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Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schönberg was born in Vienna. Although he began playing the violin at the age of eight and composing four years later, his creative talent only started to unfold as a student of Alexander von Zemlinsky. His string quartet written in 1897 was well received at its premiere in Vienna, and some of his songs were printed. However, these songs shocked audiences. He began teaching in 1903 and quickly attracted young forward-thinking musicians. Schönberg’s students included Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In 1911 he became a lecturer at the Academy of Arts and the Sternschen Conservatory in Berlin. His work in Berlin was disrupted by World War One. After the war he was involved in the Society for Private Musical Performances. In 1925 he became Ferruccio Busoni’s successor at the Prussian Academy of Arts. He emigrated to the USA in 1933, where he lectured at various higher education institutions. He died in Brentwood, California, aged 77.

Schönberg’s name is synonymous in public opinion with the twelve-tone system (dodecaphony) and the related compositional techniques. In fact, it was not Schönberg but Austrian Josef Mathias Hauer (1883-1959) that devised this new tonal system as well as the theory and practice behind the compositional rules avoiding the repetition of sounds, which first appeared in piano piece Nomos published in 1912. Schönberg’s development as a composer started from the world of chromatic harmonies and undisturbed melodies of Late Romanticism (Transfigured Night – Verklärte Nacht, 1899), and followed in Mahler’s and Strauss’ footsteps (Guerre-Lieder, 1901).  But he soon reckoned that this style had exhausted all of its options, and the language of music was no longer suitable for expressing his topical messages.  He tried to extricate himself from the constraints of the tonality by pushing the boundaries of consonance and dissonance, and experimented by creating new expressionist means.

However, resolving the tonality did not represent artistic freedom for Schönberg, but anarchy: he needed new laws and an even stricter system of logic to set a disciplined direction for his thoughts. The twelve-tone system – whose theory he elaborated in 1923 – met these requirements. Individual movements in the Pieces (5) for piano (op. 23) work and the chamber music Serenade (op. 24) succeeded in implementing the theory, and the Suite for Piano completed in 1923 (op. 25) was a dodecaphonic composition in its entirety. Schönberg composed in this system for twenty years, but his artistic talents only peaked in the 1940s; after emigrating he wrote works that were exhilarating not for their logical virtuosity but for their soul-stirring content. Main works of this late period: Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1942), Theme and Variations for Full Band (1943), and the cantata entitled A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). (Marianne Pándi)