Lesson Eleven: Schonberg


Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951)


Who was Arnold Schonberg? (1874-1951). Austrian born composer who developed the 12-tone method of composition, thus creating a revolution in music of the 20th century.

Historical context. Neither the Rationalism of the 18th Century nor the Romanticism of the 19th gave much credence to the Bible. However, apart from the anchor of God's revelation, philosophy became more and more pessimistic and dehumanizing; man apart from God was shown to be less than man. As the arts followed philosophy, the abandonment of biblical absolutes was reflected in the emotive, blurry-edged paintings of the Impressionists.

The dawn of the 20th century witnessed a turning away from Impressionism to the harsh, distorted ugliness of the Expressionists and Cubists. The goal of Expressionism in painting was not beauty, but rather portrayal of "reality", a stripping away of superficialities to reveal the truth. In the words of Ernst Barlach, the German Expressionist sculptor and poet, "Truly it is not beauty and loveliness that are our strength; our power lies in the opposite, in ugliness, in demonic passion...." 1

Although loathe to admit it, Western man, having determined that he could no longer live with God, now found that he could not truly live without Him. The sickness in the soul of the West finally erupted in the First World War (1914), which found the old antagonists France and Germany once again at each other's throat. As was true of so many, the war was a pivot point in the life of Arnold Schonberg.

Summary of Schonberg's work. Already before the great War, Schonberg had begun to abandon traditional tonality. As of 1908 his works did not carry a key signature and he was not relying on a "tonal center." He called this "floating tonality", but his critics labeled it "atonality." Today one of his most popular works, Transfigured Night was hissed by an indignant audience at its 1899 premiere. The piece employs extreme leaps and Wagner-style chromatic idiom to create tension and exaggerated emotion.

Richard Wagner had pushed the envelope of traditional tonality to its limit, but now Arnold Schonberg was taking the next step in abandoning tonality altogether. The raw materials of a traditional composition are the seven major diatonic tones (do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti) and the five minor (chromatic) tones between. A piece is dominated by a particular tone or key and traditionally begins and ends on that key (tonic) although a variety of other keys may be employed in no particular sequence. Thus, we have unity in diversity with the music always returning to a point of resolution or rest. Symbolically it signifies the triumph of order over chaos in a created universe. Departure from this system produces a harsh, inharmonious or dissonant sound.

The War forced an intermission in Shonberg's career as a composer, but afforded him the opportunity to focus on formulating his twelve-tone scale, which was completed in 1923. The 12-tone method, called dodecaphony, is governed by a set of strict rules. For a particular piece of music the composer must establish a serial, or tone row, which includes all 12 notes played in the same order throughout. For variety, the tone-row may be played backwards (retrograde motion), upside down (melodic inversion) or upside down and backward (retrograde inversion). The series may also be transposed in 12 different ways. For example, if the series begins 8-4-10 and it is transposed upward two tones, the series becomes 10-6-12. These 12 transpositions multiplied by the four variations of the tone-row provide 48 possible permutations. Variations in rhythm and volume are also permitted.

The resultant music gives the impression of hovering suspension or aural weightlessness that leaves the listener without a sense of unity, completion, or fulfillment. It is the musical equivalent of the Expressionist pictures which Schonberg painted between 1907 and 1910. Its mood is one of anxiety or fear, much like the music of Hinduism. The first work in which Shonberg used tone rows was the fifth piano piece Opus 23 (1923).

Implications for subsequent history. Although Shonberg's approach initially and for many years met with great resistance, it eventually had a profound influence on 20th century music. He produced a textbook, Theory of Harmony, which together with his music gradually achieved acceptance and came to exert a powerful influence on the world of music.

Biblical analysis. Hitler's persecution of the Jews interrupted Shonberg's work on the opera Moses and Aaron in 1933 and he fled to Paris and eventually to a faculty post at the University of California. Although Moses and Aaron was never finished, it is considered a masterpiece, but it has Moses referring to the "unknowable, impersonal God." This, of course, is not the God of the Bible, but it speaks volumes about the distortions in Shonberg's world view. A universe created by an unknowable and impersonal God inspires a musical style that seems to end with a question mark, leaving man in suspense regarding his purpose and destiny. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, in Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. John 17:3

Corrective or Prescriptive Actions. In contrast to music that is joyless and pessimistic we are commanded to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord."

1Frederic V. Grunfeld, The Story of Great Music -- The Early Twentieth Century (Time Incorporated: New York, N.Y., 1967), p. 6.



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Portraits of Composers courtesy of Classical Archives

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