24 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Webern: four orchestral works

Anton von Webern is one the most important composers of the 20th century and perhaps the most enigmatic. Born in 1883, he became a pupil of Arnold Schönberg and his compositions were also atonal and twelve-tone.

On 15th September 1945, Webern died in Mittersill (Salzburg county). His death was strange and tragic. A few months after the end World War II, he was accidentally shot by an American soldier when he lit a match to smoke a cigar outside the house of his son-in-law. Stravinsky wrote after Webern’s death: “Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge.”

Karajan isn’t usually associated with the music of the so-called “Second Viennese School” (the works of Schönberg, Webern and Berg) but he had known Webern’s music for quite a long time when he started conducting it in public at the age of 50. As a student in Vienna Karajan attended concerts with Webern conducting his music, which was often described as cold. “That wasn’t true”, Karajan recalled later “His devotion was immense.” For about twenty years, the works of Webern appeared constantly on Karajan’s concert programmes, most often the five movements for string orchestra op 5. He also interpreted the late romantic Passacaglia op 1, the aphoristic pieces for orchestra op 6 and the enigmatic symphony op 21. “Webern’s brief two-movement Symphony held a special fascination for Karajan.

“This is music which, in Karajan’s own words, ‘offers no development’; music which turns the flux of being into ‘a condition which remains constant.’ (Richard Osborne)”

Obviously Karajan chose Webern for special occasions. In 1958 (when Webern could easily still have been alive!) Karajan was invited by Leonard Bernstein to conduct a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic, his only collaboration ever with this orchestra, and he started with Webern’s op 5. Three years later Karajan conducted Webern’s symphony op 21 in a concert in the Musikverein while Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy were having their summit conference in Vienna. The two statesmen did not attend the concert – but Ms Khrushcheva and Kennedy’s mother. “The Webern caused a minor riot: the Viennese public, as ever, in the radical rearguard of musical thought. Karajan was not much bothered, but Mme Khrushcheva – who was clearly unfamiliar with the phenomenon of civil unrest in the concert hall – was reported to have been visibly nervous. (Osborne)”


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducting Webern. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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