Arnold Schoenberg | Biography


Arnold Schoenberg is one of the major composers of the twentieth century. He changed the nature of musical language through his pursuit of atonality and serialism in his own compositions and those of his pupils. Yet although many of today’s leading musicians acknowledge him as a towering genius, audiences have only taken a handful of works to their hearts. During his lifetime Schoenberg was regarded in some quarters as a dangerous modernist with anarchic tendencies. But the composer never viewed himself as a revolutionary. His musical gods were Bach, Beethoven Mozart and Brahms, and it was to their models that turned when pursuing a career as an influential teacher, theoretician and educationalist. A creative polymath, he was equally talented as a writer and artist, whose paintings were exhibited alongside those of Kandinsky. Schoenberg was a sought-after teacher whose most distinguished pupils included Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Hanns Eisler and, much later, John Cage. In the light of this, it seems astonishing that in his youth he had no formal training in theory and composition, learning much about music through playing the violin and cello in string quartets. He was 20 when he first sought professional advice from his friend and future brother-in-law, the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. Although Schoenberg wrote music from a very early age, he was ruthlessly self-critical. For this reason he suppressed a beautifully written, rather Brahmsian String Quartet in D, composed when he was 23. At the beginning of the twentieth century Schoenberg followed Zemlinsky’s example in becoming increasingly fascinated by the chromatic harmonies of Wagner and Liszt and the daring orchestral innovations of Richard Strauss. He aimed to mingle these advances with the rigorous thematic construction he had learnt from Brahms in the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (1899), based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, and the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande for orchestra (1902–03), based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Both works are extended one-movement symphonies with a few extremely dissonant passages, but they are still strongly connected to traditional tonality. Schoenberg’s style became more complex in the years that followed. Although he gave both the First String Quartet (1904–05) and First Chamber Symphony (1906) conventional key signatures, each of these densely argued, one-movement works contains even more extended sections in which all sense of tonality disappears. By 1908 he was ready to make a decisive move to atonality at the end of his Second String Quartet (1907–08). Although he argued that he was driven to this process as a consequence of historical necessity, it was also during this period that he experienced a marital crisis connected to the horrific suicide of his wife’s lover, the artist Richard Gerstl. This trauma was reflected in the dissonant harmonies, dislocated rhythms and frenzied emotional language of his first purely atonal works, the Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) and Erwartung for soprano and orchestra (1909), the latter an almost hysterical exploration of the hopes and fears experienced by a woman who is desperately searching for her lover. An even more grotesque exploration of the bizarre and macabre comes in Pierrot Lunaire (1912), a cycle in which the reciter, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble of woodwind, strings and piano, employs a vocal technique known as Sprechgesang which blurs the borderlines between speech and song. At this stage many listeners regarded Schoenberg’s music as incomprehensible. Even Richard Strauss, who had previously supported his work, commented that in future ‘he’d be better off shovelling snow’. But Schoenberg recognised that he had reached an impasse. Over the next few years he devised the system of ‘serial’ composition, in which all 12 notes of the chromatic scale have equal importance. He regarded this as a means to bring a semblance of order into atonality. After boldly declaring in the 1920s that this technique would guarantee ‘the supremacy of Austro-German music for the next 100 years’, he went on to employ it in works such as the Piano Suite (1921–3), Variations for Orchestra (1926–8) and the Third String Quartet (1927), which also drew upon baroque and classical models. Schoenberg’s nationalistic outlook was to be severely shaken when the Nazis came to power. After he was forced to leave a prestigious teaching post in Berlin in 1933, the composer, who was born Jewish but converted to Lutherhanism in 1898, readopted the Jewish faith in defiance against the regime, setting aside composition to write a manifesto for European Jewry. Later that year he emigrated to the United States. By 1936 he had found a post teaching composition at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he made his home for the rest of his life. It was probably more difficult for Schoenberg to find a committed audience for his music in America than it had been in central Europe. Still, he continued to compose extensively, in some works even attempting to make a rapprochement between serialism and tonality. His most striking music during this period was a direct response to recent history. The most moving example is the cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), which comments with powerful immediacy on the Holocaust. Immediately after Schoenberg’s death, it became fashionable in avant-garde circles to decry the composer as outmoded and less adventurous in expression and technique than his pupil Anton Webern. Musical conservatives were equally dismayed by the way the mathematical intricacies of 12-note writing pushed aside the intense emotionalism that underpins all his music, and hailed Berg as the greatest composer of what was known as the Second Viennese School.  Neither view does Schoenberg justice. He was driven by an almost fanatical mission to create music of great originality while maintaining a strong awareness of his place in music history, refusing to compromise his beliefs. As he once said: ‘Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composers in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas — one must be convinced of the infallibility of one’s own fantasy and one must believe in one’s own inspiration.’