Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna. He did not come from a musical family and was largely self-taught in music, learning the violin and cello without benefit of study with a good teacher. His formal education ended when financial circumstances following the death of his father forced him to take a job as a bank clerk, but he continued to pursue his interests in literature, philosophy, and music on his own. Schoenberg was drawn to the ferment that characterized artistic and intellectual movements around the turn of the century and allied himself with the Viennese avant-garde. His first compositions are clearly indebted to late romantic influences, but a more personal style, characterized by extreme chromaticism and polyphonic complexity, emerged in an outpouring of works written in his thirties. Between 1915 and 1923, Schoenberg stopped composing, devoting himself to the formulation of his twelve-tone theory of composition on which all of his works after 1923 are based. In 1925 he was appointed a professor of composition at the Berlin Academy of Arts, which provided a supportive environment for experimental art. This situation changed radically when Hitler came to power in 1933. Schoenberg, vulnerable to persecution as an artist and because of his Jewish background, emigrated with his family from Germany, landing first in Great Brittan and eventually immigrating to the United States. He taught at the University of California at Los Angeles until his retirement in 1944, and continued to compose until his death.
Since medieval times, Western music theory had been based on the concept of a key center, or tonic, in melodies and harmonies, and on the distinction between consonance and dissonance in the relationship between voices in music of two or more parts. These are seminal principles that form the underpinnings of the religious music of the Renaissance, the fugues and cantatas of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Mozart and Verdi, and other masterpieces of Western art music. At the end of the 19th century, however, there was a sense among progressive musicians that the major/minor system and the compositional procedures and forms it had produced had run their course. It was in this atmosphere of searching for alternative approaches that Schoenberg came up with a new theory of composition. Perhaps his lack of formal training in a discipline where complex problems of form, counterpoint and harmony, instrumentation, and notation have traditionally required years of study with a master freed him to think outside established conventions. In any case, Schoenberg’s “method of composing with twelve tones” was a radical departure from traditional compositional procedures. Central to the method is his revolutionary idea that all twelve tones into which the octave is divided in Western music should be treated as equal. In other words, no tone would dominate as a tonic. The composition of a work according to Schoenberg’s method begins with the creation of a tone row containing all twelve pitches. This row is the germinal cell from which all melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal materials are derived. The principles for configuring a tone row and the complex ways it can be manipulated are formulated in Schoenberg’s theoretical writings. Because of the absence of a key center, twelve-tone music is often called “atonal,” a term to which Schoenberg objected, or “serial” because the compositional technique involves manipulation of a tone row, or series.
While twelve-tone describes Schoenberg’s compositional procedure, his style is classified as expressionist. Expressionism was an early 20th-century movement that sought to reveal through art the irrational, subconscious reality and repressed primordial impulses postulated and analyzed in the writings of Freud. Rather than depict impressions received from the outer world, painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, and Max Beckmann, and writers such as August Strindberg, Frank Wedekind, Stefan George, and Franz Kafka explored the shadowy and distorted images, hallucinatory visions, and irrational terrors of the subconscious. Hysteria, isolation and alienation, the grotesque and macabre were favorite subjects of Expressionist artists. Schoenberg himself took up painting in 1908 and, over the course of his life, created imaginatively intense if technically amateurish pictures, including several self-portraits. In the music of Schoenberg and other Expressionist composers, relentless emotional intensity is attributable to jagged, highly disjunct melodic lines; instruments in extreme ranges; unresolved tension through avoidance of consonant sonorities; texts dealing with violence and abnormal behavior; and exaggeration and distortion of the natural accents of speech.
Schoenberg applied the twelve-tone technique to every type of genre to which he contributed — opera; choral and solo vocal; orchestral, chamber and keyboard. His music, never readily accessible or easy to listen to, has always aroused controversy, even hostility, on both aesthetic and intellectual grounds. He was drawn to subjects and forms of expression that resonated with a devoted, if small, following, and he never sought to entertain or gain popularity with a wide public. In his own words:
There are relatively few people who are capable of understanding, purely musically, what music has to say. Such trained listeners have probably never been very numerous, but that does not prevent the artist from creating only for them. Great art presupposes the alert mind of the educated listener.