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 Arnold Schönberg's life and legacy 

By Sigurd Neubauer


Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) is one of the most consequential composers of the twentieth century. 

He’s known for having developed the twelve-tone composition method (dodecaphonic), which Schönberg introduces in 1911 in his most famous book, Harmonielehre, or Theory of Harmony.

Moses und Aron (1932) is widely considered his masterpiece, although the two-act opera was never completed as the Austrian-Jewish composer was forced to flee the Nazis for Los Angeles in 1933. He was first persecuted over his music and later for his Judaism. (He later changed the spelling of his name to Schoenberg).

“He tried to return to the opera but was never able to so,” says Eric Randol Schoenberg, a grandson of the famous composer.

“Once in Los Angeles, Schönberg struggled quite a bit to support his young family. He even applied for a Guggenheim fellowship so he could complete the opera, but never got it.”

The opera is “a very powerful work,” Schoenberg says, adding that he encourages everyone to watch it. The first act focuses on Moses at the burning bush and the miracles described in the Bible. The second act deals with the worship of the Golden Calf. 

The opera is atonal but Schönberg uses the twelve-tone serialism as a unifying device throughout the work.

Schönberg’s composition method influenced his students such as Alban Berg (1885-1935), Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). These composers are commonly referred to as the Second Viennese School. Some scholars, however, continue to debate over whether it was Webern or Berg who was Schönberg’s closest student. 

For those who knew the composer, Schönberg was a man of strong opinion and conviction. When under attack, he always mounted a strong self-defense. But when approached through polite inquiries about his music, the composer would listen and respond, people who knew him say.

Schönberg was also an avid tennis player and relished when people occasionally greeted him as “Herr Professeur,” the term that was used in Vienna, Austria, at the time for tennis coaches.

Some scholars believe that his twelve tone system has come between Schönberg and his music as the composer was ferociously attacked by his contemporaries. 

For those unfamiliar with his music, a good place to start is with the Gurre Lieder, which were premiered in Vienna in 1913.

While the composer’s life and legacy are actively championed by his namesake center in Vienna,  his music continues to stir debate among scholars some 70-years after his death. Schönberg’s late widow, Gertrude (1898-1967), told BBC Radio in 1967 that the composer did not come from a musical family – contrary to what some biographers have suggested – but that he was an autodidact. In fact, because Schönberg did not know how to play any instruments well, when he initially told his family that he wanted to become a musician, they all attempted to talk him out of it as they feared nothing worse than him becoming a drag on society. 

One of Schönberg’s most famous students, Alban Berg, whose own student, legendary philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), described Schönberg as “someone without a family…somehow as though he had fallen from heaven.” 

Schönberg, apparently, never spoke of his parents or family background.

“He was a nice man when he was around men who understood him,” Adorno said, adding that Schönberg was very generous and good natured.

In the United States, people who knew him considered him to be “naive” as he saw music as an art form and not as a business.

Two generations after the composer’s death, his American descendants are proudly celebrating and promoting his legacy. 

While Schoenberg never met his famous grandfather, he’s passionate about celebrating his legacy. 


“There are many misconceptions about his personality, including that he was very serious, never smiled and was even angry,” Schoenberg says.

“In the photographs he looks very serious but apparently, he had a very good and sharp sense of humor. He was funny.” Some of the misconceptions about Schönberg stems from the atonality and austerity of his music, the grandson explains.

“My father remembers him ‘as a kids’ dad,’ including when he made sandwiches for him.” 

Gertrude was his second wife; Schoenberg explains that his father remembers the composer as an old and sickly father, but one that was fun nonetheless. 

“Schönberg was always creating. Sometimes he was jovial. The serenade that he dedicated to Gertrude is filled with inside jokes, but one has to listen to it to understand,” he says.

Schoenberg grew up listening to his grandfather’s music, “but to appreciate it, one has to reconsider any preconceived notion of what music is.” 

“My grandfather could be serious at times,” Schoenberg concedes. 

For his students in Los Angeles, Schönberg was a dedicated teacher. He was disappointed when he was forced into retirement at the age of 70, which contributed to his sick health as he had three young children to provide for. 

In the United States, when he was tasked with conducting his own music, the audience could sense his “grandeur.” The composer also responded with dignity and integrity  to audiences who may not have fully appreciated his music, according to people who knew him. 

His legacy, of course, lives on as the Austrian-American composer is a historical figure.

On how Schönberg is perceived in contemporary America, Schoenberg says that it takes a full range. “Some have never heard of him and some worship his music. Some even accuse him of having ruined music altogeher, but he’s still relevant.”

He did not come from a musical family but was an autodidact
Arnold Schönberg with family, 1948. From left to right: Larry, Arnold, Gertrud, Nuria, Ronald, and dog Chrissie

Schönberg’s music is “new and cutting edge” but “much of the world has not moved beyond him,” the grandson says.

“When some young people discover him, they fall in love with his music. People have a more visceral response to music than to art,” Schoenberg says, referring in particular to Schönberg’s contemporary, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). “The paintings of that era are more accepted today than the music as music requires more listening,” he says.

When it comes to the negative reactions to Schönberg’s music, “there’s a whole cottage industry centering on how he ‘ruined’ all of music, but Schönberg is always a starting point. His school of music was never the dominate one whether it was in the music halls or in academia, but it has lasted longer than other flavors,” Schoenberg explains.

Moses und Aron was never completed as Schönberg fled the Nazis for Los Angeles in 1933

Gertrude’s father, Erich Zeisl (1905-1959), was another famous composer but he didn’t follow in Schönberg’s direction, the grandson explains. 

Many of the Jewish refugees in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s were jealous when Schönberg’s work was performed. “It’s been like that from the beginning,” he concedes.

Zeisl and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) were close friends, Schoenberg says. Schoenberg, for his part, is good friends with the grandson of another eminent composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who also settled in Los Angeles. While Zeisl and Castelnuovo-Tedesco were friends, Zeisl and Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) the composer for numerous Hollywood blockbusters, were bitter rivals, Schoenberg reveals.

“The European composers were well trained and dominated Los Angeles’ music scene upon arrival. They were, however, desperate for jobs and worked for peanuts.”

As part of Schoenberg’s commitment to ensuring that his grandfather’s legacy is accessible, the family donated in 1998 the Schönberg archives to his namesake center.

It was the composer’s late wife who should be credited for keeping the Schönberg  estate intact and not selling it off, even though they needed money, the grandson explains.  “She was committed to preserving his legacy and making it accessible to the public, which is what we continue to do.”

While the Austrian government is funding the center, three out of nine of its board members belong to the Schönberg family.

“We don’t control the board,” says Schoenberg with a laugh.

The center offers programming as well as exhibitions of Schönberg’s life and work, including a replica of his Los Angeles study in addition to a library on topics related to the Viennese School.

The European composers were well trained and dominated Los Angeles'  music scene: Schoenberg
Arnold Schönberg, his wife Gertrud and daughter Nuria, 1937
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