Schoenberg was born in 1874 to poor Jewish parents who lived in a working class suburb of Vienna. When Arnold was 16, his father died, and he had to leave school and work in a bank to help support his family. During this time he studied music on his own, and formed amateur ensembles with his friends. He learned musical form and harmony by reading encyclopedias. His only “teacher” was Alexander von Zemlinsky, with whom he became quite close. He later married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde. Schoenberg is the only major composer who was essentially self-taught, with no formal musical training of any kind.


Leo at Schoenberg’s grave in Vienna, January 2014
Alexander von Zemlinsky


Aside from some very early piano works, a string quartet, and numerous songs, Schoenberg’s early period really begins with the appearance of his string sextet Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night), composed in 1899  CD 1 TRACKS 1-3. This ultra-romantic work is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, and is the first major work by the composer (and still his most popular and most-often-performed composition)!



“Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood; the moon

keeps pace with them and draws their gaze. The moon moves

along above tall oak trees, there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the

radiance to which the black, jagged tips reach up. A woman's

voice speaks: "I am carrying a child, and not by you. I am walking

here with you in a state of sin. I have offended grievously against

myself. I despaired of happiness, and yet I still felt a grievous

longing for life's fullness, for a mother's joys and duties; and so I

sinned, and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex to the embrace of a

stranger, and even thought myself blessed. Now life has taken its

revenge, and I have met you, met you." She walks on, stumbling.

She looks up; the moon keeps pace. Her dark gaze drowns in light.

A man's voice speaks: "Do not let the child you have conceived be

a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe

shines! Splendour falls on everything around, you are voyaging with

me on a cold sea, but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you

in me, from me in you. That warmth will transfigure the stranger's

child, and you bear it me, begot by me. You have transfused me

with splendour, you have made a child of me." He puts an arm

about her strong hips. Their breath embraces in the air. Two people

walk on through the high, bright night.”

This work (later scored for string orchestra) was rejected by the Viennese Musical Society on the grounds that it contained a chord that did not exist: a dominant ninth chord in fourth inversion. Hence Schoenberg: “And thus the work cannot be performed since one cannot perform that which does not exist.” The first performance was not until 1902: three years after completion (this would be a recurring theme with many of his works). Transfigured Night was composed during the courtship of Arnold and Mathilde. The composition has been characterized as “chromaticism flirting with atonality”, although to modern ears it sounds incredibly lush and romantic. Early reviews were not favorable, due to the work being too chromatic for 1902 ears, and the overtly sexual themes in the poem, which were viewed as inappropriate.

Arnold Schoenberg (cello) with his musical friends

1903: Pelleas und Melisande


Schoenberg was also attracted to Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play

(as were Debussy, Sibelius, and Fauré), and composed a VAST orchestral tone poem on the subject, lasting 45 minutes and calling for very large orchestral forces. The work is exceedingly difficult.


1900-1911: Gurrelieder (text by Jens Peter Jacobsen)


This is the largest, most heavily scored orchestral work ever composed by any composer. Note the forces involved:

4 piccolos

4 flutes

3 oboes

2 English Horns

3 clarinets

2 Eb clarinets (ouch)

2 bass clarinets

3 bassoons

2 contra-bassoons

10 horns

6 trumpets

6 trombones

1 tube

6 timpani (2 players)

vast percussion section including heavy iron chains


4 harps (all independent parts)


Soprano solo

Mezzo-Soprano solo

2 Tenor solos

Bass-baritone solo

3 four-part men’s choruses

8-part mixed chorus


The work was begun in 1900 but was not completed until 1911, after Schoenberg had already become an atonal composer. The irony here

is that this work was one of his few successful public premieres, but he himself was no longer interested in it:

“I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. I foresaw that this

success would have no influence on the fate of my later works. I had

developed my style in such a manner that to the ordinary concertgoer, it

would seem to bear no relation to all preceding music. I had to fight for

every new work. I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by

criticism; I had lost friends and I had completely lost any belief in the

judgment of friends. And I stood alone against a world of enemies.”

The work deals with the secret love of the Danish king Waldemar for the young girl Tovelille, and how the jealous queen Helwig causes the girl’s

death. This vast work (close to 2 hours long) deals with themes of redemption and resurrection.

1906: Chamber Symphony no. 1 for 15 solo instruments   CD 1 TRACK 5



According to the composer:

“Now I have established my style. I know now how I have to compose.”

This epochal work marks Schoenberg’s break with lush, grandiose late Romanticism, and can be seen as the immediate precursor to his atonal style (which will begin 2 years later). How does this work differ from the earlier works?

  1. Bullet“fiercely polyphonic” à the music is incredibly polyphonic and contrapuntal

  1. Bulletthe harmony used is based on quartal harmony (listen for opening horn solo ascending line) and whole-tone scales (see cello melody from rehearsal 1 to rehearsal 3, as an example)

  1. Bulletthe linear aspect of the music is much more apparent than the vertical aspect of the music

  1. Bulletthe work is highly compressed: the 10-minute symphony has a formal structure of a multi-movement work cast in a single continuous movement with five parts: Exposition/Scherzo/Development/Slow Movement/Recap (Finale). In this sense it is the complete opposite of some of his earlier, more sprawling works

Schoenberg considered his Chamber Symphony to be the climax of his early tonal period and remarked:

“Here is established a very intimate reciprocation between melody

and harmony, in that both connect remote relations of the tonality

into a perfect unity, draw logical consequences from the problems

they attempt to solve, and simultaneously make great progress in

the direction of the emancipation of dissonance.

Schoenberg on the process of composing this work:

“I had enjoyed so much pleasure during the composing, everything had gone so easily and seemed to be so convincing, that I was sure the audience would react spontaneously to the melodies and to the moods and would find this music to be as beautiful as I felt it to be.” (He was incorrect in this!)


The atonal period of Schoenberg was ushered in by two works:

    1907-08:  String Quartet no. 2   CD 1 TRACKS 6-7

    1908-09:  The Book of the Hanging Garden, song cycle for voice and piano

These works were composed during the one of the most turbulent times in the composer’s life: his wife left him (and their two children) for the painter Richard Gerstl in 1908 (she eventually returned to Schoenberg, and Gerstl committed suicide).

The last movement of the String Quartet no. 2 (with solo soprano voice) is considered Schoenberg’s first exercise in free atonality, set to the words of Stefan George:


I feel wind from other planets.

I faintly through the darkness see faces

Friendly even now, turning toward me.

And trees and paths that I loved fade

So I can scarcely know them and you bright

Beloved shadow—summon my anguish--

Are only extinguish completely in a deep glowing

In the frenzy of the fight

With a pious show of reason.

I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,

With unfathomable thanks and unnamed love

I happily surrender to the great breath.

A violent wind passes over me

In the sway of commitment where ardent cries

In dust flung by women on the ground:

Then I see a filmy mist rising

In a sun-filled, open expanse

That includes only the farthest mountain hatches.

The land looks white and smooth like whey,

I climb over enormous canyons.

feel as if above the last cloud

Swimming in a sea of crystal radiance--

I am only a spark of the holy fire

I am only a whisper of the holy voice.


Gustav Mahler on the FIRST String Quartet of Schoenberg:


“I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have

written complicated music myself of up to 30 staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.”




            1907-08:        String Quartet no. 2

            1908-09:        The Book of the Hanging Garden

            1909:             Three Piano Pieces op. 11

            1909:             Five Pieces for Orchestra

            1909:             Erwartung, monodrama

            1911:             Six Little Piano Pieces op. 19

            1912:             Pierrot Lunaire

            1913:             Die Glückliche Hand (drama with music)

            1913-16:        Four Songs with Orchestra op. 22

            1917-22:        Jacob’s Ladder (unfinished oratorio)

            1920-23:        Five Piano Pieces op. 23

            1923:             Serenade op. 24 for seven instruments




  1. BulletThe degree of emphasis on non-harmonic tones finally reaches the point where those tones lose their inclination to resolve at all, making it impossible for the listener to infer a triadic background. The dissonant chords are not new, but the fact that they never resolve IS new. This is Schoenberg’s concept of THE EMANCIPATION OF DISSONANCE.

  1. BulletThe complete abandonment of TONAL FUNCTIONS. No single tonal center is favored over any other.

  1. BulletDEVELOPING VARIATION: the continuous evolution and transformation of thematic material, STRICTLY AVOIDING LITERAL REPETITION. The concept was inherited from Schoenberg’s idol, Gustav Mahler.

  1. BulletMUSICAL PROSE: the constant unfolding of an unbroken musical line without relation to phrases, cadences (impossible in any case), and symmetricality.

  1. BulletThe music is organized by PITCH CLASS CELLS: small groups of intervallic motives that recur. Emphasis is on intervallic relationships.

  1. BulletSPRECHSTIMME: half-spoken/half-sung or “speaking voice” technique, first used by Schoenberg in Gurreleider, but used earlier by composers such as Humperdinck.

1909: Five Pieces for Orchestra     CD 1 TRACK 11


This work is famous for its movement titled Farben (colors), which makes use of the technique called KLANGFARBENMELODIE, or “tone-color melody”. This is a type of music which removes all traditional motivic associations, and simply consists of oscillating chords that slowly evolve and change as if one is looking through a kaleidoscope. Be able to define Klangfarbenmelodie on an exam!

1909: Erwartung   CD 1 TRACK 20


Schoenberg’s highly Expressionist work and the piece that takes

DEVELOPING VARIATION to its farthest extent: no musical material

returns once stated over the course of 426 measures.




“A woman is in an apprehensive state as she waits for her

lover. In the darkness she comes across what she thinks is

a body, but then determines it is a tree trunk. She is

frightened and becomes more anxious. She then finds a

dead body and sees that it is her lover. She calls out for

assistance, but there is no response. She tries to revive him,

and addresses him as if he were living, angrily charging him

with being unfaithful to her. She then asks herself what she

is to do with her life, as her lover is dead.”

The work was not premiered until 1924: 15 years after composition.

1912: Pierrot Lunaire  CD 1 TRACKS 8-10

Based on French poems by Albert Giraud. Scored for Flute (doubles piccolo), Clarinet (doubles bass clarinet), Violin (doubles viola), cello,

piano, and Soprano.

Schoenberg suffered from TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA (fear of the number 13). He was also obsessed with NUMEROLOGY and in particular the number SEVEN. It is conjectured that he developed triskaidekaphobia in 1908 while

going through his travails with his wife, when he was composing the 13th song

of The Book of the Hanging Garden. Consider how important the number

SEVEN is in Pierrot Lunaire:



  1. BulletThe work is for 7 performers (including mandatory conductor)

  2. BulletIt consists of 3 groups of 7 poems

  3. BulletThe work is unified by a 7-note motive (G#,E,C,D,Bb,C#,G)

  4. BulletThe piece is op. 21 (3 X 7)

  5. BulletIt contains 21 movements (3 X 7)

  6. BulletIt was begun on March 12, 1912 (12 is 21 backwards)

  7. Bullet“Pierrot” has 7 letters

After 40 rehearsals the work was premiered in Berlin on October 16, 1912. In spite of hissing in the audience, the work was a success. This may be due to the fact that, at this time in Berlin, “High Cabaret” was a popular form of entertainment, and the work was written for the famous actress-singer Albertine Zehme.

           INTERLUDE: A typical press review of a Schoenberg work:


"A regular Friday audience, 90 percent feminine and 100 percent well-bred, sat stoically yesterday through thirty minutes of the most cacophonous world premiere ever heard here -- the first performance anywhere of a new Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg....Yesterday's piece combines the best sound effects of a hen yard at feeding time, a brisk morning in Chinatown and practice hour at a busy music conservatory.  The effect on the vast majority of hearers is that of a lecture on the fourth dimension delivered in Chinese."

(1940 review in the Philadelphia Record)

1917-1922: Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder) UNFINISHED

            Schoenberg on Die Jakobsleiter:

“For a long time I have been wanting to write an oratorio on the following subject: modern man, having passed through materialism, socialism and anarchy, and, despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient faith, wrestles with God and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious.”

This work marks the transition from atonal to serial music in the career of Schoenberg. Schoenberg was hard at work on the score when he was called up for military service during the final stages of WW I on September 19, 1917. He wrote no more than 100 measures between 1917 and 1922, when he broke off work on the oratorio. The first performance of the fragments was in 1961, 44 years after he had composed it!

The reason that this work is seen as the transitional piece between atonality and serial music is that all sections of the work were planned to

be derived from a single hexachord: C#,D,F,E,G#,G: that is to say, an ORDERED SERIES of notes, leading to the concept of 12-tone SERIAL


Why did Schoenberg not finish the work?

  1. BulletWW I

  2. BulletHe also probably felt that he had come to the end of the line with free atonality and was moving toward a more STRUCTURED approach—his next work would be 12-tone

  3. BulletPossibly he had his own religious conflicts and inner doubts (the other major work he never finished was his opera Moses Und Aron, which also deals with very heavy religious topics.)


In the early 1920s Schoenberg developed the dodecaphonic technique, which he said would “ensure the supremacy of German music for 100 years.” The system relies on the serialization or ordering of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

A sample matrix showing correct directions for


There are 48 possible row combinations.


            1921-23        Suite for Piano (FIRST COMPLETELY 12-TONE PIECE!) CD 2 TRACKS 1-2

            1924             Wind Quintet

            1927             String Quartet no. 3

            1928             Variations for Orchestra   CD 2 TRACKS 3-7

            1932             Moses und Aron (opera left incomplete)

            1936             Violin Concerto

            1936             String Quartet no. 4

            1942             Piano Concerto

            1946             String Trio

            1947             A Survivor from Warsaw  CD 2 TRACK 13

            1949             Phantasy for Violin and Piano

            In addition to these serial works, Schoenberg also composed a number of works during his Paris and American years in which he

            returned to tonality, such as:

            1933             Cello Concerto after Monn

            1933             String Quartet Concerto after Handel   CD 2 TRACK 9

            1934             Suite in G for String Orchestra

            1937             Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, arranged for orchestra

            1939             Chamber Symphony no. 2

A number of these works were written specifically to cater to more conservative audiences and as a way to help Schoenberg earn much-needed money. Recall that Schoenberg and his family left Berlin in May of 1933 after having been sacked from his position at the Prussian Academy of Arts by the Nazis. He moved first to Paris, and then to California in 1934, where he remained for the rest of his life (Los Angeles).


  1. BulletDERIVED SETS: 12-tone rows that are derived or generated from smaller sets or cells of notes. An example is from Webern’s Konzert op. 24: B Bb D/ Eb G F#/ G# E F/ C C# A.  
    Careful analysis of the above shows that they are closely related to each other. As a matter of fact, the Eb/G/F# is a retrograde inversion of the B/Bb/D intervals (at a different pitch level, of course, since we need all 12 notes of the chromatic scale to make a 12-tone row.) G#/E/F is a retrograde version of the B/Bb/D, and C/C#/A is an inversion of the B/Bb/D. Hence, one can see that the 12-note row is generated from the three-note cell B/Bb/D.

  1. BulletINVARIANT SUBSETS: please refer to page one of the Schoenberg handout to see the circled subsets of notes that recur throughout the 12-tone matrix. This technique allows the composer to unify the work through the use of recurring subsets of notes.

  1. BulletCOMBINATORIALITY: taking two tone rows from ONE matrix, and combining them to form a NEW 12-tone matrix with 48 NEW tone rows. However, the new matrix is “related” to it predecessors because it shares groups of notes in common. As an example, here are two of the rows from Schoenberg’s Piano Piece op. 33A:

                    Bb/F/C/B/A/F#/C#/D#/G/Ab/D/E  (this is P-10)

                    A/B/F/Gb/Bb/C/G/E/D/C#/G#/D# (this is RI-3)

            If you combine the last six notes of P-10 with the first 6 notes of RI-3, you come up with the following row:



            This is called a secondary set, and is intimately related to the two rows above, but distinct and different. COMBINATORIALITY!

  1. BulletALL-INTERVAL ROWS - This is an interesting facet of 12-tone technique, which was used by Berg in his Lyric Suite. If you take the 12 notes of the row on which this piece is based and consider the intervals in an ASCENDING order, you will find that every possible interval is used ONCE.

                    F E C A G D G# C# D# F# A# B

                    M7 m6 M6 m7 P5 tt P4 M2 m3 M3 m2

            Also, please note the mirror image of these intervals working in from the edges.


Schoenberg died on Friday the 13th of July, 1951 at the age of 76 (7+6=13).

The poet Stefan George

Portrait of Gustav Mahler, 
by Schoenberg


Erwartung: Scary stuff.....