How did Anton Webern die?

How a fateful cigar led to the death of composer Anton Webern, just as he had found peace

How did Anton Webern die

After a cheerful family dinner on the evening of 15 September 1945, Anton Webern was enjoying a cigar in the cool air on the steps of his refuge in the peaceful town of Mittersill when he was shot. The family dinner and cigar had been a rare treat for the Austrian composer, who had spent the past years in Nazi-led, war-torn Vienna.

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The cigar was a gift from his son-in-law Benno Mattel, who led a thriving black market operation. As Webern stepped outside to avoid cigar smoke disturbing his grandchildren, Mattel received two Americans inside to complete some pre-arranged business. Three drinks later, the visitors drew revolvers. They were not black-market business colleagues but US soldiers, on a mission to expose Mattel’s illegal endeavours. Mattel was immediately placed under arrest. At this point, one of the Americans, a company cook from North Carolina named Raymond Bell, rushed out of the house. He passed Webern on the steps. Inexplicably, he fired three shots, hitting the composer.

Webern stumbled inside shouting for help and was laid down on a mattress by his wife, Wilhelmine, and daughter, Christine. He quietly murmured ‘Es ist aus’ (‘It is over’). By the time medical help arrived, he was dead, aged 61.

It is unclear why Bell shot an innocent man, peacefully smoking. Was it self-defence or an accident? The incident remained a mystery, and haunted Bell throughout his life. He returned to the US and died an alcoholic in September 1955. Mattel was arrested and spent one year in prison.

Who was Webern?

The shooting was a brisk end for a remarkable composer, who had reason to believe that peacetime could bring him the professorship and major conducting position which the Nazi regime had denied. Stravinsky had praised Webern’s compositions as ‘dazzling diamonds’; for Schoenberg they were ‘a joy in a breath’. His serialism, 12-note theory and atonality would enjoy success after 1950, when he was considered a father of ‘new music’.

Webern spent the War years surrounded by conflicting forces. His youngest daughter Christine was a member of the League of German Girls and married Benno Mattel, an SS member who wore Nazi uniform at their wedding. His other daughter, Maria, fell in love with a Jewish man who was forced to flee abroad.

Webern initially supported the Nazi party and the stability and order that National Socialism offered, believing their aggressive tactics and anti-Semitism would mellow when in power. However, Nazi aggression didn’t seem to suppress his developing enthusiasm for militaristic optimism, and he wrote eagerly of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, ‘The book has brought me much enlightenment’. Yet his support remained passive and private – Webern kept his head down, remaining at home in Vienna, composing and doting on his small garden and three grandchildren.

Webern’s Nazi sympathies, however, angered many of his closest friends who considered his views as hypocritical simple-mindedness. It was also surprising, given that his music had been branded by the regime as ‘cultural Bolshevism’ and ‘degenerate art’. Public performances of his work were banned and he disappeared into cultural obscurity. His Viennese publishers Universal Edition reduced his employment to proof-reading and making piano reductions of other composers’ scores.

His Nazi enthusiasm was eventually quelled by a fear for his family during constant air raids on Vienna. ‘To have such horrible things happen with small children holding your hand!’, he wrote. The death of his son Peter – hit by a bullet as the train he was on was machine-gunned by an Allied plane – was another blow.

As the Soviet Red Army closed in on Vienna, Webern and his wife seized what they could carry and fled along the railway line to Salzburg. As the Russians attacked Vienna, Webern found serenity in the Austrian mountains. It was, alas, during the first few days of peacetime that he was fatally shot.

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Top photograph by Getty Images