Last week, we learned about Arnold Schoenberg and how he started to compose atonal music. If you
haven’t read part 1, go back and do that before you continue reading!
If you ask anyone what Schoenberg is famous for, they will mention twelve-tone music, of course!
But what is twelve-tone and why did it make Arnold Schoenberg so famous?
Schoenberg first came up with the method a few years after WW1. He hadn’t published any music
for a few years. It had been hard for him to compose lengthy atonal pieces unless there were lyrics
that made the music interesting and coherent. But now, he had a plan.
Just like in other atonal music, twelve-tone music doesn’t circle around a tonic. In fact, every single
note is believed to be equally important. Of course, it is hard not to read between the lines and
notice philosophical ideas.
So how does twelve-tone actually work? Well, the technique uses all twelve notes. The composer
starts by coming up with a series, also known as a row. Basically, he organizes the twelve notes in a
particular order where every single note is only related to the previous note and the one after it. The
notes must come in that particular order throughout the piece. To achieve variation, the composer
can choose to transpose the notes, play them backwards, invert (mirror) them, or combine all these
But how does that sound? Well, beauty wasn’t the main concern. Remember, this was the early
modern period when composers loved to break free from tradition and question everything they had
ever learned. Speaking of which, Schoenberg had very little schooling and knew little about music
theory. That might have helped him think outside the box. After all, he had never been inside
It’s also worth remembering that the years when Arnold Schoenberg composed this kind of music were extremely
Nothing seemed to make sense anymore and everybody felt confused. Then, it’s no wonder that
Schoenberg wanted to create clear, logical music that made sense and wasn’t full of what ifs and
don’t knows. Twelve-tone gave him the ultimate control over his music and every single note was in
its place for a reason and contributed to the order in the piece.
Last week, we finished the post with Schoenberg moving to the United States to escape the Nazis. But
what happened then?
He first started teaching at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. But due to poor health, he moved to
Los Angeles. He thought that the warm climate would suit him better. There, he taught at
the University of Southern California and the University of California. He had pupils that eventually
became very famous, for example John Cage.
Schoenberg lived to be 76 years old. A big reason for this is his successful escape from Germany. We will never
know what would have happened to him if he had stayed. We can only assume the worst, though.
Schoenberg was very superstitious and was especially afraid of the number 13. Guess what day he
died? Friday 13!