Arnold Schoenberg & the "Second Vienna School"

Arnold Schoenberg, painted by Richard Gerstl - the expressionist artist with a peculiar relatinship to the Schoenbergs

"I have today made a discovery that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years."

Arnold Schoenberg

Mozart chocolate, Mozart liquor, Mozart CD′s, T-shirts, mugs - all is Mozart in Salzburg, in Vienna the souvenir industries serve at least occasionally Strauss or Beethoven kitsch. No tourist gets around the these musical milestones, the masters of Classical style of whom so many were based in Vienna in the 18th and 19th century: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss Jr and others.

In case you were wondering: No, these annotations are not by Schoenberg - but by Mozart.

Almost everybody knows their names and associates them immediately with Austria. What many tourists do not know (nor care about) is that a musical tradition of contemporary composition has been maintained in Austria beyond the mid-19th century. As in fine arts, literature, science and technology, Vienna remained a centre of innovation well into the 1930ies and at least with music, has been able to pass its heritage on until today.

A very shaping phase of this is the influence of expressionism on musical style. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a growing gap between conventionalist areas of art and innovative ones, established in a range of subjects. This gap can be easily seen in Vienna′s architecture: Most administrative buildings around the Ringstraße were built in neo-Classical style, meeting the taste of the somewhat reactionary Habsburgs and other nobility.

At the same time, Jugendstil boomed in Vienna, pressed into niches and passionately fighting a repetitive establishment in the arts (compare the number of neo-Gothic, neo-Baroque and neo-Classical churches in the city centre with a single Jugendstil Church in the Steinhof, Vienna′s psychiatry).

An attempt to renew the language of music

In music, there was a similar situation: The musical styles of the "Wiener Klassik" (Classical style mostly of the masters Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms) had been transformed and passed on with a melodic, tonal tradition through Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. When expressionism in fine arts started to destruct conventional ideas of shape and figure and turned increasingly abstract, the time was right for the dissolution of tonal and melodic concepts in music.

Arnold Schoenberg′s "Lied der Waldtaube" of the Gurre Lieder. View and listen to at your own risk and joy.

Around this time a variety of composers developed styles following this line of thoughts in order to renew the "language of music". Not the first, but the most influential and durable innovations originated from Arnold Schoenberg and his students; this group of arguably "expressionist" composers revolutionised classical composition in the years from 1903 to 1925. Music and stimuli from this group are considered to form the "Second Viennese School".

Schoenberg and his students formed a tight group of composers with distinct, individual styles that were nonetheless closely connected with each other. Their development as a group can be traced and therefore, it makes perfect sense to refer to them as a "school". However, most music historians do not support any "first school" (which would consist of the masters of the Wiener Klassik, who did not share an immediate connection comparable to the Second School).

In German, the "Second Viennese School" is simply called the "Wiener Schule" (Viennese School) or at most "Neue Wiener Schule" (New Viennese School). But who was Arnold Schoenberg and what was so innovative about his work?

Arnold Schoenberg: Biography

Arnold Schoenberg was born as Arnold Schönberg in 1874. His (Ashkenazi) family lived a middle-class life in the traditional Jewish district (formally ghetto) of Leopoldstadt (today the second district of Vienna). His father Samuel was originally from Bratislava, his mother Pauline from Prague.

Despite of Pauline Schönberg being a piano teacher, Arnold was largely self-thought and is said to have taken only counterpoint lessons with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (who later became his brother-in-law). Arnold Schoenberg wrote his first noteworthy compositions in his twenties, when he made a living orchestrating operettas.

He gradually earned himself a respectable reputation and big players like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss recognised his work. Schoenberg is described as a very intellectual man, passionate but difficult to work with. In 1898 he converted to Protestantism and would remain a Lutheran until 1933. His style continued to develop and become increasingly experimental. His piece "Verklärte Nacht" from 1899 later became one of his most popular compositions.

Schoenberg as an Viennese Attraction

He also wrote poems, plays and essays and paintings of his were exhibited with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. In the years between 1901 and 1910, his style changed most rapidly. In 1904, Schoenberg started to teach harmony, counterpoint and composition, which marks the beginning of the "Second Viennese School".

An anecdote often related to the change in his compositional style is an affair that his wife Mathilde had with a painter during the summer of 1908. She left Schoenberg and their children, but returned a few months later. During this period, he composed "Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide", his first piece with no reference to a key. Other revolutionary pieces fall into this phase, too.

Schoenberg increasingly abandoned the constraints of traditional tonality. He also worked on music theory and developed an intimate and productive relationship with the first generation of his students. These included Paul Pisk, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Hanns Eisler. Despite of Schoenbergs passionate stand on innovation in his composition work, he was considered to be a very conservative teacher.

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Further Reading

An Introduction to the Wiener Moderne / Vienna Modernism

Austrian Music Universities

Arnold Schoenberg Centre Vienna

Schoenberg Archive at the University of Southern California