Personalities | Arnold Schoenberg | Modern Era | Classical

(Är’-nolt Shön’-bârg) 1874–1951
Austrian composer

Together with Stravinsky, Schoenberg has become the most influential figure in twentieth-century music. In his youth he wrote music in a ripe and sumptuously orchestrated late-Romantic style, but came to believe that the later music of Wagner, and that of Mahler and Richard Strauss, as well as his own, was undermining the great tradition from which it sprang: the Austro-German tonal tradition in which a sense of key and of tensions between keys is structurally crucial.

He at first resolved to accept this development as inevitable and necessary, writing music in which there is no sense of key. He found, however, that this atonal music could not generate the powerfully logical forms that had made tonal music so durable, and over a period devised the 12-note, or serial, system to replace them. His music was slow to achieve acceptance, and he was regarded as dangerously destructive.

Tonality and Atonality

Music is said to be ‘in C’ (or any other key) when it uses predominantly the seven notes of the scale (major or minor) starting on the stated note, the other five available notes being used as expressive colouring, often suggesting the imminence of another key and thus building tension. Throughout the nineteenth century, composers, seeking increasingly expressive subtlety, tended to use notes extraneous to the home key more and more often until, in the super-expressive ‘Prelude’ to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, it became very hard to tell what key the music was in, and thus to perceive any sense of the music’s destination.

After writing a number of works, including Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’, 1899) for string sextet or string orchestra, and the enormous Gurrelieder (‘Songs of Gurre’, 1903) for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which are deeply indebted to Wagner, Schoenberg began to believe that the days of tonality were numbered, and that what had happened must be accepted and taken as a new starting-point, not as an impasse. He began to write ‘atonal’ music, in which any sense of key was as rigorously excluded as possible, producing works of astonishing imagination and power, but, because it is difficult to impose a sense of form without repetition or a sense of key, they either tended towards brevity or relied on a story or text to give them form and articulacy.

New Means of Expression

Schoenberg’s one-act monodrama Erwartung (‘Expectation’, 1909) is a key work of this phase: a hypnotic monologue for solo soprano and large orchestra, in which a woman seeks her lover in a forest at night. It is sheer expressive intensity, not any sense of a ‘home’ key or of melodic recurrence, that gives the work its power and unity. His ‘melodrama’ Pierrot lunaire (1912) is more elaborately structured: a setting of 21 poems (arranged in a dramatic sequence of three groups of seven) of nocturnal, dream-like, bizarre and violent imagery for voice and five instrumentalists. The voice employs Sprechstimme or Sprechgesang (halfway between...

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