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Schoenberg, Arnold

Category: Musician or composer

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951) was a Jewish, Austrian composer.

He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and was leader of the Second Viennese School.  Schoenberg was also a painter, an important music theorist, and an influential teacher of composition.

In the 1920s, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone technique, an influential compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. He also coined the term developing variation an approach which was based on developing motifs without using a centralized melodic idea.

Schoenberg's influence has been undoubted and his work has produced great controversy.  Whether it is understood is another thing.  Many have tried to extend his thinking, whereas others have passionately reacted against it. It sounds discordant at times and chaotic, it is also not melodic, but this was not its purpose.  In the same way that Joseph Beuys attempted to preserve certain spiritual truths in Germany through art, Schoenberg was attempting the same in music.

Schoenberg moved to the United States in 1934, after the rise of the Nazi Party, made his life untenable.  By 1938, Schoenberg's works were labelled as ‘degenerate music’ in Germany.  Now, Schoenberg's archival legacy is collected at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna.

An explanation of the system

Schoenberg by Man Ray

There have always been extremely strong links between spiritual truths, music and mathematics.

The 7 note scale is an attempt to match the symbolic Planets – the so called music of the spheres – as above so below.  There are seven symbolic Planets and thus all our music of today is based on what is actually a spiritual concept.  The vibrational frequency of the tones heard in music was at one time an attempt to match the specific levels and layers in the spiritual world, the intervals between tones matches the ‘depths’ of the various layers.

‘Seers’ or perhaps they should be more correctly termed ‘hearers’, would often hear Celestial – meaning spiritual - music during a spiritual experience.  And the experiences of these people was at one time used to fix the intervals between the notes as well as the pitch of each note. 

And then along came Equal temperament

There are an almost infinite number of frequencies that could be chosen in order to produce musical notes if one ignores the spiritual.  Until the 19th century there was no concerted effort to standardize musical pitch, and the levels across Europe varied widely. The reason was that all pitch was based on revelation

Signs of Zodiac and Planets as one system in the Egg

The Mode or modus is the name given to identify a musical system and the frequency of the Pitches used. Although in western music we are used to musical pitches being constant and tuned to very specific frequencies, many more modes exist in music including a number from the Eastern countries as well as the Greek systems.  It is clear from all the observations on this site that celestial music did not use our current musical system, it was far closer to Eastern and Greek or Jewish ancient tuning.

The concerted effort made about 200 years ago to try to standardise the frequencies used for each note and the result - what is called the Equal Temperament standard – effectively destroyed a spiritual truth in a quite catastrophic way.   

This standard scale does not match any of the spiritually obtained pitches - those used by the older gifted 'magicians' or healers, those who could use music to heal, or calm the weather or summon the birds.  As a consequence of the so called Age of Reason, we lost the chord.

 

By losing this fundamental link with the spiritual we have also lost the ability to create music that directly provokes a spiritual experience.  Certain emotional music, with the right melody can remind us of what we have lost, but the action is no longer direct.  At one time from the observations, people could play spells and songlines directly.

Those who still ‘hear’ Celestial music have often tried to recreate this music.  But it is impossible using the Equal Temperament standard.  The frustrations they experience can be seen in the observations.  Pete Townshend of the Who has spent almost his entire life trying to find this lost chord so that he can reproduce the unearthly celestial music he heard as a boy.

Schoenberg was Jewish and knew all this.  But he lived in an age when not only was a key spiritual truth destroyed, but the Age of reason was starting to become very unreasonable, truly discordant and unharmonious.

 

Schoenberg could not turn back time and try to recreate the pitch of former times for the Planetary scale, but he could try to use the astrological Signs of the Zodiac instead.  And so he created the twelve note scale and each note with its defined pitch is a Sign of the Zodiac.

Like Joseph Beuys, he preserved a spiritual truth and did so in such a way that it would be memorable.  As Joseph Beuys constructed his Honey Pump, Schoenberg created its equivalent in music.

Gustav Theodore Holst (21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934) based in the UK and not subject to the fears and pressures, was able to be much more direct when he composed his orchestral suite The Planets.

A Dictionary of Symbols - J E Cirlot

A symbol of the harmonious union of the cosmic forces, the seven strings of the lyre correspond to the seven planets.  Timotheus of Mileus raised the number of strings to twelve to correspond to the Signs of the Zodiac.

A serial development of a similar kind is that effected by Arnold Schoenberg in our day by giving the same value to chromatic notes as to the notes of the diatonic scale, creating in place of the old scale of seven notes, a new one of twelve.

 

The development of the twelve tone method evolved out of his earlier experiments.  Much of this earlier music is in emotional response to grief and angst of various sorts as we shall see, but it is pushed him into a form of breakdown in his beliefs about music and a gradual clearing away that left him able to start in new directions.  In 1923 Schoenberg wrote to the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart:

For the present, it matters more to me if people understand my older works ... They are the natural forerunners of my later works, and only those who understand and comprehend these will be able to gain an understanding of the later works that goes beyond a fashionable bare minimum. I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!

 

Schoenberg was to develop the most influential version of the dodecaphonic (also known as twelve-tone) method of composition.  This technique was taken up by many of his students, who constituted the so-called Second Viennese School. They included Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Hanns Eisler, all of whom were profoundly influenced by Schoenberg.

He published a number of books, ranging from his famous Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony) to Fundamentals of Musical Composition (Schoenberg 1967), many of which are still in print and used by musicians and developing composers.

Beliefs

Arnold Schoenberg was born on 13 September 1874 into a lower middle-class Jewish family.  In 1898, aged only 24, Schoenberg converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church as a means of self-defence "in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism".   It is interesting that although his music was melodic at this stage and uses conventional scales, the tragedy in such pieces as Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") are very apparent. 

Schoenberg continued as a ‘Christian’ until the Nazis came to power under Adolf Hitler in 1933. In 1933, he returned to Judaism, because he realised that "his racial and religious heritage was inescapable", and to take up an unmistakable position on the side opposing Nazism.

While vacationing in France, he was warned that returning to Germany would be dangerous. Schoenberg formally reclaimed membership in the Jewish religion at a Paris synagogue, then travelled with his family to the United States. According to Wikipedia “this happened only after his attempts to move to Britain came to nothing. He enlisted the aid of his former student and great champion Edward Clark, a senior producer with the BBC, in helping him gain a British teaching post or even a British publisher, but to no avail.”

Life

'Arnold und Mathilde Schönberg mit den
Kindern Trudi und Georg, Berlin 1913

Schoenberg’s life was pocked by grief and tragedy.  In October 1901, Schoenberg married Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of the conductor and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, with whom Schoenberg had been studying since about 1894.  He and Mathilde had two children, Gertrud (1902–1947) and Georg (1906–1974).

During the summer of 1908, his wife Mathilde left him for several months for a young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl.  Much of Schoenberg’s so called ‘atonal’ music was written at this time, or as it has been described “Schoenberg's fulfilment of his apparent ‘destiny’ as the ‘Emancipator of Dissonance’".

World War I brought further crisis. Military service disrupted his life when at the age of 42 he was conscripted into the army. On one occasion, a superior officer demanded to know if he was "this notorious Schoenberg". 

Arnold und Gertrud Schönberg

Schoenberg’s first wife died in October 1923, and in August of the next year Schoenberg married Gertrud Kolisch (1898–1967), sister of his pupil, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch. This union was to prove slightly happier.  It is worthy of note that 1930 marks Schoenberg's return to tonality, with numbers 4 and 6 of the Six Pieces for Male Chorus Op.35, being tonal whilst the other pieces are dodecaphonic.

Gertrud wrote the libretto for Schoenberg's one-act opera Von heute auf morgen under the pseudonym Max Blonda. After her husband's death in 1951 she founded Belmont Music Publishers devoted to the publication of his works. 

After his move to the United States in 1934, he took up a teaching position at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston and started to use the alternative spelling of his surname Schoenberg, rather than Schönberg, in what he called "deference to American practice".

schoenberg_hass-hate-october-1910

He moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, both of which later named a music building on their respective campuses Schoenberg Hall.  He was appointed visiting professor at UCLA in 1935 and the next year was promoted to professor.

It would seem that these times were less traumatic.  He bought a Spanish Revival house directly across the street from Shirley Temple, befriended fellow composer (and tennis partner) George Gershwin and even held Sunday afternoon gatherings ‘that were known for excellent coffee and Viennese pastries’ and included guests such as Harpo Marx and Peter Lorre.

He lived there the rest of his life, but he was not settled. In around 1934, he applied for a position of teacher of harmony and theory at the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney. The Director, Edgar Bainton, rejected him for being Jewish and for having "modernist ideas and dangerous tendencies".

Schoenberg's music of this time, reflects this odd duality of dissonance and relative harmony.  There is the haunting Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942), and his memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947). But he was unable to complete his opera Moses und Aron (1932/33), which was one of the first works of its genre written completely using dodecaphonic composition. Instead, Schoenberg returned to tonality with works like the Suite for Strings in G major (1935), the Chamber Symphony No. 2 in E♭ minor, Op. 38 (begun in 1906, completed in 1939), the Variations on a Recitative in D minor, Op. 40 (1941).

In 1941, he became a citizen of the United States.

Death

Schoenberg suffered considerable health problems culminating in a cardiac arrest in August 1946, which was nearly fatal.  His heart stopped beating for a while and he returned to life only after an injection in the cardiac muscles.  During this he had a NDE.  As he revealed in a letter dated 9th May 1946, his string trio is an attempt to reproduce all the phases of his travel in the after life.

Self Portrait, 1911

His health problems, however, had started much earlier. Following the 1924 death of composer Ferruccio Busoni, who had served as Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, Schoenberg was appointed to this post the next year, but because of health problems was unable to take up his post until 1926.

Schoenberg's superstitious nature may have triggered his death. The composer had triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13).  In 1950, on his seventy-sixth birthday, an astrologer is supposed to have written to Schoenberg warning him that the year was a critical one: 7 + 6 = 13. [This seems highly unlikely, genuine astrologers have nothing to do with this sort of jiggery pokery, as such it was more likely to be a simple troublemaker].  This stunned and depressed the composer, for up to that point he had only been wary of multiples of 13 and never considered adding the digits of his age. He died on Friday, 13 July 1951, shortly before midnight.

 

Observations

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