Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Arnold Schoenberg (or Schönberg) (1874-1951) grew up in Vienna playing violin and cello until his father died in an influenza epidemic in 1890. He left school without taking final exams and worked in a bank, but continued composing. When he lost his job in 1895, he devoted himself to music and started conducting workers’ choral societies. He served as conductor and arranger and eventually moved to Berlin in 1901. Webern and Berg were students of his. He turned with his wife Mathilde to painting in 1908 and the two became students of Richard Gerstl who set up a studio in the same building in which the Schoenbergs lived. Mathilde and Gerstl had an affair and ran off together. Webern helped reconcile the Schoenbergs, after which Gerstl set fire to his work and killed himself by hanging and plunging a kitchen knife into himself. With the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s, Schoenberg emigrated to the US. He taught in Boston (but wanted Juliard), but his asthma forced him west to California. He taught at UCLA, not twelve-tone composition but, instead, the classical tradition and counterpoint.

Schoenberg begins as a composer in the Wagnerian tradition, with a Wagnerian chromatic vocabulary, as can be heard in his first masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht (1899), originally for string sextet but later recast for string orchestra (1943). The pseudo-program music (vs. “pure music”) is inspired by the poem “Transfigured Night” by Richard Dehmel. The poem, from a collection titled Weib und Welt, features a role reversal in which a woman is redeemed through the love of a man. Near the end of his life, Schoenberg wrote program notes that seem to contradict the piece and themselves. When the piece was submitted to the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein, an organization that had arranged for the performance of Schoenberg’s earlier Brahmsian string quartet (published posthumously), the reaction was quite different. The work was rejected by a jury and not performed. Supposedly one of the judges said, “It sounds as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan when it was wet!” One chord in particular proved irksome. Schoenberg strained credulity by explaining it as a dominant ninth chord (Db) with the ninth (B) in the bass, but also said, “It is self-evident: there is no such thing as an inversion of a ninth chord; therefore there is no such thing as a performance of it, for one cannot perform something that does not exist. So I had to wait for several years.” When the 1899 piece was performed in 1902, Schoenberg writes, it “was hissed and caused riots and fist fights.”

Other works in the early years of 1900s are also in this tradition, such as Gurrelieder (orchestrated 1910) in which instrumentation and long delayed resolution are clearly Wagnerian. Schoenberg is also a master of contrapuntal technique too. This early music can be aligned with the Expressionistic movement, where the external world is expressed but only through the confusion and anxiety of subjectivity. The Five Orchestral Pieces, opus 16 (1909) are intensely expressionistic, more emotional than abstract, where motifs build on motifs. Schoenberg avoids meter and triadic harmony more, increasing senses of fragmentation. Pierrot Lunaire, opus 21 (1912) offers dissonant and chromatic harmonies and discontinuous rhythms, plus the dramatic “sprechgesang” or “sprechstimme” (speech-song) — half speaking / half singing. Eventually Schoenberg would be composing music with no tonal center at all in which dissonances are not resolved because all notes are equally related.

The Second String Quartet (1908) begins with chromatic tonality,

and then proceeds towards a linear chromaticism in which motives and intervals assume the structural force exerted formerly by tonal expectation and function. With a quotation of the popular Viennese tune “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” Schoenberg bids an ironic farewell to tonality; the unexpected appearance of the human voice in the last two movements introduces a new conceptual universe with the words of Stefan Georg, ” I feel a breath of air from other planets.” (Salzman 33)

In Three Piano Pieces, opus 11 (1909), Schoenberg may toy with listeners’ expectations, but this is his first properly “atonal” work. Themes develop but without the context of tonality to define how this happens. “For the first time, every sound, every interval, every event has a unique and independent value, free of the hierarchies of tonal discourse” (Salzman 33). Afterwards, the push towards the heights of chromatic density led Schoenberg towards using all twelve notes equally and repeatedly on a revolving basis. After WWI, Five Piano Pieces, opus 23 (completed 1923) and Serenade, opus 24 (completed 1923) include twelve-tone music; but the Piano Suite, opus 25 (1921-1923) is composed with the twelve-tone method throughout its five movements: Prelude, Gavotte, Intermezzo, Minuet / Trio, and Gigue. The suite has rhythm even though metrical consistency is rare. The Wind Quintet, opus 26 (1924) is also a completely twelve-tone work (sometimes called dodecaphonic). Variations for Orchestra, opus 31 (1927-1928) uses a row opening with a tritone: A# – E – F# – D# – F – A – D – C# – G – G# – B – C. It’s the first serial work using a full orchestra.

Hauer had also thought of the serial method, so Schoenberg published. When Schoenberg wrote Style and Idea, he announced the “emancipation of the dissonance,” declaring that there is no difference between consonance and dissonance. In Hegelian fashion, he believed that music, like all other aspects of life, exists in a historical inevitable process of change. The classical tradition represented a form; chromaticism represented a principle of evolution. “The growth of equal temperament, chromaticism, and modulation had made possible the historical rise of functional tonality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and destroyed it in the twentieth; thus tonality contained within itself from the start the seed of its own destruction” (Salzman 32). He thought this historically inevitable revolution — the twelve-tone method as a replacement for functional tonality — would establish the supremacy of German music for 100 years. For twelve-tone composition he advised avoiding traditional consonances and simpler dissonances (diminished triads and seventh chords); in the future perhaps both new and traditional expression would be possible. First, though, music must be composed in which “nothing could be assumed any more from context; every event and every aspect of every event had a new and independent meaning” (Salzman 34).

The twelve-tone row in Schoenberg’s music does not function as a theme or mode (as Berg tends to use it), “but as a set of materials, a complex of relationships, offering enormous possibilities to the ordered imagination that can master them” (Salzman 107).

“Schoenberg’s music no longer carries the threat that all music will sound like this” (Ross 35).

Works Consulted

“Arnold Schönberg.” Classical Music Pages. http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/schonberg. 1996.

Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht, Piano Pieces, Five Orchestral Pieces. Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Teldec / Time Warner, 1995. 4509-98256-2.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.

Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, The Chamber Symphonies. Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips Classics Productions, 1996. 446 683-2.