Schoenberg Fundamentals of Musical Composition 1937-1948, Schoenberg Center Vienna

Arnold Schoenberg – His Life And Musical Style

Arnold Schoenbger, self portrait, 1910

In 2024 Vienna celebrates the 150th anniversary of Arnold Schönberg. The Austrian Jewish composer and artist Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg (how his name spells in German language) was born in Vienna in 1874. Most famously, Schoenberg invented the revolutionary 12 tone music, t

urning him into a symbol of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.

Despite facing controversy and resistance during his lifetime, Schoenberg’s works profoundly influenced subsequent generations of composers. Until today music universities, academies and concert halls continue to teach and perform Schönberg’s music. To find out about Arnold Schönberg and where to follow his footsteps in Vienna read on.

Who Is Arnold Schoenberg?

Arnold and Gertrude Schönberg, 1935Not only was Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) a revolutionary composer and music theorist, but also a talented painter. He is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, known for his contributions to atonal and serial composition techniques. While his early works followed the Romantic tradition, he later developed his own innovative approach to composition. Clearly he liked pushing the boundaries of tonality and exploring new forms of expression.

In this picture taken in Arcachon, France, in 1935, you can see the Schönberg family, including his second wife Gertrude and daughter Nuria.

One of Schönberg’s most significant contributions to music was his development of the twelve-tone technique, also known as serialism or dodecaphony. This method liberated composers from traditional tonal systems and opened up new avenues for musical exploration.

As a painter, Arnold Schönberg helped shape the art movement Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter). Emerging in Germany in the early 20th century this influential art movement was closely associated with Expressionism, that aimed to convey emotional and psychological truths through art. The Blue Rider group included painters, writers, and composers who shared a common interest in exploring spiritual and emotional dimensions through their work.

When he did not compose or paint, Schönberg loved to play tennis and invent fairy tales, and he developed a chess game for four players.

How To Pronounce Schoenberg (Schönberg)?

An approximately correct pronunciation of “Schönberg” in German is “shurn-berg.” The phonetic spelling is |ʃøːnbɛɐ̯k|. Since the word Schönberg contains the tricky German umlaut ö focus on pronouncing that vocal correctly, listening to native pronunciation on YouTube. 

What Is 12 Tone Music?

Schoenberg: Composition with Twelve Tones, 1934Also known as dodecaphony or serialism, 12 tone music is a compositional technique that Arnold Schoenberg developed in the early 20th century. This method involves organizing all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale into a specific order, known as a tone row or series. Consequently, this row forms the basis for the composition.

In twelve-tone music, each pitch in the row must be used before any can be repeated, ensuring that all twelve pitches are treated equally. Additionally, the row can be manipulated through various techniques such as inversion, retrograde, and transposition. In this picture you see the German draft for Schönberg’s lecture about 12 tone music at Princeton University in March 1934.

This technique was revolutionary in breaking away from traditional tonal systems, where a hierarchy of pitches and harmonic relationships governed the music. Instead, twelve-tone music offers composers a more abstract and systematic approach to composition, allowing for new forms of expression and experimentation with pitch organization.

While Schoenberg pioneered the twelve-tone technique, it was further developed and expanded upon by composers such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg, collectively known as the Second Viennese School. Twelve-tone music had a significant impact on 20th-century composition and influenced composers across various genres and styles.

Where Did Schönberg Study Composition?

Initially, Arnold Schönberg studied composition in Vienna. At first he learned privately with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who also taught other notable Austrian composers like Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Later, Schönberg attended the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied harmony and counterpoint. However, he largely taught himself as a composer, developing his innovative approaches to composition through his own experimentation and exploration of musical ideas.

Who Was Schoenberg Influenced By?

Fin de Siecle Vienna: portrait of Gustav MahlerThroughout his life, Arnold Schönberg was influenced by various composers, theorists, and artistic movements. For example, Schoenberg admired Richard Wagner’s innovative harmonic language and expansive musical forms. Wagner’s exploration of chromaticism and his use of leitmotifs likely influenced Schoenberg’s early compositions.

During his first Romantic orientation Schoenberg admired Johannes Brahms. However, he later came to reject Brahmsian traditions in favor of more radical approaches to composition. Nevertheless, Brahms’s emphasis on motivic development and structural integrity likely influenced Schönberg’s approach to form and structure.

Most importantly, Arnold Schoenberg worked briefly as Gustav Mahler’s (see picture) assistant. In fact, Mahler’s music profoundly impacted Schoenberg’s early compositions. Mahler’s expansive symphonies and emotional depth influenced the Schönberg’s approach to orchestration and expressive possibilities in music.

Romantic composer Richard Strauss was another contemporary composer whose music Schoenberg admired. Strauss’s use of complex harmonies and orchestration techniques likely influenced Schoenberg’s early works.

As for artistic movements, Schönberg followed Symbolism and Expressionism. These movements emphasized subjective experience, emotional intensity, and the exploration of inner psychological states, themes that are often reflected in Schoenberg’s music.

These influences, among others, contributed to Schoenberg’s development as a composer and helped shape his unique musical language and aesthetic vision.

What Did Schönberg Compose?

Schonberg Gurre Lieder posterAcross orchestral music, chamber music, operas, choral works, and solo instrumental pieces Schönberg expressed his revolutionary tunes. A landmark work in Schoenberg’s output, Pierrot Lunaire is a song cycle for voice and chamber ensemble. It features a technique called Sprechstimme, where the singer performs in a style that hovers between speech and song. In his early work for string sextet, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Schoenberg displays lush romantic harmonies and expressive intensity.

Between 1900 and 1911 Schoenberg composed his Gurre-Lieder,  a large-scale cantata or song cycle. It is one of Schoenberg’s most expansive and ambitious works. Employing lots of emotional depth and powerful storytelling Schoenberg’s music captures the passion and tragedy of Danish King Waldemar: Starting from the tender love scenes between King Waldemar and Tove to the haunting finale, where the spirits of the dead gather at Gurre Castle. 

Five Pieces for Orchestra presents a set of orchestral pieces that demonstrates Schoenberg’s move towards atonality and his exploration of new harmonic and textural tunes. In his String Quartet No. 2 Schoenberg introduces vocal elements, setting texts from Stefan George’s poetry, marking a significant departure from traditional string quartet form. Based on the biblical story of Moses and his brother Aaron, Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses und Aron explores themes of faith, politics, and the nature of God. It is considered one of the most important operatic works of the 20th century.

Among his 12 tone music pieces are works such as the Suite for Piano, Op. 25, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 and the String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37.

Where Did Schoenberg Teach?

Between 1903 and 1944 Arnold Schoenberg taught at several institutions. Starting at the Vienna Conservatory he taught composition and music theory to aspiring composers and musicians until 1925. In 1911, Schoenberg joined the faculty of the University of Music and Performing Arts (Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst) in Vienna where he continued to teach there until 1925. After moving to Berlin he was appointed director of a master class in composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts. In 1933, he was dismissed from his post by the Nazis due to his Jewish heritage and modernist musical tendencies.

He then immigrated to the United States in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime. Settling in Los Angeles Schönberg accepted a teaching position at the University of Southern California, where he taught composition until his retirement in 1944.

When Did Arnold Schoenberg Die?

Arnold Schoenberg died on July 13, 1951, in Los Angeles, California, United States.

Why Schoenberg Matters

Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony, 1911Overall, Arnold Schoenberg made groundbreaking contributions to composition, music theory, pedagogy, and opera. To be precise, his atonal and twelve-tone composition techniques revolutionized 20th-century music. Pushing the boundaries of traditional tonality Schönberg boldly explored new harmonic languages and structural forms. As a consequence he paved the way for modernist and avant-garde movements. 

Among his most influential writings are the Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony) and “Structural Functions of Harmony”. They remain foundational texts in music theory. His concepts and ideas continue to be studied and debated by scholars and composers worldwide.

But Schoenberg was also an influential teacher. His methods and philosophies had a lasting impact, not only on students like Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Hanns Eisler but on generations of musicians and composers. 

In the opera genre Schoenberg operas such as Moses und Aron challenged traditional operatic conventions and explored complex themes of faith, politics, and identity. Most imporantly, his innovative approaches to storytelling and musical dramaturgy expanded the possibilities of the operatic genre.

Schoenberg’s legacy continues, making him a central figure in Western art music. More than during his lifetime his works are celebrated for their intellectual depth, emotional intensity, and technical innovation.

Where To Find The Composer In Vienna?

Located at Modernist Palais Fanto the Arnold Schönberg Center hosts Schoenberg’s legacy. In addition to an archive and library it houses an museum featuring manuscripts, personal items, and exhibits about Schoenberg’s life and work. Among my favourites there are the music stations where you can listen to samples of Schönberg’s most influential tunes. In this picture you can see a reconstruction of the composer’s study in Los Angeles, at the Schoenberg Center. Address: Schwarzenbergplatz 6, 1010 Vienna.

While not directly related to Schoenberg, the House of Music offers insights into the history and science of music, providing context for Schoenberg’s innovations and contributions.

To experience Schönberg’s music in concert check concert calendars like those of Musikverein and Wiener Konzerthaus before visiting Vienna. At Musikverein Schoenberg conducted some of his compositions, including the premiere of his Gurre-Lieder in 1913. You can attend concerts at this iconic concert hall and experience the same acoustics that Schoenberg would have.

Although he died in Los Angeles you can find an honorary grave of Arnold Schönberg at Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Group 32 C, Nr. 21 A). On June 5, 1974, Arnold and Gertrud Schönberg’s urns were buried at the Central Cemetery. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir interpreted De Profundis op. 50B. In his speech, Ronald Schoenberg, representing the family, spoke of a symbol of posthumous recognition. 

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