Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By composing Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Arnold Schoenberg demonstrated that melody and harmony could be liberated from traditional tonal controls.

Summary of Event

The world of classical music was ripe for revolution in the early twentieth century. Insurrections of various grades of severity broke out nearly everywhere and continued in the years preceding and immediately following World War I. Vienna was no exception. As capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was in the vanguard of the German-speaking cultural world, the inheritor of the tradition of such great composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms. It represented the cultural dignity of Old World Europe. Even that tradition was split, however. Since the 1870’s, patrons of music had been bitterly divided over the choice between the structurally conservative Johannes Brahms Brahms, Johannes and the shockingly innovative and grandiose Richard Wagner. Wagner, Richard Disputes between the factions had led to actual brawls in the streets. Music;atonality Buch der hängenden Gärten, Das (Schoenberg) [kw]Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality (1908-1909) [kw]Tonality, Schoenberg Breaks with (1908-1909) Music;atonality Buch der hängenden Gärten, Das (Schoenberg) [g]Austria;1908-1909: Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality[02030] [c]Music;1908-1909: Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality[02030] Schoenberg, Arnold Zemlinsky, Alexander von Mahler, Gustav Strauss, Richard Webern, Anton von Berg, Alban

The conflict was probably more emotional than substantive, having more to do with generation gaps and changing fashions than anything else, but part of it was technical. The conservatives preferred the old-fashioned harmonic progressions supposedly practiced by Brahms; many apparently did not hear his decidedly nonstandard enhanced chords. Brahms’s music seemed somehow stable, like the bedrock of the old standard hymnals. Wagner’s music, in contrast, could not be related to this context at all. It seemed to wander from key to key, and Wagner’s resolutions did not provide the sense of finality found in Brahms. Furthermore, since Wagner’s death in 1883, things had gotten worse. New composers such as Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler—to say nothing of the Frenchman Claude Debussy—aggressively sided with Wagner in expanding the standard harmonic range.

Into this rift the young Arnold Schoenberg wedged; early in his career, he lifted the conflict to a new orbit with the composition of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908-1909; the book of the hanging gardens). The son of a Jewish shoe seller of the Czech tradesman class, Schoenberg began violin lessons at age nine and started composing duets spontaneously, without formal instruction. At first, he was aided in this by his teacher, who used duets in lessons and encouraged the boy to bring his own. Shortly afterward, having learned from a biography of Mozart that his hero composed in his head, Schoenberg began imitating this. Upon entering Realschule (nonclassical high school for nonprofessionals) at eleven, he found a cultural climate that was even more encouraging. There he met Oskar Adler, who provided lessons in elementary theory and ear training and invited him to compose and arrange for a string trio. This trio eventually became a quartet, with Schoenberg trying all the parts and writing the group’s music from encyclopedias.

Forced to leave school before graduation by the death of his father, Schoenberg began clerking at a bank (a job he hated), but he continued composing and playing. In 1893, a new director, the young Alexander von Zemlinsky, took over the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia, for which Schoenberg was the cellist; the two became lifelong friends. Zemlinsky was able to apply his formal conservatory training to help Schoenberg fill in the gaps in his theoretical education, but the pupil soon left the instructor behind. Before long, a few commissions enticed Schoenberg to devote himself to music alone, and one day in 1895 he came home to announce, “My boss has gone bankrupt; I will never work in a bank again.”

Supporting himself by conducting various workers’ choruses and by scoring operettas and arranging others’ compositions, Schoenberg concentrated on composing. His first major success came with his String Quartet in D of 1897-1898, which he never published, although it won widespread praise. After struggling spiritually and emotionally, he followed this with a breakthrough, Verklärte Nacht (1899; transfigured night), Verklärte Nacht (Schoenberg) for string sextet. Both works transferred the symphonic poem to the chamber music level and expanded Wagnerian tonal ambiguity.

For the next ten years, Schoenberg published a series of works that led directly to the revolutionary Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and the theoretical book Harmonielehre (1911; The Theory of Harmony, 1947). Theory of Harmony, The (Schoenberg) First came the Gurrelieder Gurrelieder (Schoenberg) (1900-1911; songs of Gurre) for solo voices, speakers, choirs, and a vast orchestra. This monumental two-hour work, part song cycle, part oratorio, part melodrama, part symphonic opera, was remarkable even in its original form; however, Schoenberg revised its orchestration in 1911 to emphasize its transition from Wagner to the new, free-tonal world of the twentieth century. This work brought him to the attention of Strauss, who both secured him his first teaching appointments and recommended that he set Maurice Maeterlinck’s Maeterlinck, Maurice 1892 drama Pelléas et Mélisande to music. The resulting massive symphonic poem of 1903, Pelleas and Melisande, Pelleas and Melisande (Schoenberg) expanded Schoenberg’s use of counterpoint (the interweaving of separate melodic lines), opening new harmonic possibilities.

At that time, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky founded the Society of Creative Musicians, Society of Creative Musicians which included Strauss and Mahler as well as Schoenberg’s new students Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. The organization pioneered radical new works, especially Schoenberg’s own. His String Quartets in D Minor String Quartet in D Minor (Schoenberg) String Quartet in F-sharp Minor (Schoenberg)[String Quartet in F sharp Minor] and F-sharp Minor of 1906 and 1907 provoked hostile reactions, to the point of being hissed off the stage. The final break came with the 1909 composition and 1910 performance of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, a setting of fifteen poems from Stefan George’s George, Stefan collection of the same title. In this work, Schoenberg attempted to discover a musical equivalent to George’s poetic expressionism, which distorted normal language to force new, otherwise unrealizable perceptions and to express extreme states of feeling. Schoenberg accomplished this by abandoning the conventional concepts of keys and tonal relationships and exploiting the potentialities for dissonance in the previously unused “accidental” tones within keys. He thus invented a musical parallel to George’s dislocations of language. The result revolutionized music. Schoenberg followed this up in 1911 by publishing Harmonielehre, which provided a theoretical justification for his innovations and created an unrestricted tonal basis for post-nineteenth century music.


By making it possible for musicians to use the entire tonal spectrum in their compositions rather than having to restrict themselves to conventional, predetermined patterns, Schoenberg revolutionized classical music. He accomplished a break with musical traditions as radical as the parallel movements in art and literature from Impressionism to expressionism and from representation to nonrepresentation. It was a stunning feat. Like many revolutions, it transcended and repudiated what had seemed to be standards of conventional propriety. To the established, it looked like the replacement of order by chaos, and the reaction was furious. Schoenberg seemed to have destroyed the foundations of classical music and to have subverted the reassurances of traditional harmony. Dissonance (an ambiguous term) would reign; the specter of lawless atonality grinned ominously, although Schoenberg explicitly rejected the term, preferring “polytonality” to suggest the opening up of new possibilities rather than the rejection of the past.

Of all the great modernist innovators of the World War I period—T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka in literature; Marcel Duchamp and Wassily Kandinsky in painting; Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture; Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky in music—Schoenberg provoked the greatest and most lasting hostility, and he gained less eventual acceptance, even among professionals. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), for example, which caused a riot at its first performance, became a modern classic; during the late twentieth century, at least forty recordings of the piece were in print simultaneously. In contrast, throughout the twentieth century there were never been more than two recordings of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten available at any one time, and at times there were none. Schoenberg’s big sellers have been the late Romantic works with which he began. Similarly, although Harmonielehre has regularly been in print, it remains a great unread testament. Schoenberg resembles a prophet without much of a following.

Part of the reason for this neglect is the lack of appeal of much of the music produced by those following Schoenberg’s methods. Although in retrospect this does not hold true for his own music and that of his leading adherents, such as Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, the idea of generating music from an arbitrary sequence of tones treated as a fixed melodic and harmonic unit struck most listeners as mechanical and sterile. It looked as if it would create music that was formulaic, routine, abstract, and dead, if not officiously offensive. Furthermore, the immediate public response to the actual music was to reject it outright. Complex historical and social reasons lay behind this reception; those on the Brahms side of the musical rift, for example, had become so entrenched that they reacted adversely to any innovation. They had already been howling about Debussy’s deviations, most of which are quite inoffensive to later ears. At the outset of World War I, much of Europe already seemed to be searching for enemies.

For all this, Schoenberg ended up affecting twentieth century music more profoundly than any other person. Even Stravinsky, who prided himself on leading in musical innovations, eventually came under the sway of Schoenberg’s theories; he recognized ultimately that removing tonal limitations modified music more deeply than any other new technique. Schoenberg had proposed the most radical change possible—the abolition of tonality-centered music. That is, he argued that the conventional theory of diatonic harmony, Diatonic harmony developed since the time of Johann Sebastian Bach and ensconced in every music conservatory in the Western world, should no longer be practiced. To Schoenberg, diatonic harmony had reached a dead end; within that system, little new could be done. Composers were doomed to repeat endlessly the same lifeless chordal patterns. In fact, his theory in part merely acknowledged what composers in practice had long been doing. Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as the composers of the Schoenberg circle, had long exploited the so-called accidental tones of the keys, abandoning definite tonal centers and building chords on forbidden intervals.

Schoenberg did more than merely legitimate experimentation, however; he laid a basis for a totally new kind of music, and he did this, in part, by returning to the roots of Western music. So profound was this change that it dominated the teaching and conception of classical music from 1925 to 1950. No composer working during that generation could operate without at least acknowledging Schoenberg’s influence. Furthermore, no one working after that time could ignore the implications of the revolution he accomplished, for he had changed the way music was understood. By that time, it could finally be seen that he was not simply a theoretical crank promoting a freak, a lunatic scientist reborn as a monster musician. He had recognized that counterpoint, abandoned since Bach in favor of diatonic harmony, was saturated with unexplored potential, whereas standard harmony was rapidly running out of possibilities.

Schoenberg was undoubtedly a pivotal figure in twentieth century music. The extent of his influence can be seen in the fact that he remained controversial and provocative several generations after he made his first proposals. The most profound musical theoretician of the century, he also created an enduring body of masterworks, including the much-undervalued Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. Ultimately, the theoretical foundation established by Schoenberg in Harmonielehre would be developed by him and others into the system of twelve-tone, or serial, music, an important aspect of modern music but one tangential to the main thrust of Schoenberg’s revolution. Music;atonality Buch der hängenden Gärten, Das (Schoenberg)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auner, Joseph. A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Collection of Schoenberg’s essays, letters, and other writings, as well as paintings and drawings, many previously unpublished or untranslated. Extensive commentary places these materials in context and addresses important themes throughout Schoenberg’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, Alban. “Why Is Schönberg’s Music So Hard to Understand?” Music Review 13 (August, 1952): 187-196. Provides one of the simplest and clearest nontechnical explanations available of Schoenberg’s ideas as reflected in his music. Pitched primarily at the lay listener; fresh and direct. Written by a friend, student, and colleague of Schoenberg.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. “Atonality, Serialism, and Recent Developments in Twentieth-Century Europe.” In A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Accessible to the nonspecialist, although found within a textbook for college music majors. Covers the full range of Schoenberg’s innovations and offers explanations that are models of clarity. Provides a balanced overview with examples, illustrations, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Malcolm. Schoenberg. London: Dent, 1976. One of the best sources on Schoenberg, covering all aspects of his life and work. Focuses directly on the pivotal period of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, showing how his work led up to and then away from that moment. Includes photographs and copious musical examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Robert P. “The Atonal Revolution.” In Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Covers the musical and aesthetic aspects of Schoenberg’s work and relates them to the course of the entire century. Includes examples, bibliography, and complete index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Charles. Arnold Schoenberg. 1975. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Standard musicological biography of Schoenberg successfully translates technical material into understandable terms. Includes photographs, illustrations, musical examples, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoenberg, Arnold. Style and Idea. Translated by Leo Black, edited by Leonard Stein. London: Faber, 1975. Schoenberg’s attempt to explain himself to the general reader. Rich material reveals why he had a reputation as a brilliant and encouraging teacher.
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    xlink:type="simple">Shawn, Allen. Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. A brief introduction to Schoenberg and his music intended for the lay reader. Covers the highlights of Schoenberg’s life and their relation to his major works. The final chapter analyzes Schoenberg’s influence on twentieth century music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Joan A. Schoenberg and His Circle: A Viennese Portrait. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986. One of the most complete accounts available of Schoenberg’s social and intellectual relationships. Smith is particularly acute in drawing connections between musical theory and Schoenberg’s cultural milieu. Includes photographs, musical examples, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webern, Anton von. The Path to the New Music. Translated by Leo Black, edited by Willi Reich. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: T. Presser, 1963. Webern’s version of the evolution of Schoenberg’s theories, along with discussion of the contributions of Berg and himself. Good anecdotal and theoretical material, but some aspects of the book are not complete, as the manuscript was not finished before Webern’s death (and not recovered until a while after).

Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres

Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System

Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin

Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich

Categories: History