Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna to a family of a small trader. His mother Pauline was from Prague, his father Samuel was a native of Szécsény, a small town on what is today Slovak-Hungarian border. He started playing the violin when he was eight and his first composition attempts soon followed. His early works are closely tied to the instruments he was familiar with or that he started discovering as he grew older: from violin to viola and violoncello all the way to string quartet. As far as composing was concerned, he was not getting any formal education until his early adulthood. After his father died on New Year’s Eve of 1890, he even worked in a private bank Werner & Co. for five years to help his family overcome financial distress. On his own, he studied scores of the great masters of the 18th and 19th century. He was especially taken by music of Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and Richard Wagner (1813–1883). He best summarized his own early years by a note from 1949: “Grinding through Meyer’s Grosses Konversations-Lexikon (an encyclopaedia that I paid for in instalments), I finally got to the long yearned-for letter “S”, which allowed me to learn, how to properly structure the first movement of string quartet under ‘Sonata’.” In the mid 1890s, he met three key persons of his life: the journalist and music reviewer David Josef Bach (1874–1947), violinist, physician and recognized astrologer Oskar Adler (1875–1955), thanks to whom he started learning to play the violoncello, tried actually playing in a string quartet and composing for this type of ensemble (his String Quartet in D major of 1987 was probably his first ever work to be publicly performed), and the conductor Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942). Zemlinsky became practically the only professional composition teacher that Schoenberg ever had and, after Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde in 1901, also his brother-in-law. In the same year, thanks to a recommendation from Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Schoenberg began his first teaching tenure at Stern Conservatory in Berlin, working for some time also as the music director of the first German cabaret Überbrettl run by Ernst von Wolzogen, composing also a number of cabaret songs for the enterprise. In 1903, Schoenberg returned to Vienna, where Alban Berg and Anton Webern became his private students one year later.
Schoenberg’s breakthrough and most often performed work came in 1899. His string sextet Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht), Op. 4, was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863–1920) of the same name from his collection Woman and World (Weib und Welt, 1896). The erotic, symbolist and decadent nature of Dehmel’s poetry strongly influenced Schoenberg also in the following years. “It was this poetry that first enticed me to seek a new tone in lyricism,” Schoenberg confided in Dehmel in one of his letters. Among key achievements of his early, post-Romantic, period was his symphonic poem Pelléas und Melisande, Op. 5 composed in 1902–1903 and String Quartet No. 1, D minor, Op. 7 of 1904. His period of post-Romantic works was finished in 1906 with the Chamber Symphony for 15 instruments – a piece that he especially treasured, reworking it twice over the next fifty years and adapting it for symphonic orchestra, piano four hands and there is also a fragment of a piano quintet version. “This piece was a true turning point in my development […], the last work of my first period taking the form of a single, comprehensively composed movement,” Schoenberg remembered several decades later. But from that point on, his works irreversibly leaned towards expressionism.
Leopold Stokowski conducting Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4. (1956 recording, Symphonica Orchestra)
Towards freedom of expression
Expressionism was born from emphasizing an author’s authentic expression not muted by external rules or conventions. Also typical for the movement was interest in topics until then overlooked or deemed inappropriate. In the early 20th century, expressionism became a major influence not only in the realm of music but also in other forms of art – painting, literature or drama. In his own opinion, Schoenberg first succeeded in coming at least close to its artistic ideal in his song cycle 15 Poems from The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op. 15, for solo voice and piano composed between 1907 and 1909. “Now that I have chosen this path once and for all, I know that I have broken free of all earlier artistic limitations,” he noted in 1910. In 1909, he composed his atonal “psychoanalytical” one-act opera Expectation (Erwartung), Op. 17, to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim (1882–1966), expressing in thirty minutes a single second of maximum spiritual exertion in a human being. Probably his most famous work composed in this period is Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 dated 1912, a setting of poems by the Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud (1860–1929). Instead of singing, Schoenberg employs here the technique of so-called Sprechstimme (spoken voice), with the singer keeping strict rhythm but intoning the pitches only approximately, striving for a strong emotional and natural expression. “I feel to be on a path towards a new way of expression, in which sound becomes immediate, naturalistic reflection of man’s internal world,” Schoenberg wrote down in the year, when he composed this work. At the same time, he devoted himself to expressionist painting thanks to an invitation from his friend, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, presenting several of his paintings at the first exhibition of the expressionist group The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) in Munich in 1911. Last but not least, Schoenberg also completed his first decade as a teacher. Even though his music found itself outside traditional harmonic structures, he wrote his Theory of Harmony (Harmonielehre) in 1910, considered one of the most influential works ever written on the subject.
Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez (2004, Theater an den Wien).
The turn of the century was a time of not only artistic turmoil for Schoenberg but of personal one as well. In 1898, he renounced Judaism and converted to Protestantism, probably more due to general cultural and safety reasons than as a result of some religious transformation. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that he converted back to Judaism after being forced – as a Jew – to emigrate to Paris after the rise of Nazism in 1933. The painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985) became his witness on that occasion. Schoenberg wrote at that time: “It is with pride that I call myself a Jew today but I am well aware of how difficult it is to be one.” But let us return to the end of the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, Schoenberg’s life was marked by his wife Mathilde’s affair with Richard Gerstl (1883–1908), a twenty-five-year-old painter, which ended with the young artist’s suicide. It was this very tragedy that prompted Schoenberg to compose Expectation in the first place.
Songs of Gurre
In 1912, Schoenberg moved from Vienna back to Berlin to teach at the Stern Conservatory again. It was at this period that he finished his monumental cantata Songs of Gurre (Gurre-Lieder), originally conceived as a song cycle in 1900, later turned into a work for six soloists, large mixed chorus and an extremely large orchestra. Both the subject of the piece, namely the Danish legend of king Waldemar and his lover Tove, and the music itself show the determinative influence of Richard Wagner’s operas that Schoenberg had familiarized himself with intimately in his youth. The Songs of Gurre were finished in 1911 and premiered in 1913, i.e. at a time, when the Late Romanticism itself was considered outdated. But the audiences enjoyed the Songs much more that Schoenberg’s atonal and expressionist experiments, resulting in the embittered Schoenberg taking his bow facing the performers with his back to the spectators after the cantata’s premiere. This was not the last occasion, on which he would present to the public an older work, one that he himself considered an anachronism in the context of his contemporary efforts. The same happened when Expectation composed in the spirit of free atonality in 1909 was premiered as late as 1924, several years to the period, when Schoenberg was already dedicated to his dodecaphony. Still, the Songs of Gurre were a triumph. “A work of extraordinary art with sound effects never heard before,” wrote Anton Webern.
An extraordinary recording of the Songs of Gurre recorded by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Claudio Abbado, Jessye Norman, Brigitte Fassbaender and other soloists in 1988.
Dawn of dodecaphony
Schoenberg spent the First World War as a reservist and player in a military band in Vienna. It was in Vienna, where he organized the Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen) focusing on regular private performances of work by authors such as Skryabin, Debussy, Webern, Berg, Bartók or Stravinsky. The productions were only for members of the Society rather than for the general public. All praise or disapproval was prohibited at the performances and programs of the concerts were never announced in advance to secure regular attendance. Post-war years also brought change in Schoenberg’s personal life. One year after his first wife Mathilde died in 1923, he married Gertrud Kolisch, a daughter of one of his pupils. Also, his career of a teacher saw significant changes that year. When Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) died, Schoenberg took over his job of a Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. As a composer, Schoenberg could be best described in that period as leaning away from free atonality, gradually shifting towards dodecaphony – a composition method working with all twelve tones of a chromatic scale based upon rational rules (hence the name “dodecaphony”). In July 1921, he wrote to his pupil Josef Rufer: “Today, I discovered something that will secure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years.” After a period of untamed expressionism, Schoenberg’s music finds system and strict rules again – a development to be observed for example in the case of Igor Stravinsky around the same time, albeit in a different form. Unlike Stravinsky, Schoenberg found no inspiration in Baroque or Classicist music, remaining in his original realm of atonality independent of any tradition. When talking about dodecaphony, a famous quote by Schoenberg should be mentioned, whereby he distinguished himself from Josef Matthias Hauer (1883–1959), another composer working in the twelve-tone mode: “I cannot repeat this often enough: my works are twelve-tone compositions, not twelve-tone compositions: Again, I am being mistaken for Hauer, for whom composition comes second.” Although Schoenberg never actually taught his twelve-tone method, it influenced numerous composers of the 20th century such as Milton Babbitt (1916–2011), Luigi Nono (1924–1990, Schoenberg’s son-in-law), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) or Pierre Boulez (1925–2016).
In the 20s and early 30s, Schoenberg composed several chamber works for various ensembles, as well as Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1926–1928), From today to tomorrow (Von heute auf morgen, 1929), Op. 32, a one-act “Zeitoper” (satirical opera) dealing with fashion and its influence on relationships, or the biblical drama Moses und Aron, 1930-1932, based upon a single twelve-tone scale and its variations.
Moses and Aron in a film version by Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet from 1975.
Everything in Schoenberg’s life changed in 1933. By order of the Nazi government, he was dismissed from his teaching post at the Prussian Academy of Arts. On 16th May at night, he left Germany in a hurry, heading for France. Several months later, a ship took him from Le Havre in France to New York. He never returned to Europe. In the United States, he first taught at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, moving to California in 1934 due to health issues. His first private students there included, among others, John Cage (1912–1992). In 1935 and 1936, he shortly taught at the University of South Carolina, leaving for the West Coast for good in 1936. Los Angeles became his last place of residence, where he spent his years teaching composition at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles, until 1944.
Schoenberg’s American compositions can be characterized by returning – to a certain point – to traditional music forms and even to tonality. We can hear revived tonality in his Suite in Old Style (1934), Chamber Symphony in E-flat minor, Op. 38 (1939) or Variations in D minor on a recitative for Organ, Op. 40 (1941). His most significant American dodecaphonic compositions include two concertos – Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934-1936) and Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942) described as a “milestone in the history of music” by the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977). Two of Schoenberg’s American works – Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte according to Lord Byron, Op. 41 (1943) and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) – explicitly reflect the war and Nazi terror. The broad range of American compositions also includes several pieces composed to psalms or texts for Jewish rituals. He also wrote a number of texts on harmony, counterpoint and composition during his years in the United States.
Schoenberg’s cantata A Survivor from Warsaw reflects wartime suffering and Nazi terror. Recording of a thrilling performance by Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Simon Rattle and Franz Mazura.
There can be no doubt that Arnold Schoenberg is among the most remarkable artists of the 20th century not only due to his legacy as a composer but also as a teacher. His words about the dominance of German music from July 1921 proved to be prophetic. Dodecaphony and later serialism (total organization of all musical elements) became starting points for several generations of composers in the 20th and the 21st century. Schoenberg’s noble nature fittingly mirrored even in his surname (meaning “beautiful mountain” in German) opened for him friendships with other music geniuses of his era: in addition to those mentioned above for example with George Gerschwin (1998–1937), with whom he shared passion not only for music but also for tennis and fine art (Gerschwin even painted Schoenberg’s portrait) or Gustav Mahler from 1903 to 1911. “Schoenberg is certainly one of those fiery spirits that may repulse some but that have inspired and enriched human mind since time immemorial,” Mahler noted in 1910. Words of Schoenberg’s famous pupil, Anton Webern, also testify to his authority and influence: “Your work has clearly shown, what human destiny is.”
A little superstition to conclude
Schoenberg’s numerological superstition was one of his idiosyncrasies. More specifically, it took the form of triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 that seemed to accompany him from his birth: he was born on the 13 September 1874. He feared not only the number 13 itself but also its multiples. He always worried that he would die at an age divisible by thirteen. There are numerological twists and traces of triskaidekaphobia to be found even in his work – for example the numerical relations surrounding his Pierrot Lunaire cycle (Opus number 21, i.e. 3 x 7, it consists of 21 poems and Schoenberg began composing it on 12/03/1912, with each poem having 13 verses with the first one repeated as the seventh and thirteenth verse) or the intentional omission of one “a” in the title of his opera Moses and Aron to decrease the number of letters in the title from the dreaded 13 to 12. When Schoenberg celebrated his 76th birthday in 1950, he is said to have been worried by his astrologer’s warning concerning the dangerous digit sum of his age (7 + 6 = 13). In the middle of the next year, i.e. still seventy-six years old, Schoenberg died of heart failure and – possibly – of his numerological obsession. It was Friday13 June 1951.
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