Mention the composer “Schoenberg” and you’ll get a strong reaction from musicians, positive or negative. While his early works were harmonious, they grew increasingly atonal (meaning, melodies you couldn’t hum easily) and the rhythm free-flowing and unpredictable (not toe-tappers). His later-known music, without a key to adhere to (like “D Major”), makes for some frustrating rehearsals and uncertainty for audiences unfamiliar with his music.
Schoenberg endured personal turmoil in the early 1920s, which lead to his compositional experimenting. He abandoned the traditional foundation for composing music and created his own method. It’s hard to explain without sounding esoteric, but imagine the six sides of a Rubik’s cube, before it’s scrambled. Each colour represents a note, like C, D, E, F, G, A. Now turn the sides of the Rubik’s cube every which way, so that the colours are perfectly and evenly scrambled. That would create the new “melody”, or “row of notes” that formed the structure of the piece. That’s kind of like what Schoenberg did – abandoned a recognizable melody, and every note in the scale was represented equally, no one note getting more repetition than another.
As World War 2 loomed, he moved to the United States. He eventually settled in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA. He taught a range of pupils, including contemporary composer John Cage and jazz pianist Oscar Levant. Schoenberg became a ping-pong buff (who knew?) and played tennis with folks from the film industry. Regardless of the acclaim he received, there were zealous detractors to debate his devoted supporters. His “scrambled Rubik’s cube” music never quite took hold when you compare his success with those of his contemporaries Bartok and Stravinsky – who both changed how music sounded, yet neither embracing Schoenberg’s method.
He did receive recognition towards the end of his life, such as being named honorary president of the Israel Academy of Music. A superstitious man, he had a long-held aversion to the number 13. He was born on a 13th, and died on a Friday the 13th, no less, in LA.
Feature clip is just over two minutes, called “Peripetie” (Sudden Changes), a GCSE music presentation.
Arnold Schoenberg was born September 13, 1874 in Vienna, and died July 13, 1951 in Los Angeles