Arnold Schoenberg - Biography


Arnold Schoenberg, an accomplished painter, writer and most importantly the inventor of the twelve-tone method of composition which had a revolutionary effect on 20th Century music, was born on September 13th 1874 in Vienna, Austria and died in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood on July 13th 1951. Schoenberg parents were working class people who came to Vienna from Slovakia a few years before Schoenberg’s birth. Schoenberg had good musical instruction at the Realschule in Vienna, but any further education was cut off when Schoenberg’s father died when he was only sixteen. He had to get a job as a bank clerk to support himself.


To supplement his income, he took hack work making salon orchestra arrangements of popular songs and Operettas. Schoenberg's first original work that is part of his canon was three piano pieces. He began taking lessons from the young composer Alexander Zemlinsky who was only three years his senior, and who eventually became his brother-in-law (Zemlinsky was a superb composer in his own right; his works are now being rediscovered). Schoenberg wrote his massive First String Quartet in 1897, which shows the influence of Brahms but remains a very original work. Two years later, he composed what is still his most popular work, the string sextet (later orchestrated for String Orchestra) Verklate Nacht (Transfigured Night). This work, which is set to a romantic program, was heavily influenced by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.


Schoenberg was also a very competent conductor and led various amateur Viennese choral societies. At about this time he entered the circle of the great composer, and conductor of the Vienna Opera, Gustav Mahler. It was perhaps Mahler's influence which inspired him to compose his monumental dramatic cantata, Gurrelieder, which he worked on for years. The 100-minute plus work has an even larger orchestra then Mahler’s Eighth and a huge chorus. It was based on an existential poem by Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen.


In December of 1901 Schoenberg and his wife, Mathilde (sister of Alexander Zemlinsky), moved to Berlin where he conducted Ernst Von Wolzogen's literary cabaret (“Uberbrettl”). He composed a group of songs for the cabaret that would be prescient of Kurt Weill. He had at this time met Richard Strauss, who would eventually become an artistic adversary, but early in their relationship had helped him obtain a teaching position at the Stern Conservatory. Schoenberg moved back to Vienna in 1903, and with Zemlinsky formed the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (Society of Creative Musicians) in 1904. Under the auspices of the society, he first performed his huge tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. The first major work of Schonberg’s to break significantly from tonality was the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, which had a very controversial first performance in Vienna on February of 1907.


Schoenberg had also begun to develop a following based on his teachings and views of music, that included the soon to be great composers, Berg and Webern, who were to be known as the Second Viennese School. His String Quartet no. 2, Op. 10 challenged traditional tonality and included a soprano solo. It created a storm of protest at its premiere. In 1909, Schoenberg wrote Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 (or Three Piano Pieces), an important work in that he had completely abandoned traditional tonality in favor of dissonance and atonality. This new attitude was often referred to as “expressionist” and revealed its true form in Schoenberg's 1909 one-act opera, Erwartung (translation: Expectation).


In 1910, Schoenberg was appointed to the Vienna Academy of Music and began writing his revolutionary book, Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), which was completed in 1911. This book explored the traditional use of chords and progressions, and how by dividing them into fractions one can make new sounds. Harmonielehre remains one of the most influential books on music theory to this day.


Schoenberg's first orchestral work which abandoned traditional tonality was his Five Orchestral Pieces of 1912, which curiously enough was first performed in London by Sir Henry Wood, a conservative conductor who performed it to the dismay of an even more conservative audience. Also in 1912, Schoenberg composed his most iconographic work, Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, a cycle of 21 songs for female voice and small orchestra wherein the singer often becomes a reciter and uses a musical speech which Schoenberg developed known as Sprechgeasang (Speech Song). Performance of this work was met with violent disapproval. In contrast, Gurrelieder finally had its triumphant premiere in 1913 in Vienna conducted by the noted composer Franz Schrecker.


When Austria mobilized in 1914 for the First World War, Schoenberg was drafted for service and considering his diminutive stature (he was 5' 3'') and the fact that he was 40, this seemed a strange decision but Schoenberg served where needed. The period during WWI was not a productive one for the composer. In 1918, along fellow composers and former students, Berg and Webern, he formed the Society for Private Musical Performance. They created superb chamber arrangements of works from composers like Mahler, who didn’t have many full-scale performances at the time.


Schoenberg composed his first truly twelve-tone work, Suite for Piano, Op. 25 in 1922. One year later, Mathilde, his wife of 22 years, died at the age of 46. Schoenberg then married Gertrude Kolisch in 1924, who was the sister of Rudolf Kolisch, a violinist and composition student of Schoenberg's. He was appointed Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1925, but because of his ailing health was not able to take the post until 1926. Schoenberg composed his Third String Quartet, Op. 30 in 1927, which was commissioned by American arts patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In 1928, he composed Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 followed by his first twelve-tone opera, Von heute auf morgen, Op. 32 (From Today till Tomorrow), which was completed in 1929.


The onset of Hitler’s regime was disastrous for Schoenberg. Though he had converted to Lutheranism in 1898, he was viewed ‘racially’ as a full Jew who was married to a Jew. Disgracefully, Schoenberg was dismissed from his post at the Academy of Arts by the Nazi cultural czar, conductor/composer Max von Schillings. After briefly escaping to Paris and reaffirming his Jewish beliefs, Schoenberg immigrated to the US at the end of 1933. He initially taught in Boston for a year, but found the climate too harsh for his delicate health, so in 1935 he accepted a position at USC and moved to Los Angeles. His salary at USC was low and the following year he accepted a better position at UCLA. Schoenberg remained at UCLA until 1944, when he turned 70 which was the mandatory retirement age.


Schoenberg had a difficult time adjusting to Southern California, which at that time was not yet the cosmopolitan area it would later become. Though he disliked the entertainment community, he became a good friend and tennis partner of George Gershwin. Gershwin's death in 1937 deeply affected Schoenberg, and he uncharacteristically participated in a radio tribute to him. Schoenberg was enraged that the classical music icons in America like Toscanini, Koussevitky and Heifitz, totally ignored his music, with only Stokowski performing his works. He composed Violin Concerto, Op. 36 and String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37 in 1936 and Piano Concerto, Op. 42 in 1942. With the Nazi takeover of France, the other great Modernist composer, Igor Stravinsky, moved to Los Angeles and the two musical giants avoided each other for the next ten years.


Due to the horrific events in Germany and his rediscovered Jewishness, in later life Schoenberg composed works that were specifically Jewish like Kol Nidre, Op. 39 (1938) and a Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947). He also attempted to complete his Old Testament-based works like the oratorio Die Jackobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder) and his great unfinished opera Moses und Aron. Neither works were ever finished.


Schoenberg experienced one last controversy when he fought with his LA neighbor, the great German writer Thomas Mann, whose latest novel, Dr. Faustus, had a half-mad composer who developed a revolutionary musical system as its main character; even though the character was nothing like him, Schoenberg took great offense and forced Mann to give credit to him as the inventor of the twelve-tone system in subsequent editions. Strangely, Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia, which is a great fear of the number thirteen (he left out a an A out of Moses und Aron to avoid a thirteenth letter), and seriously ill with emphysema and heart problems, he feared that he would die on July 13th, 1951. He died at 11:45pm on that day.


Schoenberg offers a dilemma; some feel guilty not rating him among the greats because he may well have been the most important composer of the Twentieth Century. The problem is that with the exception of a few early works, the musical language of atonality and the serial system is too difficult for the average listener or musician to assimilate.


No great composer has taken a lonelier path. 


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