigi Dallapiccola independently and somewhat singularly found inspiration especially in Webern's lesser-known mid-period Lieder, blending its ethereal qualities and Viennese expressionism with bel canto. Stunned by Webern's Op. 24 at its 1935 ISCM festival world première under Jalowetz in Prague, Dallapiccola's impression was of unsurpassable "aesthetic and stylistic unity". He dedicated Sex carmina alcaei "with humility and devotion" to Webern, who he met in 1942 through Schlee, coming away surprised at Webern's emphasis on "our great Central European tradition." Dallapiccola's 1953 Goethe-lieder especially recall Webern's Op. 16 in style.

In 1947, Schoenberg remembered and stood firm with Berg and Webern despite rumors of the latter's having "fallen into the Nazi trap": "... [F]orget all that might have ... divided us. For there remains for our future what could only have begun to be realized posthumously: One will have to consider us three—Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern—as a unity, a oneness, because we believed in ideals ... with intensity and selfless devotion; nor would we ever have been deterred from them, even if those who tried might have succeeded in confounding us." For Krasner this put "'Vienna's Three Modern Classicists' into historical perspective". He summarized it as "what bound us together was our idealism."

1947–1950s: (Re)discovery and post-Webernism

Webern's death should be a day of mourning for any receptive musician. We must hail ... this great ... a real hero. Doomed to ... failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he ... kept on cutting ... dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had ... perfect knowledge.

Stravinsky lauded Webern in die Reihe

After World War II, there was unprecedented engagement with Webern's music. It came to represent a universally or generally valid, systematic, and compellingly logical model of new composition, especially at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse. René Leibowitz performed, promulgated, and published Schoenberg et son école; Adorno, Herbert Eimert, Scherchen, and others contributed. Composers and students listened in a quasi-religious trance to Peter Stadlen's 1948 Op. 27 performance.

Webern's gradual innovations in schematic organization of pitch, rhythm, register, timbre, dynamics, articulation, and melodic contour; his generalization of imitative techniques such as canon and fugue; and his inclination toward athematicism, abstraction, and lyricism variously informed and oriented European and Canadian, typically serial or avant-garde composers (e.g., Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pousseur, Ligeti, Sylvano Bussotti, Bruno Maderna, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Barbara Pentland). Eimert and Stockhausen devoted a special issue of die Reihe to Webern's œuvre in 1955. UE published his lectures in 1960.

In the US, Babbitt and initially George Rochberg found more in Schoenberg's twelve-tone practice. Elliott Carter's and Aaron Copland's critical ambivalence was marked by a certain enthusiasm and fascination nonetheless. Robert Craft fruitfully reintroduced Stravinsky to Webern's music, without which Stravinsky's late works would have taken different shape. Stravinsky staked his contract with Columbia Records to see Webern's then known music first both recorded and widely distributed. Stravinsky lauded Webern's "not yet canonized art" in 1959.

Among the New York School, John Cage and Morton Feldman first met in Carnegie Hall's lobby, ecstatic after a performance of Op. 21 by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. They cited the effect of its sound on their music. They later sung the praises of Christian Wolff as "our Webern".

Gottfried Michael Koenig suggested some early interest in Webern's music may have been that its concision and apparent simplicity facilitated didactic musical analysis. Robert Beyer [de] criticized serial approaches to Webern's music as reductive, narrowly focused more on Webern's procedures than his music while neglecting timbre in their typical selection of Opp. 27–28. Webern's music sounded like "a Mondrian canvas", "crude and unfinished", to Karel Goeyvaerts. Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski criticized some Darmstadt music as "acoustically absurd [if] visually amusing" (Darmstädter Tagblatt [de], 1959); a Der Kurier article of his was headlined "Meager modern music—only interesting to look at".

1950s onward: Beyond (late) Webern

[H]ermetic constructivism seems infused with intense emotion, ... diffused across the ... surface of the music. Gone is the mono-directional thrust of Classical and Romantic music; in its place a world of rotations and reflections, opening myriad paths for the listener to trace through textures of luminous clarity yet beguiling ambiguity.

George Benjamin described Webern's Op. 21. Many noted floating, spatial, static, or suspended qualities in some of Webern's music. Johnson noted spatial metaphors.

Through late 1950s onward, Webern's work reached musicians as far removed as Joel Thome and Frank Zappa, yet many post-war European musicians and scholars had already begun to look beyond as much as back at Webern in his context. Nono advocated for a more cultural and historical understanding of Webern's music.

Adorno lectured that in the prevailing climate "artists like Berg or Webern would hardly be able to make it" ("The Aging of the New Music", 1954). Against the "static idea of music" and "total rationalization" of the "pointillist constructivists," he advocated for more subjectivity, citing Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1911), in which Wassily Kandinsky wrote: "Schoenberg's [expressionist] music leads us to where musical experience is a matter not of the ear, but of the soul—and from this point begins the music of the future."

In the 1960s, many began to describe Webern and his like as a "dead end". Rochberg felt "Webern's music leaves his followers no new, unexplored territory." Stravinsky judged Webern "too original ... too purely himself. ... [T]he entire world had to imitate him [and] fail; of course it will blame Webern"; he blamed post-Webernism: "[T]he music now being charged to his name can neither diminish his strength nor stale his perfection."

In Votre Faust (1960–1968), Pousseur quoted and his protagonist Henri analyzed Webern's Op. 31. Yet there were already several elements of late or postmodernism (e.g., eclecticism of historical styles, mobile form, polyvalent roles). This coincided with a wider rapprochement with Berg, whose example Pousseur cited, from whose music he also quoted, and whose writings he translated into French in the 1950s. Boulez was "thrilled" by Berg's "universe ... never completed, always in expansion—a world so ... inexhaustible," referring to the rigorously organized, only partly twelve-tone Chamber Concerto.

Engaging with Webern's atonal works by some contrast to earlier post-Webernism, both Ferneyhough and Lachenmann expanded upon and went further than Webern in attention to the smallest of details and the use of ever more radically extended techniques. Ferneyhough's 1967 Sonatas for string quartet included atonal sections much in the style of Webern's Op. 9, yet more intensely sustained. In a comparison to his own 1969 Air, Lachenmann wrote of "a melody made of a single note [...] in the viola part" of Webern's Op. 10/iv (mm. 2–4) amid "the mere ruins of the traditional linguistic context," observing that "the pure tone, now living in tonal exile, has in this new context no aesthetic advantage over pure noise" ("Hearing [Hören] is Defenseless—without Listening [Hören]", 1985).

Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe, the Second Viennese School's music represented a professionally dangerous but sometimes exciting or inspiring alternative to socialist realism. Their influence on composers behind the Iron Curtain was mediated by anti-fascist and -German sentiment as well as anti-formalist cultural policies and Cold War separation. Ligeti lamented the separation and left in 1956, noting that "after Bartók hardly any grass could grow".

Webern's influence predominated after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, bearing on Pál Kadosa, Endre Szervánszky, and György Kurtág. Among Czechs, Pavel Blatný attended the Darmstädter Ferienkurse and wrote music with serial techniques in the late 1960s. He returned to tonality in Brno and was rewarded. Marek Kopelent discovered the Second Viennese as an editor and was particularly taken by Webern. Kopelent was blacklisted for his music and despaired, unable to attend international performances of his work.

Official Soviet Russian condemnation eased in the post-Stalinist Khrushchev Thaw with the rehabilitation of some affected by the Zhdanov Doctrine. Sheet music and recordings entered via journalists, friends, family (e.g., from Nicolas to Sergei Slonimsky), and especially composers and musicians (e.g., Igor Blazhkov [ru], Gérard Frémy, Alexei Lubimov, Maria Yudina), who traveled more. Stationed in Zossen as a military band arranger (1955–1958), Yuri Kholopov risked arrest for obtaining scores in West Berlin and from the Leipzig office of Schott Music. Kruschchev warned, "dodecaphonic music, music of noises ... this cacophonic music we totally reject. Our people cannot include such trash".

Philip Herschkowitz, poverty-stricken, taught privately in Moscow with cautious emphasis on Beethoven and the tradition from which Webern emerged. His pupil Nikolai Karetnikov taped Glenn Gould's 1957 Moscow Conservatory performance of Webern's Op. 27. In practice like that of Webern, Karetnikov derived the tone row of his Symphony No. 4 from motives as small as two notes related by semitone.

In Soviet Music, Marcel Rubin criticized "Webern and His Followers" (1959), by contrast to Berg and Schoenberg, for going too far. Alfred Schnittke complained in an open letter (1961) of composers' restricted education. Through Grigory Shneyerson's anti-formalist On Music Living and Dead (1960) and Johannes Paul Thilman's anti-modernist "On the Dodecaphonic Method of Composition" (1958), many (e.g., Eduard Artemyev, Victor Ekimovsky, Vladimir Martynov, Boris Tischenko) ironically learned more about what had been and even was still forbidden.

Through Andrei Volkonsky, Lydia Davydova recalled, Schoenberg's and Webern's music came to Russia alongside Renaissance and early Baroque music. Tischenko remembered that in the 1960s, Volkonsky "was the first swallow of the avant-garde. [T]hose who came after him ... already followed in his tracks. I consider [him] the discoverer." Edison Denisov described the 1960s as his "second conservatory", crediting Volkonsky not only for introducing Webern, but also Gesualdo.

This tolerance did not survive the Brezhnev Stagnation. Volkonsky emigrated in 1973, Herschkowitz in 1987, and of Khrennikov's Seven (1979), Denisov, Elena Firsova, Sofia Gubaidulina, Dmitri Smirnov, and Viktor Suslin eventually emigrated.


Many choreographers set Webern's music to dance. Martha Graham and George Balanchine choreographed several works in Episodes I and II respectively (1959) as a New York City Ballet "novelty". John Cranko set Opus 1 (1965) to Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1. Rudi van Dantzig choreographed Webern's music in Ogenblikken (1968) and Antwoord gevend (1980); Glen Tetley in Praeludium (1978) and Contredanses (1979); Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker alongside that of Beethoven and Schnittke in Erts (1992); and Trisha Brown in Twelve Ton Rose (1996). Jiří Kylián set only Webern's music in No More Play (1988) and Sweet Dreams (1990), more often pairing it with that of other composers in several ballets (1984–1995).

Since the 1980s: Reappraisals and historiography

Webern's legacy, bitterly contested in the "serial wars", remained subject to polemic vicissitudes. Amid the "Restoration of the 1980s", as Martin Kaltenecker termed a paradigm shift from structure to perception within musicological discourse, musicologists quarreled. Charles Rosen scorned "historical criticism ... avoiding any serious engagement with a work or style ... one happens not to like". Andreas Holzer warned of "post-factual tendencies". Pamela M. Potter advised considering "the complexity of ... day-to-day existence" under Nazism, partly in considering the relevance of composers' politics to their canonic status. Meanwhile Allen Forte and Bailey Puffett formally analyzed Webern's atonal and twelve-tone œuvres respectively.

Taruskin prioritized audience reception, not "musical utopianism". He excoriated the Second Viennese School's "idiosyncratic view of the past", linking Webern and Adler to Eduard Hanslick and "neo-Hegelian" Franz Brendel; he criticized historical determinism, "the natural ally of totalitarian politics." Martin Scherzinger noted that Taruskin's criticisms sought "active complicity with undesirable politics". Noted for his polemicism and revisionism, Taruskin described his "dubious reputation" on Webern and New Music and was praised and criticized by many. For Franklin Cox, Taruskin was an unreliable historian who opposed the Second Viennese School's "progressivist historicist" emancipation of the dissonance with a "reactionary historicist" "ideolog[y] of tonal restoration".

On Webern's 1983 birth centenary, Tim Page noted less formalist readings of his work. The occasion "went almost unmarked", Glenn Watkins observed, "a fate hardly imaginable for Berg [on his] 1985 [centenary]". After Webern's mid-century "meteoric ascension and ultimate canonization", Watkins described "quick shifts of interest" tapering to neglect. Webern's music was established but infrequent in standard (repeating) orchestral repertoire. His œuvre was played at the Venice Festival of Contemporary Music (1983), Juilliard (1995), and the Vienna Festival (2004), echoing six international festivals in his name (1962–1978). In some obscurity (1941 or 1942), Webern had been quietly sure that "in the future even the postman will whistle my melodies!" But many did not acquire such a taste. He remained polarizing and provocative.

Noting this aspect of his reception, Johnson described Webern's "almost unique position in the canon of Western composers". Michael Walter [de] argued Webern's innovations impeded his "exoteric canonization". By contrast to the "concert canon", Anne C. Shreffler considered Webern's better standing in a "separate canon" of technical and formal innovation. Burkholder argued that music of the "historicist tradition", including Webern's, was secure in "a musical museum", "for that is what the concert hall has become". Mark Berry described Webern, already among Boulez's "big five", as one of five "canonical pillars of classic historical early twentieth-century modernism". David H. Miller suggested Webern "achieved a certain kind of acceptance and canonization".

Pascal Decroupet observed an unquestioned "canon of polarizations" in prior histories. Johnson noted the "co-existence and interaction of diverse stylistic practices" with "remarkable similarities", challenging "conservative and progressive" campism and decentering musicology's technical periodizations via the longue durée of global modernity. Thus he ventured continuity between the "broken homeland" of Webern's Opp. 12–18 and the "broken pastoral" of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony; between Webern's "evanescent images of musical fullness" and the brief, fragmentary nature of Chopin's Op. 28, which Schumann likened to "ruins". Building on Shreffler's and Felix Meyer's sketch studies as institutions acquired and made the Moldenhauers' estate accessible, Johnson worked toward a hermeneutics of Webern's (and Mahler's) music.

Recordings by Webern

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