In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anton Webern

  • Introduction
  • New Musicology

Music Anton Webern
Thomas Ahrend, Stefan Münnich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0238


Anton Webern (b. 1883–d. 1945) is one of the most significant composers in the history of 20th-century music. Born in Vienna and raised in Graz and Klagenfurt, he studied musicology at the University of Vienna with Guido Adler from 1902 to 1906 and became a private pupil of Arnold Schoenberg in 1904. Together with his teacher, as well as his fellow student and friend Alban Berg, he was an exponent of avant-garde music in Austria ever since 1910 (the year of the first performance of some of Webern’s “atonal” works) and a representative of the so-called Second Viennese School. In the 1920s, Webern adopted Schoenberg’s “composition with twelve notes related only to one another” in a characteristically individual manner, emphasizing internal relationships of the rows. Although he was excluded from almost all of his former activities—especially from conducting—due to the cultural policy in prewar Austria from 1934 onward, Webern did not leave the country, although he communicated only within a small circle, including the painter and poet Hildegard Jone, whose verse he exclusively set to music in his late vocal compositions. Due to a misunderstanding he was shot and killed by an American Army soldier in September 1945. Throughout his lifetime, Webern was generally regarded as a radical follower, ardent disciple, and even as an epigone, of Schoenberg. After his death, young composers of the Darmstadt circle recognized Webern’s work as groundbreaking for their integral serialism. In the 1950s, this led to an extraordinary posthumous fame for Webern, connecting him to the controversies regarding New Music in the “Webern Style.” During the 1970s, commentators recognized Webern’s music more for its expressivity and its connections with the music of Mahler. From the very beginning, scholarly literature about Webern played its part in the construction of such specific images of the composer. In the 1980s, with the transfer of the greater part of Webern’s estate from Hans Moldenhauer’s private archive in Spokane, WA, to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, researchers gained more open access to the contents of the archive, so that they could address some previous polarizing views on Webern’s efforts through source studies. At the beginning of the 21st century, Webern and his music also became the subject of different approaches related to cultural studies in a broader sense (e.g., social studies or gender studies) and postmodern methodologies (e.g., deconstruction). At any rate, Webern’s frequently very concentrated, even condensed sound structures have been a favorite subject for analyses by a vast spectrum of music-theoretical approaches and schools, of which this article can provide only a representative selection.

General Overviews

Within the context of Bryan R. Simms’s Companion to the Second Viennese School, which provides useful information about this group of composers as a whole, Shreffler 1999 is an excellent entry point. Bailey Puffet 2001, an encyclopedia article, is based on her Webern monography (see Life and Works), while Krones 2016 focuses on the expressive aspects of the music. Adorno 1999, originally published in 1959, provides a valuable overview of Webern’s oeuvre within the context of the author’s music philosophy and framed within the esthetic debates of the time, while Ahrend and Matter 2018 gives an overview on the basis of updated research findings and analyses.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. “Anton von Webern.” Translated by Rodney Livingstone. In Sound Figures. By Theodor W. Adorno, 91–105. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503615335

    Based on a radio lecture for the Hessischer Rundfunk, and originally published in German (Merkur 13.3 [March 1959]: 201–214; Klangfiguren. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1959, pp. 157–181). An inspiring overview from the viewpoint of the influential philosopher and renowned expert on the Second Viennese School. Webern’s music is characterized as “absolute lyricism,” and it is thus contrasted with a mere technical reception by serial composers at that time.

  • Ahrend, Thomas, and Michael Matter. “Anton Webern.” In Komponisten der Gegenwart (KDG). Edited by Hanns-Werner Heister and Walter Wolfgang Sparrer. Munich, Germany: Edition Text+Kritik, 2018.

    Available by subscription only. Detailed account of the stages of Webern’s compositional biography (youth, lessons with Schönberg, atonality, vocal lyricism, dodecaphony, Jone settings, and reception) supported by many analytical observations on, among others, Opp. 1, 5, 7, 12, 14, 20, 28, 31. Includes a chronological catalogue of works with updated findings of the Anton Webern Gesamtausgabe (see Catalogues), and a selected discography, videography, and bibliography.

  • Bailey Puffet, Kathryn. "Webern, Anton." In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Available by subscription only. Discusses Webern’s works in the context of their chronological periods and/or aspects of genres. Includes complete list of published works and selective list of unpublished ones. Originating in a printed version of this article, published in 2001 in the second edition of The New Grove; it updated the first edition’s article by Paul Griffiths from 1981. The fifth edition of The Grove (1954) contained an article by Humphrey Searle, a former pupil of Webern.

  • Krones, Hartmut. “Webern, Anton Friedrich Wilhelm.” In MGG Online. Edited by Laurenz Lütteken. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2016

    Available by subscription only. The author focuses on the expressive and semantic aspects of the music. Includes a biographical outline and an extensive list of works. A printed version of this article was published in 2007 in MGG2 (Personenteil 17. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, cols. 586–622), which revised the in some respects outdated, but historically informative article by Hans Ferdinand Redlich from 1968 in MGG1 (Vol. 14, edited by Friedrich Blume, cols. 339–350).

  • Shreffler, Anne C. “Anton Webern.” In Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern: A Companion to the Second Viennese School. Edited by Bryan R. Simms, 251–314. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    Embedded in a broader contextualization of the conceptual and cultural backgrounds as well as of the legacy of the Second Viennese School and its main representatives, the Webern chapter sketches the composer’s life within eight biographical sections that also discuss the compositions of the respective periods. A particular focus is given to Webern’s early years and the aphoristic and hermetic character of his music, which is claimed to combine quietness, structural complexity, and lyricism.

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