Arnold Schoenberg; From Atonality to Expressionism (1874-1951)

By Jo Ann Vick


Arnold Schoenberg, a revolutionary composer, music theorist, and painter, stands as a towering figure in 20th-century music. His groundbreaking work in expanding tonal boundaries, developing atonality, and pioneering serialism profoundly reshaped the course of Western classical music. Born on September 13, 1874, in Vienna, Austria, Schoenberg's life and creative journey unfolded amid a period of intense artistic innovation and cultural upheaval.

Early Years and Musical Development:

Schoenberg's early exposure to music was shaped by his father, a shopkeeper who instilled in him a love for music and provided him with violin lessons. Schoenberg's passion for composition grew over time, leading him to study music formally at the Vienna Conservatory. In his formative years, Schoenberg gravitated toward late Romantic influences, particularly the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. His compositions from this period reveal his affinity for lush harmonies and rich orchestrations. However, as Schoenberg's artistic voice matured, he began to challenge the conventions of tonality, paving the way for his groundbreaking contributions to music history.

Expansion of Tonality and Atonality:

Schoenberg's exploration of tonal boundaries led him to develop atonality a departure from traditional tonal centers. His composition "Pierrot Lunaire" (1912) marked a pivotal moment in his career and in the history of music. This work employed sprechstimme (a vocal style between speaking and singing) and a technique known as the twelve-tone method, foreshadowing Schoenberg's later developments in serialism.

Schoenberg's embrace of atonality was met with both fascination and controversy. While some hailed his innovative approach, others found his departure from tonal conventions unsettling. Regardless of the reception, Schoenberg's influence on music's trajectory was profound, sparking discussions about the nature of harmony, dissonance, and musical expression.

Serialism and the Twelve-Tone Technique:

Schoenberg's later compositional style focused on serialism, a method he developed to systematically organize all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The twelve-tone technique aimed to create a new kind of tonal organization, shifting away from traditional tonal hierarchies. This approach offered composers a structured way to organize pitch material, rhythm, and dynamics, leading to compositions that were both intricate and intellectually challenging.

Schoenberg's compositional output during this period included works like the Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (1923) and the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942). His compositions, while often regarded as complex, provided a rich landscape for exploration of new sound worlds and pushed the boundaries of musical expression.

Expressionism and Influence:

Schoenberg's work was deeply connected to the Expressionist movement, which sought to convey raw emotions and psychological experiences through art. This connection is evident in his works like the string sextet "Verklärte Nacht" (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 (1899), which captures a narrative of emotional transformation through lush harmonies and evocative melodies.

Schoenberg's impact extended beyond his compositions. He was a visionary music theorist and educator, leaving an indelible mark on the field. His writings, including "Harmonielehre" (Theory of Harmony), provided insights into his compositional approach and had a lasting influence on future generations of composers and theorists.

Personal Life and Legacy:

Schoenberg's personal life was marked by both artistic triumphs and personal challenges. He faced struggles with finances, health, and personal relationships. Fleeing the rise of Nazism in Germany, he eventually settled in the United States, where he continued to compose, teach, and influence American composers.

Schoenberg's legacy is far-reaching, impacting diverse musical genres and artistic disciplines. His students included notable composers like Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who furthered his techniques and aesthetic principles. Schoenberg's revolutionary contributions laid the groundwork for the development of modernist music and influenced subsequent generations of composers, including Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky, and John Cage.

Arnold Schoenberg's life and creative journey epitomize the transformative power of artistic innovation. His quest to push the boundaries of tonality, his pioneering work in atonality and serialism, and his profound influence on music theory and composition have left an indelible mark on the course of Western classical music. Schoenberg's legacy continues to inspire composers, performers, and theorists, reminding us of the boundless potential of human creativity and the ever-evolving nature of artistic expression.

Jo Ann Vick is a private piano instructor with 20 years of training and performing experience
and has a home based studio in Frisco, Texas. Her mission is to develop in others, a love
for playing the piano. Her website is located at