Arnold Schoenberg Essay - Critical Essays

Schoenberg, Arnold

Introduction

Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951

(Full name Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg) Austrianborn American composer and nonfiction writer.

One of the most significant composers of modern symphonic music, Schoenberg led the avant-garde movement away from classical conventions of melody and harmony during the early twentieth century. Experimenting with serial composition, he devised a method of writing music using a twelve-tone scale, creating works known for their dissonance and unconventional formal qualities. He was also a highly influential teacher, counting among his most celebrated students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who along with him were known as the Second Viennese School of composers.

Biographical Information

The son of a Viennese shoemaker, Schoenberg had little formal musical training, but learned to play the violin, viola, and cello. In his early twenties he worked as a conductor, arranger, and musical director in Vienna and Berlin, then took up teaching, which would be the often precarious way he would make his living for the rest of his life. Influenced by such composers as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, who became a mentor of his, as well as by new trends in visual arts, he devoted himself to discovering innovative approaches to music, participating in subscription-only musical societies where the work of radical composers such as himself would be assured a fair hearing. In 1933, Schoenberg was fired from his position as a composition instructor at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin because of his Jewish ancestry. He then emigrated to the United States, supporting himself as a lecturer at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles while continuing to work on his musical compositions.

Major Works

Critics note aspects of Romanticism in Schoenberg's early musical works, such as Verklärte Nacht (1899), written for string sextet, and the cantata Gurrelieder (1901-13). Later moving away from conventional musical techniques, he entered what critics regard as his Expressionist period, with works including Erwartung (1909) and Pierrot lunaire (1912). Convinced that the traditional diatonic musical scale was obsolete, he began experimenting with serialism, eventually inventing a system that used all twelve half-steps in the musical scale, which he introduced in the early 1920s with compositions such as his Piano Suite, Op. 25 (1921-23) and Wind Quintet (1924). Schoenberg wrote the texts for many of his vocal works, notably the opera Moses und Aron (1930-2) and the cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), as well as providing program notes for some of his instrumental pieces. He set forth his ideas about music in prose works such as Harmonielehre (1911) and Models for Beginners in Composition (1942) and the essays collected in Style and Idea (1950).

Critical Reception

Because most of Schoenberg's work violated fundamental norms for music of his time, it encountered tremendous resistance from audiences and critics who found it alienating and incomprehensible. These negative reactions still endure. However, he established a lasting and wide-ranging influence among the serious students of new music who were best prepared to understand and appreciate him, and his innovations had a profound influence on later composers such as John Cage, Marc Blitzstein, and Milton Babbitt.

Principal Works

*Harmonielehre (nonfiction) 1911

Models for Beginners in Composition (nonfiction) 1942

Style and Idea (essays) 1950

Structural Functions of Harmony (nonfiction) 1954

†Briefe (letters) 1958

Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint (nonfiction) 1963

Fundamentals of Musical Compositon (nonfiction) 1964

Arnold Schoenberg Self-Portrait: A Collection of Articles, Program Notes, and Letters by the Composer About His Own Works (prose and letters) 1988

*Abridged edition published as Theory of Harmony, 1948.

†Enlarged edition published as Letters, 1964.

Criticism

Paul Rosenfeld (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg and Varèse," in Musical Impressions: Selections from Paul Rosenfeld's Criticism, edited by Herbert A. Leibowitz, Hill and Wang, 1969, pp. 77-81.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1928, Rosenfeld discusses the connection between Schoenberg and Edgard Varèse.]

… [They] played Europe and the New World off against each other at the International Guild. Schoenberg's Serenade began the program; Varèse's Intégrales ended it, and the interval was broad as the sea. It was delicate lacework sound against brute shrilling jagged music. It was the latest ghostly flowering of the romantic tradition against a polyphony not of lines, but of metallic cubical volumes. It was, essentially, the thinking introverted solitary against mass movement in which the individual goes lost; for the reason either piece did its author uncommon justice. Few works of Schoenberg traverse less writing for the eye than this new one, and breathe more thoroughly. The march which leads on the Serenade and then leads it off again may ultimately belong to the company of Schoenberg's paper pieces. But the rest of the little movements, the minuet, the variations, and the setting of Petrarch's sonnet Number 217, the "Dance Scene" and the "Song without Words," flow lightly; and bring within their small compass and in the familiar character of the Serenade a very personal quality of sound. The mood is serener than it was in Pierrot Lunaire, and the movement less languorous and less explosive. Nonetheless, the piece's quality is similarly half painful, half dreamy; characteristically Schoenbergian; the tone eerie and sotto voce; the structure submitted to intense concentration. The nervous, excited strumming of the mandoline and guitar called for by the score has correspondences throughout the form. And like so much of Schoenberg the Serenade is fundamentally Brahmsian in feeling. The conservatism of the structure, the frequency of rhythmic repetitions, the symmetrical formation of motifs, themes, and entire sections, has been marked by the German aestheticians. Perfectly apparent to the layman is the brooding romanticism of the melos, particularly in the "Song without Words," and the spookromanticism of the loose-jointed periods of the minuet and "Dance Scene." The characteristic undulant movement, the lyrical upheavals of the line, true, have been compressed by this ultramodern into minute spaces; stand immeasurably tightened, curtailed, and broken up. But they exist in Schoenberg as essentially as in Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms. That is the German, apparently, and the European in touch with a past. Schoenberg is the carrier-on, the continuator of his predecessors' line of advance. Despite the architectural preoccupation distinguishing him from the great mass of his artistic ancestors, from Brahms, even, Schoenberg is the romanticist of today; as Stravinsky justly if unkindly denominated him. He is the singer par excellence of the individual, the proud, solitary, brooding soul; the lover par excellence of the singular, the raffiné, the precious in musical expression; of the strange and unwonted in harmony and mood. The sudden entirely unheralded high F, pianpianissimo, which squeaks in the singer's voice toward the close of the song Herzgewächse: what is it but a very extreme example of Schoenberg's characteristic processes? To a degree the Serenade approaches the humanistic ideal a little more...

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Paul Rosenfeld (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Gurrelieder," in Musical Impressions: Selections from Paul Rosenfeld's Criticism, edited by Herbert A. Leibowitz, Hill and Wang, 1969, pp. 71-77.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1936, Rosenfeld discusses Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.]

An artist's expression infrequently is completely individualized by the time of his twenty-seventh year, and that of Schoenberg was not exceptional. When in 1900 he began to set the poetic cycle which the seraph of Danish literature, Jens Peter Jacobsen, had formed from the legend of King Waldemar I of Denmark and the fair Tove and called the songs of Gurre, the castle with which the legend associated their tragic...

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Roger Sessions (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Some Notes on Schoenberg and the 'Method of Composing with Twelve Tone'," in Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by Edward T. Cone, Princeton University Press, 1952, pp. 370-5.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Score in 1952, Sessions analyzes Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional method.]

Arnold Schoenberg sometimes said, "A Chinese philosopher speaks, of course, Chinese; the question is, what does he say?" The application of this to Schoenberg's music is quite clear. The notoriety which has, for decades, surrounded what he persisted in calling his "method of composing with twelve tones," has not only obscured his real...

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Walter and Alexander Goehr (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Arnold Schönberg's Development towards the Twelve-Note System," The New York Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 6, April 22, 1965, pp. 76-93.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1957, the Goehrs recount Schoenberg's development of his twelve-tone compositional method.]

Although the conditions and problems facing a creative artist vary in different times, an ethnic culture imposes a certain common tradition and leads to a fundamental similarity of outlook. An understanding of the roots and historical development of a culture is essential for an assessment of any individual artist. Assuming this fact, the opportunity is given of seeing the...

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Virgil Thomson (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "How Dead is Arnold Schoenberg?," in The New York Review of Books, April 22, 1965, pp. 6-8.

[In the following essay, Thomson reviews Arnold Schoenberg Letters, finding notable the book's portrayal of Schoenberg as an artist.]

In 1910 Arnold Schoenberg, then thirty-five, began to keep copies of all the letters he wrote. Many of these were about business—teaching jobs, the publication of his works, specifications for performance. He would seem around that time to have arrived at a decision to organize his career on a long-line view involving the dual prospect of his continuing evolution as a composer—for he was clearly not one to have shot his bolt by...

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Richard Huggett (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Orgy in Covent Garden," in Saturday Book, Vol. 27, 1967, pp. 146-61.

[In the following essay, Huggett recounts a performance of Moses and Aaron in Covent Garden.]

On the first day's rehearsal I asked the stage manager if there was a chance of getting free tickets for any of the six scheduled performances of Moses and Aaron. He nodded with weary resignation: 'For this old thing?' he replied. 'Don't worry; they'll be giving them away in hundreds. Nobody will come. You'll see.'

His words summed up the general atmosphere of gloom and despondency. Schoenberg, undoubtedly the most non-popular composer of the day, was the...

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George Steiner (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron," in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman, Atheneum, 1967, pp. 127-39.

[In the following essay, Steiner analyzes the relationship between music and language in Schoenberg 's Moses and Aaron.]

It is difficult to conceive of a work in which music and language interact more closely than in Arnold Schoenberg's Moses and Aron. (The German title has an advantage of which Schoenberg, half in humor, half in superstition, was aware: its twelve letters are a symbolic counterpart to the twelve tones which form a basic set in serial composition.) It is, therefore, impertinent to write about the...

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Roger Sessions (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg in the United States," in Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by Edward T. Cone, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 353-69.

[In the following essay, Sessions surveys Schoenberg's music influenced by American music and culture.]

In any survey of Schoenberg's work one fact must be emphasized above all: that no younger composer writes quite the same music as he would have written had Schoenberg's music not existed. The influence of an artist is not, even during his lifetime, confined to his disciples or even to those who have felt the direct impact of his work. It is filtered through to the humblest participant, first in the work of...

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Alan Lessem (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Schönberg and the Crisis of Expressionism," in Music & Letters, Vol. 55, No. 4, October, 1974, pp. 429-36.

[In the following essay, Lessem associates Schoenberg 's creative crisis with the early-twentieth-century Expressionist movement.]

In Arnold Schönberg's published writings, as well as those of Webern and Berg, there is no lack of reference to the decisiveness of the year 1908, in which he took the first steps in what has subsequently been described as 'free atonal' composition. Since then, too, there has been much wrangling over the implications of 'atonality', abstractly considered, but less willingness to explore some of the broader issues of the...

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Robert Craft (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Towards Schoenberg," in Current Convictions: Views and Reviews, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, pp. 195-210.

[In the following essay Craft evaluates and edition of Style and Idea, then reviews Charles Rosen's Arnold Schoenberg.]

The best of Arnold Schoenberg's occasional writings on music [Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg,] are as richly instructive as his theoretical and didactic ones. Like them, too, many of the essays depend on examples printed in music type, which sets Schoenberg apart from other composer-writers, such as Berlioz, whose many verbal talents the creator of Pierrot Lunaire lacks, or Schumann or...

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Josef Rufer (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Schönberg—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," in Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Critical Anthology of the New Music, edited by Gregory Battcock and translated by William Drabkin, E. P. Dutton, 1981, pp. 316-30.

[In the following essay, originally published in Perspectives of New Music in 1977, Rufer examines the relevance of Schoenberg's music and theory to contemporary audiences.]

Anyone for whom music is not merely a gourmet's treat, but an art that consists essentially of ideas, will want to provide himself from time to time with an overview of the state and development of the music of our time. And he will probably surrender, at first, to the...

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Lucy S. Dawidowicz (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Arnold Schoenberg: A Search for Jewish Identity," in The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, pp. 32-45.

[In the following essay, Dawidowicz concludes that Moses and Aaron is "the vehicle through which Schoenberg asserted his Jewishness. "]

In December 1966, more than fifteen years after the composer's death, Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished opera Moses and Aaron was given a belated American premiere by the Opera Company of Boston. The occasion was full of ironies. The performance, which took place in America's historic citadel of high culture, was staged in a shabby one-time movie palace; the...

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Carl Dalhaus (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg's aesthetic theology," in Schoenberg and the New Music, translated by Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 81-93.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1978, Dalhaus discusses Schoenberg's essays that reveal the aesthetic sense upon which he based his musical compositions.]

I

In 'My Evolution' (1949), his draft of an inner biography, Schoenberg wrote: 'This is also the place to speak of the miraculous contributions of the subconscious. I am convinced that in the works of the great masters many miracles can be discovered, the extreme profundity and prophetic foresight...

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Peter Stadlen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg's Speech-Song," in Music & Letters, edited by Edward Olleson and Nigel Fortune, Vol. 62, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, Stadlen examines Schoenberg's use of "speech-song, " a compositional technique of using "spoken note with fixed durations and pitches, " in Pierrot Lunaire.]

If Pierrot lunaire has never had quite the success which that work of genius surely deserves, the reason is above all the confusion that has resulted from the vocal mixture known as speech-song. It was not, as Erwin Stein claimed, Schoenberg's invention. Rudolph Stephan has reminded us that spoken notes with fixed durations and...

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Jean Christensen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Spiritual and The Material in Schoenberg's Thinking," in Music & Letters, Vol. 65, No. 4, October, 1984, pp. 337-44.

[In the following essay, Christensen explains the system of philosophy underlying all of Schoenberg's work.]

Preserved in the archive of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles is a collection of some 200 items, mostly unpublished and undescribed, consisting of drafts, sketches and casual notes left over when Schoenberg's more finished writings were selected for publication towards the end of his life and after his death. They are not in their original condition. Many hands have sifted through them searching for items of specific...

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Robert P. Morgan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Secret Languages: The Roots of Musical Modernism," in Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives, edited by Monique Chefdor, Ricardo Quinones and Albert Wachtel, University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 33-50.

[In the following essay, originally published in Critical Inquiry in 1984, Morgan associates Schoenberg's development of atonal music with a "crisis in language " that occurred in the early twentieth century.]

In der modernen Prosa sprechen wir eine Sprache, die wir mit dem Gefühle nicht verstehen.… Wir können nach unserer innersten Empfindung in dieser Sprache gewissermassen nicht mitsprechen, denn es ist uns unmöglich, nach...

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Joan Allen Smith (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Twelve Tone Method," in Schoenberg and His Circle: A Viennese Portrait, Schirmer Books, 1986, pp. 183-218.

[In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Schoenberg's twelve-tone method.]

Several Viennese composers outside of the Schoenberg circle were concerned with repeated pitch structures and some even with the concept of chromatic completion (the structurally geared use of all twelve pitch classes) coincidentally with Schoenberg. However, the idea of an ordering within the twelve-tone set, and the application of the four systematic operations of transposition, inversion, retrogression, and retrograde-inversion, which brought about a musically...

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David Hamilton (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Schoenberg's First Opera," in The Opera Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 48-58.

[In the following essay, Hamilton concludes that Schoenberg's opera Erwartung, while highly original, owes more to the influence of his contemporaries than to his later, more radical, atonal music]

Each of Arnold Schoenberg's four operas is sui generis. The first two one-acters, Erwartung (1909) and Die glückliche Hand (1910-1913), stem from his most experimental period and break new ground both musically and dramatically. The former is an intense, apparently freely associative psychological drama, the latter an...

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Robin Gail Schulze (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Design in Motion: Words, Music, and the Search for Coherence in the Works of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Schoenberg," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 5-22

[In the following essay, Schulze examines the influence of Schoenberg's musical theory on the works of Virginia Woolf]

Academics, alas, can be surprisingly narrow-minded. Shaped by our institutions, we have a tendency to divide ideas into neat little teachable, publishable packages, defining ourselves and our thoughts in terms of time periods, genres, continents, languages, theories, departments, and disciplines. Such separations certainly make the work of knowing...

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Michael Gilbert (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: '"Ich habe von einen Esel gelernt': Eisler Pro and Contra Schönberg," in High and Low Cultures: German Attempts at Mediation, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994, pp. 59-73.

[In the following essay, Gilbert discusses the relationship between Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler.]

I

In a series of conversations with GDR scholar/journalist Hans Bunge, published under the title Fragen Sie mehr über Brecht (an allusion to a passage in which Eisler states: "Fragen Sie nicht so viel über Schönberg—Fragen Sie bitte mehr über Brecht!"), composer Hanns Eisler mentions a cantata text which he...

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Daniel C. Melnick (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Music and the Modern Imagination: Nietzsche and Schoenberg," in Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 44-58.

[In the following essay, Melnick explores the wider applications of Schoenberg's atonality and Friedrich Nietzche's theory of music to modern art and literature.]

Nietzsche is the conclusive nineteenth-century figure for the study of music's tie to modernism, and in this regard he is, next to Beethoven, the most significant, not only for his influence on individual novelists like Proust, Lawrence, and Mann, but for his seminal ideas about dissonance and its tie to listening and...

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Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Caesura of Religion," in Opera Through Other Eyes, edited by David J. Levin, Stanford University Press, 1994, pp. 45-77.

[In the following essay, Lacoue-Labarthe discusses the religious undercurrents in Schoenberg's work.]

No doubt, it is not impossible to say that Wagner fundamentally saturated opera. A proof of this, which is nonetheless indirect, is that everything which followed without exempting itself from the exorbitant ambition he had imposed upon the form carries the stigmata of the end. This may be in the nostalgic and relatively comfortable mode to which the late Strauss resigned himself, a mode that in short ended his career with an...

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Michael Strasser (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: '"A Survivor from Warsaw' as Personal Parable," in Music & Letters, Vol. 76, No. 1, February, 1995, pp. 52-63.

[In the following essay, Strasser contends that A Survivor from Warsaw is the story of Schoenberg 's experiences as a Jew.]

Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46, is undoubtedly one of his most immediately powerful expressions and, in terms of public acceptance, one of the more successful of his later works. Widely and justifiably viewed as a fitting memorial to the millions of Jews who lost their lives during World War II, A Survivor from Warsaw can also be considered as a musical and literary...

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