Arnold Schoenberg

Along with Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) is the most eminent and influential composer of the first half of the 20th century. Two fundamental developments in music are inseparably connected with his name: the relinquishment of tonality and the idea of a process of ordering one’s musical material before beginning the actual composition. Almost incidentally, Arnold Schönberg was also the most important composition teacher of his era. He counted Alban Berg and Anton Webern among his numerous pupils; both became great composers as a result of studying with Schönberg.

Arnold Schönberg was born in Vienna on 13 September 1874. He grew up in humble circumstances and was essentially self-taught, drawing his knowledge from encyclopaedia, from class-mates and from his violin lessons. It was not until 1895 that he met Alexander Zemlinsky, a professional musician and composer whom he soon befriended and who gave him lessons. Above all, he impressed Schönberg with his high ethos concerning the duties of an artist, an ethos that Schönberg would later pass on to his own students. In 1899, he composed the string sextet “Verklärte Nacht”, the first composition that he himself acknowledged as fully realised. In its absolute and compelling expressive force, its wealth of melody, its preference for dissonance as the bearer of expression and its formal mastery, this work was an early demonstration of some of the essential characteristics of Schönberg’s mature style.

Up until the First World War, Schönberg’s life was a restless one. Although he had gained the recognition and support of famous colleagues like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, he was still forced to earn his living by undertaking musical odd jobs and small teaching assignments. He often changed his residence, alternating between Berlin and Vienna. His private life was no less tumultuous. But regardless of these inauspicious external circumstances, Schönberg created work after work and launched a musical revolution in the process. Tonality crumbled beneath the force of his desire to express himself, and the works which he composed in a veritable creative frenzy between 1907 and 1909 made significant inroads into the realms of New Music. Compositions from this time, like the monodrama “Erwartung” and the “Five Pieces for Orchestra” still seem as fresh and subversively unprecedented as if they had been devised yesterday.

The end of the First World War proved to be a turning point for Schönberg. He was compelled to abandon ambitious plans for compositions and he regarded the war’s end as a collapse of the culture that had carried him. He undertook a fresh artistic start in November 1918, when he founded the “Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances)”, an archetype of all avant-garde ensembles of our times, dedicated to appropriate performances of works of New Music. Furthermore, Schönberg increasingly turned towards conducting. Even though performances of Schönberg’s work were generally rejected in concert halls and often caused scandals, his artistic reputation grew steadily. In 1925, he was eventually called to the Prussian Academy of Arts as a Professor for Composition. At this point, he had already developed the twelve-tone method for himself, a method that determines a specific order of the tones used prior to the process of composing, which guarantees a certain inner cohesion of the music despite a total liberty of composition. In varied forms, this method was to remain the essential foundation of his work to come.

The National Socialist seizure of power drove Schönberg, who had already been subjected to anti-Semitic imputations during the 1920s, to emigrate in May 1933. After several detours, he settled in Los Angeles in 1934. Schönberg’s material situation in California was very difficult, especially after he had to relinquish his Professorship for Composition, which he had taken up in 1936, on grounds of his age in the year 1944. These straits notwithstanding, Schönberg composed important works like the “String Trio” and the cantata “A Survivor from Warsaw”, his response to the Holocaust. Arnold Schönberg died in Los Angeles on 13 July 1951.

As of November 2019

Arnold Schoenberg

© Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

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