Arnold Schoenberg Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.