Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg by May Ray


The composer Arnold Schoenberg was the leading figure in the so-called ‘Second Viennese School’, an expressionist movement that also notably included his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Schoenberg’s significance

Schoenberg was a pioneer in the use of the twelve-tone, or serial, technique, which dispensed with the traditional tonal framework of music based on clearly defined key structures, to give all twelve notes of the scale equal prominence. Schoenberg was also a noted painter and exhibited his work with the group Der blaue Reiter, which was founded by his friend Wassily Kandinsky. Although much of his music was received with either incomprehension or outright hostility during his lifetime, Schoenberg’s influence on the direction of 20th-century music can hardly be overestimated.

Early works

Largely self-taught as a composer, Schoenberg absorbed the music of the late romantic composers Brahms, Wagner and Mahler, later claiming as his teachers Bach and Mozart in first place. His earliest acknowledged compositions already push the boundaries of tonality, whilst adhering to traditional models of form and structure. The rich chromaticism of works such as Verklärte Nacht (1899) and the vast cantata Gurrelieder (1900–1901), for example, inhabit an exotic post-Wagnerian sound world. In 1901 he married Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the sister of his close friend and musical mentor Alexander von Zemlinsky. By 1908, Schoenberg had largely abandoned tonality altogether, the shift in approach being represented quite literally in the fourth movement of the String Quartet no. 2, in which a solo soprano sings (in a setting of poetry by Stefan George) ‘Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten’ (‘I feel air from another planet’). 

In a series of works composed before the outbreak of the First World War, Schoenberg developed new ideas concerning musical texture and structure.  The concept of Klangfarbenmelodie, for example, was developed in the Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16. Palindrome structures are pioneered in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21, a setting for speaker and chamber ensemble of 21 poems from a cycle by Albert Giraud. The poem ‘Der Mondfleck’ describes Pierrot’s fascination with and fear of the moon, the music reflecting this bipolarity in its retrograde structure, literally repeating itself in mirror image.  The tone of the work is by turns grotesque and sentimental, the text being intoned in Sprechstimme (a vocal technique that lies somewhere between speaking and singing) in a quasi-cabaret style to an atonal, expressionist score. 

Society for Private Performance

In 1919 Schoenberg founded a society dedicated to the performance of contemporary music in the best possible conditions, with orchestral works arranged for chamber groups, with optimum rehearsal time and the opportunity to repeat works if desired. The membership criteria and ticket prices reflected a desire to admit only people who were receptive to modern music, regardless of their means or social standing, and to exclude the press. The Society thus exemplified an element of social criticism, especially in respect of mass culture, that was a motivating factor in what might be loosely termed 'avant-garde thinking'. The Society gave performances of 154 works in 117 concerts between 1919 and 1921, but was then discontinued for financial reasons in the face of rampant inflation.

The twelve-tone technique

In 1923 Schoenberg published his Five piano pieces, op. 23, which were the first to use the so-called ‘twelve-tone’ technique he had developed (other twelve-tone techniques had been proposed – including one around the same time by Josef Hauer). A remarkable series of instrumental works followed, including the Serenade op. 24, the Suite for piano op. 25 and the Variations for Orchestra op. 31, in which Schoenberg developed the serial technique in the context of Baroque and Classical forms. The opera Moses und Aron, composed between 1930 and 1932, is often regarded as a summation of Schoenberg’s music of the previous decade, unfolding the biblical narrative on a vast and intensely expressive musical canvas.


An influential teacher, Schoenberg was appointed Director of the Masterclass in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1926. There he endured anti-Semitic attacks in the press before being dismissed in 1933 on the rise of Nazism.  He was forced into exile, first to Paris and then to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1941. He died in Los Angeles on 13 July 1951.

Key works

  • Operas: Erwartung, Moses und Aron
  • Choral: Gurrelieder, A survivor from Warsaw
  • Orchestral: Chamber Symphony no. 1, Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16, Variations for Orchestra op. 31
  • Chamber: String Quartet no. 2, Serenade for chamber ensemble op. 24
  • Solo vocal: Pierrot lunaire op. 21
  • Solo piano: Five piano pieces op. 23, Suite for piano op. 25

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