Arnold Schoenberg: part I

Oftentimes, when we read about composers, we are not exactly having a great time. Yes, no shame in admitting it. Reading about when they were born and died, where they went to school, and how many symphonies they composed does not always seem like the most useful or fun information. The fun starts when you get to know what the composers were thinking. Why they used a certain style of composition. It’s even more fun to learn some interesting details from their personal life. Of course, some composers are more fun than others. These are usually the ones that dared to think outside the music box. And Arnold Schoenberg is the perfect example of this.

So what was so special about him? Let’s set the scene: we go back to the early 1900s. Arnold Schoenberg, along with some other modernistic composers, is sick and tired of traditional harmony. They want music to be exciting and deep, with real meaning.


In 1908, Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, left him for another man. She did, however, come back to him and the kids a few months later. That broke the other man’s heart, and he killed himself. These upsetting circumstances “forced” Schoenberg’s music to take a new direction. That same year, he composed his first atonal music – music without a certain key or scale.

At the time, expressionism was big in visual art. Arnold was inspired to also try bringing hidden psychological layers to the surface with his music by making it sound irrational and distorted. In 1909, he finished Erwartung, which was written for soprano and orchestra.

In Erwartung, a nameless woman stumbles through the woods at night and finally finds a bench where she sits down exhausted. She tries to speak, but doesn’t seem to be able to. After a while, the audience learns that she is looking for her loved one. And then, she finds a human body under the bench. She touches it and realizes that it’s her beloved!

Schoenberg wanted to explore music in connection with anxiety, danger, fear, anger, and despair. The free tonality he used means there are no cadences and so on, so there is no safety anywhere, no familiarity to lean on. There’s only the void. There is no repetition and every single moment of the music seems to be freestanding.

When the dawn comes, the woman thinks she is seeing her loved one again and she utters her last words: I was searching… Both the lyrics and the music just die away without a proper ending. Schoenberg felt like it made sense because the woman was so distraught and confused.

This kind of music was different, to say the least. Initially, Arnold Schoenberg and his music were received well.

The first problems began when the Nazi party gained power, starting in the 1920s. They didn’t want just any music or art to be allowed and the forbidden works were called entartete kunst – degenerate art. Basically, anything they found upsetting was forbidden (Hitler wanted to become an artist when he was young, but was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts and was still grumpy about it). Especially art and music made by Jews or people who didn’t sympathize with the Nazi party were strictly forbidden.

Schoenberg, who was born a Jew, had converted to Christianity in 1898 to avoid being subject to antisemitism. In 1933, when Hitler was elected as leader of the Nazi party, Schoenberg was on vacation in France. He was warned that it would be dangerous for him to return to Germany. Schoenberg realized that it didn’t matter that he had converted to Christianity. So he changed back to Judaism, while in France, and then traveled with his family to the United States. He stayed there for the rest of his life.

Want to learn more about Arnold Schoenberg? Next week, we will discuss his most famous music – the 12-tone music!

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