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Schoenberg, Arnold


SCHOENBERG, ARNOLD (1874–1951), composer, teacher, and theorist; discoverer of the "method of composition with twelve tones related to one another" as he himself described it. Born to an Orthodox family in Vienna, Schoenberg became converted to Christianity in 1898 under the influence of Gustav *Mahler. He returned to Judaism, however, on July 24, 1933, at a formal religious ceremony in Paris, at which one of the witnesses was Marc *Chagall. Schoenberg was extremely active on behalf of German refugees during the Nazi period. He was a devoted Zionist and in 1951 accepted an invitation to head the Rubin Academy for Music established in Jerusalem, but his state of health prevented him from taking up the appointment.

In music he was self-taught, except for several months of instruction from his friend, the composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1872–1942), who eventually became his brother-in-law. The deepest creative influences in his early years were Brahms and Wagner, as can be seen in his early string quartet in D major (1897), his string sextet Verklaerte Nacht (1899), and his gigantic cantata Gurrelieder (1900–11).

Schoenberg became increasingly free in his treatment of dissonance until his work transcended tonality. His piano piece Opus 11, no. 1 (1909) is the first composition to dispense completely with "tonal" means of organization. There followed a series of compositions in which extreme emotionality was counterbalanced by extreme brevity. Sometimes, as in Erwartung (1909) and Pierrot Lunaire (1912), a text helps to provide that unity which "classical" tonal means could no longer furnish. Schoenberg was continually seeking new means of tonal organization. After much experimentation he told Josef Ruler in July 1921: "Today I have discovered something which will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." It was the method of composition with twelve tones ("dodecaphony"). In this method, a basic row containing the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, in an order predetermined by the composer, serves as the foundation for an entire composition. Schoenberg found this method invaluable for securing unity. He used it for the rest of his life, with occasional returns to tonality, as in the suite for strings in g major (1934).

It was many years before Schoenberg won full acceptance as a composer, but in 1925 he was appointed director of a master school for musical composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. This position was taken from him on "racial" grounds in September 1933, and he responded with a formal return to the Jewish faith, which he had abandoned in his youth. A month later he emigrated to America. After a year in Boston and New York, he taught for many years, first at the University of Southern California, then at the University of California in Los Angeles. In America Schoenberg completed some of his best works. These include his fourth string quartet (1936); Kol Nidre (1939); piano concerto (1942); and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). During this period he also wrote four of his theoretical books: Models for Beginners in Composition (1943), Structural Functions of Harmony (1954), Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint (1963), and Fundamentals of Musical Composition (1967). His Style and Idea appeared in 1950 and his Letters, edited by E. Stein, in 1964. His Jewish loyalties, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel are strongly reflected in his musical works, in works such as Der Biblische Weg, and the cantatas Dreimal Tausend Jahre and Israel Lives Again. The texts of these works were written by Schoenberg himself, with the exception of that of Dreimal Tausend Jahre, which was written by Rabbi Dagobert Runes. Three of his great works with religious themes, the cantata Die Jakobsleiter, the opera Moses and Aaron, and the cycle of Modern Psalms, were unfinished at his death on July 13, 1951. Moses and Aaron, however, has been highly successful in its two-act form, and this dramatic confrontation of priest and prophet may well stand as Schoenberg's strongest work.

Schoenberg's influence on the music of the 20th century was immense. After World War ii his technique of composition was studied intensively both in Europe and United States, after the ban on it during Nazi rule. At the same time, some of the postwar avant-garde composers who considered Schoenberg not consistent enough when using his own technique preferred to lean on the work of his famous pupil Webern, who was more strict in following the rules of dodecaphony. However, despite all the debates about Schoenberg's method, he is now considered a brilliant innovative mind and one of the classics of 20th century music.


R. Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (1949); D. Newlin, BrucknerMahlerSchoenberg (Eng., 1947), 209–77; R. Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (1949); H.H. Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg (Ger., 1951, Eng., 1959); J. Rufer, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg (1962); K.H. Woerner, Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (1963); W. Reich, Schoenberg; A Critical Biography (1971); MGG; Riemann-Gurlitt; Grove Dict.: Baker, Biog Dict. add. bibliography: ng2; C. Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (1975); E. Hilmar (ed.), Arnold Schoenberg: Gedenkausstellung 1974 (1974); C. Dahlhaus, Schoenberg and the New Music (1987); A.L. Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew (1990); J. Brand and C. Hailey (eds.), Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of 20th-Century Culture (1997); A.L. Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: Das Leben im Werk (2002).

[Yulia Kreinin (2nd ed.)]

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