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Learn about the Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg and his works & life

Arnold Schoenberg: Overview

  • Born: 1874 - Vienna, Austria
  • Died: 1951 - Los Angeles, U.S.A.
  • Historical Period: The 20th century, Modern  
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, opera, songs, choral, keyboard, band

Arnold Schoenberg is an Austrian-American composer whose innovative method of utilizing 12 different tones which are inter-related (atonality) paved the development of modern techniques of crafting music. Associated with the “expressionist movement” in German art and poetry, he profoundly influenced the modern musical revolution in the 19th century.

Composer, Arnold Schoenberg

The source of this photo above: University of Southern California
Photographer: Florence Homolka

 

Arnold Schoenberg: The Misunderstood Genius Who Revolutionized Music  

Early life

He was born in Vienna on the 13th of September 1874. His father Samuel was a cobbler residing in the predominantly Jewish district of Vienna. However, neither of his parents were remotely associated with music. Young Arnold had started composing even before reaching the age of 9, crafting little pieces for two violins which he subsequently played with his cousin or teacher. He also met a classmate who played the viola and moved on to creating string trios (viola and two violins).     

His father passed away when he was 16. So, he started working as a bank clerk to cater to his family. He also orchestrated operetta scores and arranged popular songs, which became additional sources of income. Around this time, he met Oskar Adler, the Austrian physician, and musician, which completely changed the landscape of his future. The author of “The Testament of Astrology” encouraged Schoenberg to learn cello so that they could play string quartets. He promptly began composing, although he had to consult the “S” volume of “Meyers Konversations-Lexikon” to learn the construction of sonata-form movements.            

Music  

In 1894, he wrote a group of 3 piano pieces, which were his first original work. He also started taking counterpoint lessons from Alexander Zernlinsk, while playing cello for “Polyhymnia,” his teacher’s instrumental group. He composed his “1st string quartet” in 1897 in D major, which was staged in Vienna in 1898. He also wrote 2 piano songs known as “Op. 1.” 

“Verklärte Nacht,” his first masterpiece was composed in 1899. In 1902, this controversial work was first performed via a collaboration between Rose Quartet and Wiener Philharmoniker in Vienna. It remains his most staged composition until today, particularly due to its “string orchestra arrangement.” 

In 1900, he continued performing for several amateur groups in Vienna as a conductor. It inspired him to pursue vocal music and he started working on Gurre-Lieder, a choral composition. It was translated from a poem by the Danish poet Jens Jacobsen. A true spectacle, it surpassed the most formidable creations of Richard Strauss or Gustavo Mahler in the grandeur of orchestral sonority. Staging it required a very large orchestra, comprising of an 8-part mixed chorus, 3 men’s choruses, a speaker, and 5 solo voices. Also, a special music paper was ordered for the performance that constituted of 48 staves. 

In the spring of 1901, he completed creating the first 2 parts of Gurre-Lieder. However, the composition of the remaining section got postponed by a decade and was finally completed in 1913. Franz Schreker and the Wiener Philharmoniker staged the complete performance. In 1901, he also traveled to Berlin, joining forces with O. Bierbaum, F. Wedekind, and E. von Wolzogen to create “Überbrettl,” an artistic cabaret. He met Richard Strauss in the German capital and obtained a teaching position in the Stern Conservatory and Liszt Stipendium with his aid. In 1903, he became friends with Gustavo Mahler after returning to Vienna, where the latter’s powerful connection greatly abetting his career as a composer. In 1905, he conducted the first performances of “Pelleas und Melisande,” his symphonic poem. This also marked the first instance of a trombone glissando being used in the score.   

During this time, he also started painting, which subsequently became his principal hobby. He further developed the habit of adopting “tenets of Expressionism,” that is, “freedom of expression” through his works. His reputation as a progressive and independent mind attracted other talented musicians like Egon Wellesz, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. Together with these 3 composers, he established Second Viennese School (1903-1925). 

In 1908, he composed his “2nd String Quartet,” where he implemented a soprano solo. In 1909, he completed crafting “Op. 11, No. 1,” his 1st piano piece. It became the very first musical composition devoid of any sort of tonal reference. He was also appointed as a faculty in the Vienna Academy of Music in 1910. He also completed writing “Harmonielehre,” with the book dedicated to the memory of his close friend Gustavo Mahler.         

In 1912, his “5 Orchesterstücke” attracted a great deal of attention; the critical reception was that of incomprehension, with a considerable measure of curiosity. He further created “Pierrot Lunaire,” a cycle of 21 songs accompanied with instruments which also consisted of 21 melodramas. In 1918, he created “Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen” (The Society for Private Musical Performances). The society demonstratively excluded critics, ruling out any sort of verbal expression of approval or discontent.     

His Best Works

A Survivor from Warsaw

This riveting composition is equipped with a highly dramatic setting. It depicts a group of Jews residing in a Nazi concentration camp, and the entire scene is conveyed in the first person, oozing an almost claustrophobic intensity.      

Moses und Aron

An operatic setting which is uncompromisingly profound and offers a highly contrasting tone to Aaron’s common touch and Moses’s intensity. The climax portrays Moses smashing the stone tablets. 

Gurrelieder

This massive oratorio requires a vast arrangement with a mixed choir, three male choruses, and five soloists. It also comprises an orchestra including iron chains, 4 harps, trombones, 6 trumpets, 10 horns, 7 clarinets, and 8 flutes.   

Pelleas und Melisande

Schoenberg’s virtuoso symphony is based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, which had also inspired Fauré's incidental melodies and Debussy's opera. However, the remarkable fact is that Schoenberg was unaware of such instances. 

Pierrot Lunaire

This era-defining melodrama is based on Albert Giraud’s poems. It’s remarkably inventive, devoid of any boundaries and utilizes “Sprechgesang,” a speech-song technique.    

String Trio

Schoenberg composed these 3 final vivid masterpieces after suffering from a heart attack in August 1946. It moved him to compose these spectacles, reflecting the quick-changing moods of the String Trio. 

String Quartet No.2

In the finale, Schoenberg breaks the shackles of tonal gravitation, implementing words which symbolize “experiencing the atmosphere of a different planet.” The climax ensured that “orchestra music” would never be the same again.    

Variations for Orchestra

Designed as a more of a traditional introduction, it is completed with a theme, 9 variations, and a finale. Although the theme’s motif is very traditional, it is a highly unfamiliar musical language.    

Verklärte Nacht

This ravishing string sextet was based on Richard Dehmel’s poem. The work is often described as ‘scandalous’ for being highly erotically charged, and only a heavily censored version was allowed on print.  

The Anti Revolutionary? 

Revolutions are a constant in the history of humankind, and the early 20th century marked a musical revolution in Europe. From 1900 to 1914, it felt like creative explosions emerging from all directions. Strauss, Ives, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler and finally Schoenberg – the heavyweights kept rolling on. However, an intricate cross-section of this legendary musical culture suggested that it lacked a clear sense, or direction, which the critics and contemporary audiences craved. The priorities were different, exuding a palpable sense of insurgency – going against the flow. 

However, despite being a part of this revolutionary novelty, Schoenberg’s music displayed a very close bond with previous traditions. The forms and meters, phrasings and dance rhythms were similar to that of the musical customs of the late 19th century. He infused fresh ideas yet offered the old-school essence. His works must be treated delicately, without expecting a musical explosion every time. Only then one can relish the opportunity to pay a visit to his planet of heightened expression.

In 1933, Schoenberg went to the USA where he changed his name to “Schoenberg” from “Schönberg.” In 1947, the National Inst. of Arts and Letters anointed him with the Award of Merit for Distinguished Achievements. He eventually passed away on 13 July 1951. 

Misunderstood Genius 

The revolution that arrived in the 20th century in arts and science materialized in music though Schoenberg. He shattered the predominating tonal systems prevailing in the 3 previous centuries. This musical explosion affected entire Europe, and from the shards that scattered around in different languages, the Second Viennese School was born. 

Musicians and historians love discussing Arnold Schoenberg. However, his music is seldom performed and supposedly feared by both promoters and performers. His works are often accused as difficult, cold and cerebral. They are an invincible concoction of passion and intellect. The sentiment conveyed draws parallels with Romantic music – emotions of the human condition, albeit in a different language.  

Schoenberg undertook a defensive stance 80 years ago, and his champions need to defend that stance today. What Schoenberg’s music essentially requires is faith. The listener needs to be devoid of any prejudices to perceive the beauty and significance of his works truely. The fact remains that, it takes a considerable amount of time to enjoy the painting of Picasso when compared with Renoir. Great things take time to unravel, and its high time Schoenberg’s music is approached with less caution.    

 

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