Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most controversial and influential composers of the twentieth century, although the composer himself hated being called a revolutionary. Whilst his discovery of the twelve-note technique did indeed revolutionise the musical language of the last century, his respect for the musical past can be seen both in his thorough grounding in the classics and in the formal models of his own compositions: the string quartet, the concerto, the chamber symphony. Stylistically, Schoenberg's works can be divided into four distinct periods: an early tonal period; a second period of atonal works dating from 1908 onwards (Schoenberg thought the term 'atonal' offensive and preferred 'pantonal'); a third period, from 1920-36, of works based on the twelve-note, or serial, technique; a more stylistically heterogeneous fourth period dating from the 1930s that is marked by the intermittent reappearance of tonality.
Born in Vienna on 13th September 1874 (he became an American citizen in 1941), Schoenberg learnt both the violin and the cello, and played in an amateur ensemble that performed works from the Classical repertory and for which he began to compose quartets. More formal instruction came in 1893 after he befriended the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who had studied at the Vienna Conservatory Essentially, however, Schoenberg was self-taught: he remarked that his teachers were first Bach and Mozart, and secondly Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms.
In December 1901 Schoenberg moved to Berlin where he earned a living conducting Ernst von Wolzogen's satirical cabaret, �berbrettl, and by scoring operettas. Thanks to a recommendation from Richard Strauss, who had been favourably impressed when shown parts of the score of the immense Gurrelieder (composition of which had begun in March 1900), Schoenberg obtained the Liszt Stipendium and a composition post at the Stern Conservatory. He returned to Vienna in July 1903, having completed the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1902-3), and he gave private lessons there in composition and theory. In the autumn of 1904 Schoenberg acquired two new pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, two composers who were to become lifelong disciples and who, together with Schoenberg, were to become collectively known as the Second Viennese School.
Having stretched the chromatic harmony of Wagner's Tristan almost to breaking point in the works of his first period, Schoenberg then carried this process to its logical conclusion by eschewing structural harmony altogether, in a series of atonal works including the Three Pieces for piano (1909), the settings of poems by Stefan George, Das Buch der h�ngenden G�rten (1908-9), and one of his most famous works, the melodrama Pierrot Lunaire (1912). It was during this period of stylistic crisis that painting became of great importance to Schoenberg, and he became friends with the artist Kandinsky and exhibited his paintings with the group Der Blaue Reiter. He composed little between 1913 and 1921 (with a notable exception being the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter), but the 1920s witnessed the first fruits of Schoenberg's newly developed serial technique (the 'method of composing with twelve notes which are related only to one another'), a systematic way of organizing atonal music. The first works of this third period include the Five Piano Pieces (1920-3), the Serenade (1920-3) and the Piano Suite (1921-3).
In January 1926 Schoenberg again moved to Berlin from Vienna to take up a composition post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, and since his academic duties required him to teach for approximately six months of the year it proved a particularly fruitful period for his own compositional activity. Several major works were composed around this time, including the Variations for Orchestra (1926-8), the Third Quartet (1927), and the operas Von Heute auf Morgen (1928-9) and the unfinished Moses und Aron (1930-2). He remained there unti11933, when he was summarily dismissed by the Nazis. He left Berlin for France in May (reconverting to Judaism in Paris) and subsequently emigrated to the USA. In 1936 he was offered a professorship at the University of California, where he taught from 1936-44 Schoenberg died in Los Angeles on 13th July 1951.
Although work on Chamber Symphony No. 2 had begun in August 1906 (Schoenberg had finished Chamber Symphony No. 1 in July of that year), it was not actually completed until he returned to the sketches over thirty years later in 1939. He cast the work in two movements, and as well as rescoring and revising it, he added an additional twenty bars to the first movement, whilst the second movement almost doubled in length. The slow, elegiac first movement is counterpointed with an expansive, impassioned second movement (con fuoco) which reaches a tragic climax. Its premi�re was given on 14th November 1940 under Fritz Stiedry in New York.
The Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene was composed in Berlin between 1929-30. While its title may suggest that it was composed for an actual film it is in fact a completely independent orchestral piece. The three-movement work is based on an imaginary sequence of contrasting emotional states � Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe � the premi�re of which was conducted on 6th November 1930 under Klemperer in Berlin (its first British performance was conducted by Webern for a BBC broadcast in 1931).
The string sextet Verkl�rte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was composed in 1899, with the arrangement for string orchestra following in 1917 (rev. 1943). It is based on one of Richard Dehmel's poems from the cycle Weib und Welt in which a woman confesses to her lover that she has become pregnant by another man. The poem's structure � five stanzas of differing length � is based on a rondo-like ABACA pattern, with the recurring A section representing a moonlit walk, the B section the woman's confession and the C section the man's noble reply. Similarly, Schoenberg's single-movement work consists of five continuous but clearly differentiated sections 'in which', Oliver Neighbour writes in The New Grove, 'Wagnerian and Brahmsian modes of thought meet in harmonious accord'. Its premi�re was given by an augmented Ros� Quartet in Vienna on 18th March 1902.
ReviewsAs an example of Naxos's daring these days, for only its second disc of Schoenberg, it has headed for the Second Chamber Symphony - a work begun in 1906 but not completed after 1939 - rather than the familiar First. Like the Gurrelieder, which was part-orchestrated after Schoenberg's style had moved on from his late-Romantic phase, so the Second Chamber Symphony bears the mark of those missing 33 years in its combination of chromaticism and more acerbic dynamism. The Ulster Orchestra gives a vibrant performance of the work. - Matthew Rye, BBC Music Magazine, October 2000