Arnold Schoenberg, the celebrated Austrian composer, was a true trailblazer in the world of music. His innovative compositions and teachings transformed the traditional boundaries of tonality, paving the way for a new era in Western music. Born in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg began his musical career as a romantic composer before embarking on a journey of radical experimentation that led to the development of atonal and twelve-tone music. Schoenberg’s groundbreaking works and teachings challenged the status quo and made him one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. His legacy continues to inspire and challenge musicians and audiences alike, cementing his place in the pantheon of musical greats.
Joseph Auner, the Austin Fletcher Professor of Music at Tufts University, is a leading scholar in the study of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, as well as Weimar Berlin, music and technology, and sound studies. He has made an indelible mark on the field, with a strong focus on Schoenberg resulting in numerous publications, including Schoenberg as Sound Student: Pierrot’s Klang (2019), Weighing, Measuring, Embalming Tonality (2012), and Composing on Stage: Schoenberg and the Creative Process as Public Performance (2005). He has also co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg with Jennifer Shaw (2010) and authored A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life (2003). Auner’s expertise extends far beyond Schoenberg, with contributions to a wide range of music subjects. His dedication to the study of music and its intersections with technology and culture make him a highly respected and invaluable figure in the field.
Simply Charly: In your book, A Schoenberg Reader, you describe Schoenberg as a “maverick” who constantly pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible in music. How do you think Schoenberg’s rebellious spirit influenced his compositions and his place in the music world?
Joseph Auner: There is no question that Schoenberg had a rebellious streak a mile wide. Alma Mahler reports hosting a dinner party in the early years of her marriage in which the much younger and still-largely unknown Schoenberg so provoked Gustav Mahler that he remarked, “take good care you never invite that conceited puppy to the house again!” Schoenberg rebelled against musical orthodoxies and established authorities, he aggressively challenged the power of music critics and the conventions of musical life, and he challenged anyone who sought to place arbitrary limits on what music should strive to express. But what has made him of such continuing interest and relevance is that he also rebelled against himself when he realized he was wrong about something or when he recognized limitations in his thought. This is because Schoenberg’s sense of rebellion was never based on a spirit of destruction or negation, but rather on the lifelong drive to think ideas through to the furthest extent of his abilities. As a result, for Schoenberg, rebellion and critique were always bound up with a commitment to remaking and reform.
We can hear this in his works in the way that each piece—and often the individual movements of a piece—pushes his imagination forward, exploring what could be achieved regardless of the style, ranging from the hyper-Wagnerian grandeur of Gurre-Lieder, the radical aphoristic concision of the Six Little Piano Pieces, the extreme stream-of-consciousness expression in his opera Erwartung, and even in the richly ambivalent engagement with the past in his String Quartet Concerto, based on a Handel Concerto Grosso. And while he repeatedly declared that he had at last figured out how to compose, he never settled down to any kind of orthodoxy or formula. Even after he unveiled his “method of composing with twelve-tone related only to one another,” he never stopped reimaging what the method could be, so that the works from the very end of his life, like the String Trio and Phantasy for Violin and Piano, are less points of arrival then exciting points of departure.
It is this sense of productive rebellion that has made his music of continuing interest to musicians and other artists because he always gives us something new to hear and think about. One vivid sign of this is the fact that Style and Idea, his collection of irascible, provocative, sometimes infuriating essays, first published in 1950, has been selling well for nearly 75 years. It is because of, and not despite his rebellious spirit, that we keep coming back to Schoenberg.
Indeed, after their early tiff, Gustav Mahler soon forgot about his edict and asked Alma to invite him back; both he and Alma became two of Schoenberg’s greatest champions.
SC: Schoenberg is known for developing the twelve-tone technique, which completely revolutionized the way music was composed in the 20th century. Can you talk about the process behind the development of this technique and how it has influenced contemporary music?
JA: Schoenberg later described the twelve-tone method as the product of historical necessity, the inevitable result of compositional trends going back to the Renaissance. Schoenberg developed the techniques that led to the twelve-tone method between 1912-1923 in response to creative challenges that arose during the remarkable period of exploration now often categorized as Expressionism, but he described it as the “art of the representation of inner processes.” In works including the Three Pieces for Piano (1909) he attempted to compose as quickly as possible, eliminating traditional techniques and forms to capture the multifarious flow of his unconscious sensations. While this creative ideal resulted in some of his greatest works, it also placed nearly impossible demands on the composer, evident in an extreme slow-down in his creative output and a crisis of faith in his ability to be a composer.
Starting with Pierrot lunaire (1912), his opera Die gluckliche hand (1910-1913), and a series of other pieces from the war years he gradually relaxed the demands of his aesthetic, readmitting traditional techniques and forms and developing a range of more systematic compositional techniques, including working with small sets of pitches that could be any order and ordered rows of varying lengths. A crucial step was understanding the row as a series of intervals that made it possible to adapt historical contrapuntal techniques for manipulating the row through transposition to other pitch levels, by creating an inversion—where the intervals of the row move in opposite directions, along with retrogrades of the row and its inversion. In February 1923, exactly a century ago as I am writing, he called his students together to unveil his method.
Schoenberg saw the twelve-tone method, along with the use of historical forms and genres, as a way of reaching a broader public by increasing the comprehensibility of the music.
There were also significant political and nationalistic connotations of the method connected to the efforts by him and his students to challenge their early position as radicals and lay claim to being the inheritors of the Austro-German tradition, embodied in the idea of the Second Viennese School.
The twelve-tone method, in part through Schoenberg’s formulations, and then as developed by other composers after WWII had many far-reaching ramifications. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto, and Anton Webern in his Symphony, demonstrated that the method could be used to achieve very different expressive goals, and even Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland—who had defined themselves in opposition to Schoenberg, experimented with the method in several works in the 1940s and 50s. There was a time in the 1950s-80s when Schoenberg’s predictions that the method would be required for the training of composers was realized, with composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen extending it in innovative ways beyond elements of pitch to the other musical dimensions including rhythm and dynamics. But while composers explicitly using the method are much rarer now, the new ways of thinking about sound and structure hearing facilitated by the method continue to have a lasting influence.
While on the one hand, Schoenberg emphasized that twelve-tone composition was a product of the evolution of music, it was also a matter of considerable importance to him that he was given credit for it, as is clear from his anger at Thomas Mann, who in his 1947 novel Dr. Faustus depicted the twelve-tone method as the creation of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn. Schoenberg worried that a thousand years hence historians might be confused and assume that it was more likely the credit should go to Leverkühn over the self-taught and controversial Schoenberg. This resulted in Mann including a disclaimer at the end of the book, describing the method as, “in truth the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg.”
SC: Schoenberg’s music was often met with resistance and controversy, particularly in the early years of his career. How do you think he dealt with this criticism and how did it shape his artistic output?
JA: Schoenberg faced considerable rejection from audiences and critics at many points in his career, including noisy disturbances at the premiere of his second string quartet in 1908, the organized disruption of his Variations for Orchestra (1928), and even a demand by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York that a radio broadcast of Pierrot in the 1940s be stopped. Not surprisingly, Schoenberg at times embraced the image of the true artist being a misunderstood prophet alone in the desert, most vividly in his opera Moses und Aron, where Moses is given the charge of communicating the idea of an invisible unimaginable God, while his brother Aron debases the idea with images of the Golden Calf to appease a public. But the reality of his life and career was more complex, with many successes and positive responses from audiences and other artists, including the triumphant premieres of Gurre-Lieder in Vienna (1913) and the remarkable premiere of A Survivor from Warsaw in Albuquerque (1948).
What I find endlessly inspiring about Schoenberg is that despite the rejection he experienced, along with the inherent challenges of what he was trying to communicate, he never gave up trying to reach an audience for his music. His efforts throughout his life included close collaborations with musicians, and a very large number of writings and lectures, including presentations on the radio. Schoenberg’s creation of the Society for Private Musical Performances (1918-21), which is often branded the ultimate elitist exercise by attempting to create a performance environment free of the influence of critics, was focused on allowing interested listeners to hear well-rehearsed works in many styles. One of his most successful and rewarding endeavors was a series of ten open rehearsals of his Chamber Symphony in 1918, where audiences had the opportunity to really get to know the piece as it was rehearsed in detail. A music critic wrote of the experience of the audience in coming to terms by the end with the initially forbidding complexity of the work: “The terrifying apparitions looked less full of menace, their appearance had taken on a new mildness, their way of living a new accessibility. One began to feel thoroughly at home and cheerful in their company.”
SC: Schoenberg was a teacher as well as a composer, and many of his students went on to become important figures in the world of music. Can you discuss the role that Schoenberg’s teachings and influence played in the development of these musicians?
JA: Schoenberg’s undeniable success and impact as a teacher is one of the great paradoxes of his life and career, given that he himself was largely self-taught and had maintained in his essay “Problems of Teaching Art” (1911) that the true artist wasn’t teachable in the first place. Yet Schoenberg began teaching when he was still completely unknown and continued throughout his life, reaching hundreds of students in Vienna, Berlin, and Los Angeles, including many who went on to successful and impactful careers in very different styles and contexts. Just to name a few: Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hans Eisler, Marc Blitzstein, Alfred Newman, John Cage, and Dika Newlin. Schoenberg’s teaching efforts also bore fruit in several textbooks including Models for Beginners in Composition (1942) and others published posthumously. His teaching and close collaborations with performers who went on to teach large numbers of musicians in Europe and the US, such as Rudolf Kolisch and Eduard Steuermann, also had a major impact on contemporary musical life. Very early on his public reputation was always bound up with a large circle of students, whether that was viewed as a measure of his talent, or that he was a dangerous cult leader. The seriousness with which he approached his teaching is evident in the pressures his students placed on him, as he wrote in a diary from March 1912 attributing his difficulty composing to “the persistence with which my students nip at my heels, intending to surpass what…They always bring [in] everything raised to the tenth power.”
Schoenberg’s teaching took place in strikingly different contexts over his life, reflecting his many years on the fringes of musical life and the often urgent necessity to earn money, first teaching privately in his home in Vienna—with his first students coming to him from newspaper ads—and then later through lessons offered through a progressive school for women run by Eugenie Schwarzwald. During his first sojourns in Berlin in 1901 and 1911 he taught composition privately, along with some theory courses he offered as an adjunct at the conservatory. It was not until he was 52 that he gained his first formal position teaching composition as Busoni’s successor in 1926 at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. The position was very high profile and prestigious, but also made him a lightning rod for Nazi attacks on the Weimar Republic. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Schoenberg’s contract, along with many others, was canceled, followed by his hasty departure from Germany first going to France and then emigrating to the US. After briefly teaching in Boston and New York (where he suffered from the weather and the travel, not having understood the distance between the cities) he settled in Los Angeles where he taught at USC and then UCLA. In Los Angeles, his studio attracted considerable numbers of Hollywood composers.
The website of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna includes the interactive Schönberg World Map which makes it possible to see his impact on students and colleagues who were active around the world. https://www.schoenberg.at/index.php/en/schoenberg-2/illuminating-as/topographie
The impact of his teaching on so many different composers can be credited to the approach he outlined in the “Task of the Teacher,” namely that he did not train his students in the “peculiarities of a certain style” but sought them with “the technical, aesthetic and moral basis of true artistry,” as his student Heinrich Jalowetz wrote, “For anyone who has been his pupil, his name is no mere reminder of student days: it is one’s artistic and human conscience.”
JA: Schoenberg preferred the term “emancipation of the dissonance” over the label “atonal,” which points towards his life-long commitment to exploring new sonic possibilities rather than simply rejecting past approaches. His challenge in his Theory of Harmony (1911), to the thousand-year-old formulation of a categorical distinction between consonance and dissonance, was based on the fact that the harmonic series of every note includes both consonant and dissonant overtones. Thus his emancipation of the dissonance was just a way of realizing the sonic potential within the sounds themselves. This did not mean that his music dispensed with differentiations between harmonies or dispensed with any hierarchy of pitches, but rather that these differentiations and hierarchies were determined contextually by each work, rather than being a priori.
Arguably the most revolutionary impact of atonality was his breaking down the distinction between harmony and timbre, as in his concept of Tone-Color-Melody [Klangfarbenmelodie] which elevated tone-color and sonority to a primary expressive and structural force. In the context of current music in many styles that focuses on texture and timbre, over melody and harmony, Schoenberg’s most prophetic pieces may be works like the last movement of his Six Little Piano Pieces, reportedly written in response to Mahler’s death, which consist primarily of a widely spaced evocative six-note sonority that sounds like distant bells. Along with allowing any combination of pitches to be introduced, Schoenberg’s approach also pointed to the possibility of an expansion of what sounds could be considered musical potentially embracing any sound or noise, central to electronic music, Cage’s aleatoric works, and sampling.
SC: In your book, you explore the relationships between Schoenberg and other important figures in the music world, such as Brahms and Wagner. How do you think these relationships influenced Schoenberg’s compositions and overall approach to music?
JA: Growing up in Vienna, Schoenberg had a profound sense of the Austro-German musical tradition and the feeling—remarkably early on given his idiosyncrasy and frequent rejection—that he was going to be part of it. This is evident in his careful preservation of his manuscripts, letters, and writings across his many locales, including Vienna, Berlin, and Los Angeles. That he was correct in his conviction that future historians and musicians would want to study his Nachlaß is evident in the amazing collection of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna that is now available to anyone with an internet collection, a testament to his efforts and those of his students and family to preserve his vast archive: https://www.schoenberg.at/index.php/de/
Schoenberg’s relationship to his musical forebears, takes many forms, such as his recollection that as a child reading about Mozart’s ability to compose anywhere was what motivated him to always compose away from the piano. His historical orientation was fundamental to how he described his musical development in terms of first becoming a Brahmsian and then a Wagnerian, thus synthesizing the two main streams in the musical culture of the nineteenth century. Indeed, his early works like the programmatic string sextet Transfigured Night, Op. 4 (1899), clearly integrate compositional approaches from both strands into a distinctively new style. Throughout his theoretical and historical writings, and especially in his teaching, he often interacted closely with the music of the past as compositional resources. But he also engaged with previous composers in terms of their broader historical and cultural significance, such as in his 1947 essay, “Brahms the Progressive,” a rebellious claim at a time when Brahms was viewed as the embodiment of musical conservatism, or in his writings on the challenges for Austrian-Jewish artists like himself to come to terms with Wagner’s anti-Semitism.
But beyond specific stylistic or historical influences, Schoenberg’s intensive engagement with the music of the past, including as well, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mahler, was motivated by his sense of responsibility to extend their achievements and create works that were everything they could be, without compromise. As he wrote in the 1931 essay, “National Music,” ‘I venture to credit myself with having written truly new music, which being based on tradition, is destined to become tradition.’
SC: Schoenberg’s music was often described as “difficult” or “unapproachable” by some listeners. Do you agree with this assessment, and if not, how do you think Schoenberg’s music should be approached by listeners?
JA: The difficulty that Schoenberg’s music poses to its listeners is part of its meaning. Indeed in 1924, on the occasion of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, Alban Berg published an essay entitled, “Why is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” For Berg, Schoenberg’s difficulty comes from his commitment to drawing the farthest conclusions from the musical ideas he explores. Berg focuses on technical features, pointing out how quickly Schoenberg’s melodies develop, his resistance to literal repetition, and the way that the richness of all the elements of music—melody, harmony, rhythm, form, timbre, and dynamics—contribute to what can be heard as an overwhelming multiplicity.
For the philosopher of music, Theodor Adorno, Schoenberg’s difficulty stems ultimately from his claims that the music most accurately embodies the contradictions and tensions of society; a truth listeners recognized but resisted. While Schoenberg strongly rejected Adorno’s interpretation of his music, there is no question that he believed that music needed to confront the full range of human experience, including painful emotions, as he wrote in 1909: “Art is the cry of distress uttered by those who experience firsthand the fate of mankind.”
The common misconception that Schoenberg’s music—especially the twelve-tone works—are somehow mathematical and only understood through detailed analyses can be attributed in part to his own explanations of the method, and even more so writings by later composers who adopted and extended twelve-tone techniques, which can make listeners believe they can’t engage directly with the sounds they hear in the concert hall or recording.
And yet the difficulty of Schoenberg’s music does not depend on listeners having some esoteric specialist knowledge, but rather just being willing to listen. One useful tool for approaching Schoenberg’s music is his suggestion that the listener be willing to have an experience they have never had before, as if they are exploring of uncharted territories. Listeners should expect difficulties and uncertainties, but also take the chance of opening themselves up to something unique and unusual, such as the miraculous opening measures of Pierrot lunaire or the voice of God from the burning bush from Moses und Aron.
SC: Schoenberg’s works include a wide range of musical forms, including chamber music, orchestral works, and operas. Can you discuss the diversity of Schoenberg’s musical output and how he was able to excel in so many different musical genres?
JA: Schoenberg’s sense of history as support and provocation led him to engage with the forms and genres of music that he inherited in rich and productive ways. This is evident in his earliest works, like the String Quartet in D Major, with clear traditional forms in each movement. In the years after WWI, when he was introducing the twelve-tone method to the world he deliberately returned to classical forms and genres in chamber works and concerti as a way of demonstrating that the method was part of the evolution of Austro-German tradition.
But we can also see his proclivity to think through ideas to their furthest conclusions in the ways that he expanded genres, such as in his Second String Quartet, one of the works in which he broke with tonality, which uses a sonata form in the first movement and scherzo in the second, but then adds a soprano in the final two movements, with innovative forms that closely follow the structure of the poetry. In the same way, it is important to note that with Pierrot lunaire Schoenberg essentially created a new genre of the small mixed chamber ensemble (five players on eight instruments: piano, violin/viola, cello, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet), that has since become the foundation of many contemporary music ensembles. Also noteworthy are his many choral compositions, including his Six Pieces for Male Chorus (1930), written for the active workers’ choral scene in Germany, in which he integrated tonal and twelve-tone elements. He also composed a large body of songs, including the song cycle “The Book of the Hanging Gardens” (1909). His works for orchestra include the Straussian symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande (1903), and the Variations for Orchestra. That he could have been any kind of composer he wanted to be is strikingly evident in the set of playful and risqué cabaret songs he composed around 1900 when he was hired by the first German cabaret in Berlin.
SC: Schoenberg was also interested in visual arts and literature, and his compositions often incorporated elements of these other art forms. Can you discuss the relationship between Schoenberg’s music and his other artistic interests?
JA: At several times in his life, Schoenberg explored the idea of an autobiography that would be a “Life Story in Encounters”; the list of artists and writers he mentions wanting to discuss is remarkable, including Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus, Thomas Mann and many others who were drawn to his intensity, energy, and productivity. Schoenberg’s own activity as a painter, which includes works that were exhibited in Kandinsky’s Blue Rider exhibition in 1911, is deeply bound up with his approach to music and reflected his belief during these years that the true genius would be able to create in any form. Not surprisingly, a focus of his artistic work was a large number of self-portraits, which ranged from careful drawings to intensely visionary attempts to capture his inner emotional life on the canvas through the expressive use of color. His opera Die glückliche hand (his suggested translation was the “Hand of Fate”) is the most vivid example, with its synaesthetic conception, integrating music with light, color, and movement, for which he created a large number of paintings and drawings of costumes and staging.
Schoenberg also wrote a substantial number of literary texts, including the libretto of Moses und Aron, and the texts for the Six Pieces for Male Chorus and A Survivor from Warsaw. Throughout his life, he also showed an interest in and engagement with new technological means for creating and disseminating art, in particular the radio and film, which he saw as having the potential to transform the artwork, the artist, and the audience. Also relevant to understanding the broad scope of his imagination are his many handcrafted devices and inventions, ranging from a patent application in 1909 for a music notation typewriter, designs for furniture and household appliances, a system for notating the shots in a tennis match, to his many devices for creating and manipulating twelve-tone rows.
SC: In your book, you discuss the importance of Schoenberg’s Jewish heritage in his life and work. How do you think Schoenberg’s identity as a Jewish artist influenced his compositions and his place in the music world?
JA: Schoenberg’s identity as a Jewish artist was a major factor throughout his life, including the various stages of his religious and spiritual development, as he pointed out in his “Life Story in Encounters,” which starts with the overview:
How I became a Musician
How I became a Christian
How I became a Jew again
Born into the Jewish quarter of Leopoldstadt in Vienna, Schoenberg, like Mahler and many of his contemporaries, had converted to Christianity, though his choice of Lutheranism in Catholic Vienna also points also to his rebellious instinct. In the years before the First World War, spiritual and religious concerns, inspired by Theosophy and other movements, began to emerge in a series of works including a setting of Balzac’s mystical Seraphita (1912), and plans for a massive Choral Symphony (1914-1915), which called for thousands of musicians. In 1912 he wrote to prominent poet Richard Dehmel hoping to persuade him to write a text for an oratorio that would chart the religious, political, and philosophical development of “modern man”:
having passed through materialism, socialism, and anarchy and, despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient faith (in the form of superstition), wrestles with God (see also Strindberg’s Jacob Wrestling) and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious. Learning to pray!”
Schoenberg ended up writing his own text taking up these themes for his unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter, and the theme of prayer was central to several works at the end of his life, including the unfinished Modern Psalms.
The years after WWI were marked by a number of incidents of anti-Semitism including his well-publicized expulsion from an Austrian resort on the Mattsee, and his highly charged exchange in 1923 with Kandinsky on learning of his anti-Semitic comments: “For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.”
Schoenberg’s final years in Berlin were defined by his coming to terms with his Jewish identity, documented in his Zionist play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way), written in 1926–27, but never staged in his lifetime, and Moses und Aron (1930-1932). After he left Germany in 1933, Schoenberg traveled first to France where formally reconfirmed his Jewish faith in 1933 before emigrating to the US, never to return. His works in the US include a number of compositions dealing directly and indirectly with his Jewish identity, including A Survivor from Warsaw and the choral Kol Nidre, which is using the traditional melody for the Day of Atonement.
SC: Schoenberg’s music and ideas continue to be relevant and influential today. In your opinion, what makes Schoenberg’s music timeless and enduring?
JA: Given the difficulties of his music, a professional career that was often tenuous, and a personality that posed challenges—he could be prickly, quick to take offense, and imperious in tone—Schoenberg can seem like an artist who would be among the least likely to have a continuing influence nearly a century and a half from his earliest work. However, his creative output, which includes his music, writings, voluminous correspondence, paintings, and photographs, is deep and rich, and has remained a constant resource, provocation, and inspiration.
Schoenberg is famous for the emancipation of the dissonance, but his works and writings demonstrate an unrelenting drive to liberate all elements of music, which continued through his final years as he envisioned and reimagined what music could be. As a result, his music remains of interest to our evolving musical culture and ourselves, as we discover new potentialities and energies in the creative spaces that he opened up.