Arnold (Franz Walter) Schoenberg


The Austro-Hungarian born composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most influential figures in the history of music. He was the first to compose music without a key and later developed an alternative to tonality called Serialism in which the note-row became the harmonic basis for music.

Schoenberg was born on 13 September 1874 in Vienna and brought up as an orthodox Jew. He began learning the violin at the age of eight and started composing soon after. Neither of his parents were musical and, aside from some informal study with Zemlinsky, Schoenberg was almost entirely self-taught as a composer.

Apart from an early string quartet in 1897, many of Schoenberg's early works met with a hostile reaction from Viennese society. However, he quickly gained loyal supporters, including Zemlinksy, Mahler and Richard Strauss, among the musical establishment.

In 1901 Schoenberg married Zemlinksy's sister, Mathilde and suffered a period of financial hardship as he moved between Vienna and Berlin struggling to find regular teaching appointments at the conservatories. Among his pupils were Anton Webern and Alban Berg who would become lifelong devotees of Schoenberg's theories. The three composers are commonly known as composers of the Second Viennese School.

Around this time, Schoenberg's post-Wagnerian chromaticism began to push the boundaries of tonality to breaking point and in 1908, he began composing works without any identifiable key, treating all the semitones as equal. These atonal works were received with total incomprehension by Viennese society.

Although unable to secure an appointment in Vienna, his works began to attract more curiosity and he achieved considerable success with Pierrot lunaire in 1912. However, war intervened and, for four years, Schoenberg wrote very little and was unable to teach.

After the war he founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen to give properly rehearsed performances of contemporary music, and began to formulate new techniques, writing the first fully serial works in 1920.

Following the death of his wife in 1923, Schoenberg married Gertrud Kolisch, the sister of a pupil and in 1926 moved back once again to Berlin to teach at the Akademie der Künste.

Recognising the anti-semitic policies of the Nazis, Schoenberg left Germany in 1933 and accepted a teaching post in Boston, before moving to the sunnier climate of Los Angeles in 1934. He became an American citizen in 1941 but never adjusted properly to his new surroundings and spent much of his remaining years in poor health.

He continued to compose, sometimes using the tonality that he'd rejected previously, teach and lecture, and lived long enough to see the post-war upsurge of interest in his music. He died in Los Angeles on 13 July 1951.

Schoenberg's extraordinary creative journey may have encompassed a wide variety of interesting compositional techniques, from chromaticism through atonality to serialism, but it also produced some wonderful, if challenging, music. From the early Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder, through the expressionist works such as Die glückliche Hand, to the serial Moses und Aaron, Schoenberg demonstrated his credentials as a great composer alongside those of an influential theorist.

Related composers: WebernBergWagnerStravinskyStockhausen

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