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Anton Webern, one of the great innovative voices for 20th-century music, was born in Vienna, Austria on December 3, 1883. He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg at the University in Vienna, and received his doctorate in research in 1906. All of Webern’s works show the influence of Schoenberg; both he and Alban Berg worked with Schoenberg at a crucial time in the master’s creative life — an experience that would permanently color the works of both young composers. After graduation, Webern conducted in various provincial theatres in Germany and in Prague, and supervised performances of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances in Vienna in November of 1918. He then became principal conductor of the Vienna Workers’ Symphony Concerts and took the opportunity to conduct first performances of several of Schoenberg and his followers’ compositions. He formed the Kunststelle, a very able amateur choir, which took part in many of his orchestral concerts, and during this time, showed himself to be a fine interpreter of the classic repertory. Overall, however, Webern was not a prominent figure in Viennese performing circles, for he preferred to lead a quiet life, and, after the First World War ended in 1918, he settled at Modling and began to devote his time to composition and teaching.
With the onset of the Second World War, Webern’s life became complicated when his works were banned as “cultural Bolshevism” in Germany and all German-occupied countries. He was not allowed to teach or to lecture and was forced to rely on income from proof-reading for a Viennese publishing concern. He moved with his family to the Salzburg countryside in 1945, and it was there, on September 15, 1945, that he was accidentally shot by a member of the occupying troops.
Because of the quiet lifestyle that Webern led, his life was relatively free from incident before that final tragedy. That lifestyle is reflected in his creative output, which is, above all, stylistically consistent, and, categorically, can be called “extreme modernist” from beginning to end. In some instances, performances of his works brought about severe audience reaction and, on several occasions, provoked fights among members of the public. All of his compositions demonstrate what may be considered his most obvious characteristics: angular, leaping melody, beautiful soaring effects, a contrapuntal texture broken up into thematic bits and pieces which, as a whole, suggests the influence of Debussy. He was perhaps the purest exponent of the twelve-tone technique and used it within a very strong “classical” style. Webern was a great teacher and demanded perfection from his pupils, and his charming, yet simple and direct personality was one of the characteristics that enabled him to be in great demand as a lecturer. Among his works are compositions for chorus and orchestra, for orchestra, chamber and voice, chamber groups, violin and piano, cello and piano, piano solo, and for voice.