Composers of the Second Viennese School

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Music doesn't always require a tuneful melody. Have you ever heard a piece that sounds like everything's clashing? In this lesson, you'll be introduced to the composers and music of the Second Viennese School.


Before we dive into this lesson, let's review some history. The title First Viennese School was given to a group of musicians, including Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who composed music while living in Vienna (it wasn't a school in the formal sense) in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You know their work -- melodic, emotional, and hummable. Think Mozart's Magic Flute or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Now, erase those sounds from your mind. That's what the composers of the Second Viennese School strove to do. In their compositions, they moved from tonal music, something melodic and composed in an identified key (like the works mentioned above) to atonal music, compositions made from any combination of sounds, not hindered by key or past rules of harmony. They used chromaticism, notes from different keys in their compositions, which created jarring sounds. When you hear their music, you'll never mix them up with the First Viennese School! Three composers, all natives of Vienna, formed the core of the Second Viennese School, from around World War I and through the 1920s and 1930s. We'll begin with the eldest.

Arnold Schoenberg: Composer and Teacher

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was self-taught and began his career writing music in a traditional romantic style. But he was restless, creative, and influenced by other arts -- for example, Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky's abstract canvases. Schoenberg himself was also a painter and later a theorist and writer.

Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg, 1906
Portrait of Schoenberg

In his compositions, Schoenberg began to strip away familiar musical layers, like melody and harmony, as he became more interested in complex, atonal music. In 1899, he composed Transfigured Night, based on an emotional poem about love and infidelity. It's considered Schoenberg's first important piece. Listen to it as an example of where he started before he went into atonality. Originally for string sextet, Transfigured Night has echoes of tonal melodies, but also repeats musical phrases and adds strange harmonies. It doesn't sound unusual to us today, but it was controversial when first performed. People didn't know what to make of it.

Now listen to Five Pieces for Orchestra, which Schoenberg wrote in 1912. Gone is any sense of melody. The music growls and slashes in odd combinations of strings and horns. Dynamics veer between loud and soft. Notes emerge, scatter, and clash, sometimes violently. Imagine how people must have felt the first time they heard it!

Later, Schoenberg took his music ever further. Around 1924, he developed the 12-tone method, a type of musical called serialism. He would choose twelve notes from the musical scale and arrange them in any order, and then use that order of notes as the basis for composition. It's equivalent to using a mathematical equation to write music rather than basing it on a melody.

Second Viennese School: Schoenberg's Students

In 1904, Schoenberg began working with two students who, inspired by him, would also take the leap into atonality. They were Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Alban Berg (1885-1935) spent most of his life in Vienna. When young, he experimented with composing music despite a lack of any formal training. In 1904, he met and began studying with Schoenberg and continued to learn from him until 1911, when the latter moved to Berlin.

Sketch of Alban Berg
Sketch of Alban Berg

Berg mixed atonality with glimpses of romanticism. His music is the most accessible of the three. But still, in the opening movement of his Three Pieces for Orchestra (written in 1914), it's difficult to tell exactly when the music begins. Then the sounds emerge, mysterious and sometimes sinister, sometimes playful. Berg also composed some music using the twelve-tone system. Among his major works is the opera Wozzeck, which premiered in Berlin in 1925. About a penniless, working-class solder who commits a murder suicide, it's not a happy piece. As you might guess, audience reaction was one of horror. One critic likened the experience of listening to it as having been in an insane asylum! Berg later composed the opera Lulu, which was about sexual hypocrisy. Done in the twelve-tone method, it wasn't completed when Berg died in 1935.

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