Music History 102

The Twentieth Century

Arnold Schoenberg & the Second Viennese School

Born: Vienna, September 13, 1874
Died: Los Angeles, July 13, 1951

Schönberg studied music informally with Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), from whom he developed a passion for the music of the then still controversial Richard Wagner. Schönberg’s earliest compositions were heavily chromatic, very much in the late Romantic style of the time. These works include Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet (which Schönberg later orchestrated), the gigantic Gurrelieder for voices and orchestra, and the orchestral tone poem Pelleas und Melisande.

Schönberg also began to teach, and it was at this time that he acquired two pupils who, together with their teacher, were to form the basis of what has become known as the Second Viennese School of composition. (The first, of course, being Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.) Both Anton Webern and Alban Berg would become the passionate leaders of the atonal avant-garde for the first few decades of the twentieth century. Viewing themselves as the direct heirs of the Viennese musical legacy from Haydn to Brahms, Schönberg and his pupils began composing works that, with their advanced chromaticism, strained the boundaries of traditional tonality, to the point where the use of a key signature was eventually superfluous and ultimately abandoned. This music came to be known as atonal or “free-tonal”, and Schönberg declared it to be “the emancipation of the dissonance.”

Of the works composed in this style, his greatest remain the Five Pieces for Orchestra and the cycle of miniature poems for voice and chamber ensemble, Pierrot Lunaire, both of which were premiered in 1912. For Pierrot Lunaire, Schönberg invented the technique of Sprechstimme, a form of vocalization somewhere between speaking and actual singing. The unique, bizarre quality of Sprechstimme became a staple of the vocal writing of the atonal, expressionist composers.

After a time, Schönberg felt he needed to impose some form or constraints on the use of free tonality, and to that end he developed dodecaphony or the twelve-tone system, involving the systematic use of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. This method involves the composer choosing a row consisting of all twelve notes, and then building the piece by using the row, or sections of it, either melodically or harmonically, forward, backward, inverted, or in retrograde inversion. Schönberg’s first works in this style were for solo piano, written in the early 1920s and include the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23.

With the rise to power of the Nazi party, Schönberg fled to France and then to the United States, and in 1934 settled in Hollywood, California. In America, he anglicized his name to Schoenberg (this is the spelling by which he is best known), and spent his years teaching, first at USC, then at UCLA. Some of his works from these later years include the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, the String Trio, and the unfinished opera, Moses und Aaron.

Alban Berg in Mantel

Alban Berg

Born: Vienna, February 9, 1885
Died: Vienna, December 24, 1935

With musical roots in the old German traditions, Berg was constantly working in old Baroque and Classical forms. The most outwardly romantic of the three composers of the Second Viennese School, his music is the most suggestive of the post-romanticism of Wagner and Mahler. Berg was something of a musical dilettante when he began his studies with Schoenberg in 1903. Ultimately, he composed relatively little music, beginning with the Altenberg Lieder in 1912, followed by the Three Orchestral Pieces in 1914. It was in that same year that he began to write an opera based on a play by Georg Büchner. Wozzeck was composed during Berg’s service in World War I, and finished in 1922. The opera was given its first performance at the Berlin State Opera in 1925, and was received with a mixture of horror, admiration, heavy criticism, awe and perception. Atonal and highly Expressionistic, yet tightly constructed, the fifteen musical scenes all being based on older musical forms. Berg embraced the twelve-tone system developed by Schoenberg, composing the Lyric Suite for string quartet, the Chamber concerto, and a Violin concerto employing those principles. Berg’s last work, the opera Lulu, was left in a somewhat incomplete state at the time of his death in 1935. The opera’s third act was completed based on the composer’s score by Friedrich Cerha in 1963, and received its “world premiere” in Paris in 1979.

Bildnis Anton von Webern (1883 - 1945)

Anton Webern

Born: Vienna, December 3, 1883
Died: near Salzburg, September 15, 1945

Webern earned a doctorate in musicology from the University of Vienna in 1908. He had studied with Schoenberg from 1904-08 and produced the Passacaglia for orchestra in 1908. This work is steeped in the post-romanticism of the late Brahmsian style. For the next several years, Webern continually refined his compositional style, his music becoming more and more compact and brief. During the 1920s, Webern’s compositions had become so concentrated that many last only a few minutes in length, while some scarcely last even a minute. These works contain no musical rhetoric, no development. There exists only a new structure of thinking: pure tonal organization. Among his mature works in this style are the String trio, a Symphony, and the Concerto for nine instruments, all written between 1927 and 1934. During the war years, Webern lived in obscurity, supporting himself by conducting the Vienna Workers’ Symphony Concerts and editing music for a publishing firm. He was accidentally shot and killed after the war while outside during curfew by an American military policeman. His entire musical output lasts a total of some three hours.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane