More than any other composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was crucial in pushing music in an atonal, modernist direction. In his role as a composition teacher Schoenberg influenced a number of other composers, notably Anton Webern and Alban Berg. This triumvirate is known as the Second Viennese School. It should be stressed, however, that Schoenberg developed into a modernist composer, he did not start out as one. His earliest works are essays in luscious and somewhat overripe late Romanticism, Verklärte Nacht being a particularly fine example. Schoenberg believed that the breach with tonality was a logical and necessary step given that late-Romantic tonality had become saturated by dissonance (he was thinking, for example, of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). In obliterating the consonant/dissonant divide, he claimed to have ‘emancipated’ dissonance from its subservient role in tonal music. Active initially in Vienna and later in Berlin, Schoenberg, who was Jewish, lost his teaching post when the National Socialists came to power in 1933. Schoenberg settled in Los Angeles the following year. His most significant ‘discovery’ – something which he said would ‘guarantee the supremacy of German music for the next 200 years’ – was the invention in the 1920s of the 12-note technique, in which the notes of the chromatic scale are organised in a tone row, which then acts as the melodic and harmonic building block of the musical work.

© Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra