A Resu­mé of the 20th Century – 2000 Back to the Future

Anton Webern

Born December 3, 1883, in Vienna Died September 15, 1945, in Mittersill

Anton Webern entered the University of Vienna in 1902 completing his doctorate on the works of Heirich Adler in 1906. While at the university, he had two encounters which had an important bearing on his later work. First, he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, from whom he learned 12-tone composition techniques. His other significant encounter was with the music of the 15th and 16th century Flemish masters; their complicated contrapuntal style can be observed at different levels in Webern’s own works. Along with their colleague Alban Berg, Webern and Schoenberg originated what now is called the "Neo-Viennese" school of serial composition which has had such a far-reaching influence upon the development of 20th century music. Webern recognized that the twelve-note principle sanctioned a severity and virtuosity of polyphony that he could compare with that of the Renaissance masters he had studied. Unlike Schoenberg, he never again sought to compose in any other way. Having had leftist sympathies, he lost all his public position when the Nazis came to power. The composer was shot and killed in error by a soldier who mistook him for a black marketeer after the end of of the World War II hostilities, leaving a total acknowledged output of about three hours’ duration.

Four Pieces, Op. 7 (1910) Friedrich Wildgans, in his catalogue of Webern’s works, says of Op. 7: "These highly concentrated pieces (...) already demonstrate the composer’s conscious attempts to express every musical thought in the briefest possible form. They are, so to speak, the basis, as well as the point of depearture, for those works of the middle period - without being built on the concept of a twelve-note structure - that finally break with the old tonal connections; they also finally do away with traditional thematic from. In their place motivic working appears, with extremely brief motifs of only a few notes, sometimes only highly expressive, isolated single notes acting as motifs."

The Four Pieces are, respectively, nine, twenty-four, fourteen, and fifteen measures long. The dynamic palette tends overwhelmingly in the direction of pianissimo and pianississimo, with only sparing use of loud outbursts. The meter changes often, sometimes bar by bar. There is no key signature; each note bears its own accidental mark. In this work of such extreme concentration, nothing is left to the imagination. Each tone, gradation of color, tempo, and dynamic, is essential to a performance of the Four Pieces.

Ileen Zovluck

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