Anton Webern was born December 3, 1883. Had he lived, today would have been his 129th birthday. (That’s a joke, obviously, but Webern did in fact die before his time—he was shot by an American soldier on September 15, 1945, while standing outside his house having a smoke.)

Webern studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and formed an important friendship with fellow student Alban Berg (composer of the opera Wozzeck). But unlike either of those men, whose pieces were frequently grand in scale, he (in the words of Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century) “found his calling as a miniaturist.” Webern composed extremely short, compressed pieces that—despite employing atonality, serialism and other theoretically rigorous strategies that can sound alienating to the listener in search of conventional melody and harmony—are extremely beautiful for all their alien spareness. Ross again: “The impulse to go to the brink of nothingness is central to Webern’s aesthetic; if the listener is paying insufficient attention, the shorter movements of his works may pass unnoticed. The joke went around that Webern had introduced the marking pensato: Don’t play the note, only think it.”

His body of work is almost as truncated as his phrases and compositions: Webern only published 31 pieces in his lifetime, and his complete works (conducted by Pierre Boulez) fit on a six-CD set. But he’s regarded as a major composer, and his influence has stretched beyond the world of classical music and modern composition into jazz and beyond. It’s easy to hear Webern in the work of “lowercase” electro-acoustic musicians, and free jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter has spoken to me about bringing the composer’s ideas about concision, melody, and the use of extended instrumental technique to bear on his own work. But even if he had never influenced anyone, his own work would retain its uniquely striking power.

Phil Freeman

Here’s a performance of his Concerto for Nine Instruments (Opus 24) from the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, in 2009:

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