Webern's Dodecaphonic ConspiracyDateline: 06/29/98
Shocking allegations about an influential 20th century composer swept across the Internet last month, resulting in curiously little Sturm und Drang in the classical music world.
According to a widely circulated story attributed to the Associated Press, Austrian composer Anton Webern was a Nazi spy who helped steal atom bomb secrets from the U.S. during World War II by encrypting classified data in his musical scores.
Hardly trivial charges... but where is the public outcry? Why have there been no harsh condemnations, no demands for the purge of Webern's works from the classical canon?
Apparently, no one believes a word of it.
Bryan Johanson, a composer and music professor at Portland State University, had a typical reaction. When asked his opinion of the Webern allegations, he replied: "Most amusing."
Many of his colleagues, Johanson noted, have received the same story by email. The consensus is that it's a hoax.
Here's the controversial text in question:
Composer Webern was Double Agent for Nazis
By Heinrich Kincaid
(c) The Associated Press
BERLIN, GERMANY (AP) - Recent admissions by an ex-Nazi official living in Argentina have confirmed what some musicologists have suspected for years: that early twentieth century German composer Anton Webern and his colleagues devised the so-called "serial" technique of music to encrypt messages to Nazi spies living in the United States and Britain.
In what can surely be considered the most brazen instance of Art Imitating Espionage to date, avant garde composers of the Hitler years working in conjunction with designers of the Nazi Enigma code were bamboozling unsuspecting audiences with their atonal thunderings while at the same time passing critical scientific data back and forth between nations.
"This calls into question the entire Second Viennese School of music," announced minimalist composer John Adams from his home in the Adirondack Mountains. "Ever since I first encountered compositions by Arnold Schonberg I wondered what the hell anyone ever heard in it. Now I know."
Gunned down by an American soldier in occupied Berlin, 62 year old Anton Webern's death was until now considered a tragic loss to the musical world. At the time the U.S. Army reported that the killing was "a mistake", and that in stepping onto the street at night to smoke a cigarette Webern was violating a strict curfew rule.
It is now known that Webern was using music to shuttle Werner Heisenberg's discoveries in atomic energy to German spy Klaus Fuchs working on the Manhattan atom bomb project in New Mexico. Due to the secret nature of the project, which was still underway after the invasion of Berlin, Army officials at the time were unable to describe the true reason for Webern's murder.
Hans Scherbius, a Nazi party official who worked with Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, admitted at age eighty-seven that the Nazis secretly were behind the twelve-tone technique of composition, which was officially reviled to give it the outlaw status it needed to remain outside of the larger public purview.
"These pieces were nothing more than cipher for encoding messages," he chuckled during an interview on his balcony in Buenos Aires. "It was only because it was 'naughty' and difficult that elite audiences accepted it, even championed it."
Physicist Edward Teller, who kept a 9-foot Steinway piano in his apartment at the Los Alamos laboratory, was the unwitting deliverer of Heisenburg's data to Fuchs, who eagerly attended parties thrown by Teller, an enthusiastic booster of Webern's music.
Arnold Schonberg, the older musician who first devised the serial technique at the request of the Weimar government of Germany, composed in America to deliver bomb data stolen by Fuchs back to the Nazis, who worked feverishly to design their own atomic weapons.
As an example, Scherbius showed Associated Press reporters the score of Webern's Opus 30 "Variations for Orchestra" overlaid with a cardboard template. The notes formed a mathematical grid that deciphered into German a comparison between the neutron release cross-sections of uranium isotopes 235 and 238.
Schonberg responded with a collection of songs for soprano and woodwinds that encrypted the chemical makeup of the polonium-beryllium initiator at the core of the Trinity explosion.
And in Japan, Toru Takemitsu took time out from his own neo-romanticism to transmit data via music of his nation's progress with the atom.
"The most curious thing about it," says composer Philip Glass in New York City, "is that musicians continued to write twelve-tone music after the war, even though they had no idea why it was really invented. Indeed, there are guys who are churning out serialism to this day."
Unlike the diatonic music, which is based on scales that have been agreed upon by listeners throughout the world for all of history, twelve-tone music treats each note of the chromatic scale with equal importance, and contains a built-in mathematical refusal to form chords that are pleasing by traditional standards. Known also as serialism, the style has never been accepted outside of an elite cadre of musicians, who believe it is the only fresh and valid direction for post-Wagnerian classical music to go.
"Even if this is really true," states conductor Pierre Boulez, a composer who continues to utilize serial techniques, "the music has been vindicated by music critics for decades now. I see no reason to suddenly invalidate an art form just because of some funny business at its inception."
It may look like a news story and even read vaguely like one, but it's not. The style is too casual and opinionated, the facts are mostly wrong, and the scenario described is implausible.
What we have, rather, is a clever bit of satire which harps on an all-too-familiar point about modern art that it's too cerebral and inaccessible, and perhaps isn't even art at all.
Avant-garde composers like Webern and Schoenberg are easy targets for such criticism. Their more challenging works have long been considered unlistenable by some, and the question "Is it really music?" has frequently been posed. It's but a small comedic leap to the suggestion that their methods were invented for some nefarious, non-musical purpose say, transmitting scientific data to Nazi spies.
In part because it was never really intended to fool anyone it's not that kind of hoax it's not hard to prove the story a fake. What follows is a short list of factual errors and logical inconsistencies. It's not exhaustive, but more than sufficient to debunk the central claims. Additions to the list are welcome...
- Although Anton Webern was killed in the tragic manner described, the incident happened in Mittersill, Austria, not Berlin.
- Klaus Fuchs spied for Russia, not Germany.
- The Webern work alluded to, "Variations for Orchestra, Op.30," was composed in 1940 two years before the Manhattan Project began.
- Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu could not have been privy to his country's nuclear secrets during World War II. He was all of 14 years old when Japan surrendered.
- We're told that Webern and his comrades encoded data in their scores with help from the designers of "the Nazi Enigma code." More accurately, Enigma was a machine, the most sophisticated cryptological tool of its time. In any case, we're asked to believe that the brilliant designers of this machine helped Webern encrypt messages that required nothing more than a cardboard template to decode.
- According to the story, Klaus Fuchs was spying for the Nazis. If so, what was the strategic point of Webern passing secrets from Heisenberg in Germany to Fuchs at the Manhattan Project? Isn't that backwards?
- Why would Arnold Schoenberg, a Jew who fled Nazi oppression in Germany in 1933, spy for the Third Reich? It's nonsensical. Furthermore, it's true that Schoenberg was in America during the war, but he was teaching at UCLA throughout. How was he supposedly gaining access to top secret information from Los Alamos?
- I could find no evidence that a "Hans Scherbius," the supposed "Nazi party official" who was the source of these shocking revelations, actually existed. Anyway, since when do ex-Nazis hiding out in Argentina boast of their wartime exploits in the international press?
- Interestingly, a search on the name "Scherbius" did yield several references to an engineer named Arthur Scherbius. Turns out that during the 1920s he was one of the designers and a patent-holder of the Enigma machine. Hmmm...
(Special thanks to JoAnne Schmitz, whose newsgroup postings in alt.folklore.urban provided valuable clues and commentary.)
More on the Webern-Nazi hoax from composer Chris Hertzog