"I believe what I do and do only what I believe; and woe to anybody who lays hands on my faith. Such a man I regard as an enemy and no quarter given…” These words of Arnold Schoenberg give us a deep insight into the kind of man and musician he was. One of the most controversial figures of twentieth century music, Schoenberg’s exerted a considerable influence over the music of his time. He developed and promulgated several important theories of composition, the most important one being his theory of atonality, meaning music without a key or tonal centre. Much of his earlier works were post-romantic in style. His compositions are primarily lauded for their flair and variety, and usually stemmed from a deep, irresistible artistic desire. Although he was born in Vienna and spent his early life in Berlin, he was forced to quit Germany and relocate to America with Hitler’s ascension to power. Arnold Schoenberg, like his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg, both of whom he outlived, represented the Second Viennese School of music.
Arnold Schoenberg’s Childhood and Early Life
Arnold Schoenberg was born in a lower middle class family to Pauline Nachod and Samuel Schoenberg in Vienna. He hailed from a family that had no musical association. His father Samuel, was a merchant and owned a shoe store. Schoenberg was blessed as his parents enjoyed music but they could not contribute much towards his musical career. His brother Heinrich Schoenberg was a singer. When he was just nine years old, he started composing and was much of what he learned and understood during this time was self-taught. At the age of eight, he began playing the violin and composed violin duets. He demonstrated a special aptitude for composition from his early age. Schoenberg received his elementary instructions from Oskar Adler who taught him harmony and counterpoint, and studied compositions from his close friend and brother-in-law, Alexander Zemlinsky. Though most of Schoenberg’s life was spent in teaching at various private institutions, he also acquired jobs in orchestrating operettas.
Arnold Schoenberg flagged off his career as an apprentice clerk with the private bank of Werner & Co. When he was sixteen, his father passed away and he joined the orchestra, Polyhymnia in the year 1891. Schoenberg maintained a close friendship with the conductor of the orchestra, Alexander de Zemlinsky. Though Schoenberg himself had been the conductor of the metal worker-choir in Stockerau, it was at the age of twenty that he put forward his first original composition, a few piano pieces with the help of his friend Zemlinsky. Schoenberg got married to Zemlinky’s sister, Mathilde and they settled in Berlin. He took up at teaching job at Berlin’s Stern Academy and returned to Vienna after two years in order to start a private teaching school. Alban Berg and Anton Webern became his first disciplines and contributed to carry forward the art of atonality. He along with his mentees were a part of the Second Viennese School and was the main force in developing atonal and the twelve tone music in the twentieth century. Zemlinsky introduced Schoenberg to the court opera director of that time, Gustav Mahler who supported Schoenberg in composing atonal pieces.
Birth of Modern Music
The year 1906 is marked as one of the several beginnings of modern music. It was a shock that Schoenberg’s first performance of the legendary ‘scandal concert’ in 1908 was received with lack of understanding by the press as well as the public. People dissed Schoenberg even while he performed, while the reporters rushed to their offices to regard Schoenberg as ‘insane’. Schoenberg felt that his work and his changed styles were misinterpreted in the wrong way and it took him some time to figure out the solution to the structural problems of the nontonal music. His confidence in his words can be well perceived from the statement he once made, “Today, I have discovered something, which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”
Schoenberg travelled back to Berlin in the year 1916 to conduct some of his pieces. It was during this time that he began pondering and experimenting on various possibilities of his compositions. For example, he mixed conventional speech in a piece ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ along with singing that resulted in a different way of vocalization. He varied the technique from chamber works such as ‘String Quartet No. 4’ in 1936, ‘Fantasy for Violin and Piano’ in 1949 and it also extended up to the orchestral works like the ‘Violin Concerto’ (1935-1936) and the ‘Piano Concerto’ in 1942. The choral works like ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ also exhibited a different technique. In Berlin, he first began composing his twelve-tone series, which is also known as dodecaphony. Such types of compositions were included as a part of a larger group referred to as ‘serialism’ where the compositions were more of mathematical rather than original.
Twelve Tone System
According to this method, the compositions were based on a row or series and the composer would choose all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a particular way according to his desire. The row may be inverted, played backward in inversion or transposed to any scale step. Unity was guaranteed as the melodies and harmonies were derived from its specific row. Thus, critics feared that the music that they present would be inexpressive and mechanical.
Arnold Schoenberg was married to Alexander de Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde and they raised two children. In the year 1923, his wife Mathilde died and he married Getrud Kolisch, the sister of violinist Rudolf Kolish, after ten months. They had three children. During this time, he began working on his new opera, ‘Moses und Aron’ that was initially titled as ‘Moses und Aaron’.
Schoenberg was a Jew and as a result, had to move out of Berlin because of the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933. Hence relocated to the US, stayed in Los Angeles for the rest of his life, and taught at the University of Southern California and at UCLA. He became a naturalized citizen in the year 1941. He remained an undecipherable piece of genius even after he tried to blend traditional classical music with the twelve-tone series. Towards the last period of his life, he composed religious pieces including ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’.
- 3 Songs, (1933)
- Fourth String Quartet, 1936
- Violin Concerto, 1934 -1936
- Piano Concerto, 1942
- Theme and variations for Band, (1943)
- Theme and variations for Orchestra, (1943)
- Prelude to Genesis Suite for Chorus and Orchestra, (1945)
- String Trio (1946)
- A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947)
- Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (1949)
- 3 Folksongs, Op. 49 (1948)
- Modern psalm, Op. 50c (1950, unfinished)
- Jacob’s Ladder (oratorio Die Jakobsleiter)
- Modern Psalms
- Models for Beginners in Composition (1942, music theory)
- Structural Functions of Harmony (1954, music theory)
- Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint (1963, music theory)
- Fundamentals of Musical Composition (1967, music theory)
Arnold Schoenberg died on 13 July 1951. His development of the twelve tone series in the field of music along with Stravinsky are the two greatest developments that the twentieth century had seen. Schoenberg’s works added vigor to the maturing romantic period. Arnold Schoenberg’s life helped to inspire one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s ‘Doctor Faustus’.
Arnold Schoenberg’s archival legacy is compiled at the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna.