Arnold Schoenberg

1874–1951

20th Century

Most music we hear is ‘tonal’ – mainly tuneful and harmonious. One note, the ‘tonic’, acts like a centre of musical gravity. The harmonies pull away then return, creating a kind of journey for our ears. This tonality gives structure to the music, like the foundations of a building. Some composers – Wagner and Debussy, for example – weakened the ‘centre of gravity’. But the one who first wrote extended works without any ‘centre of gravity’ was Arnold Schoenberg.

At first he wrote very Romantic music – such as Gurre-Lieder or Verklärte Nacht. But Romanticism had reached a limit: things just couldn’t be any louder, bigger, more elaborate and expressive than they were already. How, then, were new composers going to develop the art of music?

Schoenberg unlocked a door to a new space. From there, composers were free to develop new styles. He starting using a lot of dissonance (notes that seem to clash), and moved away from tonality to ‘atonality’. These ‘atonal’ works can sound strange at first, because they don’t use the key centres and harmonic patterns that we’re used to. (They form the second group of selected works below – try the haunting ‘Pierrot Lunaire’!). Finally, he invented a new system: 12-tone music, or ‘serialism’, in which each of the 12 notes of the scale is made equally important. A kind of musical democracy! (‘Serialist’ works are in the third playlist.) He and some of his students, including Berg and Webern, formed the Second Viennese School – a group of composers who followed these ideas.

Schoenberg was Austrian by birth and was a soldier during the First World War. Like many Jews, he fled to America when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Schoenberg’s 12-tone music created the biggest split in 20th-century music: some embraced it; some rejected it. But it was a brilliant shock to the system for music that allowed it to regenerate. It may take time to understand, but some of the best things do! Listen with your ears open and you’ll find fresh, bold and stimulating sounds.

Arnold Schoenberg, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Get the flavour of Schoenberg here…

Gurre-Lieder: Part I: Orchestral Prelude

Gurre-Lieder was completed in 1913 and the first performance was a triumph. It is ‘late Romantic’ in style – the harmony fits a pattern, and the big orchestra gives us a rich and warm sound.

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557518-19

Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23: I. Sehr langsam (‘Very Slowly’)

Schoenberg believed that writing for the piano should involve writing as ‘thinly’ as possible – not writing too many notes. He selected very carefully, and wanted his music to be very clear. Every note is important.

Performers: Peter Hill, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553870

Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16: IV. Peripeteia

There’s quite an explosion of sound here! A short piece for a large orchestra. It is expressive. The whole piece was described by Schoenberg as ‘a vivid, uninterrupted succession of colours and moods’. If you painted a picture to go with it, what would it look like?

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557524

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Schoenberg was born in which country?

a. Germany
b. America
c. Austria

 Schoenberg wrote romantic masterpieces. Which is an example of this?

a. Kindertotenlieder
b. Parsifal
c. Verklärte Nacht

 Schoenberg fled Germany to which country?

a. America
b. Russia
c. Ireland

 Schoenberg thought the most important music was written by whom?

a. The Welsh
b. The French
c. The Germans

 As well as being a great composer, Schoenberg was good at what?

a. Painting
b. Cricket
c. Physics


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Schoenberg’s name was originally spelt ‘Schönberg’, but he changed it to ‘Schoenberg’ around the time he moved to America.
  2. Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia (yes, there is such a thing!) – the superstitious fear of the number 13. When he realised that his opera’s title, Moses und Aaron, contained 13 letters, he changed the spelling of Aaron to Aron.
  3. Schoenberg taught John Cage, the composer famous for brilliant experiments in music, including 4’33” – a piece full of nothing but silence.
  4. Schoenberg was very good at painting: his work was even exhibited alongside that of the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.
  5. Schoenberg’s music was new and difficult for listeners to appreciate immediately, but his importance in the history of music is huge: there are echoes of his serialism even in Broadway!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Early Schoenberg


Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), Op. 4

This Romantic masterpiece (a string sextet: two violins, two violas and two cellos) is Schoenberg’s earliest important work. From the falling chords at the start, it evokes such darkness and mystery. A man and a woman are walking through a dark forest. The woman tells the man, her new lover, that she is carrying someone else’s child. The work describes the transformation of feelings that follows. Its irresistible anguish develops to a positive, accepting ending.

Performers: Fred Sherry String Sextet

Taken from Naxos 8.557534


Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5

This symphonic poem (a descriptive work for orchestra) is based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the love between Pelleas and Melisande. Debussy wrote an opera on the same subject at around the same time. This is rich, Romantic music for a large orchestra. Musical motifs (little melodies) are used to indicate specific characters in the story – a bit like Wagner used ‘leitmotifs’. There are no real breaks or separate movements – the tracks run into each other. According to Schoenberg, the work challenged its first audience and critics in 1905, with one critic suggesting Schoenberg should be locked up with no access to any more manuscript paper! It must have seemed a bit new and radical, but only a few years later it was seen as a great success.

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557527


Gurre-Lieder (extracts)

Gurre-Lieder is a huge, sweeping, Romantic cantata (for orchestra and voices) – based on poems of passion, loss and despair by a Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen. It was written between 1900 and 1911. The title means ‘Songs of Gurre’, referring to Gurre Castle in Denmark. That is where a great medieval legend is based, involving the love of King Valdemar the Great for his mistress Tove. There is a lot of misery! Here, the Voice of the Wood Dove (a mezzo-soprano soloist) sings about Tove’s death and Valdemar’s grief. Listen at the very end (12:25) to the huge orchestra, with the beats from the timpani (kettle-drums) underlining the death that has happened. Then at the very end of the work, after nearly two hours, a full choir comes bursting in with ‘See, the Sun!’ It’s ecstatic. This choir of singers (it could be 150 people or more) do not all sing together until this point, so when they finally do the effect is thrilling. Romantic music had reached a kind of peak: it was hard to write anything bigger, more intense, more expressive than this. This is why Schoenberg then set off on a new path with his writing, and experimented with thinner textures, clearer lines, and a drier sound. Like going from triple chocolate brownie to sorbet!

Performers: Jennifer Lane, mezzo-soprano; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557520

Shedding Tonality


String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10

The first two movements of this string quartet, which Schoenberg began writing in 1907, are highly Romantic. In the second two movements, a soprano voice (a very unusual ingredient for a string quartet) announces a new sound-world. It is leaner; every chord, every combination of notes, was precious and new. Schoenberg’s musical mind was shifting. It was also a turbulent time for him personally, as his wife developed a relationship with an artist-friend, who then committed suicide.

Performers: Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano; Fred Sherry String Quartet; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557521


Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21

This masterpiece from 1912 sets 21 poems called Pierrot Lunaire (‘Pierrot in the Moonlight’) for soprano and chamber ensemble, in three sections. In the first, Pierrot gives his lover, Columbine, blossoms of moonlight. In the second, a giant moth obscures the moon. In the third, Pierrot smokes tobacco from a skull! A strange story… The poems are half-sung, half-spoken. This work is a long way away from the rich Romantic music of Gurre-Lieder or Verklärte Nacht. You can hear the sound of each individual instrument as if it’s in the room with you: it is crystal clear. There is still an intense expression, but the texture is thinner and clearer, as if a layer has been peeled back.

Performers: Anja Silja, soprano; Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557523


Erwartung, Op. 17

Erwartung (‘Expectation’) was completed in 1909 (though not premiered until 1924). Like Pierrot Lunaire, it is free of a tonal centre – Schoenberg has moved away from traditional melody and harmony: he was experimenting, and opening a door to rescue music from a dead-end. It is the ‘interior monologue’ of a woman who has killed her lover, but at the same time expects to meet him secretly. The dreamy strangeness of the story is reflected in the shifting speeds and instrumental sounds. It is uncomfortable and fascinating.

Performers: Anja Silja, soprano; Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557527

Serialism or 12-tone Music


Two Piano Pieces, Op. 33

By this point, Schoenberg had developed serialism: he ordered all 12 notes of the chromatic scale into a row or series, and used that particular row as a basis for a piece. Because there is no tonal centre (no key), it can be quite strange to listen to for the first time ­– like riding a bike without stabilisers. It allows music to be expressed in a completely different way, and it was a radical move away from what composers had been doing. Some took the method and shaped it their own way; others didn’t use it. But it was a big influence on music in general, and it is a major part of music history. These piano pieces are a good introduction to the idea. They are fresh, clean and alive.

Performers: Peter Hill, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553870


Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31

This was Schoenberg’s first serial/12-note composition for a large ensemble. Each variation is a version of the ‘Theme’ (track 2). Listen to how specifically he seems to use the different sounds of the instruments. Right at the beginning, the strings have a tremolo – which means they move the bow very rapidly backwards and forwards on the string to produce a kind of trembling sound. It’s very atmospheric. Soon there is a flute ‘flutter-tonguing’, which is another kind of trembling sound. It gets louder and more dramatic before pulling away again, ready for the Theme with its diving phrases. All the way through the work, the orchestra is used carefully to explore and draw unfamiliar patterns.

Performers: Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557522


Violin Concerto, Op. 36

This concerto was composed after Schoenberg had moved to America in 1933, to escape the Nazis. The violinist has to be good to play it! Again, the basis of the work is a particular row of 12 notes, so it is a different approach from a tonal piece by, for example, Brahms (but actually Brahms was a great supporter of Schoenberg and his music!). This kind of writing is still seen as ‘modern’, even though it was produced around 80 years ago. That, mainly, is because it pushed the boundaries of music more strongly than most composers have done since. So, even today, it can seem extraordinary to our ears.

Performers: Rolf Schulte, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557528


A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46

Schoenberg wrote this cantata in 1947 as a tribute to Holocaust victims. He himself was 73 by this time. It has a narrator, who tells the story of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto in the Second World War. As part of an important and nasty part of European history, it is not a nice story, and the combination of words and music is haunting and powerful. It begins with the words ‘I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time’ and ends with a Hebrew prayer ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’.

Performers: David Wilson-Johnson, narrator; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557528