I Am Sure to Die Here


Inspired by the musical experiments of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern was starting to write works that broke new ground. But being an avant garde composer didn’t earn Webern a living, and so he did his best to support himself as an opera conductor.

A spring holiday in 1909 enabled him to write his modestly titled Five Movements for String Quartet, which broke sharply with tradition by emphasizing short, often explosive, phrases and color instead of striving for an overarching connectedness and a sense of a home key.

It was not the sort of thing that would attract many listeners, let alone provide financial security, so a few weeks after completing the Five Movements, Webern accepted a job as assistant conductor at a theater in Innsbruck. Given his recent experience, perhaps he should have known better. During the previous summer he had taken a position as coach, chorus master, and assistant conductor at the theater in Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa town. He had hardly unpacked his bags before he wrote that a visit from his cousin “Would lighten my sojourn in this hell.”

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

“My activities are awful,” he wrote. “What a service would be done to mankind if all operettas, farces, and folk-plays were destroyed.”

A specific incident may have set him off, or he may simply have resented duties that kept him from the more creative pursuit of composing. In Innsbruck his emotions again ran high as he wrote to his teacher:

“My God, dear Mr. Schoenberg, it’s impossible for me to stay here. It would be a sin against the Holy Ghost…Oh, my God, do I really have to perform all this slime?” He closed the letter with the lament “I will surely die here. I’m being murdered here.”

Webern broke away long enough to climb a mountain in East Tyrol, which restored his spirits for the time being. He wrote to Schoenberg. “Up there in the heights is where a person should stay.”