Arnold Schoenberg

By: Brian Berger
September 13, 2014


Over seventeen febrile days, from August 27 through September 12, 1909, ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874–1951) composed Erwartung, a one-act opera for soprano and large orchestra, and one of early modernism’s most imposing signposts. Feminist poet and University of Vienna medical student Marie Pappenheim wrote the libretto: a woman enters a dark wood searching for her absent lover; hysteria ensues. For this text, Schoenberg leapt beyond the Austro-German Romantic tradition to create a thrilling, boldly self-contained sound world: atonal, athematic, liberating dissonance from liebestod and more. The goal, he explained, was “to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement,” while critics from Adorno to Žižek have suggested many additional meanings. Though Schoenberg found public success with the dazzling chamber cantata Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Gurre-lieder (1900-03, 1911), Austro-German Romanticism’s belated apotheosis, Erwartung wouldn’t be staged until 1924, by which time Schoenberg had made his second great leap: dodecaphony, or “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which Are Related Only with One Another.” This would change the world, including one extraordinary Thomas Mann novel, Doctor Faustus (1947–48). Schoenberg and Mann were friends in Los Angeles exile but Schoenberg, always sensitive to slights, was displeased to learn that, in Faustus’ German edition, the inventor of dodecaphony was Adrian Leverkühn. This was false and unacceptable, thus the English translation’s clarifying author’s note:

The method of composition presented in Chapter XXII… is in truth the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg… I have transferred it within a certain imaginary context to the person of an entirely fictitious musician, the tragic hero of my novel.

Gurre-lieder (tonal chromatic)

Erwartung, Op. 17 (atonal)

Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (atonal)

Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (twelve tone)


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Sherwood Anderson, Roald Dahl.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Anarcho-Symbolist (1864–73) and Psychonaut (1874–1883) Generations.


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