Schoenberg, Arnold

Schoenberg, Arnold

▪ American composer
Schoenberg also spelled  Schönberg 
born September 13, 1874, Vienna
died July 13, 1951, Los Angeles
 Austrian-American composer who created a new method of composition based on a row, or series (serialism), of 12 tones—a method called atonality (q.v.). He was also one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century, among his most significant pupils were Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Early life
      Schoenberg's father, Samuel, owned a small shoe shop in the Second, then predominantly Jewish, district, of Vienna. Neither Samuel nor his wife, Pauline (née Nachod), was particularly musical, although, like most Austrians of their generation, they enjoyed music. There were, however, two professional singers in the family—Heinrich Schoenberg, the composer's brother, and Hans Nachod, his cousin. Nachod, a gifted tenor, was the first to sing the role of Waldemar in Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.

      Before he was nine years old, Schoenberg began composing little pieces for two violins, which he played with his teacher or with a cousin. A little later, when he acquired a viola-playing classmate, he advanced to the writing of string trios for two violins and viola. His meeting with Oskar Adler (later the famed astrologer and author of Das Testament der Astrologie) was a decisive one. Adler encouraged him to learn the cello so that a group of friends could play string quartets. Schoenberg promptly began composing quartets, although he had to wait for the “S” volume of Meyers Grosses Konversations-Lexikon (an encyclopaedia that his family was buying on the installment plan) to find out how to construct the sonata-form first movement of such works.

      Schoenberg's father died in 1890. To help the family finances, the young man worked as a bank clerk until 1895. During this time he came to know Alexander von Zemlinsky (Zemlinsky, Alexander),a rising young composer and conductor of the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia in which Schoenberg played cello. The two became close friends, and Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg instruction in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. This resulted in Schoenberg's first publicly performed work, the String Quartet in D Major (1897). Highly influenced by the style of Brahms, the quartet was well received by Viennese audiences during the 1897–98 and 1898–99 concert seasons.

First major works
      A great step forward took place in 1899, when Schoenberg composed the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a highly romantic piece of program music (unified by a nonmusical story or image). It was based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel and was the first piece of program music written for such an ensemble. Its programmatic nature and its harmonies outraged conservative program committees. Consequently, it was not performed until 1903, when it was violently rejected by the public. Since then it has become one of Schoenberg's most popular compositions, both in its original form and in Schoenberg's later versions for string orchestra.

      In 1901 Schoenberg decided to move to Berlin, hoping to better his financial position. He married Mathilde von Zemlinsky, his friend's sister, and began working as musical director at the Überbrettl, an intimate artistic cabaret. He wrote many songs for this group, among them, Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker) for soprano, piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, and piano (published 1969). Schoenberg did not find this position sufficiently rewarding, either artistically or materially. The German composer Richard Strauss (Strauss, Richard) helped him to get a job as composition teacher at the Stern Conservatory and used his influence to secure him the Liszt stipend awarded by the Society for German Music. With the encouragement of Strauss, Schoenberg composed his only symphonic poem for large orchestra, Pelleas und Melisande (1902–03), after the drama by the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. Back in Vienna in 1903, Schoenberg became acquainted with the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (Mahler, Gustav), who became one of his strongest supporters.

      Schoenberg's next major work was the String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 7 (1904). The composition's high density of musical texture and its unusual form (the conventional four movements of a “classic” string quartet blended into one vast structure played without interruption for nearly 50 minutes) caused difficulties in comprehension at the work's premiere in 1907. A similar form was used in the more concise Chamber Symphony in E Major (1906), a work novel in its choice of instrumental ensemble. Turning away from the “monster” post-Romantic orchestra, Schoenberg wrote for a chamber-like group of 15 instruments.

      During these years, Schoenberg's activity as a teacher became increasingly important. The young Austrian composers Alban Berg (Berg, Alban) and Anton Webern (Webern, Anton) began studying with him in 1904; both gained from him the impetus to their notable careers, and Schoenberg, in turn, benefitted greatly from the intellectual stimulation of his loyal disciples. He stated at the beginning of his Harmonielehre (“Theory of Harmony”; 1911), “This book I have learned from my pupils.” His great gifts as teacher are manifest in this 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).

Evolution from tonality
      Until this period all of Schoenberg's works had been strictly tonal; that is, each of them had been in a specific key, centred upon a specific tone. However, as his harmonies and melodies became more complex, tonality became of lesser importance. The process of “transcending” tonality can be observed at the beginning of the last movement of his Second String Quartet (1907–08). This work is innovative in another respect, too: it is the first string quartet to include a vocal part. The opening words of the Finale, “Ich fühle Luft von anderen Planeten” (“I feel air from another planet”), by the poet Stefan George, have often been symbolically interpreted in the light of Schoenberg's breakthrough to a new world of sound.

      On Feb. 19, 1909, Schoenberg finished his piano piece Opus 11, No. 1, the first composition ever to dispense completely with “tonal” means of organization. Such pieces, in which no one tonal centre exists and in which any harmonic or melodic combination of tones may be sounded without restrictions of any kind, are usually called atonal (atonality), although Schoenberg preferred “pantonal.” Atonal instrumental compositions are usually quite short; in longer vocal compositions, the text serves as a means of unification. Schoenberg's most important atonal compositions include Five Orchestral Pieces, Opus 16 (1909); the monodrama Erwartung (Expectation), a stage work for soprano and orchestra, Opus 17 (1924); Pierrot Lunaire, 21 recitations (“melodramas”) with chamber accompaniment, Opus 21 (1912); Die glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate), drama with music, Opus 18 (1924); and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (begun 1917).

      Schoenberg's earlier music was by this time beginning to find recognition. On Feb. 23, 1913, his Gurrelieder (begun in 1900) was first performed in Vienna. This gigantic cantata calls for unusually large vocal and orchestral forces. Along with Mahler's Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand), the Gurrelieder represents the peak of the post-Romantic monumental style. This music was received with wild enthusiasm by the audience, but the embittered Schoenberg could no longer appreciate or acknowledge their response.

      In 1911, unable to make a decent living in Vienna, he had moved to Berlin. He remained there until 1915, when, because wartime emergency, he had to report to Vienna for military service. He spent brief periods in the Austrian Army in 1916 and 1917, until he was finally discharged on medical grounds. During the war years he did little composing, partly because of the demands of army service and partly because he was meditating on how to solve the vast structural problems that had been caused by his move away from tonality. He wanted to find a new principle of unification that would help him to control the rich harmonic and melodic resources now at his disposal. Near the end of July 1921, Schoenberg told a pupil, “Today I have discovered something which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years.” This was the method of composition with 12 tones related only to one another. Schoenberg had just begun working on his Piano Suite, Opus 25, the first 12-tone piece.

      In the 12-tone method, each composition is formed from a special row or series of 12 different tones. This row may be played in its original form, inverted (played upside down), played backward, or played backward and inverted. It may also be transposed up or down to any pitch level. All of it, or any part of it, may be sounded successively as a melody or simultaneously as a harmony. In fact, all harmonies and melodies in the piece must be drawn from this row. Although such a method might seem extremely restrictive, this did not prove to be the case. Using this technique, Schoenberg composed what many consider his greatest work, the opera Moses und Aron (begun 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 these later tonal works are the Suite for String Orchestra (1934); the Variations on a Recitative for Organ, Opus 40 (1940); and the Theme and Variations for Band, Opus 43A (1943).

      After World War I Schoenberg's music won increasing acclaim, although his invention of the 12-tone method aroused considerable opposition. In 1923 his wife, Mathilde, died after a long illness, and a year later he married Gertrud Kolisch, the sister of the violinist Rudolf Kolisch. His success as a teacher continued to grow. In 1925 he was invited to direct the master class in musical composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin.

      It seemed that Schoenberg had reached the peak of his career. His teaching was well received, and he was writing important works: the Third String Quartet, Opus 30 (1927); the opera Von Heute auf Morgen (From Today to Tomorrow), Opus 32 (1928–29, first performed in 1930); Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompaniment to a Film Scene), Opus 34 (1929–30). But political events proved his undoing. The rise of National Socialism in Germany in 1933 led to the extirpation of Jewish influence in all spheres of German cultural life. Schoenberg was dismissed from his post at the academy. He emigrated to the United States via Paris, where he formally returned to the Jewish faith, which he had abandoned in his youth. In November 1933 he took a position at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, and in 1934 he moved to California, where he spent the remainder of his life, becoming a citizen of the United States in 1941. He held major teaching positions at the University of Southern California (1935–36) and at the University of California at Los Angeles (1936–44).

      Schoenberg's major American works show ever-increasing mastery and freedom in the handling of the 12-tone method. Some of the outstanding compositions of his American period are the Violin Concerto, Opus 36 (1934–36); the Fourth String Quartet, Opus 37 (1936); the Piano Concerto, Opus 42 (1942); and the Fantasia for violin with piano accompaniment, Opus 47 (1949). He also wrote a number of works of particular Jewish interest, including Kol Nidre for mixed chorus, speaker, and orchestra, Opus 39 (1938), and the Prelude to the Genesis Suite for orchestra and mixed chorus, Opus 44 (1945).

      On July 2, 1951, Hermann Scherchen, the eminent conductor of 20th-century music, conducted the “Dance Around the Gold Calf” from Moses und Aron at Darmstadt, W.Ger., as part of the program of the Summer School for New Music. The telegram telling of the great success of this performance was one of the last things to bring Schoenberg pleasure before his death 11 days later.

Dika Newlin Ed.

Additional Reading
Josef Rufer, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg (1962), a catalog of Schoenberg's compositions, writings, and paintings, lists both published and unpublished materials. Dika Newlin, BrucknerMahlerSchoenberg, rev. ed. (1978), a standard work, is the first study in English of the relationship among these composers. Newlin's Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections, (1938–76) (1980), is a memoir. Egon Wellesz, Arnold Schönberg (1925, reprinted 1969), the first biography of the composer, covers his works through 1923 (the first 12-tone compositions). This version must be used with caution because of many mistakes in translation. H.H. Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg (1959), is sketchy but the first biography to cover Schoenberg's entire life. Willi Reich, Schoenberg: A Critical Biography (1971), has no musical examples but is especially rich in citations of contemporary documents. René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (1949, reprinted 1975), introduced French readers to the music of the Neo-Viennese School. Charles Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (1975, reissued 1981), is a lucid analysis of his music for the general reader. Karl H. Worner, Schoenberg's “Moses and Aaron” (1963), is a thorough study of both the musical and philosophical-theological aspects. Merle Armitage (ed.), Schoenberg: A Symposium (1937), contains essays varying greatly in quality but provides some interesting insights into the composer.

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Universalium. 2010.

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