Sebastian Wedler

Entering into Anton Webern’s twelve-tone music and its complex reception history is like entering into a combat with the Hydra: cleave off one head of the Webern myth, and two more grow in its place, often swinging at you from opposite directions. Understandings of late Webern range widely, from that of an intrepid pioneer who paved the way for the post-war avant-garde, to a staunch advocate and guardian of the Austro-German musical tradition; from an abstractionist with affinities to the cubism familiar from the paintings of Paul Klee, to a composer deeply inspired by the landscape, pantheistic and folkloristic tropes evoked in so many of the poems that he chose to set to music; from a frigid and elitist rationalist looking through the falseness of Romantic subjectivity, to a relentless expressionist with a heightened concern for the sensuous qualities of music as sound; or, from a fairly apolitical citizen, to someone who had sympathies for the politics of the Nazi regime.

So how, then, to face the Hydra of mythologies surrounding Webern’s twelve-tone work? Taking the view that it is otiose to keep chopping heads in an attempt to kill off the Hydra once and for all, in this paper I wish to lay down the sword and take a step back from the embattled scenes of the past in search of a broader vantage point. Drawing on music theory and analysis, biographical hermeneutics and new philological insights, this paper ventures to suggest that the crux in understanding late Webern lies in understanding that the various, often contradictory images of the composer that have emerged pose no real contradictions after all. Instead, in the same way that the Hydra’s separate heads are essentially connected entities, these different images are best understood as mediated with one another on a deeper level, representing different aspects of one and the same aesthetic concern: musical lyricism.

Sebastian Wedler is Departmental Lecturer in Music at the University of Oxford, where he also acts as Convener of Master’s Studies at the Faculty of Music and Director of Studies for Music at Merton College. Before joining the Faculty in 2019, he was Junior Research Fellow at St. Hilda’s College and completed his D.Phil. at the University of Oxford. His research and teaching interests include music history post-1750, musical analysis and criticism, and issues in the philosophy and aesthetics of music. His work has appeared in journals and edited volumes such as Music Analysis, Twentieth-Century Music and The Cambridge Companion to Music and Romanticism. He is currently completing his first monograph on Anton Webern’s tonal works (1899–1908). He was elected Prize Scholar at Merton College, is the recipient of the ‘Link 2 Future’ Award from the Psychoanalytic Seminar Zurich, and has been selected to deliver the 2021 Anton Webern Lecture at the University of Basel. In recognition of his teaching, he was shortlisted for Outstanding Tutor in the Humanities by the Oxford University Student Union in 2017.