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Arnold Schoenberg and “Verklarte Nacht”

     Arnold Schoenberg (September 13, 1874 –July 13, 1951) was an Austrian composer, associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School, who was born into a lower middle-class Jewish family in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna. His father Samuel, a native of Bratislava, was a shopkeeper. Although his mother Pauline, a native of Prague, was a piano teacher, Arnold was largely self-taught. He took only counterpoint lessons with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was to become his brother-in-law.   In his twenties, Schoenberg earned a living by orchestrating operettas, while composing his own works, such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1899). He later made an orchestral version of this, which became one of his most popular pieces. Both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler recognized Schoenberg’s significance as a composer; Strauss when he encountered Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, and Mahler after hearing several of Schoenberg’s early works.

     In October 1901, Schoenbert married Mathilde Zemlinsky. Mathilde bore him two children, Gertrud (1902–1947) and Georg (1906–1974). Gertrud would marry Schoenberg’s pupil Felix Greissle in 1921.  The summer of 1908 marked a distinct change in Schoenberg’s work.  He composed “You lean against a silver-willow” (German: Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide), the thirteenth song in the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15, based on the collection of the same name by the German mystical poet Stefan George. This was the first composition without any reference at all to a key. Also in this year, he completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2, whose first two movements, though chromatic in color, use traditional key signatures, yet whose final two movements, also settings of George, daringly weaken the links with traditional tonality. Both movements end on tonic chords, and the work is not fully non-tonal. Breaking with previous string-quartet practice, it incorporates a soprano vocal line.

     During the summer of 1910, Schoenberg wrote his Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony, Schoenberg 1922), which remains one of the most influential music-theory books.  Another of his most important works from this atonal or pantonal period is the highly influential Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, of 1912, a novel cycle of expressionist songs set to a German translation of poems by the Belgian-French poet Albert Giraud. Utilizing the technique of Sprechstimme, or melodramatically spoken recitation, the work pairs a female vocalist with a small ensemble of five musicians.  Schoenberg went on to develop the most influential version of the dodecaphonic or twelve-tone method of composition, which is given the alternative name serialism. This technique was taken up by many of his students, who constituted the so-called Second Viennese School, including Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Hanns Eisler, all of whom were profoundly influenced by Schoenberg.

       Schoenberg’s first wife died in October 1923, and in August of the next year  he married Gertrud Kolisch (1898–1967), sister of his pupil, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch . She wrote the libretto for Schoenberg’s one-act opera Von heute auf morgen.  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.  Among his notable students during this period were the composers Roberto Gerhard, Nikos Skalkottas, and Josef Rufer.   Schoenberg continued in his post until the election of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. While vacationing in France, he was warned that returning to Germany would be dangerous. Schoenberg traveled with his family to the United States. His first teaching position in the United States was at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. 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.

     During this final period, Schoenberg composed several notable works, including the difficult Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934/36), the Kol Nidre, Op. 39, for chorus and orchestra (1938), the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41 (1942), the haunting Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942), and his memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947). He was unable to complete his opera Moses und Aron (1932/33), which was one of the first works of its genre to be written completely using dodecaphonic composition. In 1941, he became a citizen of the United States. During this period, his notable students included John Cage, Lou Harrison, and H. Owen Reed.  He died on Friday, July 13, 1951, shortly before midnight.

     Schoenberg was widely known early in his career for his success in simultaneously extending the traditionally opposed German Romantic styles of Brahms and Wagner. Later, his name would come to personify pioneering innovations in atonality that would become the most polemical feature of 20th-century art music.  His twelve-tone technique is a widely influential compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. As his approach, both in terms of harmony and development, is among the major landmarks of 20th-century musical thought, at least three generations of composers in the European and American traditions have consciously extended his thinking or, in some cases, passionately reacted against it.

     Two of Schoenberg’s early orchestral works which are sometimes heard are:

                Pelleas et Melisande, Symphonic poem for orchestra after the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, op. 5.

                Verklarte Nacht, after the poem by Richard Dehmel, for string orchestra, op. 4 (1943).

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