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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Who's *still* afraid of Schoenberg?

One of the earliest Keys To Music programs (number 22, in fact, which went to air in June, 2003) was called "Who's Afraid of Schoenberg?". It spawned a small series of "Who's Afraid of…?" programs, covering people like Aaron Copland and Olivier Messiaen. Twelve years later I revised the Schoenberg program and asked if anyone was still afraid of Schoenberg.

The original program in 2003 elicited one of the most heart warming responses I ever had from a listener. This man really appreciated me taking the time to explain serialism, and he wrote to me along the lines of, "I still don't really get the twelve-tone works, but now that I understand what's behind them I'm going to give them another go."

I never found out whether or not he ended up liking them but that wasn't what mattered to me. It's not about liking. The simple fact that he was willing to listen to something with new ears was enough. It's all I ever want from my teaching.


Many years ago the artistic administrator of one of our major orchestras was speaking to a gathering of subscribers about the forthcoming season, and he mentioned that a work by Arnold Schoenberg was in one of the season’s programs. A murmur of disapproval immediately went through the audience, most of whom regarded Schoenberg as the big, bad wolf of modern music, a composer of unpleasant, discordant music. The speaker then turned to the CD player and played part of this work. [listen]

The audience was caught off guard. Rather than music which was aggressive and alienating, this music was far more approachable. Who wrote this? And if it was by Schoenberg, what happened to him?

The music was indeed by Schoenberg, but this story serves to illustrate an important point: composers often alter their styles throughout their working lives. In this post I'd like explore Schoenberg a little more and perhaps give you a "way in" to understanding his later works which so many people find difficult.

Arnold Schoenberg (1903)

Born in Vienna in 1874, Arnold Schoenberg came from a family which struggled financially. He was too poor to attend concerts, but he taught himself the cello and joined an amateur orchestra which was conducted by Alexander Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky, two years older than Schoenberg, was a respected, well-trained composer, and they soon became good friends. Zemlinsky was in effect the only regular teacher Schoenberg ever had. [I wrote about Zemlinsky earlier in this blog, here.]

In 1897 Schoenberg wrote a String Quartet in D. He incorporated into this some suggestions made by Zemlinsky and Zemlinsky’s influence led to its first performance the following year, one of the few times any work of Schoenberg’s was praised at its premiere. There are unmistakable shadows of both Brahms and Dvořák over this work. [listen]

Alexander Zemlinsky (c. 1900)

In 1899 he wrote a String Sextet called Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) but when it was offered for performance it was rejected. The early songs of Opp 1-3 were performed in 1900, but they received both verbal and written protests. In the composer’s own words, from then on the scandal never stopped. [listen]

The notoriously conservative Viennese audiences were hearing very clearly what Schoenberg was doing, which was nothing less than taking steps to abandon conventional harmony. In the late 19th century, composers like Liszt and Wagner were pushing the boundaries of harmony: the definition of what was acceptable grew broader, and the definition of what was unacceptable grew narrower. In his early creative life Schoenberg perceived – along with many others – the impending bankruptcy of the tonal system upon which music had been based for centuries. Norman Lebrecht rightly points out in his book on 20th century music that in Vienna, where Freud was redefining human sexuality and Ernst Mach was rejuvenating science and philosophy to the point that Einstein could see into the future, it was not unnatural for a composer to contemplate full-scale revolution. And we do well to remember that the visual arts - painting, in particular - were already well on the way to abandoning reality and embracing abstraction by the turn of the century. Schoenberg’s fascinating description of himself was that he was a conservative who was forced to become a revolutionary.

Vienna: The newly completed Ringstraße with Parliament (1900)

As you might imagine, Schoenberg didn’t exactly make a lot of money from composition at this stage of his life. Every new work aroused new hostility. He supported himself by conducting amateur choirs and orchestrating other composers’ operettas. In 1901 he completed the draft score of what was to become his largest and grandest expression of music in conventional harmony: the oratorio Gurrelieder. At this stage Gurrelieder existed only in a piano score; the massive task of its orchestration would have to wait.

In October 1901, aged 27, he married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, and they moved to Berlin, where Schoenberg got a job in the world of “Überbrettl”, a kind of cabaret which used popular music for serious ends.

Gerstl: Mathilde Schoenberg (1907)

Around this time he also wrote the symphonic poem Pelléas et Mélisande; this is the work I referred to at the start of this post. He showed this and parts of Gurrelieder to the most important German composer of the day, Richard Strauss. Strauss was then at the height of his own radical period – this was the period of his operas Salome and Elektra – and he was impressed with what he saw of Schoenberg’s work. He arranged for Schoenberg to receive a small stipend and a post as composition teacher at a conservatory in Berlin.

In 1903 Schoenberg and his wife returned to Vienna. He taught at various institutions and developed a circle of devoted students. In 1904 this circle was joined by two young musicians who were to become the most famous and devoted of his followers, and important composers in their own right: Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Schoenberg's protrait of Alban Berg

With a growing family to support, Schoenberg’s financial position was not secure. To fight the hostility his works (and those of many of his colleagues) were receiving from the Viennese public, a number of societies were formed to promote and perform new music. These provided him with some important avenues for his work to be heard, and it was during this period that Verklärte Nacht, written four years earlier, received its first performance. The poem upon which the piece is based deals with tension and resolution in a relationship between a man and woman. [listen]

After hearing Verklärte Nacht, Gustav Mahler became a staunch supporter of Schoenberg. Having the two major composers of the day on his side, though, didn’t prevent him from incurring the wrath of the Viennese public. In 1905, at the first performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, the audience was clearly puzzled by what they heard and the reception was very cool, to say the least.

In 1907, performances of the first String Quartet (a different work to the earlier quartet in D) [listen] and the first Chamber Symphony resulted in stormy responses from the public. Schoenberg’s style was becoming increasingly dissonant, but Mahler stood up for him in public, even though in private he confessed he couldn’t fully understand what he was up to. Mahler never faltered in his support for his younger colleague.

Gustav Mahler (1907)

The first Chamber Symphony marks a major turning point for Schoenberg and for western music. In contrast to gigantic Romantic symphonies (such as Mahler was writing at the time), it calls for 15 instruments and is cast in a single movement, dissonant in harmony and intimate in scale. Yet despite its dissonance there are still fleeting hints of Mahler’s sound world over this music, and despite the intimacy, there is no lack of power. Schoenberg often had to stand his ground against the rest of the world; this is one of the most important of those occasions. [listen]

The premiere of the second String Quartet in 1908 was greeted with uproar. For a start, the audience would have been baffled by the fact that the string quartet is augmented in two movements by a soprano. But soprano or no soprano, the work’s premiere in December 1908 was Schoenberg’s signing off from the world of major and minor scales which had ruled western music for 300 years. He could well have been describing his own experience when he set these words of Stefan George to music in the third movement: Profound is the grief that darkens around me, once again I enter, Lord, your house… Long was the journey, the limbs are weary, empty the caskets, only the agony is replete….The battle was fierce. [listen]

In January 1910, Schoenberg was walking on the water on his own. He now produced his first completely dissonant works: the set of songs known as Das Buch der hängenden Garten (The Book of the Hanging Garden) and the three piano pieces, Op 11. They were met with almost universal incomprehension. [listen]

Schoenberg: Self protrait (1910)

I hope that it’s been possible to hear in these snippets of Schoenberg’s music to this point that far from being a mere writer of abstract sounds, the sounds he wrote were the result of pushing conventional harmony to extremes that are actually quite logical, with each work progressing one step further than the last. It’s a fascinating journey to view with the benefit of hindsight.

In 1910/11 Schoenberg concentrated on two main creative projects. The first was the writing of a book called Harmonielehre, a treatise on harmony which is one of the most influential works of its type. The other project was the long-overdue orchestration of Gurrelieder, which was finally completed in 1911. It must have been very strange for him; by this time his works inhabited a completely different sound world. Gurrelieder must have seemed like a ghost from the past, and it’s written on a scale which epitomises everything about the romantic style. Scored for an enormous orchestra (more than 130 players are needed to do it justice, including about 60 wind, brass and percussion players), several choirs, vocal soloists and a narrator, Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s reinterpretation of the world of Wagner, and it made a huge impression at its premiere in Vienna in 1913. How bitter-sweet to be acclaimed for a work written in a style which was no longer his, while his newer works were being howled down. He refused to acknowledge the audience’s applause at the end. [listen]

In 1910 Schoenberg had applied to be an external lecturer for the Royal Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Vienna. This was successful but he was unable to secure a tenured professorship at the institution, not only because of his radical artistic views but also because he was Jewish. Subjected to virulent attacks in the press, and with Vienna offering no security or peace, he reluctantly packed up and moved his family back to Berlin.

The year before the premiere of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg wrote one of his most original and famous works: Pierrot Lunaire. [Read about it in detail here in an earlier post in this blog.] This is a cycle of 21 short poems set to music for a small ensemble and a vocalist who performs in a style of vocalisation midway between singing and speaking called Sprechgesang, or speech-song. It creates an eeriness to the setting which ordinary singing could not have achieved. [listen]

The outbreak of the first world war in 1914 meant that Schoenberg’s career development almost entirely halted. Concerts were rare, especially of music as radical as his, and his teaching activities stopped as more and more of his students were conscripted. The offer of rent-free accommodation saw him move back to Vienna in 1915 and he himself saw limited military service. This was brought to an end by bouts of asthma, and all-in-all, the war years saw him produce very little new music.

Schiele: Arnold Schoenberg (1917)

By 1920 Schoenberg’s reputation had been rekindled internationally, and he was travelling abroad to conduct his own works, most notably in Amsterdam, where there was a festival of his music and where he gave a series of lectures.

The period leading up to 1920 saw Schoenberg undergo his second major change of direction as a composer. In 1908 he had abandoned tonality for dissonance. Now he formulated a new way of composing called serialism, or twelve-tone technique, and it was to create a revolution in composition.

Serialism is based on the notion that – unlike conventional scales – no note is more important than any other. In conventional harmony there is a home note, or key note, to which the ear is drawn by virtue of the construction of the scale, a predetermined pattern of tones and semitones.

Within an octave on the keyboard there are twelve different black and white notes. These notes are all a semitone apart; there is no feeling of a key note when all twelve of these notes are used. Schoenberg’s system of serialism is based on the simple notion of taking these twelve notes and arranging them into a pattern where each note is used once.

This pattern, called a tone row, becomes the new “scale” of the piece. Onto these notes the composer superimposes a rhythm, but once started, the notes must proceed in the order of the tone row before they can be repeated.

Once the tone row for a piece is established, the composer can use a number of variations on it. The simplest is the retrograde version of the tone row; that is, playing the notes backwards.

The tone row can also be inverted, played upside down, with the gaps between the notes all going in the opposite direction to the way they went in the original tone row. This means that the inverted version can also be played backwards – the retrograde inversion.

These are the four primary forms a tone row can take in a piece: the original, the retrograde, the inversion, and the retrograde inversion.

Beyond this, each of the four primary forms of the tone row can be transposed into eleven other secondary forms, by shifting them up or down. This can be done eleven times to any tone row before you repeat any notes in another octave, and doing it to all the four primary forms means that a single tone row spawns 48 different rows – itself and 47 others – for a composer to use as the foundation of a particular piece.

Schoenberg’s first serial compositions were the Piano Pieces Op 23 [listen], the Serenade for 7 instruments and voice, Op 24 [listen], and the Piano Suite, op 25 [listen], all of which were written in the early 1920s. At the same time as creating a revolution in music theory, he had to deal with the death of his wife in October 1923. Despite theirs not being the happiest of marriages, he clearly felt Mathilde’s loss very deeply. He didn’t remain a widower for long though: ten months later, two weeks before his 50th birthday, he remarried. His new wife was Gertrud Kolisch, the sister of one of his pupils.

Schoenberg with his second wife, Gertrud Kolisch (1924)

In 1926 Schoenberg moved back to Berlin for the third and last time, to take up a composition post at the Prussian Academy of Arts and some of his pupils followed him there. The position was tailor-made for him and conducive to composition and major works such as the third String Quartet [listen] and the opera Moses und Aron were written during this time. The north German climate didn’t help his asthma at all, but the end in Berlin came about not because of this but because of further antisemitism. He'd experienced frequent attacks based on his ethnicity in the 1920s but the decision to remove all Jews from the Academy in Berlin was made official in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor. In May the Schoenbergs moved to France, and in Paris Schoenberg himself re-embraced Judaism, which he'd abandoned in 1898 when he'd converted to the Lutheran faith

Schoenberg photograhped by Man Ray (1927)

Moses und Aron is an astounding achievement. It's enormously satisfying, despite the fact that Schoenberg only completed the first two acts. He suggested that the brief third act – a final dialogue for the two titled characters which was never set to music - be spoken in performance, something that oddly works. In the two completed acts, the role of Moses is performed in the half-spoken, half-sung style we encountered in Pierrot Lunaire. His brother Aron is a tenor, sung in the usual manner, and the two often perform simultaneously, underlining the fact that Aron was his brother’s mouthpiece to the people of Israel. All the musical lines of the opera – in the orchestra and in the voices – are written in strict serialism. As you might imagine, this is incredibly difficult music to perform, let alone memorise. [listen]

In 1934 Schoenberg was offered a post in the United States, at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. After suffering some serious illnesses there because his health didn’t cope with the cold north eastern climate in the US, he moved to Los Angeles, initially teaching privately and later accepting a professorship at the University of California. In this period he wrote his violin concerto, a work again in strict serial style. The audience reaction when it was premiered in Philadelphia in 1940 was distinctly hostile. [listen]

Apart from domestic happiness, Schoenberg found little in the United States to give him peace of mind. The California lifestyle was distinctly alien to him, his pupils were nowhere near as well-grounded as those in Europe, and there was little prospect of his works being performed. Added to this was the stress of the constant bad news from Europe throughout the late 30s.

Schoenberg’s health deteriorated sharply in 1944. He was diagnosed with diabetes and also suffered a near-fatal heart attack. This experience is reflected in the String Trio which he wrote immediately after his recovery. [listen]

Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles (1948)

In that same year, 1944, Schoenberg turned 70 and he was required to relinquish his professorship at UCLA. Having only taught there for eight years his pension was very small, so he continued to teach privately to supplement his income. Shortly before his death he was elected honorary President of the Israel Academy of Music. His last compositions were nearly all religious in nature, and he died in Los Angeles on July 1951.

Love his work or loathe it, for all of us involved in music Arnold Schoenberg is a towering example of what an artist should be. He set out to rewrite the rules of music not once, but twice, and he did so with the conviction and faith of a missionary, usually encountering a missionary’s fate – misunderstanding and opposition – at every turn. He believed that the composer’s duty to art was more important than the right to self-expression; he believed that composing was divinely ordained. Principle and conviction were all. He stood, and still stands, as a moral example, regardless of whether one agrees with his actions or likes his sounds. He’s a reminder of what it means to create and the cost this often entails.

I'll end with the conclusion of Schoenberg's fascinating piano concerto, composed in 1942. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2015.

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