Sep 132016


Today is the birthday (1874) of Arnold Schoenberg (or Schönberg), an Austrian composer, music theorist, and painter. He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and a leader in what is known as the Second Viennese School. By 1938, with the rise of the Nazi Party, Schoenberg’s works were labeled degenerate music, because he was Jewish. He moved to the United States in 1934. Schoenberg’s approach, both in terms of harmony and development, has been one of the most influential in 20th-century music. Many composers from at least three generations have consciously extended his thinking, whereas others have passionately reacted against it. I’m pretty much in the latter camp, not because I am opposed to the ideas in general – I like them – but there’s too much angst in his work for my tastes.

Schoenberg was born into a lower middle-class Jewish family in the Leopoldstadt district (once a Jewish ghetto) of Vienna. His father Samuel, a native of Bratislava, was a shopkeeper, and his mother Pauline was native of Prague. Schoenberg was largely self-taught musically, but he did take counterpoint lessons with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky (whose sister he later married). In his twenties, Schoenberg earned a living by orchestrating operettas, while composing his own works, such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) (1899). He later made an orchestral version of this, which became one of his most popular pieces.


Both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler recognized Schoenberg’s significance as a composer and nurtured him. When Strauss turned to a more conservative idiom in his own work after 1909 he dismissed Schoenberg, but Mahler adopted him as a protégé and continued to support him, even after Schoenberg’s style reached a point Mahler could no longer relate to. Schoenberg, who had initially despised and mocked Mahler’s music, was converted by the “thunderbolt” of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which he considered a work of genius. Afterward he called Mahler “a saint.”

In 1898 Schoenberg converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church. This may have been more of a defense against rising anti-Semitism in Europe than a genuine conversion. In 1933 he returned to Judaism, partly because he felt that his cultural roots were inescapable, and partly to take an unmistakable stance in opposition Nazism.

In October 1901, Schoenberg married Mathilde Zemlinsky and they had two children, Gertrud (1902–1947) and Georg (1906–1974). During the summer of 1908, Mathilde left him for several months for a young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl. This period marked a distinct change in Schoenberg’s work. It was during the absence of his wife that he composed “You lean against a silver-willow” (German: Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide), the 13th song in the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15, based on the collection of the same name by the German mystical poet Stefan George. This was the first composition without any reference at all to a key. Also in this year, he completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2, whose first two movements, though chromatic in color, use traditional key signatures, yet whose final two movements, also settings of George, weaken the links with traditional tonality. Both movements end on tonic chords, and the work is not fully outside tonality. During the summer of 1910, Schoenberg wrote his Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), which remains one of the most influential analyses of music theory.


World War I brought a crisis in Schoenberg’s musical development. Military service disrupted his life when at the age of 42 he was forced into the army. He was never able to work uninterrupted or over an extended period of time, and as a result he left many unfinished works and undeveloped “beginnings”. On one occasion, a superior officer demanded to know if he was “this notorious Schoenberg, then?” Schoenberg replied: “Beg to report, sir, yes. Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me.”  This is apparently an oblique reference to Schoenberg’s supposed “destiny” as the “Emancipator of Dissonance”.


In the early 1920s, he worked at evolving a radical departure from classical tonality  that would, nonetheless, have an underlying order that would make his musical texture simple and clear. This resulted in the “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” In this method, sometimes called twelve-tone music, sometimes serialism,  the twelve pitches of the octave  are regarded as equal, and no individual note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. He regarded it as the equivalent in music of Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics – a kind of musical relativity. Schoenberg announced it characteristically, during a walk with his friend Josef Rufer, when he said, “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” This period included the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928); Piano Pieces, Opp. 33a & b (1931), and the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942). Contrary to his reputation for strictness, Schoenberg’s use of the technique varied widely according to the demands of each individual composition.

Here’s his piano concerto, op 42:

You might well agree with the often repeated sentiment, “Schoenberg’s music is better than it sounds.” The point is well taken. Classic tonality, when done well, is easy to love. You can whistle Mozart or Beethoven while you walk. Schoenberg requires intense listening and concentration. I’m not saying that classical tonality doesn’t, but a surface appreciation is possible; whereas with Schoenberg it is not. I find his work to be an acquired taste, and the pieces that are not laden with angst and depression engage me from time to time. Dissonance and lack of tonality do not have to be morbid.

Schoenberg’s serial technique of composition with twelve notes became one of the most important and polemical issues among U.S. and European musicians during the mid- to late-20th century. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing to the present day, composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono and Milton Babbitt have extended Schoenberg’s legacy in increasingly radical directions. Major cities in the United States  have had historically significant performances of Schoenberg’s music, with advocates such as Babbitt in New York and the Franco-American conductor-pianist Jacques-Louis Monod. Schoenberg’s students have been influential teachers at major U.S. universities: Leonard Stein at USC, UCLA and CalArts; Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin; Patricia Carpenter at Columbia; and Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim at Harvard, and musicians associated with Schoenberg have had a profound influence upon contemporary music performance practice in the U.S.


On the other hand, in the 1920s, Ernst Krenek criticized a certain unnamed brand of contemporary music (presumably Schoenberg and his disciples) as “the self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes.” I’m not sure I see what’s wrong with that. Surely the test is in the results not the method. Allen Shawn remarks that Schoenberg’s work is usually defended rather than listened to, and that it is difficult to experience it apart from the ideology that surrounds it. Richard Taruskin asserts that Schoenberg committed what he terms a “poietic fallacy”, the conviction that what matters most (or all that matters) in a work of art is the making of it, the maker’s input, and that the listener’s pleasure must not be the composer’s primary objective. Taruskin also criticizes the ideas of measuring Schoenberg’s value as a composer in terms of his influence on other artists, the overrating of technical innovation, and the restriction of criticism to matters of structure and craft while derogating other approaches as vulgarian. Personally I feel that listening to the critics, whether they are right or wrong, is an idle hobby when you could be listening to music.

Schoenberg was a painter of considerable ability, whose pictures were considered good enough to exhibit alongside those of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky (Stuckenschmidt 1977, 142) as fellow members of the expressionist Blue Rider group. Here’s a little gallery:

sch11 sch10 sch9 sch8

Schoenberg had what pedants call by the Greek triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), which possibly began in 1908 with the composition of the thirteenth song of the song cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten Op. 15, (but may also reflect the fact that he was born on the 13th). Moses und Aron was originally spelled Moses und Aaron, but when he realized that this contained 13 letters, he changed it. According to friend Katia Mann, he feared he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13. He dreaded his 65th birthday (5 x 13) in 1939 so much that a friend asked the composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar to prepare Schoenberg’s horoscope. Rudhyar did this and told Schoenberg that the year was dangerous, but not fatal.


However, in 1950, on his 76th birthday, an astrologer wrote Schoenberg a note warning him that the year was a critical one: 7 + 6 = 13. This stunned and depressed him because up to that point he had only been wary of multiples of 13 and never considered adding the digits of his age. He died on Friday, 13 July 1951, shortly before midnight.


The blog —  — held a competition in 2008 for a recipe to celebrate Shoenberg’s birthday. This was the winner:

In honor of Arnold Schoenberg’s 134th birthday on September 13th, my Schoenburger is a sweet and delectable “birthday burger.” My recipe follows:

Bun- sponge cake, frosted with maple brown sugar icing, topped with Rice Krispies in place of sesame seeds

Burger patty- chocolate cake coated with Oreo crumbs

Lettuce- green gummy worms

Pickles- kiwi

Cheese- a slab of the sponge cake, slathered with yellow sprinkles

Ketchup- strawberry sauce

Mustard- yellow apricot sauce

Seems all right, although I’m not going to make it. The creator had this to say:

So, why use the ingredients I chose? Here are some of my reasons:

Gummy worms are hard to chew, which reminds me of Schoenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano- it has unusual chords and fingering in the violin part

Rice Krispies are my favorite cereal, and I eat them most every day- just like I “digest” Schoenberg’s music on a daily basis

Chocolate cake is a favorite “food” of Americans, similar to Schoenberg’s “Weihnachtmusik” is a traditional Christmas song

Kiwi skins are tough on the outside, like a first impression of Schoenberg. But once you get past that and learn about his past, you will find his reasoning for his style of composure, and really start to enjoy his music- just like you enjoy the sweet meat of the kiwi after you get past the skin

The dark Oreo crumbs represent a badly cooked patty, which aligns with one of Schoenberg’s famous quotes: “My music is not modern, it is merely badly played.”

Finally, my burger was overcooked for exactly 13 minutes- representing Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, which may have been the root of his death.

Contestants were required to justify their ingredient choices in this manner. An honorable mention was given to this entry:

When you have finished creating your Schoenburger, don’t be disappointed if it tastes disgusting. This is absolutely normal. There are two ways to deal with that problem:

First, you can try the burger again and again. Perhaps one day you might like it. Perhaps you aren’t mature enough for it yet.

Second, you can just tell other people you like it very much. Probably they will admire your intelligent and progressive taste.

Hilarious, but spot on.