ANTON VON WEBERN: A Chronicle of his Life and Work by Hans with Rosaleen Moldenhauer Moldenhauer
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ANTON VON WEBERN: A Chronicle of his Life and Work

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Sometime in the future even the postman will whistle my melodies!"" So spoke ever-optimistic Anton Webern, the most unlikely member of the Viennese triumvirate (Webern, Alban Berg, and mentor Arnold Schoenberg) that championed atonal--and then twelve-tone--music in the first half of the 20th century. And, though Moldenhauer's thorough biography analyzes the music far more thoughtfully than it does the man, the straightforward presentation of this little-known life--enlivened by bristling letters and diaries--is rich with fascinating paradoxes and ironies. Of noble birth (but to be perpetually short of funds), young cellist-composer Webern had already begun to stray from key signatures before he met Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, but from then on he ""completely surrendered"" to the overpowering personality of the Jewish iconoclast. A more atypical junior iconoclast, however, would be hard to imagine: devoted husband and father, passionate mountain-climber, lover of Mozart (he clearly saw his own work as a continuation of that Middle-European tradition), no lover of Bartok (""too cacophonous for me""), too much of a naive perfectionist to thrive as a journeyman conductor. . . and a firm Austro-German patriot. This patriotism becomes Moldenhauer's explanation for Webern's strange position in Anschluss-ed Austria. Unwaveringly loyal to his fleeing Jewish colleagues, Webern saw in Hitler's rise each citizen's ""sense of accountability! Will the question not be posed: 'And where were you in these times?'"" But by 1940 he was celebrating the Third Reich (""It is something new! Created by this unique man!!!""); and, though his own music was banned and branded as ""cultural Bolshevism,"" he remained bizarrely hopeful: ""One should attempt to convince the Hitler regime of the rightness of the twelve-tone system."" One wishes that Moldenhauer had pursued the psychology of this child-like optimist, especially since he does quote from Webern's own record of two months of psychoanalysis with Alfred Adler (for psychosomatic illness) in 1913. Still, there can be no complaint about Moldenhauer's painstaking research into Webern's tragically inane death in 1945--shot in a dark corridor by a frightened, unstable U.S. Army cook. And the interleaved chapters of ""work biographies"" combine impeccable musicology with unadventurous but solid music-appreciation: the standard descriptions of Webern's music (aphoristic, lucidly transparent, ascetic) are enhanced with analogies to painting (Seurat's pointillism). For students and performers, then--indispensable; for the rest of us--an intriguing, resonant story not fully realized and somewhat buried in stolid scholarship.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1979
Publisher: Knopf