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Timeline: Arnold Schoenberg

Austrian painter Egon Schiele created this portrait of Arnold Schoenberg in 1917. The use of color and line reflect the intensity of Schoenberg's music and personality.

Arnold Schoenberg was a composer, teacher, music theorist and painter. He developed techniques of composition that turned music upside down and backwards. He was called an expressionist and the founder of atonalism and serialism, but regardless of what Schoenberg is called he is one of the pivotal figures of 20th century music.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna. He came from an orthodox Jewish family with Hungarian roots. Although his parents weren’t musical, they did arrange for Arnold to start violin lessons when he was eight. Right away he began to experiment with creating his own arrangements and compositions. The family was quite poor and they couldn’t afford to go to concerts, so the music that Schoenberg knew was what he played and created.

After his father’s death, Schoenberg was forced to leave school and take a position at a bank to support his family. If it wasn’t for his friends the story would probably end there. But Arnold had a knack for surrounding himself with the right people. His friends, David Josef Bach and Oskar Adler encouraged him to continue composing. They even formed their own musical group, in which Schoenberg played the cello.

Alexander von Zemlinksy, a protégé of Brahms, became an early champion of Schoenberg’s music and arranged a teaching position for the younger composer. The position was short lived, but it did lead to several pupils continuing with Schoenberg in private study. Anton Webern and Alban Berg were among these students and together, with their teacher, they called themselves, “The Second Viennese School”.

At the turn of the century, Schoenberg began to pursue new ideas of chromaticism in music. Each work pushed the boundaries of dissonance and the taste the audiences in Vienna. In 1912, his song cycle Pierrot Lunaire became so successful that the work was performed as a tour. Schoenberg’s fortunes seemed to rise.

Then war was declared in 1914. Many of Schoenberg’s pupils joined the war effort. He served briefly himself, though his asthma made it difficult. After the war, Arnold fell into hard times financially and began to experience the anti-Semitism rising in his homeland. By the 1930’s he could read the writing on the wall and knew it was best to leave Germany for good. He took a position in Boston and then eventually settled at the University of California in Los Angeles. In 1941, he became a citizen of the United States.

He continued to compose and teach until his health forced him to retire at the age of 70. He returned to his Jewish faith late in life and was overjoyed to see the establishment of the nation of Israel. Schoenberg was even elected honorary president of the Israel Academy of Music just before his death in 1951.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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