Arnold Schönberg or Schoenberg is known to the world as the innovative Austrian composer who revolutionised music with the introduction of atonality. Born in Austria in 1874, Schönberg was a leading member of the Second Viennese School.
Schönberg was born in the Leopoldstadt district) of Vienna to Samuel and Pauline Schönberg. Samuel, who was originally from Bratislava, was a shopkeeper, and his Pauline was a native of Prague. The family were lower middle class and Schönberg was an unremarkable child although he did show some early talent at music. Despite this his father was reluctant to spend money on musical instruction and Schönberg was largely self-taught. Nevertheless by 1894 he was taking some counterpoint lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky, the composer.
By the late 1890s anti-Semitism was on the rise in Austria and in 1898 Schönberg converted to Christianity. While this acted as something of a self-defence against the anti-Semitism it also strengthened a sense of attachment to Western European cultural traditions that had been somewhat lacking in the family home.
In October 1901, Schönberg married Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the sister of Alexander. in 1902 a daughter, Gertrud, was born and in 1906 they had a son, Georg. By this time Schönberg had rejected the family trade and had decided on a career in music. He started out orchestrating operettas, while making his first steps in composing. One of his earliest works was Verklärte Nacht (1899). His early work attracted the attention of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler both of whom recognised his talent and nurtured the young composer.
During the summer of 1908, Mathilde left Schönberg for several months for the young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl who was a personal friend. The affair was brief after which Mathilde returned to the family home and Gerstl committed suicide. Schönberg embedded this personal trauma into his work increasing the radical expansion of his musical expression most notably in Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten
By 1909 Strauss had adopted a more conservative tone in is music and his association with Schönberg stopped. However, Mahler adopted him as a protégé and continued to support him, despite the growing gulf between their individual musical styles. Schönberg’s work continued and in addition to composing in 1910, he wrote Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony,) outlining his theory of music. Early in 1912 he moved to Berlin where he composed Pierrot Lunaire his great song cycle that employs, Sprechstimme, or melodramatically spoken recitation, within the work. He was offered a teaching position at the Vienna Conservatory by the director, Wilhelm Bopp, but declined stating that he needed to get away from the influence of Vienna.
The outbreak of the Great War World War I intruded into Schönberg’s life and despite being forty-two he was drafted into the army and found little peace in which to work. However, by 1918 he returned to Vienna and founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna). The Privataufführungen would provide a musical haven in which composers and musicians could work free from the constraints of the critics and the public. This was to be the birthplace of pure music uncontaminated by modern money and opinion. By 1921, despite having produced 353 performances, financial pressures grew too great and the the Privataufführungen closed its doors.
Mathilde died in 1923, and in August of the following year Schönberg married Gertrud Kolisch, sister of the violinist Rudolf Kolisch. In 1925 Schönberg was appointed Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. He was unable to take up his post until 1926 due to ill-health.
The increasing anti-Semitism of Austria and Germany and the rise of the NAZI party weighed heavily on Schönberg and in 1933 while on holiday in France he returned to his Jewish faith. His reasons were tow fold; Schönberg wanted to actively and publicly state his opposition to Nazism. and he felt deeply that his ‘racial and religious heritage was inescapable’. This move puts him in a dangerous position and in 1934 the NAZI party identified his music as ‘Jewish degeneracy’. He initially attempted to move to London before finally deciding to go to the United States.
After his arrival in the United States he changed the spelling of his name to Schoenberg.
His gained a teaching post at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston before moving to Los Angeles, where he taught at the Universities of Southern California and California. By 1935 he was then appointed visiting professor at UCLA .
In 1941, he became a citizen of the United States. Schoenberg died on 13 July 1951 and his ashes were interred at the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna on 6 June 1974.
Arnold Schönberg innovations in musical composition are, arguably, one of the most influential features within twentieth century music. His rejection of tonality was revolutionary. The traditional hierarchical tonal order in music, the diatonic scale, was subverted by Schönberg development of the dodecaphonic technique; manipulating all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. His work cannot easily be classified. His first ‘phase’ could be thought of as Expressionist and covers work such as Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4. The second ‘phase’ saw the initial development of dissonance and atonality and includes Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15. His final ‘phase’ saw the full development of the dodecaphonic technique and gave rise to compositions such as Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31.
Schoenberg’s archival legacy is collected at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna.