Arnold Schoenberg & the
"Second Vienna School" - Part II

Rapid Development of Style & Atonality

In 1912, Schoenberg composed one of his most influential pieces, the "Pierrot Lunair" op. 21. He set this cycle of expressionist songs to words by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud delivered with "Sprechstimme" (speak-singing recitation). It is performed by a female singer wearing Pierrot dress and an ensemble of five musicians (flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello and piano).

Around this time, Schoenberg also published several books on theory of harmony ("Harmonielehre" of 1910, still a textbook widely used by students of composition) and composition itself. Later, Schoenberg developed an own tradition of the "dodecaphonic method of composition", also called "twelve-tone method" in which subsequently gave rise to serialism. Here he employed tone-rows in which the twelve pitches of the octave are considered equal and neither note nor tonality are given a role similar to the one they have in classical harmony.

It is widely assumed that Schoenberg′s reported obsession with numerology and his fear of the number 13 influenced this step. Other composers like Nikolai Roslavets and Josef Matthias Hauer had developed similar twelve-tone systems before, but Schoenberg′s work proved to become by far the most influential one.

Problems with critique

Nevertheless, his compositions were not well received at all - both critics and audience pretty much uniformly hated is work. In 1913, the audience disturbed a concert by shouting out complaints and insults. Later in this concert, work by Alban Berg was played, when finally fights broke out and the police had to be called. During World War I, Schoenberg served in the Austrian military. The work of this period is fragmentary and marks a crisis, as he could not work continuously. Many pieces that he started during the war remained incomplete.

He continued working as a teacher and composer after the war. In 1918, he founded the "Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen" ("society for private musical performances") for the rehearsal, deliverance and reflection on modern music and to avoid a general audience and its criticism. The society was highly active until 1921, when it lacked the financial support to continue. Schoenberg′s own work was not subject of the performances, rather Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Rave, Webern and other contemporary composers.

End of Vienna School: Schoenberg transfers to Berlin

In 1924, Schoenberg received an invitation to become director of a master class in composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. He accepted this post, but deferred it due to ill health until 1926. By the time of Schoenberg′s transfer to Berlin (which marks the end of the "Second Viennese School"), he had developed his serialism into a mature technique and influenced a whole generation of composers. He continued to do so in the subsequent years in Berlin with students like Roberto Gerhard, Nikolas Skalkottas and Josef Rufer.

When Adolf Hitler′s NSDAP won the elections of 1933 and Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Schoenberg (who had been a target of anti-Semitic attacks on many occasions) was dismissed and emigrated to Paris. There he reaffirmed Jewish faith and moved on to the United States where he first taught at Boston′s "Malkin Conservatory" and later in California (University of California in Los Angeles and University of Southern California). In the US, he also anglicised the spelling of his name from "Schönberg" to "Schoenberg" and in 1941, he became a US citizen. He lived in Brentwood Park, where he made friends with George Gershwin.

Milestones for Austrian Modern Music

In the late period of his life and work, he composed several important pieces, including the incomplete "Moses and Aron", the first opera in twelve-tone composition (1932/33), "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte" (1942) and "A Survivor from Warsaw" (1947). Some of his compositions from the period in California return to a keyed harmony, but follow a distinct style. Schoenberg was reported to be temperamental and emotionally labile, which is often seen as the reason why many of his compositions remained uncompleted. He died in 1951 - on a Friday the 13th. According to an anecdote, his death was due to a heart attack and occurred 13 minutes before midnight.

It is not likely that you will find his face on chocolates, T-shirts and other souvenirs in Austria. However, you will find his legacy in almost any contemporary composition of orchestral music. Several critics have challenged the significance of serialism within the context of musical history in the past years. However, Schoenberg′s dissolution of a central motive and his consequent atonality influenced classical composition far beyond the "Second Viennese School". Arnold Schoenberg is buried in an honour grave in the composer′s area of the Zentralfriendhof in Vienna.

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Further Reading

Best of Fest: Music festivals in Austria

Arnold Schoenberg Centre Vienna

Schoenberg Archive at the University of Southern California

Viennese Classic, Romanticism and Austria

Austrian Music Universities

An Introduction to the Wiener Moderne / Vienna Modernism