Arnold Schoenberg

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Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), Austrian composer, was largely self-taught; not having any formal training until he was in his twenties. His early works, written around the turn of the century, especially the massive “Gurrelieder” orchestral song cycle and passionately lyrical “Verklärte Nacht” for strings, continue the Germanic tradition, notably of Wagner; however within little more than a decade he was to revolutionise Western music by abandoning the use of a tonal centre – a complete break away from traditional harmony.[1]

This “free atonal” technique - developed in various genres: chamber pieces, songs, stage works - culminating in his most famous work, “Pierrot Lunaire”, for “song-speech” and 5 instruments (Op.21) - won him adherents as well as much criticism. With his two most prominent students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, he formed what is known as the “Second Viennese School” (a misnomer, really, as there never was a “First Viennese School”.) By 1923, Schönberg began codifying a new system of organizing atonal music, which he termed the "twelve-note" method of composition, later to be called "serialism." [2] Webern and Berg immediately began composing with these new rules as well. Notable works of this period in Schönberg's development include the Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31) and the Piano Concerto (Op. 42). As radical as his music was, and despite its inaccessibility to the traditional “ear”, he was known to be technically proficient in the Brahmsian tradition and was in demand as a teacher. By 1924 he had gained sufficient official acceptance to be appointed professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts (where, as a Jew, he was forced to leave in 1933.)

He also wrote a number of books on composition, and was a highly respected painter in the Expressionist school.[3]

Schönberg moved to the United States in 1934 where his music turned somewhat back towards tonality, although it also became structurally more complex. He began teaching at UCLA and his compositional output declined. He died in Los Angeles in 1951.


"I am at least as conservative as Edison and Ford have been. But I am, unfortunately, not quite as progressive as they were in their own fields."[4]


  1. (See under the year "1908")
  2. (See under the year "1923")
  3. Norbert Wolf, Uta Grosnick, Expressionism, 2004
  4. "My Attitude Towards Politics" (1950), Reprinted in Style and Idea, University of California Press, p. 505. (Also available on Google Books)