The Death of Webern

Named one of the five “Best New Works” of 2016 by Opera News

Composer Michael Dellaira and librettist J. D. McClatchy’s vital new opera The Death of Webern is compelling in multiple ways: it’s a gripping investigation, detective-thriller style, into the random, tragic circumstances of the influential Viennese composer’s death in 1945, as well as a subtle manifesto on the importance and inevitability of his music.Opera News, September, 2016 Read the entire review here

Expressive, intelligent, and superbly performed and recorded, this is the finest opera to have come my way in a long time. Encased in a sound world all of its own, yet clearly related to Webern in its concision, this is far more than an homage” (Colin Clarke); “… Dellaira draws an amazing amount of color through his imaginative scoring … (he) also proves himself to be a master at setting texts, knowing exactly which words to emphasize for both drama and clarity.” (David DeBoor Canfield) Fanfare Magazine, Nov/Dec 2016. Read the entire reviews here

moving, taut … affecting. A wonderful Webern-like economy characterizes Dellaira’s score, not just in the orchestration for chamber ensemble but also in its intensity. The music is concentrated and spare, with a wide range of feeling communicated by the attenuated phrases that flit about the longer vocal lines. “Sudip Bose, “Incident at Mittersill”,The American Scholar, Winter 2014 Read the entire review here

Mr. Dellaira’s opera is like Webern’s work: powerful and compact. The composer retells these dark events in stark colors and bright splashes of sound. The powerful, literate libretto by J.D. McClatchy draws the listener in through the work of music collector and archivist Hans Moldenhauer (City Opera veteran James Bobick) whose investigation into the killing of this great man provides a compelling forensic drama.”  Paul Pelkonen,”Sudden Death Over Time”, Superconductor (

“Dellaira masterfully incorporates excerpts from Webern’s works (Im Sommerwind, Passacaglia, Satz für klavier) into the thematic textures. He manages to distill much of Webern’s concise, transparent style through delicate writing for a six-piece instrumental ensemble. Dellaira’s sound world constantly changes and surprises, paralleling the story’s twists and turns.” – Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Classical Review April 25, 2015 Read the entire review here

On September 15, 1945, a mere five months afte the fall of Berlin, the composer Anton Webern and his wife Wilhelmine went to have dinner with their daughter Christine and their son-in-law Benno in the Austrian village of Mittersill.  The town was still occupied by American troops, and they suspected Benno of selling illegal contraband.  In fact, they planned to arrest Benno that very night, but Webern knew nothing about this.  After dinner, he stepped out onto the porch to smoke a cigar.  As he was about to light it, he bumped into one of the G.I.s surrounding the house.  There was the sound of a scuffle, then gunfire.  Webern, stumbling back into the house, told Wilhelmine, “I am hit.”  He died shortly after.

News of Webern’s death traveled quickly in the musical world, with the usual embellishments and distortions that accompany all shocking reports: Webern had refused an order to halt; Webern had run away; it was Benno, a Nazi sympathizer, and not an American G.I. who had shot Webern.  Over the next ten years, a number of articles would be written about the tragic event by such musical figures as Humphrey Searle, Robert Craft, and Rene Leibowitz.  All noted the irony that Webern – a quiet, introspective and peaceful man — should die under such curious and violent circumstances, but nobody would know what actually happened in Mittersill that night until the publication of Hans Moldenhauer’s book in 1961, The Death of Anton Webern: A Drama in Documents (Philosophical Library).

By the following year, at the first Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Webern had already become a tragic figure.  Schoenberg may have provided a new method of composing with 12-tones, but at Darmstadt it was Webern who was deemed the far-thinking futurist.

Today, Webern’s music is rarely studied, talked about or played. (I recently met students from three major conservatories, none of whom had ever heard a note of his music.)  And in this age of ubiquitous public utterance, Webern’s private and careful contemplation of music’s properties, his devotion to a system of composition and his solitary efforts to understand that system in the context of four hundred years of music history, from Gregorian Chant to Dodecaphony,  may seem rarified and academic, even quaint.

So while The Death of Webern is about the senseless, mysterious killing of  an innocent man, it’s also the story of the rare artist– composer, painter, poet– for whom the discovery of an idea in private creates more joy than mere public celebrity;  the rare artist who, like Webern, finds that doing the work itself is the best, and sometimes only, reward.


The Death of Webern was performed and recorded in April, 2015 by faculty, alumni and students at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami, with Alan Johnson conducting.
It was released on Albany Records, January 1, 2016.
Cast in order of appearance:

hans moldenhauer           kevin short
military officer            eric mcconnell
raymond bell                chris o’connor
anton webern                tony boutté
paul amadeus pisk           eric mcconnell
state department clerk     maria fenty denison
archivist 1                 mia rojas
archivist 2                 ana collado
legionnaire                 adam cahill
jenkins                   mario almonte
heiman                      jeffrey williams
helen bell                  Maria Fenty Denison
murray                      carl dupont
amalie waller               esther jane hardenbergh

flute                trudy kane
clarinet         margaret donaghue
percussion     peter white
violin             scott flavin
cello               ross harbaugh
piano             anastasiya naplekova


The Death of Webern was commissioned by The Pocket Opera Players.
The world premiere took place at Symphony Space, New York, NY on October 13, 2013, directed by Thomas Desi, with Carmen-Helena Tellez conducting

Original Cast (in order of appearance)

hans moldenhauer           james bobick
military officer                 craig phillips
raymond bell                    carlos cordeiro
anton webern                   tony boutté
paul amadeus pisk           christopher oldfather
state department clerk     christina ascher
archivist 1                      sharon harms
archivist 2                      john doing
legionnaire                      sharon harms
jenkins                          peter sachon
heiman                           craig phillips
helen bell                       christina ascher
murray                           craig phillips
amalie waller                    linda larson
nurse                            ana milosavljevic

flute              jessica schmitz
clarinet         carlos cordeiro
percussion     john doing
violin             ana milosavljevic
cello              peter sachon
piano            christopher oldfather


I am indebted to film-maker and director (and friend) Marco Capalbo, whose screenplay about Anton Webern’s death, “Paths to Light”, while substantially different from this opera, was nevertheless a source of inspiration.

Excerpts from the Frost School recording

Trudy Kane, flute/piccolo; Margaret Donaghue, clarinet/bass clarinet; Peter White, percussion; Anastasiya Naplekova, pianoo; Scott Flavin, violin; Ross Harbaugh, cello; conducted by Alan O. Johnson

The Death of Webern is published by American Composers Alliance.