The Greatness Highlights:
The Music of Arnold Schönberg
Love him or hate him -- or never heard of him -- Arnold Schönberg was the most able composer of the twentieth century. The Greatness breaks that modern stuff down in his inimitable fashion, showcasing the best of the Second Viennese School.


Faithful readers of this website know that The Greatness has many unusual hobbies. My most unusual hobby combines my love of music and my preference for the academic: modern (aka twentieth-century) classical music. I was introduced to it in college, and ended up playing quite a bit of it, actually; music for percussion ensemble didn't really exist before the twentieth century. One summer, I took in a few different modern works each day as I worked in the lab, taking care not to crank it loud enough for anyone else to hear. After all, I knew that it wasn't cool, so I wanted to keep quiet about it -- I already had enough public eccentricities! I didn't bring it up much, apart from an occasional ill-advised comment about Gorecki or some other minor composer when talking to my music major friends. (Who, I might add, had no idea who I was talking about, because the college's infamously difficult music history course didn't have time to talk about anyone after Stravinsky.) Only my good friends know of my guilty pleasure. I've now decided to share it with the world, in hopes that others might bask in its delightful obscurity. And where better to start but with the man who introduced me to it? Here's a few of my Schönberg favorites and why I like them (I'll let the real experts fill in details for the curious).

Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna, trained in violin, and began serious composition in his mid-twenties. His first generally recognized work was a piece of programmatic music based on a poem, with a spare, chamber orchestration chosen to keep the music sounding like an intimate dialogue between two lovers. Here's my favorite part from my favorite recording of the piece (which, I hope, falls into fair use for pedagogical purposes. So if you're from Sony or one of these other companies, e-mail me before you sue, please!):

excerpt from Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4 (Sony Classical SMK 48 464) mp3 (~1MB)

After wallowing in late Romanticism for a while, Schönberg began to dabble in pantonality and other key-destroying notions. While Stravinsky et al were content to just let their emotions pour out onto the score, Schönberg wanted to put this new musical language into a rule system, much like Bach had during the Common Practice period. This selection is from his so-called "expressionistic" period where he was trying to codify what he wanted musically. I hear a lot of big movie soundtracks echoing from this pioneering piece:

excerpt from 5 Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 - 6.28MB wav (Deutsche Grammophon 419 781-2) mp3

Schönberg was convinced he would be able to state rules for his musical ideas, and he eventually did. But in between, he struggled to write using incomplete rules -- and, frankly, a lot of that period is just unlistenable. Yet this choral piece from that period, based on 21 poems "recited" by what sounds like a drunken lounge singer, became his most recognized work. It's too bad, really, since this piece really is "atonal" as the critics complained, while his later compositions were only atonal in a formal sense. My thoughts on first hearing Pierrot Lunaire are not printable in an upstanding forum like Still, I was entranced by this grandiose train wreck, part chamber music and part mock poetry reading. It really could have used a pot-smoking bongo player in some parts! Here's a bit from one of the shorter poems, about a nighttime tomb raid for rubies (oh yeah, and it helps if you know German):

excerpt from Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 - 6.72MB wav (Harmonia Mundi 901390) mp3

In 1923, Schönberg finally solved all the problems with his previous attempts at musical classification and gave birth to his famous "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another," or simply "twelve-tone composition." The Suite for Piano is a work completely written in this revolutionary compositional style. I excerpt from the waltz movement, mostly to point out the jazz-like piano feel he wrote (and Glenn Gould played) in the B section of the waltz. And also to illustrate how something can "formally" be a waltz. (Who would dance to this?):

excerpt from Suite for Piano, op. 25 - 6.67MB wav (Sony Classical SM2K 52 664) mp3

Schönberg, like many ethnically Jewish Europeans of the 1930s, found it prudent to emigrate. He took a position at UCLA in 1936. While he didn't much like teaching in America, it did afford him some guaranteed income and freedom to write what he wanted to write. Interestingly, it turns out he really wanted to go full circle in some ways, crafting tonal pieces in as much quantity as his own twelve-tone creations. I'm stealing all the thunder from the Theme and Variations by excerpting the end of it, but trust me -- he could write tonal stuff as well as anybody else.

excerpt from Theme and Variations, op. 43b - 6.49MB wav (LONDON 448 619-2) mp3
Though he'll never be cool, Arnold Schönberg has influenced a great many musicians, including jazz players, Hollywood film composers, and famous classical pianists. And The Greatness.


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