Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Anton Webern.


Webern was an Austrian composer, a student of Schoenberg, and a fascinating figure. Little known in his lifetime, he was revered by the post-war serialist school of composers.

His music tends to be short and dense, with compact expressive gestures. He was very sensitive to timbre, and much of his work is concerned with minute changes in tone color.

He was killed, accidentally, at the end of World War II. He was shot at his brother-in-law's house by an American security officer when he went out to smoke a cigar. Oops!

As noted, his compositions tended, increasingly, to be very short. His entire oeuvre is on three CDs. Some pieces span less than a minute. His Symphony, Op. 21 is less than 9 minutes long.

At first a late Romantic expressionist, he soon turned to atonality, and then to Schoenberg's 12-tone serial system of composition. Arguably, he was a stricter adherent to the system than either Schoenberg or his other famous student, Alban Berg.

I find his music fascinating and rich. Some people hate it. It is dense and often challenging, but (I assert) ultimately extremely rewarding. He was interested in Renaissance music (he wrote his dissertation on it) and intertwined its complex canonic and contrapuntal forms into his modernist idiom. Palindromes abound! Which is awesome.

I recommend the Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 as an example of his early atonal style. And the Variations for Piano, Op. 27 as a good example of his later serial style.

Here and here and here you can listen to some music.

You should listen to his music. (He is a personal favorite; if you read this space regularly, you'll note that he's often attacked and maligned.)


Sator Arepo said...

He was also, kind of sort of possibly a Nazi sympathizer. (Not a real Nazi, though...he warned his Jewish friends to flee in advance of the Anschluss.) Oops. Oh, well!

Aaron said...

Great artists are often, sadly, less-than-admirable people. I don't think that invalidates the art, though.

Anonymous said...

Attacked and maligned??? NO. His music was nothing but a collection of warm fuzzy moments and it reminds of kittens and warm summer evenings.

The real problem with Webern's music is that there is a glorification and a dependence (on Webern's part) for highly structured forms full of musical equivalents (eg. palindromes, canons and the like). There's nothing wrong with these things per se, but they are made a lot easier when you have "free atonality", and if you have worked with the chromatic scale, making symmetrical forms out of 12 tone rows isn't a real challenge. The chromatic scale is already symmetrical. However, to do these things with tonal music takes far greater skill and greater command of your musical tools.

Look for example at Bartok's Cantata Profana where the main musical materials transform symmetrically around a "magic" harmonic section (I forget precisely where -- check the golden mean ;-), and bridge the gap between the related pitch sets of the opening and the close of the piece. The clearest enuciation of this come in the very opening and closing iterations of a scale built on d which transform is a very audible manner. The effect is that the piece seems to evolved and, to some extent, resolved the unstable musical material. And most importantly, in an audible fashion.

Of course, this isn't to dismiss the music of Webern, nor do not I recognize that like most musical arguments, this one is based on personal aestetics. But perhaps I am saying that clever formal contructions are an element of good music, not good music itself.

Although, there is certainly a refreshing nature to pieces like his last work, a cantata, in which he simply repeats the final three stanzas (each identical) and when finished, stops. His intentions clear, transparent, and an honest interpretation of the subject. I find this trait to quite admirable.