Arnold Schoenberg: Biography, Music & Paintings

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian composer of the early 20th century, is one of classical music's most divisive figures. Learn about his life, his work, and the artistic ideas which made him so controversial.

The Musical Antihero

You might think of Schoenberg as the Batman of classical music. Just like the masked crusader cared about saving the people of Gotham, Schoenberg cared deeply about his listeners, wanting to challenge and awaken them with his art. Schoenberg made Batman-esque decisions to go against the grain, doing away with all of the old musical rules and even inventing his own system for composing. And, like Batman, Schoenberg was resented, even despised, by most of the public for these actions. Still, he remains a giant in classical music, enormously influential and respected. This article will look at the life and work of classical music's greatest antihero.

Early Life and Music

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg. Photo by Man Ray.

Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents weren't musical themselves, but they supported Arnold's early endeavors, beginning him on violin lessons when he was eight. Soon the creative floodgates opened, and Arnold was teaching himself to compose. Family and economic circumstances would prevent young Arnold from attending music school, and through the 1880s his only composition teacher was himself.

By his mid-20s, Schoenberg had begun study with Alexander von Zemlinsky, an Austrian composer not much older than him. Zemlinsky, a graduate of the prestigious Viennese Conservatory, helped fill in the gaps of Schoenberg's knowledge. Later, Zemlinsky helped Schoenberg get performances of his early works. Among these works was Verklärte Nacht for string sextet from 1899, whose translated title is 'Transfigured Night'.

Schoenberg's music from this period is heavily influenced by the Romantic period of music, which includes the work of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Schoenberg was inspired by the emotional intensity of the Romantics, and his music of this early period echoes their ideas: it's intensely dramatic, expressive, and uses a mostly traditional musical language.

Expressionism and Chromaticism

In the early 1900s, Schoenberg began to part ways with the harmonic language of the past and to explore new possibilities for his music. During this period he also took up an interest in painting, and as both a painter and a composer was fascinated by the ideas associated today with expressionism. Expressionism, a movement especially popular in Germany and Austria, involved creating art from a subjective perspective and acknowledging our emotions' effect on our perception. Put differently, the expressionists wanted us to see the emotional effect the world had on them, rather than see the world as it actually is. Followers of this movement produced paintings that featured stark color contrasts, distorted figures, and abstract shapes.

Schoenberg - Blaues Selbstportrait
Blaues Selbstportrait by Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg's paintings embraced the style of the German expressionists, while his compositions began to move further and further toward chromaticism. Chromaticism, or chromatic music, moves away from the rules that govern traditional classical music regarding key, instead suggesting that there is no key and all notes are equal in importance. This makes the music feel more ambiguous and even unsettling, and it enabled Schoenberg to make expressionist music. By rejecting traditional rules, or tonality, in favor of a keyless atonality (or, as Schoenberg preferred, pantonality), he could concentrate on conveying emotion and perspective without history or listeners' expectations affecting the way the music was experienced.

His Chamber Symphony from 1907 and Pierrot Lunaire from 1912 are among Schoenberg's most adventurous chromatic works from this period. Pierrot Lunaire, a work for violin, viola, cello, piano, clarinet, and voice, has received special notoriety. In Pierrot, Schoenberg instructed his vocalist, a trained soprano, not to sing. Instead, the vocalist uses a technique known as spechstimme (literally 'speak-song'), speaking the text melodically and approximately around the given pitches. Hearing someone perform sprechstimme might remind you of a 'spooky' Dracula-style voice. Most of these works were met with a poor reception; audiences often called them incomprehensible.


Over the next few years, Europe was ravaged by World War I, and the destruction had a profound emotional effect on Schoenberg. As his students were conscripted into the war effort, the money he was making from teaching composition dried up. Depressed and poor, he barely wrote any music for four years.

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