Schoenberg used to tell a story about his extremely unmilitary war service in the Austrian army during the World War I, when an officer asked if he was ‘that notorious composer’. ‘Well, Sir, it was like this:’ replied Private Schoenberg in broad Viennese dialect, ‘somebody ‘ad to take on the job, and nobody else was willing, so I got landed with it meself.’

Not everybody felt that ‘somebody had to take on the job’ – essentially, of trying to bring a new kind of order to music after the glorious indulgence of the dying decades of Romanticism. Not everybody feels it even now. But the history of 20th-century music is simply unimaginable without Schoenberg. Love his works or loathe them, he is the inescapable phenomenon, the divisive figure who set music on a new path.

Born in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was virtually self-taught, but was composing from an early age and playing chamber music (first violin, later cello) with his schoolfriend Oskar Adler. Working as a lowly bank clerk, aside from lessons with his future brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, Schoenberg gained his practical experience in playing, conducting and arranging the works of other composers. Raised in the great Viennese tradition of Schubert and Brahms, he simply couldn’t rest content with mere polite imitation of past styles. His 1899 string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, was already controversial. ‘It sounds as if somebody had smeared the score of [Wagner’s] Tristan when it was wet’, sneered operetta composer Richard Heuberger, but it has gone on to be one of Schoenberg’s best-loved works. As has the following Gurrelieder, his lyrical cantata for immense vocal and orchestral forces, a supreme summit of late-Romanticism. He was only 26.

He spent 1901-2 as musical director of a Berlin cabaret, then gained the support of Richard Strauss and Mahler and established his reputation in Vienna as a teacher of composition. The autodidact Schoenberg discovered a tremendous flair for teaching, and embodied his understanding of evolution of tonal language in the monumental textbook Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony) first published in 1911, with its famous opening sentence: ‘I have learned this book from my pupils’. The earliest of his many passionately partisan pupils included Alban Berg and Anton Webern, creating the core of the so-called ‘Second Viennese School’. Hoarse-voiced, chain-smoking, fiery-tempered yet full of charm and satirical humour, Schoenberg was a dynamo of nervous energy who felt and thought with intensity and immediacy.

Schoenberg’s ebullient 1906 Chamber Symphony for 15 players, with its daring new harmonies based on chains of fourths, reflects limitless self‑confidence, providing a stark critique of the overblown orchestral styles of his contemporaries. But in 1908 he suffered a tragic personal crisis when his wife Mathilde had an affair with his close friend, the daring young painter Richard Gerstl – he committed suicide when she returned to her husband. This, combined with an artistic crisis, turned his music sharply towards extreme, angst-ridden subjectivity. The result was a kind of elemental uprush from the unconscious, chronicled in such hitherto unimaginable scores as the Five Orchestral Pieces and monodrama Erwartung (Expectation), both composed at lightning speed.

In these totally-chromatic works, often miscalled ‘atonal’, the traditional sense of key is suspended, while naked emotion overwhelms all previous musical decorum, creating a musical Expressionism that parallels the ideals of the Expressionist painters. Schoenberg himself began to paint, befriending Vassily Kandinsky and displaying canvases in the first Expressionist exhibitions. He painted throughout his life, and was also an inventor, divising a music typewriter, an instrument for performing eye operations, combination tickets for use on buses, trams and subways, schemes for regulating the flow of traffic in cities, and a new form of chess with 100 squares instead of 64.

Moving to Berlin in 1911, Schoenberg gained further notoriety but also critical success, especially with Pierrot Lunaire (1912), his brilliant ‘expressionist cabaret’ for reciter and instruments. He planned a huge Symphony that turned into the visionary oratorio Der Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder), but his call-up into the Austrian Army permanently disrupted work on it. After his war service he resumed teaching and founded the ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’ in Vienna, an organisation presenting contemporary works after painstaking rehearsals, which became a model for many later modern-music organisations.

At this point Schoenberg experienced a creative impasse that was broken only when in the early 1920s he developed his ‘method of composition with 12 tones related only to one another’ (see p48). Meanwhile he was teaching a new generation of composers including the Marxist Hanns Eisler, Roberto Gerhard from Spain, Viktor Ullmann (destined to die in Auschwitz) and Rudolf Kolisch. In 1925 he succeeded Busoni as Director of the Composition Masterclass at the Berlin Academy of Arts, where talented students came to him from all over the world and he participated in the vigorous artistic life of the Weimar Era while perfecting the 12-note method through a series of large-scale works.

He had foreseen the rise of Hitler as early as 1923, and on the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 Schoenberg, as a Jew, was forced from his post and went to France where, having earlier converted to Christianity, he officially returned to Judaism. He had already written the bulk of his epic opera Moses und Aron, a drama wrestling with the nature of God and the search for a Promised Land. Like other exiles he found himself ‘driven into Paradise’, sailing for the USA to teach in a tiny music school in Boston. He eventually settled in Hollywood (across the street from Shirley Temple) and taught at UCLA until he was forced to resign on a tiny pension at the age of 70. He encountered a new generation of pupils, including John Cage and Lou Harrison, but to his distress his music was seldom performed, more talked about than heard. In this late period he produced some of his richest and most satisfying works – the Fourth String Quartet, the Violin and Piano Concertos, the String Trio. He also wrote some tonal pieces, declaring that ‘there was much good music still to be written in C major’, and expanded the vocabulary of 12-note music in the direction of tonal harmony.

Schoenberg lost many family members and friends in the Holocaust on the other side of the Atlantic. His personal memorial to resistance to the Nazi terror was the searing cantata A Survivor of Warsaw, based on a story from the Warsaw Ghetto. Here the 12-note technique has a stunning dramatic impact. At the premiere in Albuquerque, the chorus was mainly made up of local farmers and the audience was unfamiliar with his idiom, but the piece earned a standing ovation.

Unable to obtain funds to complete his major unfinished works, and with three children to support, Schoenberg spent his last years in declining health, teaching, writing and composing. He died in 1951: his last words were ‘Harmony! Harmony! Harmony!’

‘I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogeyman,’ Schoenberg once wrote, ‘as to being a natural continuer of properly understood good old tradition!’ Though a born controversialist and fertile theorist, his theories were driven by his compositional practice and not vice versa. Mentor, inspirer and incarnate artistic conscience of three generations of pupils, his compositional methods have been adapted and extended by countless others and became the cornerstone of many succeeding innovations. Many have rejected them: but his provocative works and views made it impossible for any composer simply to go back to ‘business as usual’.

Calum MacDonald