The Emancipator of Dissonance

Arnold Schönberg, an Austrian-American composer, was the catalyst for an epoch of atonal music, which has lasted for more than a century. In addition to being known as “the emancipator of dissonance”, Schönberg is a figure of persecution by the Third Reich. When he was 24 years old, he converted from Judaism and was baptized as Lutheran. At the age of 58, after facing more than a decade of blatant anti-Semitism and his expulsion from the Prussian Academy of Arts, Schönberg fled Nazi Germany for the United States. On his way to the United States, he stopped first in Paris and officially reconverted to Judaism and thereafter practiced religiously, not only nominally. His commentaries on atonality and his own work lend insight into his attitudes towards Judaism. Schönberg’s transition to the status of exile is illuminated by an analysis of his works during that period of his life through the lens of his own theories regarding music.

Between 1908 and 1913, a time spanning both Berlin and Vienna in Schönberg’s life, he began experimenting with atonality. He philosophized constantly about this process, drawing on a widespread topic of the time: heredity. Specifically, he utilized biological terminology and applied his understanding of heredity to what he considered the demise of tonal music. In a sentiment reflective of this biological basis of understanding, Schönberg stated that, “in the nineteenth century… tonality had fallen prey to ‘inbreeding and incest’,” (Ross 59). He developed this purportedly scientific approach to music when he further explained that he viewed the chords being composed by his contemporaries as biologically ill: he described them as chronically sentimental and effeminate. He also attributed to them the characteristics of spies and agitators, two common stereotypes of Jewish people. Regarding the music, however, he intended to say that the music gives itself away and was merely frustrating. His contemplations about these tonal chords further mirrored societies stereotype of Jewish people when he described the music as a “homeless phenomena, unbelievably adaptable,” (Ross 60). This conception of tonality reflects the way that Jews at that time were considered a people that became flexible out of necessity. They were viewed as a nation without a land, which thus acted like a parasite, living off of other countries.

Further undertones of the biological approach can be found in Schönberg’s treatise on musical theory, Harmonielehre, written in 1911. The treatise speaks of the death of tonality in a way reflecting the predominant social Darwinism of the time. He noted that atonality was not a deviation from the classical tradition of tonality; rather, he said, atonality was a “product of necessity,” for the propagation of music (Ross 57). Schönberg’s explanation of his rejection of tonality paralleled society’s crude justifications for the persecution of the Jews. He was snubbing tonal music for possessing the same qualities that his society was imposing on him. At the same time, he referred to this action as the “‘emancipation of dissonance,’ as if his chords were peoples who had been enslaved for centuries,” (Ross 57). Counterbalancing his otherwise perverse racial pseudoscience, he displayed this characterization of enslavement, which was part of a unifying identity for the persecuted Jewish people. Complicating this relationship between tonality and heredity even further, Schönberg’s move to atonality was reflective of moving against the canon, an action that was all but unacceptable in German culture at the time. It is essential to note that Schönberg put forth theories that fit with the underlying circumstance of the times, but his actions went against them. During the development of his atonal techniques, anti-Semitism was prevalent, but still beneath the surface of Austro-German culture.

In 1921, Schönberg had his first experience with blatant anti-Semitism. The local government in Mattsee, Austria threw him out of a health spa in front of his wife and pupils due to his Jewish descent. In that same year, he developed his “method of composing with twelve tones” – later coined the Twelve-Tone technique – with which he changed the musical landscape of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the incident of his humiliation from anti-Semites within his own country, he became very sensitive to the issue of race. Two years later, Schönberg rejected Wassily Kandinsky’s offer of the directorship for the Bauhaus Music School due to rumors that Bauhaus had anti-Semitic tendencies. Ironically, two years later he defiantly accepted a professorship at the Prussian Academy of Arts, a position that was protested by anti-Semites in the prestigious Zeitschrift für Musik. He began to re-identify with his Jewish heritage at this period in his life, writing in 1927 the Zionist drama “Der Biblische Weg”, or The Biblical Way, as a commentary on anti-Semitism in society and his perception of the collective Jewish identity.

During his time at the Prussian Academy, specifically between 1926 and 1928, he wrote his first large scale application of his Twelve-Tone technique in his Opus 31, Variations for Orchestra. This piece, being the first of its kind in combining complete serialism with atonality, was initially wildly controversial (Huscher). Although he did not intend it to be as provocative as it proved, his musical tendencies show the degree to which he had deviated from the Austro-German norms, serving as an example of the connection between his movement towards atonality and his movement away from this society. Additionally, though he claimed to be apolitical, in 1931 Schönberg himself said of this piece, “Far be it from me to question the rights of the majority. But one thing is certain: somewhere there is a limit to the power of the majority; it occurs, in fact, wherever the essential step is one that cannot be taken by all and sundry,” (Frisch 99). Critically, he noted that he did not believe all types of people were prepared to move against the majority, but that those who did would theoretically hold “the power”. This statement can also be easily attributed to the mentality of the German people at the brink of the Third Reich; it would then place Schönberg and other intellectuals in the place of the minority with “the power”.

By the time that Schönberg began talking of the aforementioned power dynamic, nearly a fifth of Germany had voted for the National Socialists, a staggeringly high number considering the quantity of parties that resulted from the Weimar Republic. In 1932, when more than a third of Germany supported the Nazis, Schönberg postponed a return to Berlin due to anti-Semitic resistance from the Prussian Academy of Arts, disguised as formal complaints. Once Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the President of the Academy declared, “The Jewish influence at the Academy must be eliminated,” and Schönberg was thus officially expelled (Stein 116). Before leaving Germany in May of that year, he composed two short pieces, Jedem geht es so (No man can escape), and Mir auch ist es so ergangen (I, too, was not better off). These pieces were written for a friend of his, Carl Engel, for his 60th birthday, with a focus on altering perceptions of life’s decline by ending with the phrase, “life begins at 60,”. Though the song titles had a specific comical intention, they reflect, too, on the situation for all Jewish people soon after the Nazis took power.

In July of 1933, Arnold Schönberg officially reconverted to Judaism, “and remained intensely if eccentrically devoted to it thereafter,” (Ross 60). He and his family then moved to the United States, where he taught in Boston until the spring of 1934. During the time of his transition into being an exile, he wrote his Violin Concerto, Opus 36. For this piece, Schönberg unexpectedly returned to tonal writing. It is an ironic twist of fate that, while in willful exile, Schönberg returned to the “homeless phenomena,” and utilized the “unbelievably adaptable” tonal style that he had previously criticized so heavily. The piece is so complex that upon its completion, he commented, “I’m happy to add to the repertory another unplayable piece,” and a violinist declared that one would have to have six fingers to play it; he replied, “I can wait,” (Petrocelli). He did indeed have to wait: more than six years passed before this piece was even premiered.

In 1935, Schönberg moved to Los Angeles, ultimately to teach at the University of California, Los Angeles. Harkening back to Schönberg’s perception of power held by a minority, the group of intellectuals that he joined in Los Angeles had power, both collectively and individually, against the Nazi regime. They served as an intellectual force that informed the international community against the Nazis. Soon after his own departure, his works were considered “entartete Kunst”, or degenerate art, and were banned in Germany. During the war, he managed to procure affidavits for some of his family to escape, and was thus actively involved in the madness of accommodating the refugees of the Third Reich. In these later years in America, Schönberg wrote primarily atonally, having felt freer in this style. As he himself said while exploring atonality, “Art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself!” and declared that he strove for “complete liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and logic,” (Ross 57). Earlier in life, Schönberg’s music was not programmatic, but later he began composing music to text more often. Two years after World War II ended, he utilized his refined Twelve-Tone technique and wrote the choral-orchestral piece A Survivor from Warsaw, Opus 46, to pay tribute to all of the victims of the Nazi Regime.


Arnold Schoenberg. Jedem Geht Es so. 1933. Vinyl recording.

Frisch, Walter. Schoenberg and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

Huscher, Phillip. Arnold Schoenberg. N.d. Program Notes. Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Petrocelli, Paolo. William Walton and the Violin Concerto in England between the 1900 and 1940: From Elgar to Britten. N.p.: Universal, 2008. Print.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.

Stein, Erwin. Arnold Schoenberg Letters. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. Print.

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