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Arnold Schoenberg

Date of birth : 1874-09-13
Date of death : 1951-07-13
Birthplace : Vienna, Austria
Nationality : Austrian
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-12-15

Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer whose discovery of the "method of composition with twelve tones" radically transformed 20th-century music.

The early music of Arnold Schoenberg represents the culmination of romantic musical ideals. His gigantic cantata Gurre-Lieder is, together with Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony, one of the last great works in the monumental style. It seemed impossible for music to develop any further in this direction. Thus, Schoenberg became one of the first 20th-century composers to write for small, specialized chamber ensembles. He transcended traditional tonal limitations and began to write "atonal" or "pantonal" music without a key center. This new style offered much freedom, but there was need of a system to control the new harmonic material thus made available.

After a period of experimentation, Schoenberg developed such a system: the method of composition with twelve tones. So far-reaching were the results of this discovery that Schoenberg's theories became, for a time, more famous than his compositions. However, since his death, his music has received more of the recognition that it deserves. Most important musical developments of the second half of the 20th century owe their impetus directly or indirectly to him.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna on Sept. 13, 1874. His interest in music began early. When he was eight years old, he started to learn the violin, and he soon began composing violin duets. His parents were not musicians—his father, Samuel, owned a shoe store—but they enjoyed music and were sympathetic to his musical development.

In the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia, Schoenberg met Alexander von Zemlinsky. They became close friends, and Zemlinsky began to give Schoenberg instruction in composition, the only formal teaching of this sort that he ever had. The String Quartet in D Major (1897, published 1966) is a good example of the immediate results. This was Schoenberg's first work to be played publicly in Vienna. As its Brahmsian style was quite accessible to the conservative taste of the audience, it was well received.

Quite different is Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a string sextet inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem of the same name. While the orchestral tone poem, or symphonic poem (a composition telling a story in music), was common in the 19th century, Schoenberg's work represents the first attempt to transfer this form to chamber music. It was written in the summer of 1899. Zemlinsky tried to have it performed that fall, but its Wagnerian style was rejected by the conservative program committee of the Tonkünstlerverein. It was finally premiered in 1903. At that time it was still considered controversial, and audience reaction was hostile. Since then it has become one of Schoenberg's most popular works, especially in its versions for string orchestra.

From 1901 to 1903 Schoenberg lived in Berlin, where he conducted at the Ü berbrettl cabaret and later taught composition at the Stern Conservatory. He became friendly with Richard Strauss, who suggested Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléaset Mélisande to him as a good subject for an opera. Without knowing of Claude Debussy's opera based on this play, Schoenberg began to write a symphonic poem on the same subject; he completed it in 1902. It is his only orchestral tone poem in the tradition of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss.

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg began to teach privately. He attracted talented pupils: Alban Berg and Anton Webern came to him at this time. A stylistic change was beginning to occur in Schoenberg's work. Tonality, which had been more and more freely treated in such pieces as his Second String Quartet, was finally abandoned. The date of completion of the piano piece Opus 11, no. 1 (Feb. 19, 1909), is an important one in the history of music, for this is the first composition to dispense completely with traditional tonality. In this new style any chord combination can be freely used, and there is no differentiation in the treatment of consonances and dissonances.

Writing about his new music in connection with a concert on Jan. 14, 1910, at which the piano pieces Opus 11 were premiered, Schoenberg said: "I have succeeded for the first time in approaching an ideal of expression and form that had hovered before me for some years. Hitherto I had not sufficient strength and sureness to realize that ideal. Now, however, that I have definitely started on my journey, I may confess to having broken the bonds of a bygone esthetic; and if I am striving toward a goal that seems to me to be certain, nevertheless I already feel the opposition that I shall have to overcome. I feel also with what heat even those of the feeblest temperament will reject my works, and I suspect that even those who have hitherto believed in me will not be willing to perceive the necessity of this new development."

Schoenberg was right in his fears that he would be misunderstood. Even more misunderstood was his next stylistic change, which was gradually being prepared between 1916 and 1920. During those years he completed no major compositions; instead, he worked toward a solution of the structural problems of nontonal music. One day in July 1921 Schoenberg told his pupil Josef Rufer, "Today I have discovered something which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." It was the method of composition with twelve tones. The Prelude of Schoenberg's Piano Suite, Opus 25 (completed July 29, 1921), is probably the first twelve-tone composition.

In the twelve-tone method each composition is based on a row, or series, using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in an order chosen by the composer. Besides being presented in its original form, the row may be inverted, played backward, played backward in inversion, or transposed to any scale step. All harmonies and melodies in a composition are derived from its special row; thus, unity is assured. While some critics feared that music written in this way might become mechanical and inexpressive, Schoenberg continued to write highly personal and expressive compositions, using the expanded resources made available by the new method. From time to time he would return to traditional tonality in one or more works. However, it really made no difference to him whether his compositions were tonal, atonal, or twelve-tonal. As he said once, "I like them all, because I liked them when I wrote them."

In the 1920s Schoenberg seemed to have reached a peak in his career. His appointment as director of a composition class at the Prussian Academy of Arts, Berlin, took effect in 1926. Four years later he began his great biblical opera, Moses und Aron. (He never finished this work, but in its incomplete, two-act form it became, after his death, one of his greatest popular successes.) Under normal circumstances he might well have spent the rest of his life in Berlin. However, when the Nazis assumed power in Germany, Schoenberg's Jewish heritage made him unwelcome. In September 1933 he was dismissed from the academy. The next month he sailed for America.

Schoenberg's first American teaching post was at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston (1933-1934). His health suffered from the climate, and he decided to move to Los Angeles. There, he taught first at the University of Southern California and then at the University of California, until age forced his retirement in 1944. He wrote some of his finest instrumental music in California: the Fourth String Quartet (1936), the Violin Concerto (1934-1936), the Piano Concerto (1942), and the String Trio (1946).

After his retirement, Schoenberg had hoped to find time to complete Moses und Aron and the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder), which he had begun in 1917. However, his poor health and the necessity of earning a living by private teaching made this impossible. During the last year of his life, he wrote a series of texts called Modern Psalms, which he described as "conversations with and about God." He was still able to compose part of the first psalm; the last words he set to music are "und trotzdem bete ich" (and yet I pray). On July 13, 1951, he died in Los Angeles.

A representative collection of Schoenberg's correspondence is in Letters, edited by Erwin Stein (trans. 1964). Of Schoenberg's other writings, the collection of essays Style and Idea, edited by Dika Newlin (trans. 1950), has the greatest general interest. A useful preliminary biography, though not a definitive study, is H. H. Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg (trans. 1959). Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (1968), briefly discusses Schoenberg. Dika Newlin, Bruckner-Mahler-Schoenberg (1947; rev. ed. in preparation), presents Schoenberg's work as the culmination of a historical development that can be traced back to the 18th-century classical Viennese School. René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (trans. 1949), takes a similar viewpoint but carries the line of development to Berg and Webern. A helpful general discussion of twelve-tone music is George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (1962; 2d rev. ed. 1968). K. H. Wörner, Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (trans. 1963), offers a detailed musical and textual analysis of what is probably Schoenberg's most important work.

MacDonald, Malcolm, Schoenberg, London: Dent, 1976.


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