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Schoenberg, Arnold (1874–1951)



Austrian-born composer, teacher, and theorist.

Through both his music and writings, Arnold Schoenberg influenced the evolution of music in the first half of the twentieth-century more than any other composer. He was born in Vienna and spent much of his life there, with several periods in Berlin (1901–1903, 1911–1915, and 1925–1933); during the last of these periods he was Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni's successor at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Nazi anti-Semitism led him to immigrate to the United States in 1933, where he settled in Los Angeles, teaching at the University of California. Even though his music was often attacked and never widely performed, his rejection of tonality before World War I and development of the twelve-tone method afterward profoundly influenced composers in both Europe and the United States.

Although his early works (1899–1906) follow in the Romantic tradition of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, Schoenberg's contrapuntal and motivic complexity and increasing chromaticism led to expressionist or atonal works (1907–1916) that radically depart from the harmonic conventions of earlier European music. Schoenberg described atonality as the "emancipation of dissonance," and found that it required new harmonic procedures that later proved crucial to his twelve-tone method. Schoenberg's atonal pieces constantly vary and develop motivic material—he later termed this "developing variation"—and use phrase structures that are continuous and asymmetrical rather than periodic and balanced. Developing variation, coupled with freedom from tonality, produced motives and themes that seldom repeat and frequently use all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. Simultaneously, asymmetrical phrase structures allowed Schoenberg to reconceive musical texture. No longer bound by traditional textures of theme and accompaniment, he explored new polyphonic textures, densely structured by multiple voices. His atonal style well suited the expressionist aesthetic shared by many Viennese at the time. Just as visual artists abandoned representation and conveyed emotions with abstract forms, Schoenberg rejected traditional forms and textures to create a contextual style with immediacy, spontaneity, intense expression, and—most important—brevity. (Examples are Three Piano Pieces, op. 11; Erwartung [Expectation], op. 17; and Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21.)

By 1916, Schoenberg apparently had exhausted the potential of atonality, for he published no new works for seven years. Later, he wrote that he used these years to systematize new harmonic procedures that could generate longer forms. In "Composition with Twelve Tones," Schoenberg explained that only after he conceived of musical space in "two-or-more dimensions" and learned to exploit all twelve chromatic pitches did he arrive at the basic principles of the twelve-tone method. These principles are quite simple: the pitch material of each piece is structured by a unique ordering of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale (called a row or series). The series can appear in different forms (retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion), and all forms can be transposed. Crucially important, the order of the twelve pitches in the series must not vary in all its forms and transpositions. Because harmonic space has two or more dimensions and because the series determines the ordering of pitches but not their registers or durations, the series can unfold in many different configurations. In Schoenberg's view, the value of the twelve-tone method was that it could generate longer musical forms than could his atonal procedures.

From 1923 until 1933, Schoenberg published pieces that developed and consolidated the twelve-tone method. (See especially Suite for Piano, op. 25; Wind Quintet, op. 26; Suite [Septet], op. 29; String Quartet no. 3, op. 30.) While the new method further solidified his reputation as an innovator and revolutionary, his twelve-tone works are in a profound sense conservative. They re-create traditional forms (for example, sonata form, rondo form, and baroque dance forms) and use more traditional textures and phrase structure than his atonal works. Schoenberg's modernist aesthetic—in which the artist as revolutionary prods art along its evolutionary path—ironically rested on Hegelian ideas common among nineteenth-century Romantics. While art without innovation was inconceivable to him, Schoenberg believed its relentless evolution also had to be connected to the past. His new method of composing older forms fits well with these aesthetic beliefs.

Although his twelve-tone works had little success with the critics or the public, Schoenberg had extraordinary influence on European composers, partly through his writings and teaching. No composer before him wrote as extensively about compositional techniques. Most important was Harmonielehre (Theory of harmony), published in 1911, and later came studies of counterpoint, composition, and form. Schoenberg was one of the most recognized teachers of his day, counting among his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who both took his twelve-tone technique and developed it into their own distinctive styles.

The profound disillusionment of artists after World War II led many European composers to reject their cultural heritage, including the neoclassical style that dominated France and Germany before the war. Turning to Schoenberg's revolutionary new method, composers like Olivier Messiaen and his students Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen extended serial techniques to dynamics, rhythm, and articulation (referred to as integral serialism). While adopting Schoenberg's serial method, Boulez and Stockhausen took Webern's music as their primary model. They criticized Schoenberg for his timidity in returning to older textures and forms that failed to develop the true potential of the method. Other prominent serial composers in the early 1950s were Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Luigi Dallapiccola.

By the late 1950s, over-systemization of the smallest components of musical structure had led to lack of contrast, a sameness in sound, and a lack of formal direction. Composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen then began using serial procedures only for larger features of form, such as textural density, durations among sections, and registral transformations. These procedures depart from Schoenberg's, but derive from his twelve-tone method.

In the United States, Schoenberg's music was harshly reviewed and seldom played, but he had continued influence. Milton Babbitt was his principal disciple, extending Schoenberg's serial techniques in a direction different from the Europeans. Several of Schoenberg's American works engage religious and spiritual topics, exploring both Jewish issues and the repercussions of fascism (for example, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41; A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46; his unfinished opera Moses and Aron). Several works composed close to his death return to nontraditional forms and recapture some of the expressive spontaneity of his atonal works (for example, String Trio, op. 45, and Violin Fantasy, op. 47). Immediately after Schoenberg's death in 1951, Igor Stravinsky (Schoenberg's fellow émigré in Los Angeles and archrival) dropped his popular neoclassical style and, until his death in 1972, adopted serial techniques (though quite unlike Schoenberg's). By the end of the twentieth century, serialism—and Schoenberg's influence—were still alive, but now only as one compositional method among many.

See alsoBerg, Alban; Boulez, Pierre; Modernism; Stravinsky, Igor.


Primary Sources

Schoenberg, Arnold. Letters. Edited by Erwin Stein. Translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. London, 1964.

——. Fundamentals of Musical Composition. Edited by Gerald Strang. London, 1967.

——. Theory of Harmony. Translated by Roy E. Carter. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

——. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. Edited by Leonard Stein. Translated by Leo Black. New York, 1975. New expanded edition, Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

——. Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Josef Rufer and Rudolf Stephan. Mainz, Germany. 1966–2002.

Secondary Sources

Dahlhaus, Carl. Schoenberg and the New Music. Translated by Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Hyde, Martha M. "Dodecaphony: Schoenberg." In Models of Musical Analysis: Early Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Jonathan Dunsby, 56–80. London, 1993.

Neighbour, Oliver W. "Arnold Schoenberg." In The New Grove Second Viennese School, edited by Stanley Sadie, 1–85. New York, 1983.

Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern: A Companion to the Second Viennese School. Edited by Bryan R. Simms. Westport, Conn., 1999.

Stuckenschmidt, Hans H. Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World, and Work. Translated by Edith Temple Roberts and Humphrey Searle. London, 1977.

Martha M. Hyde

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