Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)

Arnold Schoenberg displayed raw intellectual power in no fewer than four creative fields: musical composition, music teaching, essay-writing, and painting. As 'father' of the Second Viennese School, his stature as one of the most paradigm-shattering composers of all time alone places him in the highest rank.

The next Schönberg concert in Vienna 1913
caricature in Die Zeit April 6, 1913
Photo: Imagno
IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna into a Jewish family. Although his mother was a piano teacher, Arnold was largely self-taught in music.

In his twenties, Schoenberg earned a living by orchestrating operettas, while composing his own works, and by 1911 had written his Theory of Harmony, which remains one of the most influential and radical works on the theory and language of music.

Paradigm-shattering composer

From about 1912, Schoenberg insisted that a composer should begin each new piece by re-inventing paradigms of musical thought rather than by simply introducing new melodic or harmonic ideas. This commitment aligned him with the 'New Sobriety' (or 'New Objectivity') movement in early 1920s Germany that rejected both the sentimentality of late Romanticism and the emotional agitation of Expressionism.

As his career progressed, Schoenberg continued to move further away from Classicism, Romanticism and traditional harmonic progressions, to explore music that aimed to convey the subconscious and inner life through new dissonant and atonal compositions such as Erwartung (1909) and Pierrot lunaire (1912).

Twelve-tone method of composition

After a period of experimentation in the 1920s, Schoenberg developed his method of manipulating an ordered series of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale which embraced contrapuntal techniques such as inversion of the basic tone row. Variations in melody and harmony were thus made possible. This 'method of composition with twelve tones which are related only with one another' profoundly influenced the development of modern techniques of composition, changing the course of classical music.

Arnold Schoenberg
Austrian 1874-1951
Alban Berg
oil on canvas
177.5 x 85.0 cm
Wien Museum Karlplatz, Vienna
© Arnold Schönberg/VBK, Austria. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Influential teacher

Schoenberg was also one of the great music teachers of the twentieth century, first in Vienna, then in Berlin during the 1920s, and finally in Los Angeles. His pupils included Alban Berg (1885–1935) and Anton Webern (1883–1945), who became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique.

Richard GERSTL
Arnold Schönberg c.1907
Oil on canvas
Wien Museum
Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Maverick creative force

Schoenberg's reputation is properly that of a composer who revolutionised twentieth century music, but he was also a maverick creative force whose talent embraced many creative fields, including pictorial art.

From 1906, he studied oil painting with his friend Richard Gerstl (1883–1908), one of Vienna's few Jewish painters (tragically Gerstl committed suicide because of a failed love affair with Schoenberg's wife).

In 1910, Schoenberg produced more than 40 self-portraits and a remarkable portrait of his pupil Alban Berg. No other great composer ever painted his leading pupil. They constitute a remarkable body of quietly Expressionist images, unlike anything else then being produced in Vienna.

© 2011 National Gallery of Victoria