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Whatever Happened to Webern?

The accidental shooting by a nervous American soldier and subsequent death of Anton von Webern in the Austrian town of Mittersill immediately after WWII on the night of September 15, 1945, was a terrible tragedy for the impoverished Webern family and for the world of serious music. Webern, then 61, demonized as an artistic degenerate and his music banned by the Nazis, was but a few years from becoming one of the most famous and influential composers of the Twentieth Century, something he could have easily lived long enough to enjoy.

By the time of the death of Webern’s teacher and friend, Arnold Schoenberg, in 1951, Webern’s work was beginning to form the basis of exploratory compositional methods employed by a new generation of major composers, such as Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono in Europe, and Babbitt, Cage, Feldman, Wolpe, and, a decade later, Zappa in the US. Even older, established composers like Messiaen and Stravinsky (who was born the year before Webern) came under his influence. Stravinsky’s conversion was all the more astounding given the fact that he had vehemently opposed the 12-tone methods of Schoenberg and his pupils, only to fervently adapt them in his later years. A work like Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra has Webern’s influence stamped all over it, and Messiaen’s 1949 work of total serialism (thought to be the first of its kind), Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, paved the way forward for Boulez (Structures for Two Pianos) and others. The declaration of Webern’s sainthood in the 1950s can easily been seen in the writings of the period, culminating in the 1955 publication of an entire edition of the journal of new music of the time, Die Reihe, dedicated to Webern.

The passionate intensity of expression in Webern’s musical catalog (who was a romantic at heart and a dedicated follower of Mahler) has often been overlooked by composers and listeners— overshadowed by the theoretical extrapolations of his disciples of the 1950s and 60s, who were mostly concerned with the formulations of symmetrical coolness that allowed for a rigorous scaffold of compositional construction. As a composer who was greatly influenced by Webern and his followers during my college student years in the 1970s, I have some sympathy for these methods, which I long ago added to my own toolbox. After all, anything that helps to get from one note to another is a welcome addition to any composer’s method. It was only later that I made the connection to the most important aspect of Webern’s music when it is performed well: it has an incomparable, luminous beauty.

From Messiaen’s class in Paris of the late 1940s through the 1970s and beyond, Webern’s music, and the theoretical methods derived from his music by others, continued to exert a gravitational pull on college campuses and take center stage in the education of composers. And it wasn’t just the construction and application of symmetrical serial structures that were used as teaching fodder. For instance, in my own training in the 1970s, I was led by my teacher, Alexander Goehr, to the study of Webern’s composition of non-serial, atonal canons (Fünf Canons, Op. 16) to show me the way in writing a set of canonic pieces for two violins that I was working on. These studies still resonate with me—though I have long moved on from that particular sound world—and inform my work to this day.

The academic worship of Webern has long since faded into the background, and I find that many young composers and music students have only a vague notion of him. The Webern festivals and single performances have dropped significantly. Recordings of the small catalog of complete works are readily available (the Boulez version fits on six CDs), but there is no audience clamoring to hear these works today, which is a pity. Anyone who thinks Webern’s music is cold and unforgiving should listen to Mitsuko Uchida play his Variations for Piano, Op. 27, or Dorothy Dorow sing his many songs with piano accompaniment by Rudolf Jansen (all available on CD). These compelling performances reveal unique qualities of sound of greatly expressive intensity and are aesthetically absorbing.

So, where is Webern today? His stylistically emblematic klangfarbenmelodie, often described as a kind of musical pointillism, and deliberate deployment of internally symmetrical motives and thematic material, have long been assimilated into the language, and can easily be heard in the current eclectic era of music, including forming the basis of minimalism, long mistakenly thought to be the antithesis of Webern. Furthermore, the workings of 1950s total serialism (not a Webern technique, but conceptually developed from his work) might have been a dead end in and of themselves, but these were useful experiments in the extents and limits of compositional method, and led to the pervasive adaptation of algorithmic forms of composition in our own time.

Whatever happened to Webern? It seems to me that he has become immortalized: embedded in the fabric of the tradition of musical composition that began with the Greeks and continues to this day. I often wonder what music Webern would have written had he not gone out that fateful evening in 1945 to smoke his cigar. It is conceivable that he could have lived into the 1970s, and we would have another 35 or 40 years of compositions to listen to and study.

Copyright 2015 by Jack Van Zandt, All Rights Reserved

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