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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why give a day to the mad scientist of music?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 7, 2005

The accidental killing of Anton von Webern, 60 years ago next week, was a pivotal moment in modern culture. Abstruse, obscure and painfully incapable of emotional expression, Webern had stepped outside to light an after-dinner cigar procured by his ex-SS son-in-law on September 15, 1945 when an American soldier fired three times into the dark in the occupied Austrian village of Mittersill. 'I have been shot,' said the composer, stumbling back indoors. 'It is over.'

News of the tragedy was slow to travel and newsprint hard to come by. Months lapsed before any eulogy of Webern appeared in the musical press and when his first cantata was posthumously premiered at an international festival in London the following summer it was received with, at best, respectful bafflement for nothing in the music was benign or ingratiating.

Webern wrote in tight little aphorisms, applying Arnold Schoenberg's 12-note method of composition with fanatical rigour to such random variables as rhythm, intervals and dynamic levels of loud and soft. Inspiration was anathema to Webern. All had to be strictly counted and numerically correct. If pleasure entered the process, it was the solitary satisfaction of making a line read the same forwards, backwards and upside down. Inverted by nature, Webern wrote music that turned in upon itself, rejecting every human value except absolute order.

To composers coming of age in post-War Europe, he was the perfect hero and patron saint: a composer who liquidated the cultural past with a clinical solution, his death an act of martyrdom. Pierre Boulez in France revered him above Schoenberg. Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany claimed the discovery of Webern as his 'greatest musical experience'. In the second half of the 20th century, Webern defined and dominated modernity in music as Picasso had done in painting and Joyce in English literature.

No composer has ever achieved so much influence with so little music. Every note he wrote, played end to end, lasts little more than five hours and BBC Radio 3 will tax the forbearance of many of its two million listeners when, on the anniversary of his death tomorrow week, it devotes a whole day to Webern and his music.

None of it is easy on the ear. It took Webern four years of study with Schoenberg in Vienna before he scratched out his first opus in 1908, a 12-minute Passacaglia for Orchestra. In a tediously discursive era, brevity was his distinguishing feature. His only symphony is ten minutes long, his string quartet eight. Concise as they are, his music requires unblinking concentration from the listener through a trail of disjointed plinks and energy spikes. The reward is neither instant nor necessarily sensual - which explains why Webern is the least loved of all great composers and the one held most to blame for alienating audiences from contemporary music.

His impact is unmistakable. When the Hollywood director William Friedkin went searching for the scariest music on earth for his 1973 movie The Exorcist, it was Webern that chilled his marrow, choosing Five Pieces for Orchestra to stalk the realm between known and unknown after a tranquilising burst of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells).

Webern seemed to know no fear. The music he wrote was logical in the extreme, irrefutably superior to romantic improvisation, as much science as it was art.

He was, by all accounts, an odd man, a scion of Austrian nobility who married his first cousin and shrank from close relationships. Prone to wild rages and long silences, he may have been clinically depressed for much of his life and suffered a public breakdown when, at a 1936 festival in Barcelona, he refused to come out of his dressing room for the world premiere of Alban Berg's violin concerto. Berg's widow had to go down on her knees and beg him to relinquish the score to another musician.

Although a capable conductor, he never settled in a proper job and, apart from a few BBC dates in London, gave most of his concerts with a workers orchestra in Vienna. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, Webern found himself on the list of the banned, demonised for 'decadence' and prohibited from publication and performance. Despite official opprobrium, he embraced Nazism with naive enthusiasm, cheering Hitler's victories and justifying his racial purities while, in the same breath and at risk of arrest, decrying the enforced exile of his teacher, Schoenberg, and the extirpation of modern art.

This bizarre dichotomy has led some interpreters to depict Webern as the mad scientist of music, a boffin who in the grim finality of the Third Reich found compositional uplift in the ethereal vocal canons of the medieval court composer Heinrich Isaac. Weakened by conscripted labour and mourning his only son, who was killed at the front, Webern fled Vienna to his in-laws' mountain village, where he fell sick with dysentery. He weighed just fifty kilos when he was shot, aged 61, by a US army cook who was so consumed with remorse that he died exactly a decade later, irredeemably alcoholic.

In the modernist trinity with Schoenberg and Berg, Webern was the fundamentalist, the doctrinaire apostle who would never bend a rule or borrow a tune for the sake of beauty but who, in rigorous application of the law, achieved the clarity of morning air and mountain streams. To Igor Stravinsky, who switched from neo-classicism to Webern's serialism in the early 1950s, his works were 'dazzling diamonds' an organic resource perfected by human hands. To Boulez and Stockhausen they amounted to an epiphanic revelation that structure in music arises from the order in which notes and intervals are used.

What strikes the innocent ear in Webern, after initial dismay and confusion, is the frozen moment of perfect sound. Listen on, and you enter a world like no other: obsessive, self-contained, episodically celestial. This quality alone would rank Webern among the immortals but there is another rare distinction, and that can be heard only when the works are arrayed, soup to sweet, as they will be next Thursday on

Scan the entire canon, Passacaglia to posthumously published piano pieces, and you will not find one weak work of Webern's, or one that fails immediately to proclaim its authorship. In the history of western music, that statement is true only of Beethoven and Wagner. It is time to recognise Webern by the same measure, as a maker of the modern world and a sanctuary from its pressures.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001