The son of an aristocratic mining engineer (Webern dropped the nobiliary ‘von’ when Austria became a republic after the First World War), it was while he was a student at the University of Vienna that he was introduced to Arnold Schoenberg. The relationship between the two was more friend and disciple than master and pupil and, having produced his official Op 1 (Passacaglia for Orchestra written in the conventional German idiom), he turned to atonalism. His Six Orchestral Pieces, Op 6 (1909, premiered 1913) created a scandal when they were first heard in Vienna. Concision and logic are emphasised – his Five Pieces for orchestra (1913, first performed in 1969) takes only 10 minutes to perform, while the fourth movement lasts a mere 19 seconds. Accepting that he was never going to make a living as a popular composer, Webern’s life, apart from a year in the army, was spent in conducting, private teaching and lecturing.
His wife Wilhelmine, a cousin whom he married in 1911, bore him three daughters and a son, not helping his precarious financial situation. Whatever you think of his music, few composers have shown such fortitude and resoluteness in living with their artistic ideals and having abuse thrown at them, whatever they produced. When Schoenberg formalised his theories and gave 12-tone music a structure, Webern began writing longer works framed in strict classical forms; but the Anschluss of 1938 made his position difficult. He was denounced by the Nazis as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and his music was banned in Austria and Germany. Aged nearly 60, Webern was called up during the Second World War as an air-raid warden. In the spring of 1945 he learnt that his only son had been killed on the Yugoslav front. At Easter, he left his apartment in Mödling (Vienna) to travel to Mittersill near Salzburg, where he had heard his son-in-law was involved in the black market. American soldiers had come to arrest him and when Webern stepped outside to smoke a cigar given to him by his son-in-law, an American soldier bumped into him in the dark. Webern was ordered to stop, misunderstood the order, approached the soldier and was shot dead. More than Berg and Schoenberg, Webern’s music has exercised a tremendous influence on contemporary composers, especially Boulez and Stockhausen.