Anton Webern (3 December 1883 – 15 September 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. He was a member of the Second Viennese School. As a student and significant follower of Arnold Schoenberg, he became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique; in addition, his innovations regarding schematic organization of pitch, rhythm and dynamics were formative in the musical technique later known as total serialism.
Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, as Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern. He was the only surviving son of Carl von Webern, a civil servant, and Amelie (née Geer) who was a competent pianist and accomplished singer — the only obvious source of the future composer’s talent. He never used his middle names and dropped the von in 1918 as directed by the Austrian government’s reforms after World War I. After spending much of his youth in Graz and Klagenfurt, Webern attended Vienna University from 1902. There he studied musicology with Guido Adler, writing his thesis on the Choralis Constantinus of Heinrich Isaac. This interest in early music would greatly influence his compositional technique in later years by employing palindromic form on both the micro- and macro-scale and the economical use of musical materials.
He studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, writing his Passacaglia, Op. 1 as his graduation piece in 1908. He met Alban Berg, who was also a pupil of Schoenberg’s, and these two relationships would be the most important in his life in shaping his own musical direction. After graduating, he took a series of conducting posts at theatres in Ischl, Teplitz, Danzig, Stettin, and Prague before moving back to Vienna. There he helped run Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances from 1918 through 1922 and conducted the “Vienna Workers Symphony Orchestra” from 1922 to 1934.
Webern’s music was denounced as “cultural Bolshevism” and “degenerate art” by the Nazi Party in Germany, even before the Austrian Anschluss of 1938. Although Webern had sharply attacked Nazi cultural policies in private lectures given in 1933, their intended publication did not take place at that time, which proved fortunate since this later “would have exposed Webern to serious consequences.” As a result of official disapproval, he found it harder (though at no stage impossible) to earn a living, and had to take on work as an editor and proofreader for his publishers, Universal Edition.
It was thanks to the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart that Webern was able to attend the festive premiere of his Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 in Winterthur, Switzerland in 1943. Reinhart invested all the financial and diplomatic means at his disposal to enable Webern to travel to Switzerland. In return for this support, Webern dedicated the work to him.