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Arnold Schoenberg: The most important composer of the 20th century?

Moses und Aron was the last – and greatest – of four forays the Austrian made into the art form.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

24 July 2014 at 12.58pm | 3 Comments

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) is a strong candidate for the title of most significant composer of the 20th century. In 1908 he shook the world of Western music by becoming the first composer to write atonally (though he himself preferred the more democratic term 'pantonal'). Then he shook it again when in 1920 he invented (or discovered, as he would have it) serialism – a compositional technique based on permutations of a 'tone row' (a specific ordering of all 12 notes of the musical scale). Each development transformed the course of music.

Schoenberg didn't consider himself a revolutionary. He believed his ideas were essential progressions in Western music – like the innovations introduced by Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. He also believed that, given the right preparation, an audience would enjoy and appreciate his music. In this, he was wrong. For almost the entirety of his career Schoenberg's works met with virulent hostility, despite the championing of such luminaries as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Gershwin. The nay-sayers’ legacy lingers to this day, making performances such as Welsh National Opera's new production of Moses und Aron rare treats indeed.

Schoenberg's first opera, Erwartung ('Expectation'), was written in just 17 days in 1909 and was first performed in 1924. The young doctor Marie Pappenheim prepared a monologue libretto detailing a woman's emotional response to a traumatic event, in which the influence of Freud's theories is obvious. There is only one dramatic event – the nameless woman stumbles across the bloody corpse of her cheating lover – and it comes less than ten minutes from the start. The main material of the 30-minute opera tracks the woman's fear and grief, her jealousy and anger, her reminiscences of love. Schoenberg described it as revealing in slow motion everything a psyche undergoes in a second of great psychological stress. It is a deeply engrossing and sympathetic work, and a great showcase for a dramatic soprano.

Schoenberg wrote the libretto for Die glückliche Hand ('The fortunate hand') immediately after finishing Erwartung, but he would not finish the music until 1913. This was at the height of Schoenberg's activity as a painter, and his relationship with Kandinsky is evident in the score's exacting directions for the use of coloured lighting. Die glückliche Hand is a much more elaborate work than Erwartung, calling for a chorus, a group of miming actors and a fantastical monster, which sits on the back of the baritone protagonist as a visual metaphor for his pursuit of a happiness he knows he can never attain. It's a deeply pessimistic work, no doubt influenced by turbulence in Schoenberg's family life; in 1908 his wife Mathilde had temporarily left him for the painter Richard Gerstl, who shortly afterwards committed suicide. The 1924 premiere in Vienna was well received, but Schoenberg, disgruntled at the poor treatment he had earlier received from the Viennese public, refused to acknowledge the applause.

It wasn't until the late 1920s that Schoenberg would return to opera, with the light-hearted but serious-minded Von heute auf morgen ('From one day to the next'). He felt sure he had a hit on his hands – so sure that he turned down a lucrative publishing contract to publish it himself, at, ultimately, a tremendous loss. The opera was written in response to the success young composers such as Krenek, Hindemith and Weill were having with Zeitopern (operas of the time). While it has many Zeitoper trappings, Von heute auf morgen is a clear rebuke of what Schoenberg considered the modish decadence of this new generation. Musically it is an astonishing testament to the dramatic potential of serialism. Keeping to absolutely serialist rules, Schoenberg is still able to craft waltzes and burlesques, make delightful use of leitmotifs – and even insert playful quotations from Wagner's Ring cycle.

Moses und Aron is unquestionably Schoenberg's masterpiece – but look further with this masterful composer and you're unlikely to be disappointed.

Welsh National Opera performs Moses und Aron on the Royal Opera House's main stage 25–26 July 2014. Tickets are still available.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Huw Zosimos responded on 19 December 2014 at 5:29pm Reply

    Well, I enjoyed the opera. Somewhat to my surprise: perhaps as Philosophy major the libretto reminded me of some of the issues people used to think important. However, Rachel's text reveals all: he is the most important composer of the 20th C because....
    Not because he wrote a lot of great music that people listen to or perform, but becuase he was the first person to write atonal music (no mention of whether it was any good or not) and invented serialism (again, did this generate a lot of good music? no mention). My own personal view is that shoenberg was potentially a great composer who did write a handful of very good works. However, he got lost in mist of mysticism, numerology and music theory. He wrote a great harmony textbook and earned a living teaching composition rather than by composition. That makes him many things, but a great composer certainly not. A great musicologist perhaps. However, I was glad to get a rare chance to see this opera. There are lots of better operas written in the 20th C, but this has a uniqueness and interest of its own!

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 19 December 2014 at 6:10pm

      Hi Huw,

      Thanks for reading. I do think the ideas of Schoenberg's 'importance' and 'significance' that I've used in the article are not only fairly uncontroversial but true; my impression is that much of the Western art music following Schoenberg would have been quite different without him. But perhaps I'm swayed by my admiration for the works I mention, which, regardless of how frequently they are performed today, do, I feel, warrant the level of attention given to the finest works. Even if you don't agree with me on their quality, surely 'a handful of very good works' is enough to achieve the status of an important and significant composer of the 20th century?

      All best,

  2. Schoenberg's development of the 12 tone system was purely scientifically based, and although for a short time it inspired other systems applying the same principles to rhythms etc (leading to serialism). I would certainly consider Schoenberg more as a scientist than a composer. Therefore I would not attribute him with the accolade of most important composer of the 20th century. I would sooner attribute that sort of accolade to a composer rather than a musicologist. During the same period Bartok and Stravinsky we’re pushing the boundaries in terms of compositional development. Also as the 12 tone system has pretty much died out in modern use, as a compositional method I would question how important it was to start with. Maybe it was a fad or fashion at the time. I find some of Schoenbergs works interesting but certainly based purely on compositional ability I would rank many 20th composers above him in terms of importance and greatness.
    Just my opinion as a professional musician

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