The Life and Works of Arnold Schoenberg

The lives and works of people vary according to the way that people have lived and what they have accomplished. Some individuals manage to create a lasting impact on the world, while many try and fail to do so. Those that do create a last impact are ones are individuals who are remembered specially. Arnold Schoenberg is one individual who is remembered for his works to this day. In addition to his works that have had a lasting impact, his life has been eventful, and is worth taking note of.

Arnold Schoenberg’s surname was Schönberg before he left Germany in 1933, and converted back to Judaism. He was born on September 13th, 1874, was Austrian, and later became American, and was renowned for becoming an American composer. He came to be associated with the expressionist movements in the early 1900s German poetry and art. Among many of Arnold Schoenberg’s work, he is perhaps most popular for his twelve-tone technique, which is an approach that makes use of tone rows (Schoenberg, 2006, 89-95). Aside from this, Schoenberg was known as an artist, a theorist of music, and a composition mentor.

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As mentioned earlier, Arnold Schoenberg was born in the home of an Ashkenzai Jew in Vienna. Although Schoenberg’s mother [Pauline] was a pianist and piano teacher, he was a talented self-taught individual. The only lessons Schoenberg did take were from composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who later became his first brother-in-law. By the time, Arnold Schoenberg was in his 20s, he orchestrated operettas along with composing famous pieces of work like the Verklärte Nacht [Transfigured Night] (1899)[1].

In order to comprehend how and why Arnold Schoenberg composed his music in the manner that he did, it is worth beginning with his own words: “Had times been ‘normal’ (prior and after 1914) then the music of our time would have been very different.” Clearly this meant that he believed that it was situations and periods that people went through that triggered their creativity. From this, one might say that he was a man who adhered to ideas. Schoenberg is known as a Jewish intellectual who firmly believed in the idea of an inexpressible God. He also adhered to pursuing truth (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Schoenberg witnessed music develop through exquisite works of the greats like Strauss, Wagner and Mahler. He listened to these greats and reached a state of saturation. He resolved that to refresh the simplicity in music, there was need to introduce a new language. This was around the time when abstract art developed and flourished in the western world (Bailey, 1999, 928-928).

These were the same years when the Western world developed abstract art as well as psychoanalysis. In fact, many people at this point in time felt that thought and reason had developed to a point where there would be no return. They further thought that there was no more room for repetition of what had been achieved earlier (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Crucial Years in Schoenberg’s Life:

Between the years 1901 and 1910, Schoenberg created Five Pieces for Orchestra, and his music began to evolve quickly as time went by. By the time Schoenberg created his String Quartet opus 7 as well as his Chamber Symphony opus 9, he believed that he had achieved a personal style that was much more mature than he had achieved earlier, regardless of earlier success and satisfaction with what he created. However, in the second String Quartet opus 10 and the Three Piano Pieces opus 11, there were signs that were clear to him that reflected saturation. This was in the added notes in harmony that had reached level where it carried little meaning, between consonance and dissonance.

Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were both taken up by Arnold Schoenberg’s and accepted his work as significant compositions (Shawn, 2002, 34-45). During 1909, Strauss went down a conservative idiom path, and during this period he rejected Schoenberg’s work. Mahler, in contrast, adopted Schoenberg’s style. Schoenberg, in return, was won over by Mahler’s first symphonies, especially the 3rd one. Later, he even said that Mahler’s work was one of a genius, and thought of Mahler as a saint. This was surprising, as Schoenberg himself was Jewish. However, Schoenberg did convert to Lutheranism, and remained a Lutheran till 1933 (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Public Recognition:

After some early setbacks, Schoenberg began to gain public recognition. His works such as the poem Pelleas und Melisande performed at Berlin [1907], and, the Gurrelieder at Vienna on 13 February 1913 were important to his success. In particular, it was the latter that received an ovation that went on for a quarter of an hour. In contrast to this work, there were other works of Schoenberg’s that were not received, as they probably should have. Much of his work, however, was not well received. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 [1907] was performed before a small audience, which gave him a mild reaction (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

In 1908, Schoenberg’s wife [Mathilde] left him for a younger artist [Richard Gerstl]. She later returned to her husband and children. Schoenberg’s work apparently changed during this period. A work worth taking note of during this time is “You lean against a silver-willow” (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

After 1908, Schoenberg’s music changed fromality. This prompted polarized responses to what he created. This was perhaps when Schoenberg’s followers and students recognized him as one of the most important and influential figures in music. Critics, however, continued to hate his work. During this time, he also created a revolutionary composition, known as the String Quartet No. 2. Another one of Schoenberg’s well-known works is Pierrot Lunaire  [1912] (Bailey, 1999, 928-928).

Disruptions and Incomplete Work:

The First World War had sparked a crisis in Schenberg’s life, and he remained interrupted from his work. This caused him to leave many pieces of work incomplete. By the time he was 42, he was drafted into the army, leaving many unfinished works behind, and also denying him the time he needed to work on his at. While he was in the army, many soldiers asked whether Schoenberg was the same composed. To them he replied: “I admit it, but it’s like this. Someone had to be, and no one else wanted to, so I took it on myself.”

Once Schoenberg was back from serving his time in the army, he embarked upon developing order. He did this to make his musical texture simpler and clearer. This is what helped him to create the “method of composition with twelve tones” (Schoenberg, 2006, 89-95).

Schoenberg’s Music Theory:

The method of 12 tones was actually the twelve pitches of an octave that are regarded as equal. There is also no single note or tonality that is given the importance it had in classical harmony. Schoenberg referred to it as the equivalent in music of Albert Einstein’s theories (Schoenberg, 2006, 89-95). This is how he once told a friend [Josef Rufer] about it when he went out for a walk one day: “I have today made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years”. Often, this quote is misunderstood. Schoenberg’s remarks were most probably his wry and ironic humor, which he was known for, and it is most likely that he referred to the deterioration of the dominant political stand of the German-speaking world in the past. It is further thought that he would have liked to stand with Bach and Beethoven (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Arnold Schoenberg was given the duty as Director at the Prussian Academy of Arts for a Master Class in Composition [1925]. However, he could not begin his work there until 1926 because of ill health. Schoenberg carried on working in this position until Adolf Hitler was elected in 1933, when he was exiled.

Schoenberg’s new Life in America:

Arnold Schoenberg re-affirmed his Jewish faith and left behind Lutheranism at this point in time. Schoenberg’s first appointment as a teacher was at Boston’s Malkin Conservatory. Then, he taught at the Los Angeles University of Southern California as well as at the University of California, Los Angeles. Later, he settled in Brentwood Park. Here, he met and became friends with the composer, George Gershwin. This is where Schoenberg lived for the rest of his life (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

The work Schoenberg created during his time in California had apparently returned to the quasi-tonal harmony. However, this harmony he created was very distinctive, and he did not re-use classical harmony. From this creation of his, one can say that Schoenberg did believe that music evolved naturally from its past. Schoenberg once said: “my music is not really modern, just badly played” (Schoenberg, 2006, 89-95).

Schoenberg’s Creativity in America:

In subsequent years, Arnold Schoenberg produced musical works that demonstrated his method of creating newer classical music, which was different from what had been created in the past. It is thought that one of these pieces of music was supposed to an opera [Moses und Aron]. However, it is thought that it was not completed because of Schoenberg’s psychological condition. In this piece of music, he depicts Moses crying out his frustration due to not being able to express himself. With this work, it is also said that Schoenberg might have considered himself to be a prophet too (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

During Schoenberg’s final phase of his life, he created some works that he was most noted for, which included the tedious Violin Concerto , created during the period (1934/36). He also created the Kol Nidre for chorus and orchestra in 1938,  the haunting Piano Concerto in 1942, the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, in 1942, as well as the memorial for Holocaust victims, A Survivor from Warsaw in 1947. Schoenberg could not complete his work on the opera, Moses und Aron (1932/33). In 1941, Schoenberg’s citizenship was neutralized, and thus, was known as a neutralized citizen of the United States (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Schoenberg’s Superstition:

Like many people Schoenberg too had beliefs and superstitions. He had triskaidekaphobia, which fear of the number thirteen [13]. It is thought that it was this superstition that brought about his death. Schoenberg had feared that the year he would die in would be a multiple of the number 13, which is why he feared his 65th birthday. So well known was this fear to his friends, that one of them requested Dane Rudhyar to produce Schoenberg’s horoscope. Schoenberg’s fear might have been reinforced when he heard what the horoscope read; it was a dangerous year for him, but not necessarily a fatal one. However, on Schoenberg’s 76th birthday, a Viennese musician and astrologist Oscar Adler warned Schoenberg of what could lie ahead inthis year. He wrote a message to Arnold Schoenberg alerting him that this year was a critical one for him. Adler wrote: Schoenberg’s age 76 meant: 7 + 6 = 13. This note shocked Schoenberg because he had never thought o it the calculation of 13 in this way. Schoenberg now was obsessed with this, and many who were close to him quoted him: “If I can only pull through this year I shall be safe.” It was Friday, July 13, of Schoenberg’s 76th year; he lay in bed, sick, depressed and anxious over what could happen to him. The whole day went by, and just before midnight, his wife told him, “You see, the day is almost over. All that worry was for nothing.” Just as she finished uttering those words, Schoenberg looked at her and died (Shawn, 2002, 34-45).

Final Thoughts on Arnold Schoenberg’s Life and Works:

It is very apparent from the life and works of Arnold Schoenberg, as well as the circumstances within which he created his work, Schoenberg was an individual who was affected by his surroundings. He was not one of the many individuals who shut themselves up and ignore the world to create what they want. Instead, Schoenberg admits that his work, and other music as well created during the times in which he lived is affected by situations. This is reflected in his quote mentioned earlier as well: “Had times been ‘normal’ (prior and after 1914) then the music of our time would have been very different” (Bailey, 1999, 928-928).

Schoenberg was not only a person who was open to outside influences. He was an individual who experienced the harshness of life too. This can be said because of the fact that he fought in the army during the First World War, and also suffered marital problems. His change in composing was clearly visible when he experienced war and marital problems.

In addition to experiencing a major war as well as personal relationship breakdown, Arnold Schoenberg also witnessed major regime change in the country that he lived in, Germany. He watched Germany sink into fascism, and subsequently witnessed the war, knowing that his originating country was region around which the war pivoted.

Apart from the unpleasant experiences, Schoenberg was influenced by great musicians. These musicians such as Mozart helped him form the basis of his listening skills. This is an important consideration due to the fact that Arnold Schoenberg was a self-taught musician with little formal education in music. Not only did this music and other pleasant experiences help Schoenberg create his own unique musical compositions, but it also gave a slant to his personality. Schoenberg was also known for his wry humor that was sometimes misunderstood, and an example of this is his commonly misinterpreted quote about him ensuring “the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years”. It is quite clear what he meant by this because today one knows more about his personality and his style of humor.