When classical-music discussions of serial (or 12-tone) music come up, people usually end up choosing fairly strict sides. Both groups agree that the methodology changed the perceptions of succeeding generations of composers, but then they disagree as to whether this was a good thing or not. Arnold Schoenberg is either hailed or vilified as the person responsible for formulating the practice's dominant ideas, and some of his students -- Alban Berg and Anton von Webern in particular -- are noted as proselytizers of the master's concepts.
Many folks are simply puzzled that there were actually musicians interested in exploring the realm of lush, post-Wagnerian harmonies by binding those chaotic forces into a seemingly unbending formula with a range spanning only a dozen notes. The results seem predisposed toward cookie-cutter dissonance and away from the grasp of the masses. This is not necessarily so, however. Kurt Weill adapted some of those new (at the time) ideas and managed to eke out a career writing songs like "Moritat" (a.k.a. "Mack the Knife") and "Speak Low" that have become elements of pop-cultural literacy.
Berg and Webern also created music expanding upon many of Schoenberg's basic ideas, coming up with their own distinct and, in many ways, more artistically successful styles. Webern may be the more influential of the duo, given the number of late-20th-century composers who have admitted to studying his scores. His compact structures are as gorgeous in their own way as a well-crafted, minimalist sentence from Ernest Hemmingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," or a haiku.
The new six-CD "Complete Webern" provides the chance to track Webern's style from the teen years (with echoes of Richard Strauss and Beethoven), to the time when he started working with Schoenberg, to the years before his death in 1945. Present-day adventurers into this well-thought-out package (a 204-page booklet with multilingual notes) will find a crisp, clear, structurally logical yet terribly human music. A number of listeners will also discover that what was once feared as the cause of music's collapse has grown to be an acceptable part of the aural landscape. The same folks who dig electronica, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa or Ornette Coleman can't possibly think this guy's work is inaccessible.
Start with the two pieces for cello and piano that Webern wrote when he was 15 years old, or with "Im Sommerwind," an orchestral score he wrote at 21, the same year he began his studies with Schoenberg. It is relatively easy to see the logic of his steady, progressively inquisitive artistic growth. Instead of taking massive amounts of time to unfold an idea, as would be the case in earlier eras, Webern distilled answers to ancient problems (many of his "mature" works clock in at less than 10 minutes). The Symphony, opus 21, is a case in point, with its two movements topping out under 10 minutes, while his longest mature work, the Cantata No. 2, opus 31, barely moves past 15 minutes. Webern's orchestral arrangements of two of Franz Schubert's "German Dances" and an excerpt from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Musical Offering" are interesting because they start with a known quantity and then focus it through the lens of Webern's own sensibilities.
At least half of the material in this collection is available as single discs, but the balance of the set contains music and/or performances otherwise unavailable. Although this six-pack is billed as "complete," there should be an asterisk noting that there are still some small things missing -- mostly arrangements of works by Schoenberg, Franz Liszt and Johann Strauss Jr. Nonetheless, "Complete Webern" is invaluable for its parallels with the development of early-20th-century atonal music.