Arnold (Franz Walter) Schönberg (Wenen, 13 september 1874 – Los Angeles, 13 juli 1951) remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of music. From the final years of the nineteenth century to the period following the World War II, Schönberg produced music of great stylistic diversity, inspiring fanatical devotion from students, admiration from peers like Mahler, Strauss, and Busoni, riotous anger from conservative Viennese audiences, and unmitigated hatred from his many detractors.
Born in Vienna into a family that was not particularly musical, Schoenberg was largely self-taught as a musician. An amateur cellist, he demonstrated from early age a particular aptitude for composition. He received rudimentary instruction in harmony and counterpoint from Oskar Adler and studied composition briefly with Alexander Zemlinsky, his eventual brother-in-law. Early in his career, Schoenberg took jobs orchestrating operettas, but most of his life was spent teaching, both privately and at various institutions, and composing. His moves between teaching jobs were as much a result of seeking respite from the bouts of ill health which hampered him as they were due to his being offered a position.
The composer's early works bear the unmistakable stamp of high German Romanticism, perhaps nowhere more evident than in his first important composition, Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899). With works like the Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) and the epochal Pierrot lunaire (1912), Schönberg embarked upon one of the most influential phases of his career. Critics reviled this "atonal" (Schoenberg preferred "pantonal") music, whose structure does not include traditional tonality. Still, the high drama and novel expressive means of Schönberg's music also inspired a faithful and active following. Most notable among his disciples were Alban Berg and Anton Webern, both of whom eventually attained stature equal to that of their famous mentor. These three composers -- the principal figures of the so-called Second Viennese School -- were the central force in the development of atonal and 12-tone music in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.
Schönberg's Suite for Piano (1921-1923) occupies a place of central importance in the composer's catalogue as his first completely 12-tone composition. Though the 12-tone technique represents only a single, and by no means predominant, aspect of the composer's style, it remains the single characteristic mostly closely associated with his music. Schönberg made repeated, though varied, use of the technique across the spectrum of genres, from chamber works like the String Quartet No. 4 (1936) and the Fantasy for Violin and Piano (1949) to orchestral works like the Violin Concerto (1935-1936) and the Piano Concerto (1942), to choral works like A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).
Schönberg fled the poisonous political atmosphere of Europe in 1933 and spent the remainder of his life primarily in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1941. During this phase of his career, he at times returned to frank tonality, as in the Theme and Variations for band (1943), reaffirming his connection to the great German musical heritage that extended back to Bach. For Schönberg, the dissolution of tonality was a logical and inevitable step in the evolution of Western music. Despite a steady stream of critical brickbats throughout his entire career, the composer, whose life inspired one of twentieth century's great novels, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, persisted in his aims, insisting that his music was the result of an overwhelming creative impulse. Though debate over the man and his music rages on, Schönberg is today acknowledged as one of the most significant figures in music history.
Rovi Staff (AllMusic)