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Webern, the Major Miniaturist

51 years after being killed by a U.S. soldier, Anton von Webern is now renowned less for his abstraction than for his wonderful sounds.

November 03, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Peter Greenaway--the British filmmaker responsible for "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"--has a melodramatic theory about a conspiracy against composers, and it starts with Anton von Webern. The composer, whose complete chamber music for strings will make up the program for the Monday Evening Concerts this week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was murdered on Sept. 15, 1945.

The facts, as we know them, are these. Living in occupied Vienna at the end of World War II, Webern had gone to Mittersill, a nearby village in the countryside, to visit his daughter and son-in-law, Benno Mattel, a Nazi and black marketeer. The composer stepped outside to smoke one of Mattel's illicit cigars after dinner. It was pitch-black, and an American soldier, who had come to arrest Mattel and was possibly drunk, apparently bumped into Webern and saw the flash of light from match or stogie. He shot first and asked questions later, according to testimony from Mattel's cook; from the thief, Mattel, himself; from the composer's wife; and from the soldier.

Greenaway has assembled 10 clues that he contends link this murder to nine more murdered composers over the next 35 years, culminating in the shooting of John Lennon in front of the Dakota apartment building in New York City in 1980. The clues include the fact that each composer left a grieving widow, each was killed smoking a cigarette or cigar, each was wearing a hat when killed, each was killed near greenery and so on.

This sounds preposterous, and of course it's meant to be, since Greenaway has proposed creating an opera about each composer, and the first one he conceived--Louis Andriessen's "Rosa," which was premiered by the Netherlands Opera two years ago--is pure fiction. But Greenaway's conspiracy notions aren't much more preposterous than much of what has been propounded about Webern over the years.

Musicologists still, for instance, question how an American soldier could mistake a meek, small, weak, 62-year-old intellectual for a hulking, swaggering black marketeer. Yet another important art film director, Jean-Luc Godard, has also pointed his finger at this murder, and in his apocalyptic 1991 film, "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero," he goes so far as to blame Americans for having killed music because of it.

And then there is the theory, propounded by the controversial British music critic Norman Lebrech and others, that it was the Nazis who killed music by killing composers, mainly Jews, who represented the Romantic tradition, thus leaving a gap that would be filled by modernists after the war. Equally preposterous was the feeling among many modernists that Webern and Webern alone offered the path for music of the future.

The first to pursue the mathematical implications of 12-tone technique developed by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, Webern became the patron saint of abstraction and the postwar avant-garde. He was to music what Wittgenstein was to philosophy, what Joyce was to literature, what Jackson Pollock was to painting. He was chosen as representative of the ultramodern in its purest, most extreme, most elegant and most advanced form. It is possible to look at all music in the second half of our century as either being directly influenced by Webern, as in the case of the avant-garde, or as being in rebellion against that influence, as in the case of the Minimalists and neo-Romantics.

All of this furor exists over one of music's most introverted composers and an extreme miniaturist who only wrote about four hours worth of music total, whose entire oeuvre contains far fewer notes than might be found in a single, good-sized opera. The music for string quartet and string trio should take the Quatuor Parisii only about an hour to play on Monday.

Webern's influence on modern music came about because he was perceived to have gotten beyond a musical tradition that evoked horrors among survivors of World War II. Pierre Boulez has spoken about how little Webern's music reminded him of the German Romanticism that Hitler had so avidly embraced. Karlheinz Stockhausen took to Webern, he has said, because Webern more than any other composer had gotten away from regular beats, and regular beats to Stockhausen, who had been forced into Hitler's youth corps as a teenager, sounded like the Nazi army.

For John Cage, Webern was the composer who stripped away so much from his music that therewas room for prominent silence,leaving space for individual notes to breathe. For many academics in America and Europe, Webern's 31 published works proved an especially lucrative trove, because a career could be sustained analyzing the intricate mathematical watchwork complexity of his meticulously constructed scores.

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