Arnold Schoenberg

Born in 1874 in Austria to a shoe store owner, Arnold Schoenberg evolved as a self-taught musician in his youth. But since he lost his father when he was just 16, to support his family, he was forced to work in a bank. Deep within, however, he had resolved to become a composer investing all his free time in studying music.

A composer who evoked extreme responses from critics and well-wishers alike, Schoenberg’s compositions were embedded with immense stylistic diversity. His first notable composition, Verklarte Nacht Op.4, as well as Five Orchestral Pieces and the seminal Pierrot lunaire bear the undeniable stamp of German Romanticism.

Verklärte Nacht (excerpt)

Schoenberg developed new methods of composition involving atonality, namely serialism and the 12-tone row. In fact in Schoenberg’s catalogue, his Suite for Piano occupies a pride of place as his first 12-tone composition. It is true that the 12-tone technique forms only a single dimension of Schoenberg’s style, but it remains the single characteristic most closely associated with his music.

Undoubtedly, the composer resorted to the varied use of the technique across the spectrum of genres, from chamber works like the String Quartet No.4, Fantasy for Violin and Piano, as also orchestral works such as Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto, including choral works like A Survivor from Warsaw.

Schoenberg had a tumultuous personal life. At 27, he married Mathilde Zemlnisky, sister of his tutor with whom he had two children. But she left him to be with an Austrian painter, and when he committed suicide she returned to Schoenberg. However during the period, his wife stayed away from him, there was a distinct change in Schoenberg’s work; such as his composition, Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide, the thirteenth song in the cycle Das Buch der Hangenden Garten, Op.15 which was the first composition without reference to any key. Around the same time, Schoenberg completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2.

Fantasy for Violin and Piano

After the death of his wife in 1923, a year later he married the sister of the violinist Rudolf Kolisch. He became successful as a teacher and was invited to the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin; and he was writing important works: the Third String Quartet, Op. 30, the opera Von Heute auf Morgen, Op. 32, Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, Op. 34.

Due to the rise of Nazism, Schoenberg fled the toxic political atmosphere of Europe in 1933, spending the rest of his life mainly in the United States, and in 1941, became a naturalized citizen. It was during this phase that he returned to frank tonality at times, as in the Theme and Variations for band, reaffirming his connection to the great German musical heritage that extended back to Bach. The composer died in Los Angeles in 1951.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music had this to say on his last legendary work, ‘Finally, there is Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aron, the work that was closest to his heart in its search for faith and in its metaphorical reflection of his own life… Clearly, Schoenberg identified with Moses, whose unbending devotion to truth makes it impossible for him to communicate with the multitudes, but who nonetheless is destined to lead his people to the promised land…’