Arnold Schoenberg

(13 September 1874, Vienna - 13 July 1951, Los Angeles)


Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg was an Austrian-American composer who developed new methods of musical composition such as atonality, serialism and the 12-tone row. He is also widely associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art. He was also one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century, among his most significant pupils were Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Born into a lower middle-class family and with no musical background, his parents didn't have the financial means to pay for his musical education. By the age of 9, Schoenberg was already composing little pieces for two violins, which he played with his teacher, and later advanced to the writing of string trios for two violins and viola. Upon meeting the Austrian musician and physician Oskar Adler, he (encouraged by Adler) learned the cello and soon began composing quartets. After his father died in 1890, to help the family finances, young Schoenberg worked as a bank clerk until 1895, after which he earned a living by orchestrating operettas. 

Arnold was largely self-taught, he only took counterpoint, harmony and composition lessons from the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (who later became his first brother-in-law). These lessons materialized in Schoenberg's first publicly performed work, the String Quartet in D Major (1897). Highly influenced by the style of Johannes Brahms, the quartet was well received by Viennese audiences during the 1897–98 and 1898–99 concert seasons. One of Schoenberg's earliest notable works is his string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), a highly romantic piece of program music which he later orchestrated, becoming one of his most popular pieces.

In search for a better financial position, in 1901 he moved to Berlin. He married Mathilde von Zemlinsky, and began working as musical director at the Überbrettl, an intimate artistic cabaret for which he composed many songs, among them, Nachtwandler (“Sleepwalker”) for soprano, piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, and piano (published 1969). With the help of Richard Strauss, Schoenberg secured a job as composition teacher at the Stern Conservatory and also received the Liszt stipend awarded by the Society for German Music, therefore leaving Überbrettl which he found insufficiently rewarding (both artistically and materially). Encouraged by Strauss, Schoenberg composed his only symphonic poem for large orchestra, Pelleas und Melisande (1902–03), after the drama by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck.

Having returned to Vienna, he met the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, who became one of his strongest supporters. At this time, both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler acknowledged Schoenberg's significance as a composer. In 1904, Schoenberg composed his next masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor, Op.7. This work contains high density of musical texture and an unusual form, this caused difficulties in comprehension at the work's premiere in 1907. He applied the same form in his more-concise Chamber Symphony in E Major (1906), a work novel in its choice of instrumental ensemble.

During this period, his didactic activity gained more and more of his devotion. In 1904, the young Austrian composers Alban Berg and Anton Webern began studying with him, both receiving the necessary boost from Schoenberg that would transform their careers. Schoenberg also benefited greatly from the intellectual stimulation of his loyal disciples. His great gifts as teacher are manifest in that work as well as in his textbooks—Models for Beginners in Composition (1942), Structural Functions of Harmony (1954), Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint (1963), and Fundamentals of Musical Composition (1967).

During the brief absence of his wife, who left Schoenberg for a young Austrian painter, he composed Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide (You lean against a silver-willow”). This was the 13th song from the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens), Op. 15, based on the collection of the same name by the German mystical poet Stefan George. Also in this year, he completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2, whose first two movements, though chromatic in color, use traditional key signatures, yet whose final two movements, also settings of George, daringly weaken the links with traditional tonality.

His first composition to ever dispense completely with ”tonal” means of organization was finished in February 1909 and was the first of three piano pieces that constitute his opus 11. Such pieces, in which no one tonal center exists and in which any harmonic or melodic combination of tones may be sounded without restrictions of any kind, are usually called atonal, although Schoenberg preferred “pantonal”. Schoenberg’s most-important atonal compositions include Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (1909); the monodrama Erwartung, Op. 17 (1924; “Expectation”), a stage work for soprano and orchestra; Pierrot Lunaire, 21 recitations (“melodramas”) with chamber accompaniment, Op. 21 (1912); Die glückliche Hand, Op. 18 (1924; “The Hand of Fate”), drama with music; and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (begun 1917; “Jacob’s Ladder”).

Near the end of July 1921, Schoenberg found a new principle of unification which helped him control the rich harmonic and melodic resources that resulted from his move away from tonality. This method was named 12 tones and it consists of the usage of 12 tones ”related only to one another”. In such a system, unlike tonality, no notes would predominate as focal points, nor would any hierarchy of importance be assigned to the individual tones. His first piece in which he applied this method was his Piano Suite, Op. 25, and his greatest work is the opera Moses und Aron, which he started composing in 1930.

For the rest of his life, Schoenberg continued to use the 12-tone method. Occasionally he returned to traditional tonality, for, as he liked to say, “There is still much good music to be written in C major.” Among those later tonal works are the Suite for String Orchestra (1934), the Variations on a Recitative for Organ, Op. 40 (1940), and the Theme and Variations for Band, Op. 43A (1943). After the first World War, his music won increasing acclaim, though his invention of the 12-tone method aroused considerable opposition. In 1925 he was invited to direct the master class in musical composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, where his teaching was well received.

At the peak of his career, Schoenberg continued to write important works such as: the Third String Quartet, Op. 30 (1927); the opera Von Heute auf Morgen, Op. 32 (1928–29, first performed in 1930; “From Today to Tomorrow”); Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, Op. 34 (1929–30; “Accompaniment to a Film Scene”). Schoenberg's significant compositions in the repertory of modern art music extend over a period of more than 50 years.

Though debate over the man and his music rages on, Schoenberg is today acknowledged as one of the most significant figures in music history. Schoenberg's approach, both in terms of harmony and development, has been one of the most influential of 20th-century musical thought. Many European and American composers from at least three generations have consciously extended his thinking, whereas others have passionately reacted against it.

Here  you can find a list of Arnold Schoenberg's compositions.