Perhaps the single most influential composer of the 20th
century, Arnold Schoenberg was born into a modest, lower middle-class Jewish
family in Vienna on September 13, 1874. Though his mother was a piano teacher,
for the most part he taught himself music and only took counterpoint lessons
with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. As a young adult, he made a living
primarily by orchestrating operettas while composing his own works. During this
early part of his career, his works were a fusion of the divergent styles of
Brahms and Wagner, and he gained the support of both Richard Strauss and Gustav
Mahler. Though Strauss would later denounce Schoenberg's music, Mahler took him
under his wing and continued to support him though he worried about
Schoenberg made his first break with the traditions before
him with his String Quartet No. 2,
composed in 1908. While the first two movements continue to utilize traditional
key signatures, the last two are radical in their approach to harmony. Though
these movements still conclude with tonic chords, they are harbingers of his
"free atonality" period. Four years later, he composed his famous Pierrot Lunaire, settings of German
translations of poems by the Belgian-French poet Albert Giraud, and
representative of Schoenberg's pantonal style. In the midst of these two
revolutionary works, he wrote his influential Harmonielehre (Theory of
Harmony) which remains today an important music theory book.
World War I interrupted Schoenberg's compositional career.
At the age of 42, military service interrupted his work and consequently many
works were left unfinished and many ideas never progressed beyond the early
development stages. However, when he returned to composition he developed his
famous twelve-tone system of composition, also known as serialism, and became the
leader of the so-called Second Viennese School. Though his twelve-tone system
constituted a radically different method of composition than his early works,
Schoenberg did not deprecate them, but instead considered them as a natural
progression towards his current methods.
Despite some public successes as a composer early in his
career, as Schoenberg progressed, his compositions declined in public favor.
Seeking a venue in which his works, as well as those of other like-minded
composers, could present well-prepared performances, Schoenberg founded the
Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna in 1918. Throughout its
six-year existence, the Society gave a total of 353 performances. Interestingly,
however, Schoenberg withheld his own works from performance for the first year
and a half, deferring instead to works by his students, Webern and Berg, and
other contemporary composers like Scriabin, Debussy and Reger.
With the death of Ferruccio Busoni in 1924, Schoenberg
became the Director of Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of
Arts in Berlin, and he held the post until the election of the Nazi Party in
1933. Vacationing in France, Schoenberg was warned that a return to Germany
would be dangerous. Heeding this warning, he traveled with his family to the
United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1941. Initially taking a
teaching post at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, Schoenberg moved to Los
Angeles and taught at the University of Southern California and University of
California, Los Angeles. Settling in Brentwood Park, Schoenberg lived there
until his death on July 13, 1951.
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