Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)

Born in Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian composer, painter, writer and teacher Arnold Schoenberg was one of the greatest and most influential figures in 20th century music. He was the principal composer of the Second Viennese School which finally broke with tonality and established the twelve-tone technique, the earliest form of serialism.  This was to divide musical opinion in Germany, Austria-Hungary and beyond. He worked in Vienna during the creatively vibrant period which preceded First World War, receiving considerable hostility and abuse, some of which was anti-Semitic.

In 1914, in the comparatively new unified Germany, national identity and culture were strongly linked, and many saw war as a means of spreading German Kultur. Schoenberg was caught up in the war fever. Seeing himself as continuing the legacy of the great German composers of previous generations, such as Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, he believed in the superiority of German music over French, which he thought decadent. He compared the attack that modernism was making on bourgeois values with the war being waged against France. Ironically, when such nationalistic ideas took an increasingly poisonous turn after the war, Schoenberg was to be one of its victims. In 1933, his music was banned, and he was forced to flee Germany, finally settling in America.

Schoenberg was affected by the First World War in a number of ways. Before its outbreak he had established himself as conductor, and directed performances of his own works including Pelleas und Melisande and Gurrelieder. War seriously limited the concert scene and the demand for new music was drastically reduced. His teaching ceased entirely when his pupils were called up. Schoenberg was keen to serve too, but in May 1915 he was rejected on medical grounds, although this was later reversed, enabling him to join up in the December of that year as a one-year volunteer. This did not last however, as he began to suffer from asthma, and with the support of friends he was released in October 1916.

Schoenberg had been planning a large-scale religious work Die Jakobsleiter. Despite shortages of food and fuel, he completed the text in January 1915 and had written some 600 bars when he was once more called up in September 1917. He was finally discharged the following December, but the break for military duties had far-reaching consequences for Die Jakobsleiter, which he was never able to complete.

Information from the above summary can be found in the following books and online resources

Walter Frisch (ed.): Schoenberg and his World

Malcolm MacDonald: Schoenberg

Charles Rosen: Schoenberg

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise

Allen Shawn: Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey

H. H. Stuckenschmidt: Arnold Schoenberg – his life, world and work

Grove Music Online (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)

To find out more, click on the links

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