Arnold Schoenberg Reference

Arnold Schoenberg

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Schoenberg was the leading composer of the second Viennese school, a manifestation of the expressionist movement in music. By breaking from the tradition of tonality, a process he later codified in his twelve-tone method, Schoenberg introduced compositional techniques and aesthetic principles that became pervasive throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg (originally Schönberg) was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874. His parents were Jewish and reared their three children in this heritage. Samuel, his father, owned a small shoe shop. The family was never wealthy, and Samuel’s death in 1890 forced Schoenberg to leave school in order to support his family. Neither Samuel nor his wife Pauline (née Nachod) was particularly musical, although Samuel had sung in amateur choirs, and the Nachod family had for generations provided cantors for synagogues in their native Prague. The main cultural influence in Schoenberg’s youth was his uncle Friedrich (Fritz) Nachod, who taught the young Schoenberg poetry, drama, and French.

There was no piano in the Schoenberg home; Arnold began his musical training at age eight on the violin, later switching to viola and a homemade cello. He immediately began to compose violin duets to play with his teacher; as his circle of musical friends grew, so did his early compositional efforts, which soon included string quartets, songs, and piano pieces. While Schoenberg was essentially self-taught as a composer, his musical friendships played an important role in his early development and throughout his career. One friend, the philosopher Oskar Adler, became his first true music teacher, providing instruction in harmony and ear training. Most influential, however, was the composer/conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky, who met Schoenberg while conducting an amateur orchestra. Schoenberg’s elder by two years, Zemlinsky had been trained at the Vienna Conservatory and had attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms. While later recollections as to the nature of the tutelage differ, it appears that Zemlinsky not only offered specific compositional advice but also brought to Schoenberg’s attention the rich possibilities of combining the then-opposed Brahmsian and Wagnerian traditions. The two friends became brothers-in-law in 1901, when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde; Zemlinsky remained a lifelong friend and advocate of Schoenberg’s music.

It was through Zemlinsky that Schoenberg’s music received its first public performance; his String Quartet in D Major (1897) was presented in 1898 by the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein. The next year, however, this same organization rejected Schoenberg’s first mature composition, the string sextet Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899; transfigured night), on the basis of a single unconventional chord. This sort of misguided rejection proved to be the first indication of the harsh and shortsighted criticism that would continue to be levied against Schoenberg throughout his career.

Life’s Work

Schoenberg’s career has often been described in terms of four stylistic periods: the tonal, late-Romantic works of 1899-1908; the expressionist, atonal works of 1909-1920; the application of the twelve-tone method in the works of 1920-1936; and a broader, more eclectic approach that evolves in the works from the mid-1930’s onward. Such delineations do not merely serve to categorize Schoenberg’s works; rather, they highlight the continuity of his development. The stylistic diversity of his oeuvre is paralleled by its breadth, which encompasses important operas, orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and theoretical treatises.

Schoenberg never considered his own work to be revolutionary. Rather, he viewed it as descendant from the German late-Romantic tradition of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (the latter of whom, like Zemlinsky, grew to be a close friend and professional ally). While such stylistic derivation was overlooked by the critics of the time, Schoenberg’s early works are now understood in this light. Verklärte Nacht adopts the nineteenth century genre of the tone poem, projecting imagery of transfigured love through broad melodic lines and a rich harmonic palette. Similar musical and symbolic richness characterizes the orchestral tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 (1903) and the setting of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Gurrelieder (1900-1911), a massive song cycle that calls for five soloists, multiple choirs, and a huge orchestra.

Schoenberg soon found such grandiose gestures to be at odds with the goal of immediate and direct expression and adopted a leaner, more transparent style, apparent in the String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 7, No. 1 (1904-1905), and particularly in the First Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1906), the culmination of his first period. The instrumental forces here have been trimmed to fifteen solo winds and strings, allowing for greater clarity within the highly contrapuntal texture. Melodic and harmonic aspects coalesce through the motive manipulation of whole-tone collections and superimposed fourths. Yet the work remains ostensibly tonal, although resolutions to tonal centers are relegated to mark only the major structural divisions. While the contrapuntal complexity, the rapid rate of motive development, and the extension of tonality all proved to be stumbling blocks for critics of the time, these traits have come to be seen as progenitors of Schoenberg’s subsequent development.

It was immediately following this period, in which he was reevaluating the efficacy of various means of musical expression, that Schoenberg became increasingly active as a painter. He studied with the young Richard Gerstl (with whom Mathilde would subsequently have a devastating affair) and developed sufficiently to mount a one-man exhibition in 1910. Through these activities, Schoenberg became active in the burgeoning expressionist movement, befriending such important painters as Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka; Schoenberg contributed to the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibition of 1912. While his interest in painting as his principle means of artistic expression soon waned, Schoenberg’s foray into this medium helped to solidify the aesthetic principles that continued to form the basis of his musical style.

Similar to the expressionist painters who sought to convey directly the innermost essence of the human experience (as was recently being examined in the work of Sigmund Freud), Schoenberg sought to bring similar depth to musical expression, resulting in the remarkable series...

(The entire section is 2738 words.)