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“Away with Harmony as the Cement of my Architecture!”: Arnold Schoenberg at 140

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This Saturday, Arnold Schoenberg celebrates his 140th birthday. All those who have studied music have come across Schoenberg’s compositions in one way or another, and whether they love, despise, or are intrigued by his works, it’s undeniable that Schoenberg had an enormous impact on 20th and 21st century art music.

I must admit, I have a personal bias, since I deeply explored 20th century modernist music in my graduate music studies. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, Schoenberg’s music is historically and musically significant, as is the entire Second Viennese School, which had enormous impact on the development of Western art music in the 20th century. This, in my humble opinion, makes his music completely worthy of study, performance, and critical analysis.

Not surprisingly, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) Music Section has Schoenberg piano pieces for loan. Below is a selected listing:

Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19 (1913)

Schoenberg completed this piece for piano roughly around the same time that he was finishing his late-romantic cantata Gurre-Lieder. The first five pieces of opus 19 were written in February of 1911, and the last piece written a few weeks after the death of his mentor and friend Gustav Mahler in May of that year. Although not confirmed by Schoenberg himself, the final piece of opus 19 is commonly thought to be an expression of Schoenberg’s grief over the loss of Mahler–one of the modern era’s greatest composers. Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke can be found in our collection at BRM 21776.

 Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11 (1910)

This piece, sometimes considered Schoenberg’s initial desertion of tonality, was written in 1909–the same year as Five Pieces for Orchestra (op. 16) and Erwartung. During this highly creative period, Schoenberg was met with increased incomprehension from his critics, as he himself states “my second string quartet caused, at its first performance in Vienna, December 1908, riots which surpassed every previous and subsequent happening of this kind.” On top of this, his personal life had become quite tempestuous, as his wife Mathilde eloped with Schoenberg’s friend, the painter Richard Gerstl the summer before (although they did get back together in October). Following these emotional events, Schoenberg wrote the first two movements of opus 11 early in 1909, and the last movement in August of that year. This piece can be found in our collection at BRM 20340.

Suite für Klavier, op. 25 (1921-1923)

Schoenberg might be most famous (or infamous, as the case may be) for his 12-tone composition technique. This method requires composers to use all twelve chromatic tones without any repetitions in different combinations, transpositions, and permutations. Opus 25 sees Schoenberg employing this new “method of composing with twelve tones related only to one another” throughout an entire piece of music for the first time. Although this 12-tone method had been employed in other pieces, this was Schoenberg’s first completely 12-tone composition. This historic piece can be found in our collection at BRM 22884.

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