The String Quartet, Op. 28, was Webern's last completed chamber work. It was written in 1938 and dedicated to the American Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, who commissioned the work. Its austere manipulations of twelve-tone mirror forms and canons invoke a meditative intensity that has been influential on both sides of the Atlantic.
Unlike Webern's earlier quartets, Opp. 5 and 9, the Op. 28 does not rely on the dramatic curve that dominated Germanic musical writing throughout history. More than any other piece from the Second Viennese School, it explores the possibilities of the twelve-tone row without excessive narrative baggage. This non-discursive technique heard before in different forms. Satie, in Paris, had created a sound he called "furniture music" that hovered and did not bring the listener through an aesthetic transformation, sustaining a level of deliberate detachment. There were several differences between the approaches of Satie and Webern. The most immediate is Satie's use of a post-tonal, salon music sound, which was meant to maintain an ironic relationship to light parlor fare. Webern's twelve-tone music does not engage in a dialogue with societal music or a dilettante public. He was not an urbane man, and his music had everything to do with where music was meant to go, as he saw it. Satie's music related to art and society; Webern's music related to nature and history.
Since World War II, American and European composers have drawn inspiration from Webern's late works. European composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen have gravitated towards the twelve-tone organization of Webern, regarding the Op. 28 as the greatest chamber work among his output. American composers such as Cage and Feldman were attracted to the mysterious ambivalence that Webern's late music seems to maintain. Even the late quartets of Schoenberg sound, by comparison, grounded in traditions the composer may not have wished to perpetuate. Webern made music from such a remote, yet interior perspective that his works had great appeal to the individualist, New World psyche. The specific power of his final string quartet will immediately strike anyone who listens to the music of the New York School, the post-war American equivalent to Austria's Second Viennese School. Even when the New Yorkers were making music on the principle of chance, the quartets of Cage and Earl Brown have a remote delicacy that cannot escape comparisons to Webern's Op. 28. Though American composers have sought to create art that is indigenous to the artists of the New World and without European influence, their admiration for Webern has remained unqualified. The String Quartet, Op 28, is one of the most uncluttered, precise, and evocative works of the twentieth century. The Kolisch String Quartet premiered it in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on September 22, 1938. It was the only work by Webern to be premiered in the United States.